Getting In

You’ve heard all of the rumors; now learn the facts about nursery school admissions in the city. Yes, there’s competition based primarily on supply and demand, but the vast majority of interested families find spots at schools that they like–as long as they do their homework. Here’s yours.

The Mandell School

1. Mark Your Calendars

Call it Black Tuesday. The Tuesday after Labor Day is when a number of private nursery schools give out their applications. Miss it, and you won’t be able to get an application to those schools for the year, so do your school research in the prior months (see point 2). And for that special Tuesday itself, we recommend starting at 9am and recruiting a trustworthy family member or friend to help you work the phones and computers, keeping in mind that the popular nursery schools may give out their applications by noon. “Staying organized and on top of those dates and deadlines is really critical,” explains Roxana Reid, educational consultant and founder of Smart City Kids. “Otherwise, you can be out of the process before you even get started.”

Special Tip: Find out beforehand whether a school distributes applications online or over the phone. Also, schools that nominally distribute applications throughout the fall may stop once they’ve given out the number they can handle—a good reason to reach out to them sooner rather than later.

2. Do Your Research

Even before parents read about, talk about, or visit any schools, Gabriella Rowe, head of the Mandell School, recommends coming up with “Must Have,” “Would Be Great But Not Critical,” and “Who Cares?” lists to differentiate the qualities they’re looking for in their child’s education. The lists may evolve, but they’re a good way to remember what’s truly important to you as you go through the process. Once you commence your research, visit the website of every school you’re interested in. Consider buying Victoria Goldman’s The Manhattan Directory of Private Nursery Schools, which profiles over 150 preschools and offers parents advice and tips for narrowing their search. Likewise, the Parents League offers a schools guide, personal consulting, and seminars. If you seek additional advisory services, organizations like Smart City Kids offer private sessions and small group workshops. It’s recommended that parents contact approximately ten schools to get eight applications. And you may want to widen your search a bit if you live in an area densely populated by families, such as the Upper East Side.

Special Tip: Make sure you apply to a range of schools, not just the most popular and sought-after schools in your neighborhood. Better to diversify and increase the odds of getting in somewhere.

3. Weigh Private And Public

Tuitions at some NYC private nursery schools can range between $20,000 and $30,000 per year. For that reason, many families use public school Pre-K programs, which are free but only offered the year before kindergarten. Unlike with kindergarten, the city doesn’t guarantee you a spot in Pre-K. (Visit the Department of Education website for more.) A number of children’s activity centers offer “preschool alternative” programs, which don’t have elaborate admissions, but offer similar activities.

Special Tip: If money is an issue, the head of The Goddard School—a well-regarded national franchise that opened its first nursery school in NYC on the Upper West Side last year—Bill Swan advises looking for a quality school with a parent-friendly, flexible schedule. “Consider a half-day schedule for three days a week. This can result in a huge savings over full-day for five days, and your child is still receiving a curriculum-based program delivered by highly trained teachers,” he says.

4. Learn Educational Philosophies

When considering nursery schools, factors like location, tuition, and general reputation are typical starting points. But parents should also be very mindful of a school’s educational philosophy and how that plays out in the classroom. “If people stay focused on the goals and philosophy of the school and go with their gut as far as feeling comfortable in a particular setting, I believe they’ll end up at the right place,” says Sharon Shorofsky Mack, the Director of Education at the JCP Downtown.

Special Tip: The most popular pedagogies include Progressive, Montessori, Developmental, and Traditional—and Reggio Emilia has become more popular in recent years. (A little time on Google is all you need for an overview of the philosophies; just keep in mind that many schools use modified versions or a mix of their favorite qualities of different approaches.)

5. Be Aware Of Age Requirements

While the bulk of Manhattan’s programs begin at or around age three, a growing number of preschools have begun to offer classes for two-year-olds. In these cases, you’ll want to know whether a school is offering most of their spots for age two, because that can mean that there may be very few spots available in their three-year-olds classes.

Special Tip: Naturally, children are different in terms of how quickly they progress in their various aspects of development. While some may be ready for school at two, others may benefit from beginning with part-time sessions or simply waiting a year. Trust your instincts.

