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What is the Appropriate Age to Start Preschool?

Sarah Preston Gorenstein

I posed this very question to my Facebook friends about two weeks ago, the week before Preston turned two. The answers, to my surprise, were unanimous: Every Chicago parent I know started their kid(s) in preschool either right before, or right after they turned two. Yes, TWO. And I’m not talking daycare type of preschools either. I’m talking preschools of the private variety. Is this the norm, I wondered? Who better to ask than you guys, my outspoken Parenting readers. So, I ask you: Is two the age you enroll your tots in preschool where you live? Because where I live, even though it is, I have to question whether or not it’s absolutely necessary at this age…especially considering how much preschool costs in the city of Chicago. Keep reading if you want to know the answer to that one (it shocked the hell out of me).

The deeper I dug the more amazed I was, and still am: Apparently in Chicago, if you want to send your kid to a non-secular preschool (a Jewish one for us, which is our preference), I would’ve had to start the enrollment process last November. Last November, when he was 15 months old. (I haven’t researched other non-secular preschools, but I’d guess it’s the same.) I was totally prepared to start looking into pre-K for him for next year when he turned two, which is what I was told was mandatory for any shot at enrollment—around here the pre-K programs start at three and four years old, and finding the right one (and getting in) is a process. But I had no idea that I needed to work that far ahead for preschool. For a two-year-old.

To be clear, the Jewish preschools in this city are all tuition-based/year-long programs, which means even if they happen to have a spot open for the 2011-2012 school year at this point (school starts this week, HA), I’d lose money (most of them go from September to May/June, and they don’t prorate based on when you start). Double ha. I haven't even visited them yet, or started the enrollment process.

Of course, there are a number of very good, secular preschools we’re looking into as well that have open enrollment, year long. So you start paying the month they start attending, which makes a lot of sense, and if things don’t work out for some reason they ask for a 60-day cancellation notice. (The non-secular preschools don’t have this policy—you snooze, you lose is more like it.)

I called one of the Jewish preschools last week and, despite what their website outlined, they did seem very accommodating. I told them I wanted to start Preston at 2 ½, since he just barely makes the cut-off (he turned two on Aug. 29, and the cut-off here is Sept. 1), and she said if they had room by then she’d happily take him and prorate us. But as of last week they had one spot left, so let’s hope that’s still an option for us when we’re ready.

But here’s the other rub: The cost of these preschools—secular and non—are rather expensive. One of the nondenominational preschools we’re looking into, called Chalk Preschool, where a few of our friends’ kids go, is $610/month. That doesn’t sound so bad, at first glance. But that’s for TWO HALF DAYS A WEEK. So a mere two days a week, from 8:30-12:30, they do circle time, sing songs, dance, color, play, eat lunch (all the things he does with our nanny, and their playgroup, incidentally) for $610/month, two half days a week!? And by the way, I still need to keep my nanny employed, because she will need to pick him up from preschool on those two days, while my husband and I are at work paying for all of this. Plus, I need to give her enough hours the rest of the week to keep her gainfully employed with us (we’re not done having kids, for one)—so it’s not like the cost of preschool is replacing the cost of childcare. Nope, not even a little bit.

If we send him there for three half days a week, which is what I’d prefer to do because I think he’ll really love it, the price goes up significantly: $865/month, for three half days. Plus, enough hours to keep our four-day-a-week nanny happy and employed. (Ouch.)

This particular preschool happens to be one of the best in Chicago from what I’ve heard; there are locations in California, too—it has a great reputation, we’re almost sold on it (it also happens to be somewhat conveniently located for both my husband and me to drop him off on our way to work, and pay visits during the day if needed). The others I’ve been researching, based on friends’ recommendations, go up from there: Lincoln Park Prep, $730/month for two half days a week (plus a $500 non-refundable registration fee, gotta love that), and Sprouts Academy, $830/month for two half days a week (plus a $300 non-refundable registration fee)—both have very impressive programs from what I've learned. And the aforementioned Jewish preschools, which are a little more costly, are not exactly close to us so the drop-off would be hard, plus the half-day programs are much shorter (9-11/11:30 a.m., as opposed to 7:30-12:15 for Sprouts). You pay more for the Jewish education obviously, which is very important to me (and both of our families).

What I’m also trying to wrap my head around is how on earth do two working parents manage a preschool schedule? And is it imperative we start him in preschool this early, when he just turned two last week? I have him in a weekly gymnastics class right now that my husband takes him to on Thursdays, and was about to enroll him in another music and/or dance class (the kid is obsessed with J. Lo, go figure), and was planning to find some park district classes for the winter that our nanny could take him to—so maybe enrolling him now turns out to be just as much as all these classes combined? Though putting him in a two- or three-day-a-week preschool still means I need to fill his time the other days of the week somehow. I wanted to wait till at least January to enroll him in preschool, but now I wonder if that's even necessary, or possible? 

I need to decide which place we’re enrolling him in asap, because they all have non-refundable registration fees, so it’s not like you can hold your spot at more than one place (well, you can, but why would I want to throw away all that money?). And in the meantime, I need to start the process of enrolling him in a pre-K program for next year. Before he’s even started preschool!

When did you enroll your kids in preschool and pre-K? Did they go to the same preschool and pre-K? Do you think that's important? And is two too early, in your opinion? And by too early, I mean unnecessary? Thing is, I know he’s ready for a regular classroom environment, with consistent and regular interaction with other kids his age, and activities like these. He lives at the park during the summer, and has a nice little playgroup, but come winter (which lasts about five months here) there’s no way he can be cooped up indoors all day. He’s smart, he’s social, he's active, he loves to sing, dance, read, recite the alphabet, and do all the things you do at preschool.

I suppose I have my answer, whether I like it or not, but I’d love to know what you did with your kids, because I was certainly not prepared for the added expense this early on in the parenting game. Who knew circle time could be so costly?