• Ready or Not

    A Local Mom Walks Parents Through The Preschool Admissions Process



    Ah, summertime in New York, when a parent’s fancy turns to preschool admissions! At least that was the case for this non-native Manhattan mama two Aprils ago when I realized I’d better get wise to the whole “process” for my 16-month-old son, Charlie, before Labor Day…or else. Indeed, I wasn’t really sure what the “or else” was. Applying to an older 2’s program for one’s toddler just seemed to be one of those slightly over-the-top things New Yorkers did in exchange for the privilege of living in the city.

    So that spring and summer of 2006, while I was pregnant with my second child and barely able to make it through a day with Charlie, who’d morphed, seemingly overnight, from a lovely gentle soul of a baby into a whiny, demanding, unpleasant troll of a toddler, I began to educate myself on applying to preschool. I bought the bible on the subject, “The Manhattan Directory of Private Nursery Schools,” by Victoria Goldman, but every time I started to so much as crack it open, I’d throw up. To be fair, every time I started to do, oh, just about anything that spring and summer, I’d throw up, so I don’t think there was any actual correlation between the book and my tendency to lose my lunch.

    I don’t, unfortunately, have any tried-and-true tips for banishing morning sickness, and believe me, I tried them all. What I do have for you is a primer on what you can do to get started on the whole preschool admissions process. Since the extent of my experience is the mere half year I spent trying to get Charlie into preschool without losing my mind, I also talked to a number of bona fide preschool experts to see what practical advice they had to share. There is no magic formula of course, but a little knowledge will go a long way towards getting yourself prepared and empowering you during the process.

    Do Your Research:

    “For people who are totally clueless,” says Lydia Spinelli, director of The Brick Church School, “I think the Parents League is a good resource.” Order the “New York Independent Schools Directory” from them and attend their programs about preschool admissions. Contact them in the spring because, unfortunately, they are closed all summer (www.parentsleague.org; 212-737-7385).

    Likewise, read “The Manhattan Directory of Private Nursery Schools.” “It’s the only book that simply has everything in it,” says Gabriella Rowe, director of Mandell School. “Whether you agree with the little writeups or you disagree, it doesn’t matter as much as just having a comprehensive, geographical list of the schools that are out there.” Another book to add to your reading list is “Practical Wisdom for Parents: Demystifying the Preschool Years,” by Nancy Schulman and Ellen Birnbaum, the director and associate director, respectively, of the 92nd Street Y Nursery School. This just came out last summer, but I wish I’d had it when I was applying to preschool, because there is a terrific chapter devoted entirely to the admissions process (not to mention it being a wonderfully wise book in general).

    Surf the Internet. “School websites are the best place to start…and are the most up-to-date medium at this point,” advises Donna Cohen, director of Claremont Children’s School. Also check out the Independent School Admission Association of Greater New York (ISAAGNY) website: www.isaagny.org.

    “Talk to friends,” says Wendy Levey, director of Epiphany Community Nursery School. “See what other people have done.” But learn to separate fact from fiction. “Try not to listen to too much of the gossip…because that can just get you very anxious and, of course, you don’t always know the whole story when someone tells you a horror story about a school,” says Victoria Ruffalo, director of Woodside Preschool. “I don’t want to say don’t listen, because you have to listen. But listen carefully.”

    Get Organized:

    Although most preschools follow the same guidelines in terms of when they make applications available and when they send out acceptance letters, they are all over the board when it comes to application deadlines and requirements, as well as dates for open houses, parent tours, and child interviews. To figure out where you need to be when and to avoid missing something crucial, I strongly recommend putting together a master schedule. “Staying on top of dates and staying organized is really critical,” says Roxana Reid, founder of Smart City Kids, one of the city’s premier school admissions consultants. “Really, the worst thing that can happen is that you miss out on applying to schools because you haven’t really timed yourself and given the process the level of time it really needs.”

    The first date to circle on your calendar is the Tuesday immediately after Labor Day. A handful of schools have their applications online. Many, however, still reserve this date as the only day they give out applications. You must actually call, get through to a live person, and request an application that way. Enlist the help of your spouse, your mother, or a friend who owes you big time and hit those redial buttons until you get through. No matter how long it ends up taking and no matter how annoyed you are as a result, be nice to whoever finally takes your call. Also, it’s really important to start early, by 9 am, because a number of popular schools are out of applications by noon.

