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Choosing a Preschool: How to Find a School + Childcare Cost Calculator Spreadsheet

Choosing a preschool

Oh hey, it’s time to find a preschool! Choosing a preschool has been in the back of my head for a while now. Some people I know had to deal with waitlists, applications and lotteries at almost the birth of their child! We’ve had a little time and now it seems like everyone is asking about preschool! “Have you picked a preschool? What preschool? Are you on waitlists?” Uhhhh what?! After feeling behind the game this last fall, I started a spreadsheet to list what we wanted out of a preschool and what we’ve found. It’s really easy to get confused pretty quickly with all the choices, options and different pricing methods. Here’s how we found a lovely preschool – of course it involves a super cool spreadsheet. TLDR: Find the closest preschool to your home and enroll.

Jump Ahead – How to Choose the Right Preschool for Your Family:

Timeline for a Fall Preschool Start: When do kids start preschool?

Preschool is kind of an all-encompassing word for anything Pre-K in The States. It’s kind of the new word for daycare as well. But typical “preschool” is ages 3-5, before they go into kindergarten within the regular school system. Many preschools accept students year round, if they have space available. However, most families typically want to start in the fall with the “back to school” season.

Check around with friends and neighbors in your area to find a preschool. But here’s what we’ve learned for a fall start in the Portland area:

  • Fall – 1 year before they start preschool – Start your search! This isn’t nitty gritty info gathering. Just ask around (friends, neighbors) and look on Yelp & Google search. Check out the general playing field of what preschools are around your area.
  • January/February – Make a list. Narrow down your favorites. Reach out to your top 3-4 preschools and ask about availability and tours.
  • February/March – Tour at least two preschools – compare, make a decision, and enroll. This time of year they fill up fast so get your application and enrollment fee in.
  • August/September – Pay tuition deposits and get start dates and school handbook etc.

Questions to Ask Yourself Before Choosing a Preschool:

  • Part-Time or Full Time? (Hours per week) – This actually has two meanings – Days of week or length of day. There can be many combinations of each. So think of the amount of hours you’re looking for. For example: 3 days a week, half day is really only 12 hours. 3*4 = 12. Or 5 days a week, half day is 5*4= 20 hours. Or 3 full days 3*7 = 21 hours.
  • Half Day or Full Day? – Are you looking for half day – most typically morning hours like 8-12, 8:30-12:30, 9-1 etc. or Full Day 8-3 etc. Will you also need after or before care so it matches your work schedule like 8-5 or 9-5?
  • Days per week? – Most programs are 2-5 days per week. Some work Tues/Thur, others do MWF, or TWTH, or MTWTH etc.
  • Location? – What priority do you give the location? Are you looking for super close like walkable? Within a few miles, somewhere along the line of commute to work. Or is price or other requirements more important to you?
  • Method – There are several styles and methods of preschools, from philosophy like: Waldorf, Montessori, and Reggio. Additionally, many method-based schools, like Montessori are not accredited. Anyone can call themselves a Montessori school. Some have teachers certified as or are part of a larger network and others aren’t. So if it matters to you, research and find the Montessori versus the Montessori-ish. Or other specific criteria like religious affiliation, language immersion or play or curriculum-based methods.
  • Community – Are you looking for community both in proximity and feel?
  • Age ranges / Size of preschool – Are you looking for a small in-home preschool with mixed ages of 3-5? Or a larger multi-classroom where classes are separated by age?
  • Flexibility – Are you looking for a preschool that can change over the years before your child starts kindergarten? For example, maybe starts as 3 days/week and has the option to be 5 days or full days or something as they get closer to school age. Also what is their flexibility with you traveling etc.
  • Summer break / Public School Schedules – Following the local school schedule is not the same as also having a summer break. Some schools are year round but follow the general calendar like spring break, Christmas, snow days etc. Others have exact schedule as public including summer vacation, and others follow it except take 1 month, and other schools don’t follow it at all.
  • Price – annual cost and cost per month, week, hour – Especially if they’re just starting preschool, you probably don’t want to pay so much that if they’re sick or you’re traveling it isn’t so expensive that you are wondering why you enrolled them in the first place. Also think about price in terms of price per hour. Schools charge such varying prices and ways. This is the biggest thing that bugged me about choosing a preschool, and why I created the spreadsheet! Some split it up over 12 months, others do 10 months etc. For example, if it looks like one is $6000 per year and one is $7000, it doesn’t necessarily mean the $6k preschool is cheaper per hour if they have more time off in summer or shorter hours etc. You really want to break it down to price per hour to really know the true cost including summer vacation and hours/week – especially if you will be needing to find childcare for any additional time! Check out the spreadsheet below – it will auto-calculate all this for you!
  • Outdoor time or nature – How much does it matter to you where the location is in proximity to nature? Or how much time they spend outside on school grounds or out walking etc?
  • Snacks and lunch – Most preschools provide snacks, and some of them also provide lunch, part of lunch or none of lunch. Other preschools are over before the lunch hour, so you’re being handed back a hungry and tired kid.
  • Nap or no nap – Depending on the age of your kid, you might be picking up a kid from school who needs a nap and won’t nap for you at home. So in some cases, yes, it’s worth it to just pay extra and have a kid who naps at school. As they start to drop naps later, you also might have a kid who goes full days 3 days a week and naps just those 3 day and doesn’t the 2 days with you but it’s enough to sustain them for awhile.
  • Potty Training – some schools require children be potty trained, others will work with you, and others accept all and charge a diaper fee etc.
  • Start date – Preschools are a little different than regular school. Some schools start with the public school system in your area, others start earlier or later. One school we toured even had one spot available January 1 of the new year, so we could have started right away.

