Choosing a Local Preschool

| March 18, 2012

If you are thinking about signing your toddler up for preschool next Fall, applications are being accepted now. Here are some tips on how to make the preschool selection process much easier.

It was the beginning of February and I was working late into the night as usual. All of a sudden, the thought occurred to me that I should be looking into preschools for my daughter instead. I took a deep breath and faced my denial about my tiny baby actually being old enough to attend school, and listened to my instincts. Switching gears, I began Googling around, investigating all of our local preschool options. I soon discovered that not only were local preschools already accepting applications for next Fall, but also a few application deadlines had already passed! As if the process of sending our precious Little One to school for the first time was not stressful enough, I began to panic at the thought that I waited too long to apply, and my daughter might not be able to attend our first choice, or even our fifth choice, or possibly have to wait one more year to attend preschool because every available space was already filled up! Then I envisioned the waiting list — a lengthy line of names preceeding ours, growing by the hundreds every second. That night, our chances seemed bleak, but I delved into the process, determined that my daughter would not only attend preschool next Fall, but it would be the school of our choice. I was not going to let my daughter down. By 10:00 am the next morning, after staying up all night, I had thoroughly researched every preschool in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro/Hillsborough/Pittsboro/Durham area, narrowed our choices down to four schools, and had scheduled appointments to visit them all that week.

My frantic efforts thankfully paid off, and my daughter was offered contracts from our top two schools. [Sigh of relief.] I now know first-hand how stressful choosing a preschool can be — even more difficult than selecting a car seat or deciding on a pediatrician. This is your child’s first school, the beginning of her formal education where hopefully her natural love of learning will flourish and grow. For stay-at-home mothers like me, this is the first time she will be dropped off with pedagogical strangers, left behind to fend for herself without you. Yes, there will most likely be more tears from this Mommy that first day of school than from my daughter.

One thing that made this process of choosing a preschool challenging for me is negotiating the system and knowing exactly what to look for in a school. Of course, we all want a caring, nurturing environment for our Little Ones, but how do you decide among them? In the Chapel Hill/Carrboro area we have over sixty quality preschools, representing a wide variety of teaching philosophies. That was so overwhelming to me, and made the decision even more difficult. I consulted friends who had their children in preschool, but they all answered something like, “It depends on what you are looking for and what would be a good fit for your family.” This is true, of course, because what parents are looking for in a preschool varies greatly, and while one style of classroom might work well for one child, it might not work as well for another. Nevertheless, there is a way to make the process easier, so I have created the “The Chapel Hill Recorder Guide to Choosing a Preschool” for parents in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro area. Even though I am a permanently certified K-6 teacher with an MS in Education, I wish I had had a guide like this when I was looking for a preschool for my daughter, and I hope you find it useful in your search. Feel free to download this printer-friendly PDF version of the guide to take along with you for notes as you visit preschools (PDF). If you are visiting several schools, it will help keep them all straight.



There are many factors to consider when selecting a preschool and only you can determine what are the most important ones for your family and your child. Here is a list of questions that will help you figure that out.

