I’ve understood the long-lasting benefits of preschool long before I had a kid of my own. Early childhood education leads to improved academic readiness and enhanced social skills, so in my eyes, preschool is an absolutely non-negotiable for my kid. Little did I know the overwhelming stress my partner and I would undergo hunting for the perfect, not to mention affordable, preschool for our toddler in the concentrated city of Los Angeles. I thought I could just enroll my kid in a nearby preschool when she was ready and call it a day. Oh, how very wrong I was. I was so very, very wrong.
The search is unquestionably daunting; Los Angeles County currently has a population of almost 400,000 preschool-aged children. I don’t know the exact number of preschools in Los Angeles, but that’s a heck of a lot of toddlers, so schools must already be somewhat selective.
So far, the preschool hunt has been a lot scarier for us than the rigorous process of applying for college, mostly because it involves our offspring who we don’t want to screw up before she even turns 3. We’re still in the thick of finding a place for our daughter to dig for worms and learn her alphabet, but it’s a stressful process for a few reasons.
Everybody who's been there already knows — and for everyone who's headed there? I'm sorry ... in advance.
There Are Sooo Many Choices
Did you know that Waldorf is not just a delicious salad; it’s also a method of early childhood teaching? There’s also Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and High/Scope, to name just a few. Oh, and if you want your kid to learn another language, there are immersion programs for multiple languages; just take your pick. Before you get overwhelmed thinking about how this decision can make or break your kid, reflect back on your own preschool experience (if you went). For example, I spent my mornings coloring pictures of Noah’s Ark and fingerpainting at the preschool offered by my parents’ church, and I like to think I turned out just fine. So my kid will be OK too, right? RIGHT!?
It’s Awfully Competitive
When my partner and I attended our first scheduled preschool tour for the preschool just down the street from our place (an entire year before we wanted our daughter to go to school, BTW). The opening conversation the director had with another parent in attendance was “how crazy competitive” preschool hunting was, and “how some parents begin the process years in advance — like when they’re pregnant.” Lo and behold, there was definitely a pregnant lady touring the school that day.
The preschool director proceeded to inform us that there would only be 10 new spots, give or take a few, for the 50 or so 2 year olds they'd have to sift through. Also, it wasn’t on a first-come-first-serve basis — our toddler had to attend a “play session,” aka an audition, and fit a certain je ne sais quoi in order to be accepted.
Isn’t that like taking a midterm in college before even getting an acceptance letter? Needless to say, we left the tour shaking in our boots at our daughter’s slim chance at getting accepted to a conveniently close preschool. We definitely won’t be putting all our eggs in one basket, so onto the next …
And Even More Frighteningly Expensive
When you finally do decide what preschool you want your kid to attend and you manage to get through the admissions process and even get accepted, the next step is paying for it. You sit down to adjust your monthly budget to include preschool tuition and have a massive heart attack when you realize that it costs far less to send your kid to in-state college than preschool.
Give yourself a moment to let that sink in.
Uh, So Now What?
There are a few — a few — resources and methods to avoid pouring a good chunk of your income to your kid’s preschool. LAUP offers free quality preschool with priority to 4 year olds for those who qualify, with locations across LA County. Crystal Stairs helps connect low-income families with childcare and early childhood education services with an overall goal to improve the lives of families through research and advocacy. Co-ops are also a good alternative for parents who stay at home and want to be more involved in the classroom, and tuition is far less.
Crying Is An Option. So Is Getting Creative.
Some parents I know get creative and look outside of their local neighborhoods, opening up the search range and finding preschools closer to their place of employment. I know people who've been able to enroll their kids in quality, full-time preschools for half the price of more popular private schools just by going outside of their neighborhoods.
So yes, crying over the difficulty of finding a pre-school program for your child is a completely reasonable thing to do. So is creativity. And before you descend into major freak-out mode and drown yourself in gallons of wine (already been there, BTW), remember that there are options that can work for your family.
Talk to the women and men in your community who have kids in preschool, be open to the possibilities, get creative, and remember that your kid has no clue what a stressful process this is. They’ll have fun making macaroni jewelry wherever.