    Cast Your Net Wide, At Least Initially:

    You may be tempted, odds being what they are, to apply to every single preschool in Manhattan to ensure your child’s acceptance somewhere. Or you may only want to apply to the one preschool that’s located directly across the street from your apartment. Try not to give in to either extreme. Reid recommends eight as a target number to which to apply. This, incidentally, was how many we applied to for Charlie (even if it was more schools than either my husband or I applied to for college).

    You usually have to apply before you’ve barely even heard of, much less set foot inside, a school, so consider a diverse range. That’s the only way you’ll figure out what you really like, what you can live with, what you simply can’t stomach, and most importantly, where you think your child will thrive and be happy. “There are a lot of good early childhood schools in New York City, and parents should make sure they apply to a range of schools in terms of how hard they are to get into, how competitive they are,” Spinelli says. Claudine Zamor, director of Admissions at Beginnings Nursery School, agrees. “I encourage parents to look at a variety of schools. Don’t just look at the top three schools that get all the buzz, because that’s going to make it that much harder.”

    Decide What’s Most Important For You And Your Child:

    “Families, before they go in to visit any school, should think a little bit about what preschool or what early childhood education means to them and answer some basic questions for themselves,” says Rowe. My husband and I tried to keep an open mind as we went through the process with Charlie. We eventually found ourselves gravitating towards schools in our Upper West Side neighborhood that struck a happy balance between free play and more structured time, boasted a high teacher-to-child ratio, and had not guaranteed all of their morning slots to siblings.

    Relax. Breathe. Be Yourself:

    “It’s not that it is ‘hard’ to get in. The situation is that there aren’t enough spots,” Cohen remarks. “We find ourselves turning away many, many wonderful families, not because their approach wasn’t the right one, but because we don’t have the spots. Bottom line: always just be yourself.”

    Don’t treat the child interview like an audition. The schools couldn’t care less if your child can recite the alphabet in five different languages or name every single kind of car ever made in chronological order by make and model. They really just want to meet you and meet your child and see how you interact with each other. “Be real,” Ruffalo advises. “Schools are just happy with real, down-to-earth people. You don’t have to be anything special. To me, that is what’s special. I’m impressed with someone who is not that assuming and who is enjoying their little child and looking for a community to be part of.”

    Be Flexible:

    So let’s say that you do everything that you’re supposed to do and your child gets into preschool, but you can’t help feeling a bit let down when it’s all over and done with because…you didn’t get into your first choice. Or you wanted the morning instead of the afternoon. Or the school is kind of a hike to get to. “Don’t get stuck in ‘I only want…’ ” says Levey. “It’s not a perfect world. Decide what you can live with and what you can’t, and go from there.” Schulman adds, “Although it feels like this is the most important decision parents face, there is not one school that is the best school for any child or family, but many high-quality programs that provide a great beginning to a child’s education.”

    Last September, Charlie started preschool two mornings a week. His greatest achievements to date have been learning to sit his little Mexican jumping bean butt down on his mat for longer than 30 seconds during circle time and—after an entire month of clinging to my leg like a spider monkey and going into full hysterics if I so much as stepped one foot outside his classroom—not crying when I drop him off.

    The little embryo who distracted me so much from my preschool research two springs ago is now a feisty bundle of energy named Vivi who is giving her older brother a run for his money and who just celebrated her first birthday. As much as we bemoaned the unfairness of all the morning slots being filled by siblings when we were applying, we are hoping to fully take advantage of the sibling policy when Vivi starts preschool in 2009.


    Going Public

    Universal Pre-Ks Are Soaring In Popularity, But Getting In Is Far From Guaranteed

    First the good news: there are many excellent and free Pre-K programs run by local public schools or community-based organizations. They are not for everyone, and especially not for families who are intent on ultimately sending their kids to private school and would therefore benefit from the admissions guidance offered by private nursery schools. Also, most public Pre-K programs (otherwise known as Universal Pre-Ks) are offered only for the year before kindergarten, while most private nursery schools now start when children are two. But a good public Pre-K can help ready children for both the social and academic aspects of grade school while potentially saving parents thousands of dollars that they might have spent on private nursery school.

    This year, the city implemented a new system for applying to neighborhood Pre-Ks, which gives priority to families who are either zoned for the school or already have a child there. By many accounts, there are not nearly enough spots for everyone who is interested, and there are kinks to work out in the application process.

    To get educated about public Pre-K programs, review the related articles and resources at insideschool.org and on the Department of Education website (schools.nyc.gov), and of course speak to parents with children in the programs you’re interested in.%uFFFD —Eric Messinger