PARENTS KNOW THE
terrible twos all too well: tantrums in the supermarket, kicking in the car seat, and those constant cries of "No!" to any request. But what's theworst>
thing parents face at this stage of their child's life? Applying to preschool where they're likely to hear more "no's!" from admissions boards than even their own toddler could utter.
With preschool competition and tuition at an all-time high (up to $30,000 a year at some schools), parents need to tackle education planning for their child earlier than ever.
Part of the problem is the rapid growth of the preschool population. The number of children under age 5 swelled by 1.2 million from 2000 to 2006, according the U.S. Census Bureau. However, the number of preschool slots hasn't grown at the same rate. A 2006 report by the National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER) shows that only 42% of 3-year-olds and 69% of 4-year-olds attend early-education programs.
And the pickings are even slimmer if you're looking for a high-caliber school. "Less than 10% of programs can be called high quality," says Linda Smith, executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA).
Further limiting parents' options is cost, especially for middle-income households, says Steven Barnett, director of NIEER. "If you're high income, you can afford it. If you're low income, the government helps you. But if you're in the middle, you're stuck," he says.
From marketplace to matronly headmistress, here's a guide to getting your child into a preschool and affording it once you do:
Timing Is Everything
The application process typically begins a year prior to the school's start and waitlists can be months, even years deep. As a result, some parents are signing their children up before even signing a birth certificate.
"I put [my son's] name on the list while I was pregnant," says Linda Wigo of Broomall, Pa., whose son (now 3 years old) attends a school run by the prestigious private education company Nobel Learning Communities. "You can't just arrive somewhere and say, 'Hey I want to put my son or daughter in.'"
Of course, if you didn't start planning during your child's prenatal stages, don't fret. Unlike applications, with fees running from $50 up to the value of a month's tuition (ask if it's refundable), waitlists don't cost anything. So, no matter where you might fall on the list, make sure to put your name on it.
Should you fail to make the cut, you might want to consider delaying your child's schooling and remaining on the list for another year (as long as your child will be no older than 4 in the next year). Unfortunately, that's still no guarantee of placement.
In order to hedge your bets, you should broaden your selection. Begin by researching the newer schools in your area they'll have shorter wait lists, if any. And no matter the type of program time-tested or brand new keep the following in mind during your search:
Footing the Bill
What do the Center for Early Education in Los Angeles, Washington's Sidwell Friends School, and New York's Ethical Culture Fieldston School have in common? First-rate curriculums and five-figure price tags. Tuition at these elite preschools ranges from roughly $13,000 to $30,000 a year, respectively.
With costs so high, it's difficult for even upper-middle-income families to afford early education today. One solution is a federal- or state-run program like Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP), which aids low- to upper-middle-income families alike. LAUP preschools meet strict quality guidelines. There's a one-time "parent investment fee," which is determined by the median family income of L.A. county's zip codes (a family in Woodland Hills, Calif., for example, would pay as little as $900 for the year). Like-minded universal preschool models include Georgia's Bright from the Start and Smart Start Oklahoma.
While universal preschool initiatives are gaining momentum, they're still far from ubiquitous. Your state's education department can provide information on what other options may be available in your area. Another resource is your local Child Care Resource and Referral (CCR&R) organization, which provides referrals to child-care providers, including early-education programs, and information on the availability of subsidies. Childcareaware.org offers a database of CCR&Rs by state, city or zip code.
And, if your child gets into a program, ask the school whether they offer tuition assistance. Much like universities, some preschools offer need-based financial aid. Also, make sure to ask your employer if they'll let you open a pretax account to pay for your child-care expenses.
If Desperate, Enlist Help
When Alison Wilson first applied to New York City's top preschools for her daughter, she felt as if she was running a marathon: It was exhausting, required training, and didn't even guarantee that she'd win a place. Between sweating out college-worthy essays and going the distance on interviews and tours, Ivy-League-educated Wilson found the process laughable. But, "the joke turned out to be on us. We were rejected everywhere," she says.
The odds were stacked high against Wilson, says Amanda Uhry, president of the educational consulting firm Manhattan Private School Advisors, which counsels families nationwide. "Some of the really top-tier preschools...the rate of acceptance is about 1 in 18. Now, if you look at Harvard, 1 in 11 kids get in."
Wilson, however, was determined to succeed. Thus, for her second go at applications, she enlisted help from Uhry, who for a fee of $10,000, taught her everything from acing the essay to properly greeting the preschool director (hugs are a no-no). Their year-long work together paid off when Wilson finally won an acceptance from her top choice.
Of course, all the coaching in the world can be undone with one simple misstep, Uhry warns. "We had a client last year who...was sick of looking at preschools, so to liven things up [in an interview], the guy said, 'So what do you think about corporal punishment?'" The joke, received with complete silence, crushed his child's chance of acceptance.
In addition to minding your humor, Uhry offers the following tips:
Top-tier preschools aren't for everybody, so don't get discouraged from seeking a more affordable option such as a parent co-op preschool, family child care, or otheralternative programs
. What's most important for early childhood development, explains Dr. Osborne F. Abbey, Jr., vice president of education at Nobel Learning Communities, is a nurturing environment curriculum or not.
"If you step back for a moment and assume that money and position are not an issue, every child barring some developmental disability is going to develop the same way, whether in the hills of Idaho or on 5th Avenue in a New York City high-rise," says Abbey.