The San Francisco pre-school admission process is notoriously competitive. I have a one-year old who was born in Oct 2016. How should I be thinking/preparing for this process? When is the right time to get deep into this? What are the major factor...

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The San Francisco pre-school admission process is notoriously competitive. I have a one-year old who was born in Oct 2016. How should I be thinking/preparing for this process? When is the right time to get deep into this? What are the major factors that I need to consider?

In most cases, to enroll in a preschool in San Francisco, a child must turn three on or before September 1 of the enrollment year. As such, with an October 2016 birth date, your child will be eligible for most San Francisco area preschools in September 2020. However, some schools allow students to enroll for the fall session if they have attained the age of two years and nine months. This would mean your child would be eligible for a fall 2019 enrollment date at these schools. Many competitive schools in San Francisco have application deadlines in the December prior to fall enrollment. As such, you will first need to determine if you want your child to attend preschool beginning in 2019 or 2020. If you choose the former, it is likely you will need to begin looking for schools in which you are interested in applying to in the summer or fall of 2018. You will also need to identify schools that allow younger children in their classrooms. If you choose the latter, you can wait until the summer or fall of 2019 and will be able to apply to all San Francisco area preschools. Below you will find additional information about the San Francisco preschool admission process.

Factors to consider

Although you have probably heard the stories of San Francisco mothers-to-be putting their child on preschool waiting lists before they are ever born, this is not necessary despite the competitive reputation the application process has earned. Certainly, there are many preschools that have years-long waiting lists, but that does not mean there aren't excellent preschools that would be an ideal fit for your child. As one Bay Area mother said, "there are enough preschool programs for every child in San Francisco to attend before they reach kindergarten... So, even if your child didn’t get into the 15 schools you applied to, it really is going to work out."

That being said, even if there isn't a"magic formula to getting into" the "best" preschools, there are some suggestions that can make your search easier. However, it is important to approach your search in terms of what is best for your family rather than worrying whether your child is getting into the "right" school. While the myth persists that certain preschools are "feeder" schools for specific San Francisco elementary, middle, and high schools, there simply isn't any truth to this. According to Rhea St. Julien, a San Francisco mother who investigated the preschool application process in 2014 (and whose advice is still relevant to parents three years later), "these [elementary, middle, and high] schools want to attract kids from all over the city, so they won’t take many from any one preschool, no matter how popular it is." And universities definitely won't care where your child went to preschool, despite the fact that one of the most common questions parents ask when touring preschools is "where do alumni of this preschool go to college?"

The consensus among San Francisco parents who have weathered the preschool application process is to choose a school based on your child's needs and how it aligns with your family's educational philosophy. As such, here are some tips and a general timeline that can help you with your search. Be aware that this timeline is for a fall 2019 enrollment date. If you decide to wait until 2020 to enroll your child, all timeline events should occur one year later than stated.

Now through Summer 2018

Decide what is important to your and your family. This could be any variety of characteristics from location to cost to curriculum. Create a list of features you would like to see a preschool offer and divide them up into "non-negotiables" and "nice-to-haves." This can turn into a checklist that you take with you on preschool tours to allow you to quickly rule in or rule out schools that meet or don't meet your non-negotiable criteria. You may find yourself adding criteria to this list as you come across features of preschools that you like or dislike during your research, which is why you should revisit it often between now and when you begin touring schools. Some questions you can ask yourself to help you decide what is important in a preschool include:

*What is the furthest distance the school can be from my home or office?
*What is the most I am willing to pay per month or year?
*Should my child be in school part-time or full-time?
*Do I want the school to be affiliated with a religion?
*What type of curriculum do I want for my child (Montessori, play-based, language immersion, Waldorf, Reggio-Emilia, etc.)
*Do I want my child to attend the same school through high school (there are some schools that educate children from pre-K through grade 12).
*What is the maximum student-to-teacher ratio I will accept for my child?
*What daily schedule works best for my family?
*How much do I want to be involved with school activities and the classroom?

I have created a sample checklist for determining which criteria are non-negotiable and which are nice to have on the "Preliminary Checklist" tab of the attached spreadsheet.