  1. Why do you want to send your child to preschool? There are many reasons to send a child to preschool, and determining those will help you figure out which one is a good fit for your family’s situation. Are you going back to work and need childcare? Do you want your child to have more opportunities to socialize with other children her age? Is your child ready for a more structured environment? Are you looking to jump start his education so he is more prepared for Kindergarten? Does your child need an outlet for playing and creativity? Or do you just need a break for a few hours so you can actually get things done around the house? It might be all of the above, and possibly many more reasons, but defining your needs is the first step to finding the right preschool.
  2. What is the most important factor in selecting a preschool? Preschools are extremely varied in our neck of the woods, and it helps to know which characteristics are the most important to you, and which ones are not. Once you have a list of the type of preschool you are looking for, finding a match is much easier. Here are twenty-five criteria to consider, in no particular order, as it is your decision which factors matter the most:
    1. Cost: There is often a feeling of sticker shock when you see what local preschools are charging for their services, and this might be the biggest determining factor when deciding which ones you apply to and which ones you do not. Keep in mind that there are usually additional costs as well, including non-refundable application fees, administrative fees, one-time entrance fees, and hefty deposits upfront to reserve your spot once a contract is offered. The good news is, many preschools offer discounts for siblings as well as Financial Aid and payment plans, so be sure to check their website before completely crossing off the more expensive ones.
    2. Teaching Philosophy: There are many philosophies of teaching preschool, and they are all valid and with merit. The trick is to figure out which learning style fits your child. Even at three years old, your son’s or daughter’s individual temperament is obvious, and the classroom environment you select should support this. Even if a school or another parent claims that their school is the “best” in town, it might not be the best for your child. The three progressive teaching philosophies you will encounter in town are Reggio Emilia, Montessori and Waldorf. They are all child-centered schools, but very distinct from one another. I found this article on the differences between these three philosophies to be very helpful. Other area preschools focus on learning through play or learning through nature. Some preschools have a more traditional, students sitting-at-desks approach to prepare students for public school, and many church preschools teach religion along with a standard preschool curriculum. Others offer dual-language or language immersion classrooms. Seeing the philosophy in action by visiting a classroom is the best way to notice the differences between teaching styles.
    3. Curriculum: What is being taught is just as important as how it is being taught. Research the curriculum and learning goals for each preschool, and for each grade if you would like your child to attend the school for a few years. It should be both fun and stimulating, and change over time, giving students a variety of age-appropriate academic activities. Also, compare the enrichment extras like Foreign Languages, Music, Art, Physical Education and field trips and you will have a better idea about how well-rounded the academics are.
    4. Safe Environment: When we drop our children off at school, we want to know they are safe. Entrances and exits should be monitored at all times. Playground equipment should be inspected and up to code, and all play spaces should be safely enclosed. There should also be a pick-up policy in place, so that only names on a list can pick up your child from school. There should also be first-aid kits and fire extinguishers handy and the staff should be trained in first-aid and CPR.
    5. Clean Environment: When visiting a preschool, it is important to note the cleanliness of classrooms and other facilities. A good question to ask is how often the school is cleaned and if the toys are sanitized daily.
    6. Class-Size and Teacher-to-Student Ratio: Classroom sizes can vary from three students to 25 students, and how well they function really depends on how many teachers are in each room and how experienced they are in managing it. Most preschools have a certified teacher and a teaching assistant in the room. If you want your child to have more one-on-one attention, choose a teacher to student ratio of about 1:6. If your child is more independent and socialization with many other students is important to you, a classroom ratio of 1:10 might be a better fit. Keep in mind that Montessori classrooms usually function better with a higher student-teacher ratio.
    7. Teacher Certification and Preschool Accreditation: In North Carolina, preschool teachers do not have to be certified teachers. Unless the school is strictly a half-day preschool, they do need to have a license, even if the daycare is home-based. Religious programs are exempt from some of the regulations governing preschools. There is no official teaching certification offered to Reggio instructors, though many have taken classes and attended workshops to learn the method. Montessori and Waldorf instructors are usually certified to teach those methods. Accreditation is optional, though most local preschools are accredited. If school accreditation and teacher certification is important to you, definitely ask.
    8. Teacher Turnover: The teacher turnover rate in a school is often an indication of how well it functions. If the staff has worked at the preschool for many years, chances are it is a supportive environment for both the teachers and the students. If most of the teachers are new-hires, that might be a red flag. Young children need consistency and if their teacher changes during the year, it can be very unsettling for little ones. If teacher’s biographies online do not state how long they have taught at the preschool, it would be wise to find that out.
    9. Year the School Opened: Preschools that have been around a long time have established themselves as successful educational facilities, whereas new schools might still be experiencing some growing pains as they refine their offerings. On the other hand, new preschools are often enthusiastic and really give it their all to make both parents and kids happy, loyal patrons, whereas more established ones might just be going through the motions after so many years of doing the same thing. The best thing to do is to visit the school and see for yourself.
