Last Friday was the first day of the initial four-week registration period for Boston Public Schools, and at the Campbell Resource Center behind the Burger King on Dorchester Avenue, that meant it was the busiest day of the year.
Hundreds of parents - some with their prospective student in tow - packed the center's second-floor classrooms to sign up for the 2008-2009 school year. Among them were a certain four year-old boy and his Reporter father, toting a manila folder filled with immunization charts, birth certificates, and household bills to prove said four-year old's eligibility.
Many over-anxious parents who are new to the system- including yours truly - had no clue that signing up on day one of this registration period offered absolutely no advantage in the school selection process. My precocious preschooler will go into the same pool of applicants as thousands of others who sign up between now and February. Hopefully, he'll win a coveted spot in one of Dorchester's better K-8 schools, though - for K-1 prospects such as my son - there is no guarantee.
On Monday and Tuesday, the crush of Friday morning had been replaced by an easy-going trickle. Gone too were the stressed-out faces of BPS personnel who no longer had to talk down equally stressed-out parents who mistakenly thought they were contestants on "The Amazing Race."
Christine Hill, director of enrollment services for BPS, explained that the frenzy that of first day is the same every year.
"We have people lining up outside before we open to be the first in the door," says Hill, who spends her first weeks of the new year managing the various registration spots across the city. "They feel it's like first-come, first-serve. Like it's Filene's Basement or something."
"Some people just always have to be first," agrees Valerie Amis, who has worked at the Campbell for the last four years.
Guilty as charged.
Get yourself online
At least I did one thing right in my over- eagerness: Two days before showing up to the Campbell Center, I went online to the BPS website  and pre-registered my first-born, filling out a simple questionnaire and then, numbering our top choices for local schools, which will be decided by lottery. Pre-registering online definitely saved time. We'll get a letter from the school department in March to let us know which school he can attend in the BPS system.
Pre-registration doesn't substitute for a face-to-face meeting at the Campbell or another of the BPS's parent centers, however. All new parents must stop by so BPS officials can check documents, make sure medical records are up to date, and get proof of Boston residency. In a somewhat surprising testament to the improving quality of the BPS, Hill said enrollment specialists regularly find suburban parents trying to sneak their little ones into Boston schools. Go figure.
When you go, make sure all the documents needed are in hand. Hill says that much of the frustration experienced is because parents arrive without the required docs. They include a copy of your property deed, lease or rental agreement; a birth certificate or passport (depending on the age of your child); a recent utility bill (not a Boston Water & Sewer bill); and your child's updated immunization records. Check for a full and up to date list of required information at bostonpublicshools.org/register .
My son's pediatrician was prompt and helpful in providing a document with all of his recorded shots. One glitch: My four year-old hadn't received two of the required shots, his final polio and measles/mumps vaccinations. An official note from the physician might have also resolved the matter, if the vaccinations couldn't be had before registering. But we got the shots done and resolved it for good last Friday. Once again, the crazy dad won out.
The online experience - for those who take the time - is also loaded with helpful information about the assignment process. Punch in your address and you get a full list of the schools that your child is eligible to attend. In our case, that meant 31 options in the East Zone, which includes Dorchester, Mattapan and South Boston. The BPS encourages each family to make at least five selections, in order of preference.
Which ones should you pick? That's a much tougher question. Most of the East Zone schools are presently in the middle of "preview time", when they schedule open houses for prospective parents and the larger community to check out their facilities and programs.
At the Emily Fifield Elementary School on Dunbar Ave., principal Craig Lankhorst hosts several such previews each year. The "big one", he says, is the annual Product Day, scheduled at the Fifield for Jan. 16 from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
"We combine tours with a product day where children will show what they have been working on so far this year. We also invite the parents of the kids at the school to see how we're moving towards proficiency."
All local schools will be hosting some version of this open house in the next week or two. But Lankhorst, who has headed up the Fifield for 13 years, says that many schools get competitive "in a positive way" as they make their case.
"Everybody wants to put their accomplishments forward. We want to point out what we're doing well and hopefully attract people," says Lankhorst. "At the Fifield, we're a combination of academic excellence, safety, and a variety of programming like a hiking club, ski club and individual music lessons."
A parental navigator
If the previews aren't convenient, or a much more experienced navigator is desired, look to someone like Kim Willingham. A Dorchester mom and BPS parent, Willingham is project manager of Y/BPS, a YMCA-based program aimed at counseling prospective and current parents on school choices. Willingham and her team hold workshops throughout the year to advise parents about the BPS system. She said some parents start their selection process while still in their pregnancy. For the rest of us, she said, it's never too late to start the research.
"We have this information. We don't say: 'Go to this school, it's the greatest.' Or, 'don't go to this school.' We do say: 'This is what we know about these schools, take a look at them.' And what we're finding is that parents are eager. They're excited to know what's out there and willing to give things a chance if they have someone to hold their hand through the process."
The program began five years ago in the BPS's West Zone (West Roxbury, Hyde Park and Roslindale) and has only recently begun to conduct outreach to Dorchester and Mattapan parents by partnering with youth and day care centers or hosting individual house parties.
"One of things that I've found is that people were not willing to try BPS because of reputation, maybe an experience they had 20 years ago. But interestingly, most of the people that we've talked to who were initially skeptical had not stepped foot in a BPS school. It's what they saw on the news, it was what they heard from a friend or a neighbor And so, all these stereotypes and assumptions people made about BPS, the teachers, the kids, are slowly melting away.
"Our biggest message is, 'Go take a look for yourself,' " Willingham says. "It doesn't mean you'll choose it, but at least you'll be more informed about what's out there."
Pre-register at the BPS website  (highly recommended)
Visit a Family Resource Center or special registration site. (An additional site will be set up at City Hall from Jan. 14 to Jan. 18 in Room 801.)
What to bring
At least three preprinted proofs of their current address in Boston (details at bostonpublicshools.org/register)
An original birth certificate (with raised seal) or passport for children registering for kindergarten (K0, K1, and K2) or grade 1.
Up-to-date immunization records.
For parents who have pre-registered online, printed confirmation.
Choose at least 5 schools on the application form.
There's still time to visit local schools for School Preview Time, through Jan. 18. Full schedule at bostonpublicshools.org/register 
Boston Public Schools hotline - 617-635-9046 BPS Website: bostonpublicshools.org/register