Epiphany Community Nursery School

6. Bond With The School Director

Ask yourself: Is this someone whose opinion and instincts I trust? Since she is the leader of the school community, you may need to have a close and cooperative relationship with her, especially if any emotional or developmental challenges come to the fore, which is quite common in the nursery school years.

Special Tip: Families that are likely to apply to private school for kindergarten and beyond will be especially interested in a nursery school with a good track record for successfully guiding parents through the “ex-missions” process. Here, again, the school director may play a very important role in advising and supporting a family.

7. Attend Open Houses And Interviews

Most nursery schools host tours and open houses, and many require interview sessions in addition to having your child (along with a parent or caregiver) participate in a group play date led by teachers from the school. During the play date, don’t panic if your child does something embarrassing or needs a diaper change. Educators understand that children are children. But remember that, on some level, parents are being evaluated as well, because school directors are looking for families who will be a positive part of the community. Therefore, as Wendy Levey, Director of Epiphany Community Nursery School, recommends, “From start to finish, treat the process with respect, care, and attention.” Whether it’s the school tour, the interview, the play date, or merely a call to make sure your application was received, be polite, considerate, and engaging—which includes showing up on time, turning off your cell phone, and asking meaningful questions (not basic ones that you should know by looking at the school’s website).

In addition to making a good impression, any event at the school is an opportunity to get a better sense of it and get your questions answered. So take note of the classrooms and hallways, the teachers, and the students. Do they seem happy? Engaged? What’s the overall vibe? Likewise, what are certain aspects of the program that you’d like to understand better?

Special Tip: “Look for a well-developed curriculum,” advises Goddard’s Bill Swan. “Be encouraged by a school that gives you daily written feedback on your child’s activities, so you can build on them at home. Look for structure and an opportunity for varied educational experiences, including enrichment programs that unlock children’s imaginations and expand their world.”

8. Question Class Sizes And Times

Parents care a lot about class size and student-teacher ratios (as they should), but keep in mind that licensed nursery schools have specific limits set by the Department of Health.

Special Tip: If you’re set on a certain school, it may help to apply for the afternoon class since morning classes are typically more popular.

9. Write A First Choice Letter

Because of the competition for limited spots, many parents feel compelled to send a “first choice letter” to their most desired school. This basically acknowledges that if a specific school were to select your child, you would accept the given slot. Other parents prefer to phrase the letter in less binding terms, noting particular reasons a certain school is a good match for them. While ISAAGNY (The Independent School Admission Association of Greater New York) officially discourages first choice letters, the truth is that many schools enjoy hearing positive feedback.

Special Tip: If you’re concerned that the school you favor may not appreciate a letter, we strongly encourage you to use the school tour to get clarification on whether they would prefer to hear from you near the end of the admissions season.

10. Use Recommendations Or Referrals

Let’s put it this way: Do not send in an impersonal recommendation from a famous person who doesn’t really know your child and has nothing to do with the school. However, if a good friend of yours is already a member of the school community, then a recommendation from her couldn’t hurt.

Special Tip: Some people assume that getting into nursery school is all about who you know. It’s just not true for the vast majority of people applying, so don’t put too much time into trying to identify a magic recommender.

11. Be Yourself

It’s impossible to completely avoid the hype surrounding nursery school admissions in the city. But try not to be alarmed by stories of a dozen rejection letters; the wisdom and strategies we’ve distilled in this article should help a lot. Epiphany’s Wendy Levey, like the other school directors and experts we spoke with, says, “Anyone who has done their homework and really gets their ducks in order usually ends up somewhere they are happy.” Most of all, focus on schools that feel like a truly good fit for your family and your child, and be sure to apply widely enough that it won’t come down to the decision of a few popular schools.

“The best way to ensure that your child has a preschool spot for September 2013 is to keep an open mind in picking the list of schools to which you will apply,” says Mandell’s Gabriella Rowe. “It should be varied and it should be comprehensive.”

For more information on schools in the city, visit the Blackboard Awards, which honor excellence in local education.