    10. Distance from Home or Work: If having your child’s preschool close to home or work is important to you, then that really helps narrow the options down. If you will be driving there every day for a few years, a long commute might become a hassle. Also, if you have to pick up your child unexpectedly due to an illness or injury, it would be more stressful if it took a while to get there. Also, your child’s community begins at school, so if the preschool is far away, your child’s friends might live far away as well. Nevertheless, I have friends that drive 45 minutes each way to their child’s school because they love the school so much. Carpooling is also an option if the perfect school happens to be in another town.
    11. Year-Round or School Year Calendar: Most preschools follow a school year calendar and begin in late-August and end in June, though a few are year-round. Many of the preschools that are off during the summer offer summer camps that are usually open to the community. This is helpful if you choose a preschool that follows the school year but you still need childcare during the summer.
    12. Hours: It helps to determine how many days and hours a week you would like your child to attend preschool, as this varies by school. You will find that Montessori schools only offer a Monday-Friday, half-day schedule for preschool. Others are more flexible, offering 2-5 days a week, as well as half-day, extended day or full-day. Many parents start their three-year-old off with just 2-3 mornings a week, to help their child with the transition, and it is also more affordable. Others work every day and therefore choose a five-day schedule.
    13. Parental Involvement: Some schools discourage parents from visiting the classroom while it is in session. Others encourage parent volunteers to come in and help out in the classroom. In co-op preschools, parents are required to help a few hours a month as part of their contract. Many preschools have PTA’s and offer support and classes to parents throughout the year. Some schools have built an incredibly strong community where home visits and school-wide gatherings are the norm. How much or how little involvement you would like to have in the preschool as a parent is important to decide upfront.
    14. Age Range in Class and School: Most preschool classrooms are divided by age, where all the three year olds are together in one class. Others have a mix of ages in one classroom. There are advantages and disadvantages to both methods, but it helps to think about your child’s comfort level around older children when considering a mixed-aged class. Also, some preschools end before Kindergarten while others go through middle school or high school, which might sway your decision one way or another as well if you are or are not comfortable with older children being in the same building or campus with the younger ones.
    15. Grades Offered: As the name suggests, preschool is customarily offered to children before they attend Kindergarten, so the ages of students are usually between 2-4 years. Nowadays, many schools offer preschool along with primary/elementary school, and sometimes even middle school and high school, so your child can attend the same school all the way through 12th grade. Changing schools can be stressful at any age, so it might be an asset to be able to stay in one school for several years, especially if the child is happy there.
    16. Diversity of Students: The classroom experience in general gives your child the opportunity to meet other children from different backgrounds. Having a diverse student population is a very important part of socialization and something to keep in mind when visiting a school.
    17. Playground: Every preschool should have a playground or an enclosed play space for the children to run around in, and some are definitely better and safer than others. Be sure to visit the preschool and ask to see the playground.
    18. Library: While most preschools do not have a separate room for a library, classroom books are an essential part of every preschool education. There should be a variety of books that are easily accessible to the students.
    19. Potty-Trained Requirement: Many preschools require your child to be fully potty-trained before starting school. Others do not require it and often help in the potty-training process. Be sure to check before applying, if you have a potty-resistant child.
    20. Dietary Restrictions: If your child has any food allergies or a restricted diet, definitely ask how the school would handle it. Your child needs to be in a preschool setting that is familiar with his or her dietary needs, and supports them by taking them seriously.
    21. Progress Reports: How often you want updates on your child’s progress is another point to consider. Reggio schools keep a daily log of photos and notes in an album for each child. Other preschools send weekly letters home to parents explaining what was learned. Some just have parent/teacher conferences twice a year. Whatever method is comfortable for you, be sure to find out how your child’s progress is documented, as it might help determine his or her acceptance and placement later on in grade school.
    22. Sick-Child Policy: Every preschool should have a strict sick child policy that clearly states when a child is to stay home due to an illness. Runny noses might be acceptable for attendance but not coughs or fevers. If it is too strict, you might be bringing your child to work with you more than is necessary. But if it is not enforced, your child might be constantly bringing home viruses, so be sure to check each school’s policy.
    23. Special Needs:  If your child has special needs, be sure to include this in the application and mention it in the interview, so you are clear if they can accommodate and support his or her needs. Many preschools offer evaluations with a parent’s permission if there might be a developmental delay or some cause for concern. Specialists are often brought in to work one-on-one with children if necessary, but usually the parent must pay for the extra help.
    24. Discipline Procedures: It is important to find out what discipline procedures are in place when children act out or disobey the teacher. Some preschools use time-outs or talk-it-outs, where others might use a situation between children to teach conflict resolution skills to the whole class. Be sure to ask how disciplinary problems are handled.
    25. New Student Orientation: Because this will be a new school for your child, it is important to ask how the preschool transitions new students into the classroom. Do parents drop off their kids at the curb on the first day of school with a quick good-bye or is there a short orientation session before the first day of school to ease them in? Sometimes, new students start a week early to get used to the classroom and school before the older students attend, which helps make the transition even easier.


