HOW TO CHOOSE A PRE-SCHOOL Beyond the Eenie-Meenie Method by Angela Pino

Why does choosing a school make you feel so dumb?  Early education teacher ANGELA PINO shares her methods and her madness.

Better use a pencil when making your Wish List.

I have two daughters and both attended local nursery schools, but they didn’t attend the same one.

I don’t just mean Mary and Julia attended different schools from one other — they attended different schools for each year they were in nursery school!  Let me tell you how this happened and what I learned along the way.

I am a pre-school teacher and was confident that I knew what I was looking for in a school. Lesson one: being over informed is not always helpful. Over-thinking, and over-analyzing can lead to second-guessing.  Add feeling intimidated — even teachers can be intimidated by educators — and it can paralyze you. Part of me wanted to leave no stone unturned in finding THE great school, but guess what?  There are a lot of really good schools out there. So how do you know you’re making the best choice?

Here’s the approach I used (and this can apply to pre-schools, elementary and private schools, and colleges).  Make a list of five or six broad requirements for your ideal school and outline your preferences in each category—let’s call it your Wish List. For example:

a) Proximity (I want a school within five miles of my house, etc.)
b) Class and playground size
c) Overall philosophy
d) Good word-of-mouth/ knowing families that attend
e) Cost
f) Teacher’s credentials/ school accreditation. (*Accreditation does not always guarantee quality. So, if you fall in love with a school for a number of other reasons, don’t dismiss it for lack of accreditation.)

I have found that the school you ultimately choose doesn’t have to meet (or exceed) all of your selection criteria. Instead, decide that you’ll accept which criteria are most important and choose a school that has a majority of these items on your list.

I looked for a school with kind teachers, a pleasant and clean physical environment and a strong philosophy that respected and encouraged children to be themselves. It was also important to me that the girls attended a school in their own community.

Even teachers get first-day jitters.

Now, how do you evaluate the schools?

TAKE YOUR WISH LIST TO EACH SCHOOL. Make an appointment to meet with the director of the school. Take some time before your visit to write down questions. During the interview, write down additional questions and general impressions as they occur. Write down the director’s answers, too!

ASK TO TALK TO TEACHERS. Talk to more than one teacher, including one teacher for each age group in the school.  Ask to speak with one or two assistants as well — are they in charge of large portions of your child’s day?

ASK TO TALK TO PARENTS OF CHILDREN CURRENTLY ENROLLED. Talking to a variety of people helps build an overall sense of the character of the school.

OBSERVE THE CHILDREN NOW ATTENDING. It’s not so important to concentrate on the actual activities being done; what’s more relevant is the room’s climate. What kind of feeling do you get when you enter the classroom? If your first impression is poor, but other factors meet those on your Wish List, make plans to return. That group and teacher might have
been experiencing an off day.

TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. Okay, you’ve done your homework and two schools meet the 3 out of 5 items on your Wish List, (as it was in my case). Now, how do you choose? Here’s how it played out for our family.

When Mary, my oldest, was three, we believed that Nursery School A was a fine match for her. Although I felt the overall teaching philosophy was not as deep as it could be, the teachers were kind and sweet and it was the closest school to our house. We also knew several families that sent children there (three criteria from my list).

However, the four-year-old program did not meet the same standards, so we looked at two other pre-schools for Mary’s next year. Both of these schools – Schools B and C — were similar in overall style and closely aligned with my own teaching philosophy.

Ultimately we chose school B, because it had a space in the morning program, which worked better for us.  As happy as I was with our choice, I knew it wouldn’t be the best place for my younger daughter Julia. The rooms were tiny and for some children, including Julia (for a variety of developmental reasons), that can be a big drawback.

So, we sent Julia to School A — with the sweet teachers but the shallow philosophy — but simultaneously put her on the waiting list for the fours-program at School C.

Happily, Julia did attend School C the following year and both my girls have only fond memories of their pre-school years. And me? I got a meaningful lesson in the reality of choosing a school.

In this day and age when there is a guidebook for EVERYTHING, we forget that we know a thing or two about our own children. This is the time to use that knowledge of your child, plus your gut feeling, to come up with an answer. Don’t be surprised either if after visiting some real-live schools, your list of priorities has changed in length or content. Consider the Wish List just a starting point.

Once you choose a school, trust the teachers and administrators — and by extension — your instincts and good judgment. This is not to say you never have to think about what’s happening in the school again, but you don’t have to know whether the children are learning about green or blue on any given day. Stay informed of the broader issues. It’s far more important to come to understand and embrace the school’s overall philosophy than get involved with the day-to-day activities of your child.

Little children take in so much and the world around them is a busy and fascinating place. They have ideas, questions and feelings about their world. School should be a haven where they can process all they are absorbing and learn how to respond appropriately. Ideally, school should be a place where children have the freedom to work out ideas and behaviors, express themselves and take chances.

ANGELA PINO earned her MS in Early Childhood Education at CUNY Hunter, and her undergraduate degree at New York University.  In her early career she taught at the renowned City & Country School in Manhattan. She continues to teach, now at Hastings Nursery School, aka ‘the co-op’, in Hastings-on-Hudson.

Lisa D

Lisa Duggan is the founder of The Modern Village, and publisher of and

2 thoughts on “HOW TO CHOOSE A PRE-SCHOOL Beyond the Eenie-Meenie Method by Angela Pino

  • August 30, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Helpful and rational advice. Around this area (Montclair) there are so many fantastic options, but not too many for working parents who don’t have freedom of flexibility – unless they also want to hire a babysitter to bring their kids to pre-school and pick them up.

    Something near the top of our list was: Do they take non-potty trained children. That narrowed our choices down to two. Between that and trying to find AM slots when you’ve just moved to a town, I let go of the stress of choice and took what there was. It’s ended up being a great fit for both of our kids.

  • August 30, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    Thanks for the comment KD. This is the type of article we’ll be presenting on our new parenting-platform, in development, but it will have added value as we attach reviews of local schools, too.


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