Securing Preschool is No Easy Feat

USA Today

By Marco R. della Cava
August 27, 2002

Doug Russell can’t forget the biting cold. He and his grizzled companions were buried under blankets and huddled in sleeping bags. Only their red noses peeked out, sending plumes of steam into the December air.

“It was brutal,” he says.

With the dawn came the merciful sun. Feeling returned to his fingers and toes. Mission accomplished.

So you might be wondering: This Doug Russell — is he a special ops soldier recalling his winter in Afghanistan? An explorer back from the polar caps?

Nah. Doug is just a modern-day dad. And he merely joined dozens of other parents who spent the night on the sidewalk in hopes of securing a precious spot for their tyke at a popular Colorado preschool. Yes, kids. Preschool.

Proud parents across the USA will be dropping off their wee ones next week for a bit of play and maybe a few minutes of French. Romper Room this isn’t: Many of the more desirable preschools offer computer courses and reading regimens, a response to a rash of studies suggesting that early-years education, up to age 4, helps form the building blocks of learning. School spots are limited; competition is fierce.

“We’ve got a new population of parents who are very achievement-oriented,” says Miriam Arond, editor of Child magazine, which recently ran a father’s first-person account of his preschool-search blues. “They’re very results-driven and want success for their kids. That often means a great preschool.”

Behold parentus new centurius, a fearsome provider who, in quest of exquisite tutelage for its young, has been known to offer school directors home-cooked desserts and deals on home improvement projects, or to send in sexy spouses to schmooze, or to offer to buy the preschool, say, a new playground.

It’s not unheard of for parents to solicit letters of recommendation from stellar friends or get coaching on how to put the family’s best face forward in admission interviews. And all this for an experience that can cost $12,000 a year. Regardless of whether that sum makes you yawn or take a second job, the race is on from coast to coast.

“Basically, you get on the waiting list in utero,” says Susan Raczka, owner of Ice Cream and Shoe Preschool in Terra Linda, Calif., just north of San Francisco.

“I’ve had people on the couch crying. One woman told me her husband was in construction and could help with projects.” Raczka sighs. “Many parents seem almost afraid at the prospect of not getting the very best for their kids.”

To be sure, there are plenty of moms and dads — most of them calling cities far smaller than Los Angeles and New York home — for whom this tale will elicit nothing but incredulous snickers.

“Are you serious?” asks Kelly Wittman, a mom in Marquette, Mich., who pays $56 a month for her young son’s education. “It’s preschool, for goodness’ sake!”

For others, fighting to fork over thousands so little Connor and Isabelle can have a place to stimulate their brains is unavoidable.

“Is it insane? Sure,” says sidewalk camper Russell, whose enterprise nabbed a position for 4-year-old son Tracy at the vaunted Auraria Child Development Center in Aurora, Colo.

“Would I do it all again? Not without stopping at (outdoor outfitters) REI first,” he jokes. “Look, when I was a kid, there was no preschool. You’d go to the neighbors’ and watch TV. But these days, if you don’t start a kid early, there’s a feeling they’ll be left behind.”

This new cultural chapter deserves a preface.

For ages, each new fall semester meant that children tackled peer pressure while parents worried about their kids’ future in academia. When baby boomers were growing up, that typically meant considering which colleges might fill the bill. But as each subsequent decade brought Americans more affluence and education, the competition got stiffer, and the preoccupation shifted downward. Soon, the right high school seemed crucial. Then grade school. Now preschool is the battleground.

Why the crush? Simply put: not enough room at the nursery. Though few keep detailed statistics on this age group, the available numbers are revealing.

According to the Census Bureau, there are 19.5 million Americans who are age 4 or younger. There are about 100,000 preschools nationwide with state licenses; of those, only 6,000 are accredited by the non-profit National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington, D.C., which ensures that schools meet basic educational standards.

“The gyrations that people go through reflect the lack of good options open to them,” says Barbara Willer, the association’s deputy executive director. She notes that in 1965, about 5% of 3-year-olds attended preschool; now, closer to 50% do. Today, 2-year-olds often have the option of preschool classes, highlighting how deep the early-learning vein goes.

