Washingtonians are fortunate to have a variety of types of preschools from which to choose. There are free, public Prekindergarten (PK) available starting at age three, private stand-alone preschool programs, and private schools that start at preschool. District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and charter schools both offer full day, full school year programs that are usually attached to elementary schools and even middle/high schools, giving the possibility of securing up to fifteen years of a free quality education. Joining a private school at the preschool level can secure an entrance into a learning community that, again, can last through middle and even high school. Conversely, there are private programs including parent-run cooperatives and teacher/administration-led programs that serve kids for just a year or two before Kindergarten.
Public and Private Options
Public schools all require full school day, full week attendance. Private schools that offer PK vary in their hours with some partial day/week and others full day. Private preschool programs are usually only half day, fewer than five days a week. This part-time schedule requires further coverage for the typical working family so is often not an option for them. But families with stay at home parents or caregivers often choose to put a preschooler in a partime program for recreation, socialization and just having fun with other kids.
While public preschool is free, the cost of covering care during summer, winter, and spring breaks, professional days off, and before and aftercare, can easily top $10,000 a year. Similarly, care must be secured outside of private school hours, at an additional cost, if parents require full time coverage.
Choosing the Right School
An important consideration in choosing any school for a typically developing child should be location. Always look first at schools in your neighborhood and balance the quality of your child’s, and your, life given the commute. Think long and hard before signing up for a long commute that gives your child more time in a car and less time playing.
When visiting a school, first and foremost you should look for a place where everyone looks happy, adults and children. Kids should have as much choice and freedom of movement in their activities as possible. Plenty of whole body movement and especially outdoor time are important. Overt academics are not necessary in preschool and should be limited. Kids should be engaged and the focus should be on positive guidance rather than negative discipline.
Classrooms should be organized and well-managed, but should also look like kids spend the day there. Amenities such as a nice playground and a library are great, but a creative teacher can work around deficits in facilities. A teacher who is clearly content to be there and eager to show off her classroom to visitors is likely to be an excellent indicator of a positive experience guide for your preschooler. Likewise, a satisfied, engaged parent population can help create a more successful school.
There are several preschool educational models on offer in Washington. Some, such as Montessori, differ greatly from a typical preschool and parents should understand what the approach is before signing their student up. Student-led models such as Reggio-Emilia contrast with the teacher-led Creative Curriculum. Expeditionary programs get kids out of the classroom on a routine basis. Online research and classroom visits can give parents a good sense of what might be their best fit.
Navigating School Applications
Entry into DCPS and charter schools is by lottery only. The Common Lottery includes almost all such schools and can be accessed at www.MySchoolDC.org. Information about schools, lottery and waitlist results, videos that explain how the lottery works, and the actual portal to apply in the lottery are found here. Up to twelve schools can be ranked. Rank in the order that reflects which schools are most desired to the least. Initial selection and waitlist offers go by this order.
The application is due by March 2, 2020, with results released on March 27. Families have until May 1, 2020, to accept a space and enroll and then the waitlists start moving. Waitlists typically move throughout the summer and into the school year. There is no “gaming the system.” Research schools, do your due diligence, make your list, and cross your fingers.
Private preschool applications can vary in complexity. Some have deadlines by which to sign up, but no application process. Others require an application, educational testing done by a specialist, playdates and interviews, and teacher recommendations. Parents should follow the application processes of these schools carefully as entry can be very competitive.
Regardless of what type of school is chosen, keeping a positive attitude about school and learning is what is most important. A fortunate lottery number can lead to an elementary through high school education at one of the best schools in the city, but there are multiple options for a good preschool experience. As long as kids are happy and active, many different environments can serve them well.
E.V. Downey is an independent educational consultant who works with families to find the right fit schools for their kids. In addition, E.V. helps families as a tutor and behavior therapist, co-runs a camp, and teaches flute at Music on the Hill. A long-time resident of Capitol Hill, E.V. has two kids who are now in high school and college.