Childcare Cost Calculator: Rank your Preferences & Calculate Actual Cost Per Month

You can have the template for a “Pay what you want” price! After years of giving away templates, the resources it takes to deliver templates I’ve made are no longer free. Pay what you want! And I hope this is useful to you. You can enter $0 if you need.

After downloading the Excel spreadsheet, you can open or upload it to use in Google Spreadsheets (or just use in Excel or Open Office).

After you’ve considered some of the above questions about what you’re looking for in a preschool or childcare at this age, list out your preferences and rank your criteria.

For example, our top items were: location – preferably bikeable, but less than a 15 minute drive; 12-15 hours a week (preferably half days 3x a week, like 8:30a-12:30p, MWF; and having some outdoor time.

It’s actually really hard to rank these preferences, because we want the best for our kids! But I think it can show us what we’re really wanting versus our “nice to haves”. Then, as you start finding schools, fill in the spreadsheet as you learn more info about each. This really helps save time and compare like to like. It’s really hard to remember what school was what when you’re comparing like 20 different schools and 10 different criteria etc.

If you live in a smaller town or already know the preschool you’re sending your child to, then this probably isn’t very useful. However, if you live in larger area or just an area with a lot of options and are just starting your search, it can be a huge time saver. This is also a great place to keep track of their website or contact info, extra fees or application or open house dates, any thoughts or status of communication (like that you’ve emailed them or are waiting to hear back, are on a waitlist etc).

What to Look For When Choosing a Preschool & What to Ask During a Tour

After you’ve narrowed your search a bit, the next step of choosing a preschool is a preschool tour! When you find a preschool, some schools do open house tours, some do private or small group tours during off hours, and others do tours during school time. What questions to ask a preschool? Here’s what to ask and look for:

  • Gut Instincts: What is your immediate gut feel for the teacher and the school? Do the kids seem happy? Does it seem like a safe environment? Same kind of gut check you’d make with finding a babysitter etc. Good vibes, weird vibes, note it.
  • How do the students interact? Even if your first tour is at an open house, if you’re serious about a spot, most schools will invite you back during school hours with your child to get a feel for the space. Do the kids treat each other with respect? Do they work in groups, are there kids being excluded? What is the energy like?
  • How do the teachers interact and treat students? Obviously everyone is going to be on their best behavior, but you should still get a feel for how kids feel about the teacher. What happens if a child interrupts your visit or the teacher? What happens if a child is misbehaving or needing help with something? Or what happens if a child looks like they’ve hurt themselves? In one of our tours, a kid fell down and the teacher was warm, but didn’t rush to them. Asked if they were ok?, and what happened. The teacher then asked if they wanted a hug. This really aligned with our parenting style. And also, if you can learn what their turnover rate is for teachers or teacher assistants that may help give some clues as well.
  • Communication style with you – Do you get a good feel for the communication style of teachers and staff? While most smaller preschool websites are pretty old, your email or phone communication while in the choosing a preschool stage should be telling of how you will feel when your child is actually enrolled. Are they prompt in replies? Are they clear with information when you have questions? This was a big one for me, as a couple schools I emailed replied with very vague answers or didn’t fully answer my very direct and simple couple questions.
  • The School Space – Indoor and Outdoor – How is the space organized? How large of a space etc. Even if it’s a smaller space, how does the layout work for different work spaces and activities. How clean and organized is the space? Is there natural light? What is the snack and lunch area like? How are the bathrooms etc
  • Safety – State records and Accreditation – you should be able to search for the school / childcare provider on your state’s public childcare provider search. In Oregon it’s called the Oregon Early Learning Division – Public Childcare Provider Search. It tells you their license status, visits, and if any injuries reported and what their quality ranking is. Oregon’s quality ranking program search is called Spark. Additionally, you should be able to search other places for any accreditations they’ve listed (Montessori AMI, AMS etc.)
How do you even compete with a preschool that has a bunny?

And that my friends, is everything I’ve learned about finding a preschool for your kiddo. Good luck in choosing a preschool (or really any other childcare/school)! I hope the spreadsheet is useful to you and saves you a bit of time.

Do you have any tips for finding and choosing a preschool?

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