Preschool Preview Night run by a Jewish agency has grown into an S.F. institution

Preschool Preview Night in San Francisco, which started as a small gathering 19 years ago, has grown into major event that attracts more than 1,500 parents every September.

“We recognize how busy parents are these days, so we wanted to create a one-stop-shopping experience for community members,” said Amy Weiss, director of Parents Place, a program of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

“It’s a trade show for preschools,” added Nancy Sheftel-Gomes, the education director at Reform Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. “It’s wall-to-wall people.”

The 19th annual Preschool Preview Night is set for Wednesday, Sept. 21 from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the San Francisco County Fair Building (better known as the Hall of Flowers) at the Ninth Avenue and Lincoln Way entrance to Golden Gate Park. Admission is $10 online and $15 at the door.

Rosario Villasana Ruiz (left) and Susan Whittom of City College of San Francisco’s child development centers

Parents Place, Bay Area Parent magazine and j. — the Jewish news weekly of Northern California are co-presenters of this year’s event, which is co-sponsored by First 5 San Francisco and supported by Brown & Toland Physicians.

“We have organized and hosted this event for almost two decades, and it is increasingly popular every year,” Weiss said. “Parents are hungering for good information about the city’s preschools and other services, and we are delighted to provide it to them.”

Moreover, organizers strive to provide what could be an avalanche of information in an organized and efficient manner. For example, the hall will be decorated with color-coded balloons — each color signifying a different San Francisco neighborhood — which allows parents to choose a school close to their home.

“We really try to make the evening user-friendly,” said Gayle Zahler, associate executive director of JFCS. “There will be over 100 preschools and other providers of services to children there.” That includes child-related agencies, vendors and exhibitors.

Sheftel-Gomes said the event provides parents the opportunity for some up-close-and-personal time with preschool directors and teachers. She noted that parents primarily want to know about a preschool’s educational philosophy — and whether or not their child can get in.

“In San Francisco,” she noted, “there are not enough spaces for the pool of clients. Some parents apply at up to 10 preschools.”

And in such a competitive atmosphere, is price no object? “Very rarely do parents ask what our school costs,” Sheftel-Gomes said.

What parents do want to know is what kind of days their children will experience. And while public and private elementary schools rely heavily on modern technology, Sheftel-Gomes said preschools still do things the old-fashioned way — story time, finger-painting, outdoor fun. Oh, and no computers, which means the kids draw pictures on paper instead of on computer screens.

“You only have one chance in your life to be a kid,” Sheftel-Gomes said.

Being a kid is also the focus at One Fifty Parker Avenue School, a 57-year-old San Francisco preschool near Laurel Heights that provides a morning program for 3-year-olds, an afternoon program for 4-year-olds and a transitional kindergarten.

“We are a play-based preschool that focuses on experiential learning,” said the school’s director, Matt Linden. “We give children the freedom to choose what and where they learn. Teachers are play mediators.”

Many of the participating schools fulfill another major parental need: providing extended after-care for working moms and dads. But Linden believes that parents nowadays hunger for community and connection, rather than just a place where they can drop off their kids.

“For a lot of parents today, especially if it’s their first child, preschool is the first time for them to connect to nurturing teachers who understand who their children are,” he said.

Zahler said that building community is what Parents Place and Preschool Preview Night are all about.

“In addition to the preview night,” she said, “Parents Place and JFCS offer classes on preparing parents to select preschools, and other [parenting education] workshops.”

That being said, there’s nothing like the experience of a Preschool Preview Night.

“I went myself [to the preview night] when my children were younger,” Zahler said. “And I know it’s quite helpful. You get a feel if a school will be a good fit for your child. This is one way we help families make informed choices.” n

Preschool Preview Night in San Francisco will be held 5:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 21 in the Hall of Flowers, Ninth Avenue and Lincoln Way, Golden Gate Park. $10 online, $15 at the door. Information: (415) 359-2455, or [email protected]

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.