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Picking a preschool: 15 things you can do to find the right fit for your youngster

Preschool season has opened, with many programs now accepting applications for next fall. While your child doesn't need to go to a mini-Yale, there are certain features that distinguish a quality program. Here are some tips suggested by parents and experts on what to look for.

1. Visit the school. You will get a feel, and it's important to listen to that gut feeling. Try dropping in when you're not expected.

2. Create a list or spreadsheet with key details. Fill in the easy ones via phone, the others on a visit. Categories could include Distance, Cost, Teacher/Student Ratio, Start/End Times, Application Due Date, Observations. This will make comparison easier.

3. Look at safety measures. Many toys have been recalled in the last couple of years because of lead. Are their toy boxes up-to-date? What's the emergency plan? Are background checks done on teachers? Is the entry monitored?

4. All good preschools should have a curriculum. But don't confuse this with traditional "academics." A curriculum ensures the school is structured and knows what skills it will work on. Look for a mix of activities, from group time to centers to individual play.

5. The art on the wall can tell a lot about a school. Does it look as if the teacher did it, or the preschooler? Are the rooms colorful and warm?

6. With the swine flu and other bugs about, make sure the school is clean. Are the floors and bathrooms tidy? What's the hand-washing policy? How is food handled?

7. Staff should have some formal early-childhood training. Observe the teacher in action to see whether she enjoys being with the children and encourages conversation. Ask who fills in when the teacher is sick.

8. Look at the playground to make sure it has safe equipment and is properly fenced. Find out how often and under what conditions the children go outside. What do they do if it's raining or too cold or hot?

9. Does the school offer special classes, such as literacy or dance or music?

10. Can you afford it? What's the application fee, the deposit, the monthly tuition? Does the school charge if you are late picking up in the afternoon? Is there a discount for siblings?

11. Preschool food policies have shifted in the last decade as food allergies have increased. Find out what's banned and decide whether that's an issue for your child. Is there a policy about bringing in food for the class to share?

12. Some schools require children to be potty-trained before they are enrolled. What happens if your child has an accident?

13. How does the school stay in touch with the parents? Will you get progress reports or have teacher conferences? What does the school require from you? Some schools expect parents to volunteer or contribute money.

14. Make sure the start and end times work for your child and his nap schedule. Some schools have easing-in periods at the beginning of the year, when the child goes for just an hour or two. Does this work for your schedule?

15. Learn about the discipline policy. Are you comfortable with the naughty chair? Visits to the director?

Sources: Parents on MomsCharlotte.com and TriangleMom2Mom.com; Patricia Collins, director of Calvary Child Development Center in Charlotte; Kelly Maxwell, researcher and associate director at the FPG Child Development Institute at UNC Chapel Hill