Early 2018 through Summer 2018

Begin researching preschools. This is likely the most daunting part of the application process, as there are currently 255 preschools in the San Francisco area. Since it is unlikely you will be able to visit them all, you will need to use your criteria list to cross off those you know will not meet your non-negotiables. You will create another, more specific list of questions to ask when you start going on school tours, but at this point, it's about narrowing down your choices to those schools you are going to visit.

One of the best suggestions for how to narrow down your options is to seek out recommendations from other parents in your area. As one mother said, "nothing can beat word of mouth recommendations, so ask your friends, coworkers, and other parents at the playground. Any personal connections you can make to the school will also help" with the admissions process later on.

Summer 2018 through Fall 2018

Schedule and take school tours. Although many preschools may not begin giving tours until September, some schools that operate year round may offer tour slots during the summer. The earlier you take your tours, the more time you will have to make the decision as to which schools you are going to submit applications. Most preschools in San Francisco require parents to take a tour of the school before submitting an application, so this is not a step that you can skip. In addition to the general criteria you already have on your preschool checklist, you will want to add school-specific questions to ask during the tours. I have created a sample checklist on the "Tour Checklist" tab of the attached spreadsheet that includes the following criteria:

*Is the school accredited or licensed? All private preschools are required to be licensed, which ensures "the school has met the state’s basic health and safety standards," but they do not need to be accredited. In fact, "many outstanding preschools don’t go through the accreditation process." However, if a school is accredited through the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), you can "be assured it has met the highest standards of safety and education." It is also important to note that "many states exempt religious-based preschools from some or all requirements."

*Are the teachers credentialed? Preschool teachers in California are required to have either a Child Development Permit or "current credential issued by the CTC (California Commission on Teacher Credentialing) authorizing teaching service in elementary school along with specific credits and/or experience in early childhood education." All primary teachers in a preschool should hold one or the other of these credentials.

*What is the school's schedule? You may already have this information from your preliminary research, but sometimes schools do not publish their yearly calendars. You will want to know if the school closes on days that may conflict with your family's schedule. For instance, the school may close on Columbus Day, but most offices do not. Therefore, you would have to make other care arrangements for this day. Some schools also schedule early release or in-service days for teacher professional development. These times are typically non-contact days in which students are not allowed in the building. Again, many families have to make alternate arrangements for these days. You should be aware that most schools do not refund money for days missed.

*Does the school provide snacks or lunch and if so, does the food meet my child's nutritional needs? Many preschools will offer snacks but require students to bring lunches from home. However, that is not always the case. You will want to make sure your child's nutritional needs will be met during the day. If your child has specific food allergies, you will also want to address that concern during the tour.

*Does the school require children to take naps? While most young children will naturally want a nap during the day, some older children may not. You will want to find out what the school does with children who refuse to nap. In most cases, they will provide a quiet alternative supervised activity, but in other instances, schools require children to lie down for the entire nap time.

*What is the school's approach to discipline? As with the nap question above, you will want to know how teachers are trained to respond to a variety of situations that could arise. For instance, "ask how teachers respond if a child hits, bites, or kicks. Do they let children work out problems on their own or help facilitate a resolution? Do they use time-outs or other disciplinary techniques? If a child is crying or having a tantrum, how do they respond?" You may want to schedule a time to observe a classroom during school hours to see the school's policies in action.

*What are the school's safety protocols? Find out what the drop off/pick up procedures are, how students are monitored both indoors and outside, whether the entire staff is trained in CPR and first aid, and what steps the school follows when a child is injured. Another recent feature of many preschools is the ability for parents to observe classrooms via streaming video on their devices or computers. This is an added feature that provides an extra layer of security and peace of mind for many parents.

*What are parental involvement requirements? Some schools expect parents to volunteer a set number of hours each year, particularly those that rely on private funding. You may be asked to participate in fundraising activities or, in the case of co-ops, be required to spend time in your child's classroom. If you work full-time, you may not want to choose a school that mandates significant involvement.

