Rethinking Nursery and Private School Admissions

Epiphany Community Nursery School

An unexpected detour happened at the start of our roundtable on nursery and private school admissions in the city. I came with the intention of moderating a panel on nuts-and-bolts matters like application timelines and school interviews. But the distinguished panel of school directors and admissions consultants had a much better idea. Instead, they mostly wanted to talk about educational value, because they know that there are many parents out there who are beginning to question whether it’s all worth it—whether the costs and uncertainties of raising children in the city are beginning to outweigh the delights and conveniences of city life.

Whether it’s accurate or not, for years the specter of there being too few openings at city nursery schools and private schools has been the source of much anxiety among interested parents. And, more recently, that anxiety has been compounded for many by tuition prices. There are popular nursery schools that now charge $25,000 or more per year, and private school tuition at many schools is circling at or near $40,000.

Is your pulse racing yet? The panel had a lot to say about all of this—and I also got a few insider tips out of them as well.

Meet The Panelists:

Moderator: Eric Messinger, New York Family
Terri Decker, Smart City Kids
Wendy Levey, Epiphany Community Nursery School
Gabriella Rowe, The Mandell School
Nancy Schulman, Avenues
Sharon Shorofsky Mack, JCP Downtown

Eric Messinger: I know that stories about school admissions can seem old hat to all of you, but please keep in mind that for new parents thinking about raising kids in the city, the information and perspective is really valued. And they especially appreciate hearing it from people like you, on the front lines.

Gabriella Rowe: We have to acknowledge that for the last four to five years, many parents have had a rough go of it in New York City and everywhere else. And I feel like we spend so much time talking about the process and how difficult it is that more and more young parents are deciding to bow out—to move elsewhere—just as they’re getting started. For the first time this year, I feel like I’ve talked to a lot of young parents who say: “You know what, I’m moving to New Jersey or Westchester—not because I have to, but because I’m just tired and I haven’t even started yet. I feel like the deck is so stacked against me, and I’d rather put my efforts into something else rather than this crazy process.”

Wendy Levey: But I feel like they’ve been hearing it from other parents who are starting out rather than the schools themselves.

Sharon Shorofsky Mack: They keep hearing about the process instead of the results. My sense is that 99 percent of people, when asked a year later, end up being very happy with their schools, even in those cases where they didn’t end up with their first choice.

Rowe: I agree. So the question is how we get them to hear that rather than all the crazy stories about the process.

Levey: I feel like it’s our job to paint the picture—to let parents know that there’s your kind of school, and my kind of school, and many other kinds of schools and options—and you really need to be thinking about the kind of school you want for your family.

Rowe: But if the underlining message is still that it might be hard because there are so many people going through it at the same time, then it might be time for us to nuance the message, to let people know more about what a great experience it is, and also to let them know that it’s easier to get into preschool today than it was five years ago. There are more options, other new schools.

Levey: Depending on where you live, I don’t think it’s that easy. But going back to Gabriella’s original point, I would argue that with all that’s going on in the world, nursery school can serve an even greater purpose for parents. I’m stunned, for example, at how many alumni families still participate in our book clubs and other aspects of the school. And it’s because of the kinds of friends they made in nursery school and how important it was to them—how much those friendships are still important to them. That’s the value right there. It’s community.

Shorofsky Mack: I think many people begin the process thinking they’re going to trust their own instincts, and then the process pulls that away from them. But if they stick to their gut—and not let others’ experiences influence them—then they’ll be fine.

Messinger: I think the instinct to talk about value is a good one. What does everyone see as the most special aspects of the nursery school experience?

Levey: For me, it’s the most significant time in a young family’s life. It’s the “it takes a village” time…when everybody supports each other in the most unbelievable way because people often don’t have extended families that are around, so they need their new family, which turns out, in many cases, to be their preschool friends.

Nancy Schulman: I agree that the sense of community and the friends that are made is the most important thing—and they’re often long-lasting. The other piece of this, especially for 3-year-olds, is that this is the first time you’ll learn how to be part of a community, to be in school, to understand how you’re one of many. That’s not done as much in K anymore, so this becomes where you learn how to focus and take turns and be part of a learning community.

Shorofsky Mack: I would add to that the cultivation of skills such as perseverance and the ability to problem solve as well as the development of many interests. These are all building blocks for life.

Rowe: To me, it’s the first time that parents are given the tools to understand their child as a learner. I recently went through another admissions process with my oldest son, who wanted to look at boarding schools. And the interesting thing was I kept going back to who he was in preschool more than any other time—what are his weaknesses and strengths; what kind of environment is he going to thrive in—and I really thought that my understanding of who he is as a learner came out of my preschool experience with him. Parents get to see their kids in so many different environments—birthday parties, play dates, their grandparent’s home—but the one place where they really get to see them as learners is in preschool, with teachers with training in early education, who can help parents better understand their children as learners and thus be better able to support them and advocate for them now and in the years ahead. It’s exceptional.

