It’s PreSchool Daze for Parents

New York Post

By Laura Williams
March 01, 2001

THOUSANDS of angst-ridden Manhattan parents are nervously awaiting letters from the country’s most prestigious schools due to arrive this month. End of the college admissions process? Not exactly. These kids are barely out of diapers. The admissions process to some of the city’s private nursery schools and kindergarten programs has become so competitive that well-to-do Manhattanites are prepared to do almost anything to get their children into top schools. “I have no idea how this whole thing is going to turn out,” says the mother of a soon-to-be kindergartner who’s facing the nail-biting wait for the results. She asked not be named in case it affected her child’s chances. “You realize that it’s really not your choice. I’ve done everything I can do. Am I confident? I have no idea what to think,” she says.

Sometimes the push to get their kids into the city’s top schools can start before the child is even born. “I get calls from people who are pregnant,” said Elaine Vipler, who runs School Consultants on Private Education, which helps New York parents navigate the private school admissions process. “There is that much anxiety about this.” Deborah Ashe, director of admissions for the Lower School of the Trevor Day School – where several hundred students applied this year for 30 kindergarten spots – said some parents are so desperate, they supply résumés for their nursery school applicants. “Two-year-olds don’t have a transcript, although some parents send résumés – everything the child has done since birth,” Ashe said. “That’s the anxiety.” Why are parents putting so much stock in schooling for their toddlers and kindergartners? After all, most experts agree 3-year-olds can thrive in all kinds of early childhood settings.

It’s partly because some parents believe that where their kids go to nursery school can determine whether they end up in an Ivy League university – and they’re are willing to pay the $15,000 to $20,000 a year for their toddlers’ tuition to give them the best start. Trevor Day School, for example, charges $14,550 for pre-kindergarten and Chapin School charges $17,650 for kindergarten. Most of these schools offer some form of financial aid. “There are those who envision one golden road to Yale,” says Catherine Hausman, co-author of “The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools.” It’s also because such private schools as Dalton, Calhoun and Trinity have a lot of cache in status-obsessed Manhattan. “The inevitable question at any New York City social event is ‘Do you have children?’ And the follow-up question is ‘Where do they go to school?'” says one Upper East Side mother. “Some names just roll off the tongue more easily.

“I remember mentioning at a party that my child went to the Multi Media Preschool. A little while later, a woman turned to me and said, ‘What’s the name of the school? Metro Media?’ It was insulting because it was obvious if it was one of the prestigious, well-known nursery schools, she wouldn’t have forgotten the name.” Although a few parents start planning before conception, the push for nursery school starts in earnest when the child is 2, as most nurseries start with 3-year-olds. Some parents hire consultants – at up to $300 an hour – to help them through the application process. The first step is just getting an application – not an easy task. “Schools open their phone lines the day after Labor Day, and either their phone system collapses or they have to put a message on the machine at about noon saying they’ve already given out more applications than they can process,” Hausman says. All Souls School, a nursery on the Upper East side, uses a lottery system to deal with the onslaught of calls the Tuesday after Labor Day, and mails just 150 applications for 60 spots.

If parents do manage to score an application, they’re in for a grueling, months-long process. Manhattan’s private schools require entrance tests for kindergarten and interviews for both nursery school and kindergarten. One Upper East Side mom, who also asked not to be named, says she could “could not even calculate” the amount of time she’s spent trying to get her daughter enrolled in kindergarten for the upcoming school year. She’s applied to a dozen schools, which means a dozen interviews. The applications include essay questions for the parents to write on topics like: “How would your child spend a free hour?” “What are your child’s special interests, talents, abilities and disabilities?” Parents must also answer questions about their own education, profession and financial status. Then come the interviews, which for the toddlers consist of “observed play.” “I don’t know what to think about it,” the mother says of her 5-year-old daughter’s performance during her interviews. “These people at the schools are well-mannered enough not to make gagging faces when they meet your child. They don’t give you any indication.”

Of course, the child’s mood, crankiness level and behavior is usually out of the parent’s hands. “You just pray they don’t have a tantrum or an ear infection,” says Hausman, who has three kids of her own. “They’re going to behave the way 2-year-olds behave – whine, cry, throw blocks, steal crayons. There’s no way you can control the process.” She recalls one admissions director who told a parent: “Your child did take a crayon from another child, and we frown on that.’ The kid was 21/2!” Four and 5-year-old kindergarten applicants must take an entrance exam, the ERB, which is mostly answering spoken questions and figuring out puzzles. Again, there’s little parents can do to prepare, though some buy games and puzzles designed to get their kids used to the ERB. Some also hire tutors – which is a big no-no. “Tutoring for the ERB is the worst thing you can do,” says Nina Bauer, who runs IvyWISEKIDS, a school consulting business. “If schools find out, they throw out the application.” The competition for private nursery schools and kindergartens is tougher than ever mainly because New York has finally become a desirable place to raise a family, says Hausman.

Also, she says, because “parents have sunk so much money into their apartments and lifestyle, they feel they are entitled to a wonderful nursery school. Any service in New York can be bought and paid for, except admission to private school and that’s hard to swallow for powerhouse parents.” Experts say parents should take a deep breath and trust that most kids end up in a good school, even if it’s not their first choice. “You have to be flexible and open-minded,” says Nancy Schulman, director of the 92nd Street Y preschool. “I think parents are unaware that a good early childhood program can take many forms. So just relax. It certainly is not going to have any impact on the rest of your life.” That’s cold comfort for panicked parents awaiting acceptance – and rejection – letters.