*What is the make-up of the classroom? You may be able to find statistics on student-teacher ratios and diversity for some schools during your preliminary research, but if not, you will want to ask for that information during your tour. Other important aspects of classroom make-up include whether students are grouped by age or ability, the percentage of instruction that is delivered by teacher assistants or other adults besides the primary teacher, and how many kids are typically in a single classroom. As for diversity, it may be beneficial to observe a classroom during school hours to determine the mix of students.

*How much free time is given to students? Some schools are play-based, while others are more focused on academics and structure. You should be able to find much of this information out by visiting each school's website, but if not, the tour is the ideal time to discover the school's philosophy on free time. Some parents believe children should have a significant amount of time to just "be kids," but other parents want their children to be immersed in learning experiences at all times. This decision is highly personal and based on your own child-rearing philosophy and your child's individual needs.

Fall 2018

Begin gathering recommendation letters from "current or former families who attended the school," since "directors of these schools are building a community of families...and want to give spots to families that really want to be there... They need to get to know you." Don't wait until the interview process following application submission to put your family on the school's radar. Stay in touch with schools that interest you following your tour to express your desire to be there. This could even mean volunteering at the school if policies permit. Some preschools ask applicants to provide a picture along with their application. If this is the case, it can sometimes be an advantage to create a small collage of pictures that reflect your child's personality.

November 2018 through February 2019

Apply for admission to the schools on your short list. By late fall, you should know which preschools meet your non-negotiable criteria and which ones are your preferred schools that include as many of your "nice to have" items as well. At this point, it is recommended you create a spreadsheet or other tracking device that can help keep you organized as you apply to various preschools. I have put together a sample spreadsheet that includes sample dates for The San Francisco School's application process in row 2 of the "Deadlines" tab. There is no specific number of schools to which you should apply, but the more options you have, the better, since many of the more popular schools receive "thousands of applications for a few spots."

In general, preschools have an application deadline in the November or December prior to the next year's fall admission date. For example, this year, The San Francisco School has an application deadline for this year of December 18, 2017, for a fall 2018 enrollment date and Calvary Nursery School's deadline is November 30, 2017; however Stretch the Imagination doesn't require applications be in until February 1, 2018. Since the application deadlines vary from school to school, you will need to research your top preschool choices carefully to ensure you do not miss any critical components of the application process.

In addition to the school's application, which may be online or on paper, you will also need to provide your child's birth certificate and an application fee that is generally between $50 and $100. In some cases, as with The San Francisco School, you can apply for an application fee waiver if you meet certain income requirements. Religion-based schools may also require a copy of your child's baptismal certificate be submitted with the application.

You should also prepare for an interview and assessment with the preschools to which you apply, which will occur shortly after the application deadline passes. The San Francisco School, for instance, will hold family interviews in February before sending out acceptance and wait list letters in March. However, Calvary Nursery School's interviews begin as early as December and Stretch the Imagination doesn't hold interviews at all. In general, these interviews are designed to determine whether your child will be a good fit in the current "composition of a classroom". In many cases, not every family that submits an application will be given an interview, so again, it's good to apply to several schools that meet your criteria.

March 2019 – April 2019

Acceptance and wait list letters are sent out. Typically, you will not have a long time to decide whether you accept an enrollment slot with a school that has offered one to you. The San Francisco School gives families four days to respond before moving on to the next family on the waitlist, but Stretch the Imagination only gives 24 hours. In light of the competitive atmosphere in San Francisco regarding preschools, you may have to make a quick decision without knowing if you'll be offered an enrollment slot with another school later in the spring or summer. Be aware that most schools require a non-refundable enrollment fee be paid at the time of acceptance. For The San Francisco School, this fee amount is $1,100. This discourages families from accepting an enrollment slot with one school only to drop it when space at another school opens up.


The best time to get deeply involved in the preschool admission process in San Francisco depends on when you want your child to begin school. If you are looking at a fall 2019 start date, you will want to begin your search in the summer of 2018. If you decide to wait until fall 2020 for your child to begin preschool, your process should begin no later than summer of 2019.