Shorofsky Mack: It’s the most significant time in the education process, essentially, when the whole family is together with the school in a partnership on behalf of the child.

Schulman: Later on, it’s different because it’s supposed to be different. Everyone has to take a step back to create an age-appropriate environment. But that’s what’s so precious about nursery school: Everyone’s involved, everyone’s sharing what they know.

Terri Decker: It’s very much a family experience. One of the most common questions we get asked is: “How do I know what kind of school is right for my child’s learning style?” And I’m like, “Look, your kid is 15 months old. It’s hard to say what your child’s learning style is.” So instead of focusing on that, we help parents choose schools that they’re going to be comfortable with, because they’re going to be part of that community too. Parents are going to have preferences. Before we come up with a suggested list of schools, we talk with parents about their own educational experiences—good and bad, what they remember working for them and what didn’t work for them—because, chances are, that’s what’s most influencing their thinking now.

Levey: And that’s all on the front end. Later on, because we end up knowing the child so well, we can advise parents really well on the next steps to kindergarten and beyond, making sure they’re aware of all the schools that are well-suited to their child’s learning style (not just the three schools they already knew about).

Shorofsky Mack: Which circles back, though, to the message we’re sending parents, right? Here’s the dilemma: We’re trying to say, “don’t worry so much, it’s going to work out,” on the one hand, but on the other hand, there are all these great things that happen in nursery school—so how can parents not be concerned about where their child gets in? If this is a really important part of your child’s development, why shouldn’t a parent worry about how the next step is going to turn out?

Schulman: I think the answer is that there are so many different ways for it to be okay. There is no one right school for a child.

JCP Downtown

Rowe: I’m also worried about how the pressure doesn’t seem to go away once they’re in nursery school. I worry about parents not enjoying these years as much as they should because they feel so much pressure about applying for kindergarten. I am so tired of having a parent of a 16-month-old child coming in to me to talk about ERBs [the IQ exams used by many private schools] and ex-missions [i.e., applying to ongoing schools]. So at our welcome get together this year for new parents, I said, “I’m going to tell you that that these are some of the most precious and beautiful years that you’re ever going to have with your children.” I wish we could find a way to package [the nursery experience] that says, “Yes, it’s hard but it’s amazing. These are amazing years.”

Shorofsky Mack: It’s all about how they chose to go through the experience. Parents have a lot of control in these years. They have a lot of input into what it’s going to be like for themselves and for their child.

Levey: I always tell them that it’s a dinner party, and if they come for three years, they have a really fabulous time. If they come for hors d’oeuvres and get the lay of the land, that’s the 2s, then 3s is the main course and 4s is the dessert. And if they stay for the whole meal, they get a lot of benefits out of it… Another important piece of it is the parents are calmer if the head of the school is kind of Mother Hen-y—solicitous to the parents, in tune with the spirit of this time.

Schulman: Because the early child director is such a critical part of the experience, I would put it this way: If you have a strong negative feeling for that person, then walk away. If you don’t feel you could go to that person with a family problem, don’t apply there.

Levey: Also, as educators, there are more things we can be doing to make the process less crazy for parents. For example, for ongoing schools [i.e. private schools, K and up], summer birthday policies are very confusing. Different schools have different unwritten policies about whether they’ll accept children with July or August birthdays, and it creates a lot of anxiety because there isn’t a definite answer.

Messinger: Can’t ISAAGNY (the Independent School Admissions Association of Greater New York) set a standard?

Schulman: They can’t because the schools are independent, so how they set their admissions deadlines and whether they adhere to them or not is up to them.

Messinger: In talking about relieving the pressure of applying to private school, shouldn’t we bring up the fact that there are good neighborhood public schools, often in the neighborhoods of people who are interested in private schools?

Rowe: Absolutely, there are great public schools.

Levey: When I start my ex-missions with my parents in the summer before the 4’s year, the first thing I say to them is: “What public school are you zoned for? Go look at that school, know that school.” And then there are all the G&Ts [i.e., gifted and talented public school programs].

Decker: We encourage parents to think of their zone school as a serious option. More and more of what we’re doing is helping parents with their public school options as well as their private school options.

Rowe: Many of the families in my school have two or three children—so if you have more than one child and they’re all going to nursery school and you’re interested in possibly sending them all to private school, and you don’t make, like, half a million dollars a year, it’s really hard. I feel like there’s even more pressure now because not only are [parents] worried about getting in, they’re worried more and more about [being] able to afford it.

I had three families who got into private school this year, and, because of sudden changes in their lives financially—they lost their jobs—they had to suddenly scramble to figure out their zone schools. And we tell them at the very beginning: Make sure you know your public options. They had already accepted their private school offers and paid their deposits…. That’s three families in one year. With everything that’s transpired in the city in the last few years, you need to be flexible about looking at all of the options because you just don’t know what’s going to happen.

