Parents Hire Help to Open School Doors
By Joanna Coles
December 4, 2000
It is Private School Application Time in New York, and as the closing date,a week on Friday, approaches, parents of toddlers are gripped with panic. The fact that Manhattan is now safer, and that more families are choosing to stay here instead of heading for the ‘burbs, means the number of nursery-age children has burgeoned. With standards at most state schools still lamentably low, competition for the limited places at the city’s private nursery schools is cut-throat. The pressure for places at the best schools – the so-called BabyIvies – has also been increased by hundreds of IVF twins and the influx of adopted Chinese girls, and by the “third child syndrome” in which families now feel that, thanks to the strong economy, they can afford a third baby.
Celebrity endorsements ratchet up the competition still further. The year after Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg sent her youngest child to All Souls on the East Side, the school received 1,500 applications for a mere 13 places. Facing these odds, many desperate parents reach for a hired gun – the Personal SchoolsConsultant. “It’s a very difficult time for parents right now and this is one of the worst years ever,” says Nina Bauer, of IvyWise, an experienced consultant in the nursery school market. “I help them to strategise their applications, I help them to feel more in control.” “Families come in and complain that if their son doesn’t go to a certain nursery school then he won’t get into Harvard,” says Jane E. Kolber, another consultant, who is currently inundated with parents trying to get their toddlers into the right programmes. “I deal with parents who are very fragile. It’s a very stressful time and they may get more aggressive than they should. It can be good to have someone else take the strain.”
Among Manhattan’s elite, where there are now 41,000 families worth more than $ 10 million each, a bellicose sense of entitlement abounds. Both consultants tell me that their clients can get doubly frustrated when they find that they are unable to buy their child a place at the Baby Ivy of their choice. “There are always parents who think you can throw money at it,” says Kolber. “I tell them you have to be pragmatic. If you are a multimillionaire, well, the word is usually passed through the system. You don’t want to be crass, you have to be tasteful. There’s a whole art to it.” Bauer agrees: “I tell people ‘For God’s sake don’t put a cheque in with the application form’. It may be better to ask someone else to mention it for you. Maybe they can tell a school board member that the school can expect you to be generous, both financially and with your time. You can’t mention it yourself, do it subtly. It’s got to be subtle. “Bauer charges about $ 600 for help with a nursery school application, and $1,500 for an elementary or middle school. “They can call me 24/7,” she says. Extra-demanding clients, some of whom call several times a day for weeks on end, are charged up to $300 an hour.
With a masters degree in early childhood education, Bauer is a former teacher at the prestigious Dalton school. Kolber is a former admissions director at the trendy downtown school, the Little Red School House. Both recommend applying to at least eight schools simultaneously. “You can’t just apply to three and hope you get in,” says Bauer. This makes for a time-consuming exercise. A theatre director friend of ours is currently in a state of nervous exhaustion having taken a week to fashion his four-year-old son’s application to Ethical Culture, a progressive school on Central Park West. The sticking point was a two-page letter parents were asked to write to their child from the future, pretending he was now 18, and explaining why they had chosen this school for him. “I don’t actually write the essays for them but I will help to edit and structure them,” says Bauer. “It’s a nerve-wracking process. And you can’t have a board member pull strings for you at every school!” Another friend, a publisher, jokes that he signed up one school principal to write a book to ensure his daughter would get a place. Consultants will also coach families for the all-important school interview. For nursery schools, the child is required to play with other children while observed through a one-way glass wall. Bauer says it is crucial to plan the separation. “I tell my parents when you drop the kid off, don’t rush off immediately, it’s OK to hang around. And tell them beforehand what is going to happen. You should tell them ‘You’re going to meet some new children and play this afternoon.’ And try to relax. Children are perceptive; if you are scared they will pick it up.”