As the Admission Director at a New Orleans area independent school, I encounter the parents of prospective preschool aged students on a daily basis. Many are exploring schooling options for the first time, a task that can seem quite overwhelming and complicated. Truth be told, there are many fantastic schooling options out there. Your search should not center on identifying the “perfect” school because, and this really should not surprise you, it does not exist. However, I am a firm believer that it is possible, through some time and effort, for parents to find a preschool or preschools that are a great fit for their child and family.
As you probably already know, there is a wide array of preschool options in the New Orleans area. Programs can range from part-time to full days, Montessori-based to church affiliated, and single sex to co-ed. One of your most difficult tasks in this search process will be trying to identify the type of setting/structure that will work best for your child and family.
To make it easier for you, here are four key “C’s” that I encourage families to consider as they plan their search:
- Calendar: Preschool schedules can range from two mornings a week to five full days of available coverage. For working parents, extended day hours are often times required before and after school. Do you require year-round coverage? Check with individual schools to see when their breaks fall and be sure to plan accordingly. Summer camps and backup, drop-in plans are sometimes part of the equation here.
- Cost: Tuition is an important element to consider as well. I always advise families to be sure to inquire about all required tuition and fees. In addition, it is important that you understand the contractual terms that the school employs. Is there a date when the contract becomes binding? Do you have to give 30 days notice? Don’t eliminate a strong school exclusively on the grounds of price, as many of these organizations offer the opportunity to apply for need based financial aid or merit based scholarships. In many cases, such awards are provided in the form of grants, or tuition reductions, that do not need to be paid back to the school. Check with individual schools to inquire about their respective processes as they can and will differ.
- Curriculum: Find out if the school is accredited. If so, by whom? Do they have a published curriculum and how does it match up with their peer schools? While academic curriculum is obviously important, pay careful attention to other curricula as well. For example, does the preschool have a social curriculum that emphasizes learning through play? Are there extra-curricular programs available during and after school? Some schools feature specialized staff including a school nurse, psychologist, and/or learning specialists. Ask for a copy of the current year’s schedule and see how many of these specialty teachers your child will typically see on a weekly basis.
- Community: When parents sign their child up for a school, they are becoming members of that school community as well. And while many relationships can be established in a school community, none is more important than the partnership between the school and parents in the education of their child. Communication plays a key role in this dynamic. Prospective parents should inquire about the appropriate channels for feedback whether it be phone, email, or a note in the backpack and also see how often parents can formally, or even informally, check with teachers or school administrators regarding progress. If you want to be an active volunteer, find out about the school’s parent association. What is their role in school life? Some other areas to consider include fundraising expectations, alumni involvement, and, if applicable, placement track records into other area schools (assuming the program does not go through 12th grade).
Word-of-mouth advertising is the main driver of referrals for the majority of preschools. Parents should talk to friends, neighbors, colleagues, and others to get honest feedback on a school or program. When I worked as the Admission Director at a private school in Virginia, I once interviewed a parent who had actually parked outside of our school and interviewed families as they left campus. While I would not recommend this strategy for many reasons, the parent did gain some honest, insightful feedback that helped him make his eventual decision (he picked our school!).
Online research can be helpful as well. Does the school have a website? What type of information does it display? Many preschools will list their location, hours, tuition, and other pertinent information here that will help you screen them in advance. If they do not, I would encourage you to call and ask for a viewbook or application packet.
My last recommendation: develop a list of questions that you have about each school. Update it in the time leading up to your school visit and bring it with you.
Now, you are ready to visit some schools!
Many schools in the area will host Open House events that are open to the public. These are often great opportunities to meet administrators, faculty and staff, and other parents who may provide valuable insights into the search process. Keep in mind, however, that these are planned events where the vast majority of school constituents are expecting visitors.
I encourage families to arrange private tours when at all possible. Visiting on a “normal” day and walking down the hallways during a regular class period can provide you with invaluable insights into the “feel” of that particular school. Some examples of things you might assess:
- Are students happy? Do they appear to be actively engaged in the classroom?
- What is the experience level of the teachers? How long have they been at the school?
- Does the campus appear safe?
I encourage families to visit as many schools as possible as these and other intangibles will provide an excellent source for comparing and contrasting the many options out there.
As you narrow down your list and begin applying to schools, be sure to understand the application and admission process for each school. While there is no exact science dictating how many schools you should apply to, I typically recommend that you keep your options open without overdoing it! Many feeder toddler programs I work with encourage their families to apply to at least 3 different preschools – I think this is very reasonable. Good luck!
Steve Salvo currently serves as the Director of Admission and Marketing at Trinity Episcopal School in New Orleans. Prior to arriving at Trinity, he served as the Admission Director at Browne Academy in Alexandria, Virginia. A native of Massachusetts, Steve has spent over 13 years in the education field, including time as a math teacher, department chair, and camp director at schools in Connecticut and Virginia. He is a graduate of the University of Richmond and received a master’s degree in Education Leadership from George Mason University in 2007. Steve lives in New Orleans with his wife, Christine, and their 4-year old daughter and 2 year-old son.