Messinger: My children, 9 and 13, are both in public school, but when they were younger and we were looking around and doing our research, my wife and I were in disagreement on whether it would be okay to send one to private and one to public. In other words, do you do what’s best for each one, depending on their needs and the kind of schools they get into? Or, if you send one to private school, do you have to send the other to private school because otherwise it would seem unfair?

Rowe: I tell families: If you have a child who, based on their learning style and who they are, needs the small classroom and needs the attention they can get in private school, that’s one good scenario; but if the other child could test into a G&T or be really successful and happy in a good zoned school with a slightly larger class size, because she’s a self-starter, that’s another good scenario. That’s a conversation we have with parents all the time, and it’s a hard decision to ask parents to make because of the guilt factor.

Levey: I had boy twins this year, both of whom were outstanding, maybe the smartest boy twins I ever had. And you know me—I love twins, I have oodles of them. The family had some financial concerns about applying to private school. But the mother’s brother had gone to one of the all-boys schools in the city, and it’s a school that is known for taking care of their families, so I encouraged them to apply there. And they also applied to some public G&T programs, thinking that if one son got in, then maybe they could swing one in private school. The all-boys school ended up taking them both of on full scholarships. And you know those boys are going to thrive and give back.

Rowe: That’s a great story, of course, but how many times is that going to happen? Based on what I heard at a number of recent ISAAGNY meetings, there are a number of smaller K-8 and K-12 schools that are taking real hits beginning in 3rd and 4th grade—I would go so far as to say that the schools are hemorrhaging students, who are moving out of the city. Which brings me back to my concern around admissions and how we, as an educational community, can better transmit those messages about the true value of the experience and the education. Lately, I feel like I’m counseling parents less about where they’re applying and more on the sheer stress of it all.

Messinger: It sounds like we’re talking about money here, yes? Can institutions like yourselves could keep the focus on education but make do with lesser facilities and cut your prices?

Rowe: With ongoing schools [K and up], this is a conversation going on all over the country—namely whether private schools are going to price themselves out of a client base.

Levey: But what about medical insurance [for employees] and other costs that are out of the school’s control?

Rowe: I think that’s not necessarily the case in the K-12 market. In the preschool market, where the teacher-child ratios are what they are because of New York State law, that makes facilities and teachers expensive. That said, I think that the preschool market in New York is kind of a bargain; you really do get a good value. [But] it’s a little harder to justify than in the K-12 market when, in some ways, the things that we’re forced to put our money into are not things that go to the real core of educational value.

Levey: Or what parents think they’re getting. I always love it when parents go look at the private schools when the kids are applying for K and they fall in love with the playing fields and the swimming area. You are not going to go near those things till your kid is 14. But that’s part of the drama and excitement of looking at those schools.

Messinger: Yes, school tours can have an enchanting effect—but that’s not the only thing, right? The ongoing schools, at least in the middle and upper grades, have extraordinary course offerings. If only they cost less. The dream would be a great private school where you’re paying for a great education but not for all the extras. Let the parent provide the extra enrichments in sports, culture, whatever, outside of the school.

Rowe: I think there are more and more parents who feel that way.

Levey: But it goes to paying teachers, too. Let’s face it. In this country, in this city, we have so underpaid our teachers for so long…the reason why schools are raising their tuitions is less, I believe, for facility purposes and more to pay their teachers.

Schulman: I’d say 85 percent of the costs of tuition are going to salaries and benefits.

The Mandell School

Messinger: I do think it would be a good service to add some practical tips about applying to nursery school and ongoing school. If I’m a parent with an infant and I want a reliable source of information and guidance about the process, where should I start?

Shorofsky Mack: The Parents League is a great place to start. More generally, whatever the source, parents should keep in mind whether it’s coming from the school itself or written by others about the school. One isn’t necessarily better than the other—they could be complementary—but you should just keep it in mind. And the best time to start looking into it is the year before they’re going to be applying—assuming that they’re going to be applying in September for the following September.

Messinger: Please clarify the importance of the Tuesday after Labor Day.

Decker: The timeline is really important; parents should have their list [of preferred schools] ready before Labor Day. Research in spring and summer so you come into fall hitting the ground running. There are some schools you have to contact the day after Labor Day—and only on that day—to get their application; there are some schools you have to call the day after the day after Labor Day; there are some schools for which you get [the application] online. Know their rules beforehand.

Messinger: In broad strokes, what are the different educational philosophies out there? Is the dividing line between play-based and academics?

Levey: You have to get off the labels because it can be misleading. What I call progressive you call creative, and what you call creative she calls child-based. The names have blurred—even with Montessori, there’s modified Montessori.

