random adviceIf you live in Los Angeles and have offspring — or if you’re visibly pregnant — most conversations with other parents will probably involve preschool. Even if you don’t have kids, you’ll find yourself on the periphery of these conversations shortly after turning 30. And annoyed.

It’s not just a mom thing here. Most of the screenwriters I know, I know because they have young kids in preschool. The fathers of my daughter’s classmates wrote most of last summer’s blockbusters.

And it’s not just an age thing: I have lunch every month with Dick Zanuck, 74, who has produced 40+ movies and run a studio. What do we talk about? Getting his grandkids into preschool.

At least for LA, preschool is the new college.

Yes, it’s absurd. I poked fun at it in a deleted scene from The Nines (which you can find on the DVD). But it’s the reality. Even if your kids are going to go to public elementary school, you still need to find a private preschool. So here’s my advice.

  1. Buy The Whitney Guide. It’s a listing of most or all of the preschools in Los Angeles, with standardized criteria and philosophy statements. You won’t pick a school because of this book, but you’ll be able to narrow your choices and decide which criteria are important. And you’ll have a clear idea about the costs, so you can tailor your list appropriately.

  2. Talk to a lot of parents. Strike up conversations at the playground, the car wash, or any place you find parents with kids. Ask all your neighbors. You want recommendations about good schools, but more importantly, you want parents who can recommend you to a school. Kids don’t have SATs. A preschool is really admitting the parents, not the kid. Most preschools have an interview, but recommendations from current parents help a lot.

  3. Talk to people who talk to parents. Some of our most helpful advice came from the woman who ran the weekly kids’ gym. Pre-preschool classes like gym, music and swimming are run by people who interface with thousands of kids and parents over the years. They know the scoop.

  4. Visit preschools while they’re running. If you have a two-year old, you’ll be overwhelmed to see how swarming a bunch of three- and four-year olds can be. But what you’re looking for is some order in this chaos. For each class, the teacher and teacher’s assistant should feel like they’re on top of it. The kids should be having fun.

  5. Different is good. We’re the only two-dad family at our school. That’s not why we got in, but it didn’t hurt. If there’s something unique about your situation — your wife is an astronaut, your husband is blind — don’t minimize it. Most schools are looking to become less homogenous, and something distinctive will help them remember you.

  6. Have a safety school. Like college, there’s a chance you may not get into the preschool you want. In many cases, siblings of current students have first priority, so there may not be room for new families. That’s why it’s important to apply to at least one school you feel pretty certain you can get into.

Aren’t all preschools basically the same? I mean, they’re mostly just singing songs about sharing and gluing things to paper. The reason to pick one school versus another is how comfortable you feel letting these people take daily custody of your kid. You want a place that shares your basic values and priorities — and will pick other parents you can stand to be around.

That’s one part of the puzzle I didn’t anticipate when we were first looking at schools. When your kid is in preschool, you see these parents constantly: at birthday parties, at fundraisers, at playdates and parking lots. So you really hope they’re not annoying. It’s another reason you want to spend a lot of time talking to parents when picking a school — to get a sense what kinds of families go there.

And finally, despite everything I’ve said above, you need to remember that where your kid goes to preschool will not make or break her life. In fact, it’s possible to change schools if the first one doesn’t work out.