Don’t hold your breath for an uptick in the number of preschools. Experts cite factors such as certification, real estate costs and low teacher salaries (on average, $16,000 annually) as obstacles.

One exception is Creme de la Creme, a Denver-based chain of preschools. (Web site motto: “Excellence starts early.”) Next year, the chain will expand from five to 10 locations nationwide. “Despite the tough economic climate, demand is increasing,” Creme CEO Bruce Karpas says. Creme’s toddler curriculum includes foreign languages and computer studies. The sum of these forces can be a feverish family atmosphere that can harm kids, some experts say.

“We’ve all been sold this idea that we can help our kids be perfect, and that that has to do with great early schooling,” says child education expert Elisabeth Guthrie, who with Kathy Matthews wrote The Trouble With Perfect: How Parents Can Avoid the Overachievement Trap and Still Raise Successful Children.

“But there are two potential negative side effects here,” she says. “One, the child can sense the tension the parents feel and as a result become anxious and inhibited, the opposite of what a toddler should feel. And two, the parent can become disappointed. Not in the child. But, because they didn’t get the kid into a great school, they feel the world won’t see how special their child is.”

Her advice? “Go have four more kids,” she quips. “With only one child, all your eggs are in that basket. That’s a huge burden on them. For some parents, it’s a case of good intentions gone bad.”

So, you can have more kids and relax (so to speak). Or you can call Nina Bauer of New York’s ivyWISE Kids. For $4,000, she’s available to you for a full year, day or night, ready to dispense her expertise on how to get your kid into preschool. Crazy? Not if you know what it’s like to crack Manhattan’s more coveted preschools, such as the one at the 92nd Street Y.

“The day after Labor Day, most preschools take calls from parents who want applications for the following fall,” Bauer says. “Well, most people I know set up calling ‘teams’ who call constantly. There are only a few hundred applications available for each school, for a few dozen spots. By 11 a.m. that day, they’re all out.”

While ivyWISE Kids, which also offers assistance with grade school and high school searches, doesn’t get you dinner at the preschool director’s house, it does help you identify which schools might suit your kid, and it coaches you on parent interview etiquette. One approach gives Bauer pause. Because many New York preschools are offshoots of prestigious grade and high schools, admission at age 3 can mean a child is set for the next 15 years. So some parents hope money talks.

“I have people say, ‘What kind of a check can I write?’ ” Bauer says. “I tell them nicely that approach usually backfires. But the truth is, many parents here would pay triple what the school wants. That’s how desperate things are.” When the going gets desperate, the desperate get creative.

Dahlia Neiss did get her daughter, August, into a popular preschool in Washington, D.C.’s tony Georgetown. But the numbers who were turned away led year to start the Blue Igloo Playgroup last year, a cooperative preschool that requires a parent or nanny to attend with the child.

“What I find encouraging is that most parents aren’t in this to get their kids into Harvard down the road. There’s real interest in the child’s development,” says Neiss, whose 50 slots were snapped up fast through word of mouth. “But it does get insane out there.”

Business terms resonate with David Hall, a sales and marketing executive from Delray Beach, Fla. His efforts to get 2-year-old Jaxson into a good local preschool have him waxing practical.

“For us, this is a challenge of due diligence. If you don’t do the work, you won’t get the result,” he says. “It’s not stressful, and I don’t think the system is diabolical. Much like a parent with a kid going off to college, this search is my hobby.”

For the past eight months, academically lauded Unity School has been Hall’s target. Besides filing applications and expressing unreserved interest, he joined the town’s chamber of commerce for enhanced networking.

He and his wife, Daryl, are hoping for the best for September 2003. If that admission envelope brings good news, the Halls will do whatever it takes — “garage sales, family assistance; heck, we’ll even baby sit,” David says — to raise the $10,000 annual tuition.

“When I first heard the price, well, of course, I felt like throwing up,” he jokes. “But then I just got used to reality.”