Shorofsky Mack: The best way to get that information is to ask specific questions about how things are handled, rather than sticking to labels.

Levey: The truth is that in preschool all children play. I don’t care what anybody says: There isn’t a preschool in which children don’t play. Or at least not many. The question is the balance. They all have play, and some are more academic or skill-based than others. That’s really what the balance is.

Messinger: What are the most important things a parent should look for on a school tour?

Schulman: The most important thing is to look at the engagement of the children. Are they actively learning? Is there a nice tone in the classroom? Is just the teacher talking? If the children are talking, where is the teacher in this? Where do they put themselves? What does the work look like that’s on the classroom walls? I think that looking to the children and teacher first will tell you the most important info you can have. Also, check out the facility: Is it safe? Is it clean? The basics are important; people have visceral reactions to different kind of spaces, and you weigh and balance it all against each other.

Messinger: Some schools have playgroup sessions to check out a child and family, and others have more formal interviews with the parents. Do parents do a lot fretting about the playgroup sessions? What should they know?

Shorofsky Mack: They should remember that we’re experienced educators and we know that what we see in the 20 minutes that we’re with them is not the full context of the child. That time is not meant to be a thorough understanding of the child, just a window for us to understand a little bit about the child for when we do class placement. They should simply follow the lead of the teachers, rather than try to prompt their kids to do something to impress us.

Messinger: And as far as the parent interviews go?

Rowe: It goes back to what we were saying before. Parents should think about what really matters to them. It’s an important time for them to ask the most important questions. Also, remember that it is an interview, so think about the manner in which you ask those questions. I think that that many parents think that what they need to do in this circumstance is to show off how powerful or impressive they are—when in truth what we really want to know is whether they love, care, and understand their child. We don’t care what your title is or where you went to school. It doesn’t matter to me if you’re the CEO of God Inc. if you can’t have an honest conversation with me about the strengths and weaknesses of your child.

Messinger: Many parents assume connections matter in the admissions process. What do you say about that?

Schulman: I think it’s a very bad presumption because it leads to more presumption. It leads to thinking, “I know someone on this school board and therefore I’m going to get in,” which may be an unrealistic expectation.

Decker: Here’s how it helps: It helps if you know someone who is known and liked at the school and who could truly speak to how you and your family would fit in there because they know you really well. When I was doing admissions, I once received a letter of recommendation from the Dalai Lama. It was a lovely letter, but it was meaningless. The better letter that really swayed us was from a kid who used to babysit the child applying.

Messinger: So when you’re at the end of the process, another question that bedevils parents is whether you should send out a first choice letter.

Levey: No. ISAAGNY says no.

Schulman: I think that the ISAAGNY piece of it is that schools should not solicit first choice letters, but parents can do what they want.

Messinger: But bring it back to the parent thinking, “I really like your school. If I don’t use the words ‘first choice,’ I feel like you’re likely to favor someone else who uses those words over me.”

Schulman: You can write those letters without using those words. Schools deal with them differently. At 92Y, I never saved those letters, I never even filed them.

Rowe: My immediate reaction if I see those words is to feel like someone is playing a game, that maybe they’re telling everyone that. So I discard them too.

Messinger: What about applying to ongoing school? What should parents expect and be thinking about?

Schulman: There’s a lot more info that schools are requiring of the family about the child: interviews, test scores, school reports, etc. When you’re applying to nursery school, you have the kid and the parent, and the kid is very young. With ongoing school, it’s ultimately a much more complex decision because you know a lot more about your child’s needs.

Rowe: In some ways, it’s the opposite of what we said about early childhood and not thinking too much about who a 1-year-old is and their learning style. Now, if you’re looking at K-8 or K-12, you should definitely be thinking about that. It’s much less about the family’s relationship with the school—though that’s not immaterial. But what matters most is the learning environment and how the child would fit in. In counseling families, that’s sometimes the hardest part because a parent can get caught up in what they think is the best school…or what they think is the hot school or the most popular. And they can’t get to this idea that it should be the school where they child is going to be successful and happy.

Shorofsky Mack: I like to suggest to them to get on the table their feelings on their own elementary school education, because it will definitely effect how they look at the choices for their child.

Levey: One of the things I ask parents to do over the summer—regardless of whether the schools they’re applying to require it—is for each parent to write an essay on who their child is, because it challenges them to really think about it. Everyone thinks it’s going to be easy, but it sure isn’t.

Decker: It really helps you focus. We ask them to write two: one about the child, one about what they’re looking for in a school.

Messinger: And finally the million dollar question–By and large, if a family does their homework, does the research, follows their instincts, and applies to a decent number of schools of varying difficulty to get into, are they likely to find a spot at a nursery school or private school?

Decker: Yes, absolutely. There is a spot for everyone with reasonable expectations.

For our list of new nursery and private schools in NYC, click here.