Insider tricks for assessing preschools

Our resident school-choice expert offers deal-breakers and red flags on assessing preschools from a distance.

By GreatSchools Staff

Choosing a school for your child is a deeply individual matter. Who knows your child the best? You do. Who most understands your finances, daily schedules, and family culture? None other than you.

Yet as school districts expand their school-choice policies with lotteries and magnet and charter options, the process becomes increasingly complicated — overwhelming even the most conscientious of parents.

Where does one go for support? While schools distribute information, and fellow moms and dads can dish up gossip, what parents really need is a school-choice expert.

Enter Jodi Goldberg. A former English teacher, Goldberg has spent more than 15 years working on education reform and getting parents engaged with their children's schools. As director of GreatSchools Milwaukee, she currently works on behalf of low-income families to help them find the right educational environment for their kids.

Do your homework

Before choosing a school, Goldberg advises parents to prioritize what's most important to their child and family, taking into consideration academics, special education, sports, arts, and other extracurricular activities but also practicalities like tuition, transportation, and aftercare.

Whether you're choosing a preschool or high school, find out what happens to children who graduate from that institution. Where do they go next, and are they successful there? Seek out parents whose children went through the program, and talk to them about their experiences.

The best time to visit a school is in the late fall, after class has been in session a while but before the rush around enrollment deadlines for the following year. Goldberg advises families to visit more than one school, because it's through such comparison shopping that parents learn what they most value in an educational setting.

To switch or not to switch

Although Goldberg encourages parents to exercise their right to choose the best school for their child, she recommends caution when it comes to switching schools in the middle of the year. If at all possible, she says, avoid doing so even if you're extremely unhappy. She cites studies that suggest it's much worse for children's education to be moved during a school year than to stick it out in a mediocre institution. Only under horrible circumstances — if your child is truly miserable or in danger — should you change schools mid-year.

GreatSchools: Is class size very important in choosing a preschool?

Jodi Goldberg: It's less important than how the school feels to you when you go in there. My daughter's class when she was a 4-year-old had 85 students with four teachers. It was one big class with four teachers.

It was also very orderly. Everybody was on task; people were learning things. It was a dynamic situation, but it was not chaotic. Class size is not as crucial as do people know what they're doing, and do they have a purpose for what they're doing?

GreatSchools: In preschool, should how much playtime the children get outside be a big consideration?

Goldberg: It comes down to: Are the children engaged? Sometimes staff will have them run around outside because they don't know what else to do with them. Other times it's great to have them run around outside, because that's part of their development. Play is part of how they develop the skills they need to do academic work.

GreatSchools: What red flags should you look for when visiting preschools?

Goldberg: Cleanliness. If things are a mess, [if] people are not taking care of the details. Is it chaotic instead of dynamic? Are people speaking appropriately to each other?

GreatSchools: What questions should you ask about the staff?

Goldberg: Find out if they have early-childhood-education certification. Ask "What training has your staff engaged in around early childhood?" And let them tell you. You want to know if they understand developmentally appropriate activities.

GreatSchools: How should parents feel about their relationship with the preschool?

Goldberg: Preschools want you to be involved. Is this a place you want to be involved in? Do you feel welcome? Do you feel like you can make a contribution? Do you feel like they're going to listen to you? Do they treat you respectfully? If they don't treat you respectfully, they're not going to treat your child respectfully.