Once you have used the criteria above to determine the type of preschool you are looking for, start you search by finding out which preschools are in the area. The best resource I found is on the Chapel Hill Carrboro Mother’s Club website where they list sixty local preschools alphabetically, linking to extremely helpful summaries of each one and their websites, when available. This is not inclusive, but it is a great start.

Next, find out when the next Mother’s Club Preschool Fair is taking place. This event is usually held sometime in late-Fall or early winter, which helps you get the preschool ball rolling, and gives you plenty of time to choose a school by January when preschools begin accepting applications.

Then choose ten or twenty to research further. Read every page of their website and download their online applications so you know what the application procedure will be. Google the name of the school to find any online reviews from parents. These are helpful, but with all online reviews, keep an open mind. Some parents might have a grudge against a school for whatever reason and write a scathing review of a school that might not be accurate, or might be about a teacher that is no longer there. Also, ask around at playgrounds and among your friends to see what they know about the various schools in town. The more opinions you can gather about local preschools, the better.


Once you have researched all of the preschools that might be options, try to narrow your list down to four or five. We are the caregivers of toddlers after all, and most of us do not have the extra time needed to visit ten or twenty schools. Call the preschools with some basic “make or break” questions that weren’t answered online, to help streamline your options. Ask if there are still spaces available and if not, if you can get put on a waiting list. You can also ask the school for names and numbers of other parents and call them to find out more about the school from a parent’s perspective.


After editing your preschools down to the finalists, try to attend an Open House, if that is an option. They are usually listed on the school’s website. This is a more fun and casual way to tour a school, visit classrooms and meet the teachers. Often parents of current students are in attendance to answer your questions, and you can usually bring your child with you to see how they react in the school’s environment. If there is no Open House or if you missed it, call the school to set up a classroom observation. This is a requirement for many preschools before you can even apply, and it is so helpful in determining which school is a good fit for your child. Usually children are not invited to classroom observations because it might be too much of a distraction for you as well as for the class. While you are observing, notice how the students are interacting with one another and with the teachers. Are they engaged and happy or withdrawn and nervous? Try to picture your child in the classroom and how comfortable you would be leaving them there with the teachers. You will probably be amazed at how easy it is to sense whether or not the school is right for you and your child simply by observing a classroom. But if you need more help deciding, ask the school if you can bring your child in during a regular school day to see how he or she fits in the classroom when it is full of students.


Submit applications to at least two schools, in case one does not accept your child for whatever reason or it is full and there is a waiting list. But try not to be tempted to apply to a large number of schools, as the application fees quickly add up. Once your application is in, depending on the school there might be an additional interview required for you and your child. This is your last chance to make a good impression and ask any remaining questions you might have. It can take a few days or a few months before you find out if you are accepted or not, so be sure to ask what the time frame will be before you hear something. Sending an email thank you or a snail-mail thank you note after the interview is common courtesy, as you would after a job interview.

Finally, trust your instincts. You know your child best, and only you can determine which preschool is the best fit for your child and your family. Although choosing a preschool is stressful, if you take the time to make an informed decision, it will be much easier. Start researching schools the Fall before the Fall you want your child to attend, as spaces fill up quickly. If this process reminds you of when you chose a college to attend, it should! The tuition for many local preschools is ten times higher than what I paid to attend UNC in 1988, and they are even more competitive. I hope this guide is helpful and I wish you the best of luck in your preschool pursuits!

Click here to download the printer-friendly version of The Chapel Hill Recorder’s Guide to Choosing a Preschool (PDF).

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