Little girl raising hand to answer teacher's question(Photo: Mark Bowden\Getty Images)

When Lisa Altenberg Hershaft and her husband Marc moved from the Milwaukee suburbs to Fairfax, Va., a few years ago, they needed to find a good preschool for their young son, Jordan, and his baby sister, Celia.

"I wanted to get them into a place that would have a good social setting so they'd be involved with other kids," Lisa recalls. "I also wanted a place that wasn't enormous, with teachers who weren't apathetic, and an environment that was creative, where they didn't necessarily have to start doing academics right away."

It seemed like a reasonable list of attributes, ones that any parent might want in a preschool, but as Lisa quickly discovered, finding such a place wasn't easy. Many facilities were full, and others just weren't quite right. The fact that the Hershafts were new to the area didn't make the search any easier, and while Lisa spent plenty of time researching the topic, many of the websites she found were far from comprehensive.

"It was definitely frustrating," she says. "You'd call the schools and they didn't have openings. You want to find the best place for your child, but it's tricky, especially when you move to a new location and you have no idea what's around you."

A nice teacher is not enough

Lisa's experience is not unusual. Millions of parents nationwide face the same dilemma when they look for just the right preschool, kindergarten or even grade school for their young children. In the preschool universe alone, an often bewildering array of choices are available, including federally funded Head Start programs, facilities affiliated with particular faiths, state-funded preschools, government-funded special education programs and for-profits and nonprofits.

"It can be very daunting, especially if someone is new to an area or if they're in a community with a lot of choices," says Karissa Sparks, a spokeswoman for GreatSchools.org, a nonprofit website dedicated to helping parents find good schools. "There are a lot of resources available but it can be confusing if you've never navigated those before."

Parents, Sparks says, "know academics are important. But they don't always know how to interpret the information that's available out there, or what other questions they could be asking. There are so many other concerns, like transportation, teacher quality and bullying."

Sparks recalled one mother who liked a school because the teachers were "nice." "One of our directors told her, 'Nice is not enough.' That was a big a-ha moment for her," she says.

"The bar is rising for what kids need in terms of a complete education," Sparks adds. "Kids need academics at a high level. They also need environments where they can learn, where there's social and emotional learning going on. They need to be challenged. And they need extracurricular activities. Those are the things we get them to consider."