*All names have been changed on request

At the start of every school year, parents camp out in front of admissions offices with their child’s vaccination records, hoping to set them up for a bright future. Some come prepared to pay $20,000 tuitions. No, they aren’t applying for college. They’re applying to preschool.

Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child found that during the first few years of a child’s life, more than one million new neural connections form every second. So, a child’s pre-K education is no longer relegated to Sesame Street and making mud pies in the backyard. For parents in Dallas and Collin counties, picking the right preschool isn’t a matter of shopping Google reviews, but spending a lot of time and effort to get their kids on waitlists before they’re even born. Whether it’s Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, language-based—the list goes on—one thing is clear: the right preschool is a chief concern for parents.

“You start stressing about preschool the minute they’re born,” one Dallas mom says. She might actually be behind the curve; many start filling out applications the moment they get a positive pregnancy test. Much of it has to do with the rising standards for kindergarteners. Twenty years ago, they just had to show up and not eat glue. These days it seems that if a kid isn’t ahead of the class, they’re behind.

A Plano mother, who was touring playgrounds and classrooms while she was pregnant, says, “I’m sure everyone has different priorities. I’m a kindergarten teacher and see a lot of kids coming to kindergarten who are lacking social and emotional skills so I wanted to find a place where she would build relationships with the staff and other kids.” She dropped her application off at her preferred preschool on the first day of open registration, the minute they opened their doors.  

Another new mom, Molly, admits that she too felt pressure to put her son in preschool. “I felt that if I chose wrong, it would start his education off on the wrong path.”

While the preschools she looked at in Collin County had waiting lists, it wasn’t hard to get a spot and her child ended up in the preschool of her choice after a couple of months. Her child got in midway through the school year when another family moved.

Parents can employ a variety of clever tactics for picking the right preschool. Pam left many preschool tours in frustrated tears, before discovering the secret to the search: visit unannounced.

“You get a way better picture of the environment, of what maybe they don’t want you to see,” she explains. “Sometimes you walk in when they aren’t expecting you and it’s chaos. That really lets you know what the place is actually like.”

However, despite the stress of finding a preschool in Collin County, getting in seems to be a breeze. Most Plano moms noted that while their schools had waiting lists, as long as they were proactive they had no trouble getting their child into a great preschool, in part because there are so many in the area.

Of course, just south of 635, the atmosphere is very different. Dallas public schools are not as highly rated as Collin County’s and many parents worry about preschool not just for their child’s development, but to keep them out of public school. For these three-year-olds, the stakes are higher.

A D Magazine article from 2003, “A Preschool Sampler,” confirmed that in Dallas, “…urban parents continue to flee public schools—starting with preschool. The fear is that if they don’t start their child in that perfect school when the pool of entry is large (which is often at age 3 or 4), they won’t get in at all.” They also note that suburban parents are much more likely to opt for public school than their Dallas counterparts.

Read more: Full STEAM Ahead at Plano Academy High School

Sally lives in Dallas. She has a daughter and originally she didn’t plan on sending her to preschool. But she also didn’t want her to go to public school in Dallas. Hockaday School, whose tuition ranges from $25,000 to $55,000, had 36 openings at the preschool level and just five to seven for kindergarten and first grade. So, Sally sent her daughter to preschool at Hockaday because she had a much higher chance of getting in at the ground floor.

The Lamplighter, another well-regarded private elementary school has 62 open spots for three year olds for the 2017-18 school year. There are just 25 spots for new four year old students, and a scant six available for starting kindergarteners.

“The Dallas system worried me,” one mother admits. “Like any city, there are pockets of great schools in Dallas, they were just in areas we could not afford.”

In Collin County, it’s simply easier. A few local moms said that the Plano school system was a large part of why they moved to the area. The pressure isn’t quite as urgent.

As Dr. Pratiksha Rigley, franchise owner of several local Primrose Schools, sees it, parents tend to worry too much about the admissions process.

“Preschools in Dallas are very competitive, but in Collin County they really aren’t,” she explains. She attests that waitlists are typical for infant and toddler programs, but after that, admissions are usually smooth.

She is a firm believer in the importance of preschool for a child’s social and academic development. “But what’s important is choosing the right preschool for your child,” she explains.

Joy Martello, the head of Shelton School’s lower school suggests that parents know what environment their child will thrive in and are each other’s best resources. “Any parent considering a program should make it a point to talk to other parents who have experience with the school,” she says.

Plano moms, by and large, report that they love their preschools and once their kids hit kindergarten, they had acquired the basic skills of learning and behavior they needed to stay ahead of the class.

Jenna has three children and has done the preschool circuit a few times. Over the years she has observed the stress on new moms growing, not shrinking. “There’s so much pressure on moms to give their children the ‘very best.’ Every mom has her own opinion of what that is,” she explains. “But everybody just wants the best for their child.”

The hunt for the perfect preschool might very well get intense. But it’s all for love.  

Originally published in Plano Profile’s January 2018 issue under the title “Preschool Wars.”

Alexandra Cronin

Alexandra Cronin is Local Profile's senior editor. She has been with the company since 2016. She loves great coffee, good food, and average wine.