Preschool preview night | Competition for preschools overwhelms S.F. parents

San Francisco breeds competitiveness, especially in this startup-driven era of the $4 toast slice and the $750,000 Bayview townhouse. City dwellers are used to being edged out of real estate, parking spaces and jobs. So it’s no surprise that parents just starting out on the preschool application process would approach it with over-caffeinated zeal and a measurable amount of fear.

“We felt like we needed that edge, that special effort in order to get our son into a good preschool,” said Justine Simpson, whose son is now attending the Helen Diller Family Preschool at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

Mechele Pruitt

During the application process two years ago, Simpson and her husband toured several schools as a couple (which meant missing a few days of work), shelled out substantial money for a school fundraiser, sent preschool directors their family holiday card and even popped in unannounced at their first-choice school the week before admissions letters were sent out.

“And we probably were more thorough than we needed to be with essays for the applications,” she admitted. All told, Simpson estimated that the application process took 40 hours over the winter season and caused her family some serious stress. But they ended up getting offers at all of the schools they applied to.

Simpson got lucky, admits Mechele Pruitt, director of Parents Place, a program of S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

But even if parents don’t get acceptance letters from all the places they’ve applied to, most do end up with a suitable school.

Pruitt teaches a class on choosing a preschool, drawing upon her experience as the previous owner of two preschools in Silicon Valley. Parents Place also offers parenting workshops, parent coaching and consultation, child behavior and school support, clinical and special needs services, parent/child activity groups, and child and family therapy.

“In the city of San Francisco, we are so fortunate to have so many preschools and choices and variety,” says Mechele Pruitt, director of S.F.-based Parents Place. photo/brandpoint media

“Parents come into my class feeling overwhelmed because they are navigating all of the different types of preschools and educational philosophies, while dealing with fees and applications,” she said. Many parents feel as if the preschool choice, in setting up the foundation for their child’s education, will determine every successive step in their child’s life. Parents want the toddler-years equivalent to Harvard, Yale or Stanford. But Pruitt says this idea misses the mark.

“In the city of San Francisco, we are so fortunate to have so many preschools and choices and variety,” she said. “Don’t set your sights just on the ones you hear about from the grapevine.”

The truth is that the city does have enough spots for every child in San Francisco to attend one of 397 preschools, and an uncounted number of licensed day-care offerings that operate as educational facilities. Many are partially or fully subsidized by Preschool for All, a program funded by California’s tobacco tax.

In her workshop, Pruitt counsels parents that the city has many small, high-quality programs that may not be as popular as Lone Mountain or Pacific Primary, but they are equally — or perhaps better — suited to some families. Her “homework” for parents includes having them explore dozens of options, and then narrowing them down to six to eight choices for touring. Top considerations should include the tuition, the convenience of the location, and also the philosophy and size of the program — and not whether the school has ever graduated Nobel laureates or launched a playground social enterprise.

“When it gets down to it, look at the quality of the staff and program,” she said. “Go in with discerning eyes, and remember that references are important, too.” She also said that it’s important to ask about sick care, discipline and earthquake preparedness.

Simpson tells friends going through the process that they should consider the personality of the director, as well as whether the school serves hot food. “My favorite day is Wednesday, when I don’t have to pack lunch, because [my son’s] school orders pizza for the kids!” she said.

Parents of prospective preschoolers will have a chance to meet staff and hear about more than 100 city preschools on Parents Place Preschool Preview Night, which takes place Oct. 22 in San Francisco’s County Fair Building (Hall of Flowers), Golden Gate Park. The schools will be organized geographically, so Pruitt advises parents to start by looking in their district of the city first.

Parents used to shuttling young children around in harness-tight car seats know that you can’t overestimate the importance of a short ride. Simpson initially dismissed the half-hour commute she had to make each way to drop off and pick up her son. “But then we moved to the other side of the city,” she said, noting that cutting the commute time to 10 minutes dramatically improved their quality of life (and lessened the whining).