Smart City Mom

Smart City Kids Founder Roxana Reid
Smart City Kids Founder Roxana Reid

“I was not in the circle of know,” says Roxana Reid, founder of Smart City Kids, of her initial attempt, years ago, to find the right kindergarten for her now 22-year-old son, Armani.

It’s a surprising personal statement coming from a woman who is now well-known and well-regarded for her expertise in doing just that: guiding families through the anxious byways of school admissions in New York City. Still, as Reid tells it, the roots of her success at Smart City Kids, which she started in 2001, are firmly embedded in her own educational experiences—first as a Panamanian immigrant growing up in Brooklyn, and later as a mom trying to provide the best education for her children.

After moving to the states when she was 11 with Spanish as her native language, Reid soared academically, becoming the valedictorian of her public middle school in Brooklyn and gaining admission into the elite Stuyvesant High School. “But my mom, who was a teacher herself, said ‘no’ to Stuyvesant because Manhattan was like another country,” Reid explains. “She thought I’d be safer if I was closer to home. But the thing is we lived in Brownsville in the 80’s during the crack era. It wasn’t safe at all.”

Fast forward to her 20s. Reid’s career interests lead her to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Social Work with a concentration in education and school-based services. Professionally, she was working at public and private schools, performing educational assessments, advising parents on their children’s challenges, and assisting with school placement for hundreds of students. But as a mom, with Armani on the cusp of nursery school, she found it hard to be objective about own her son’s needs and felt that the admissions process “was startling and daunting.”

Later, when it was time to look into kindergarten, she tried to be more organized and pro-active, but the only advice her nursery school director had was the default option of looking into the grade schools in the neighborhood. And when she turned to her then sister-in-law for advice, who was one of the few people she knew with a child in private school, that was an even harsher dead-end. “She told me to go to my local public school because private schools was not for us,” Reid says. “And I thought, ‘Hmmm. Really?’ At the same time, I realized that there was a whole world of education out there that may or may not be limited to my family because of income—‘How do I access that?’”

And so she did. “I did a lot research, more so than what you would typically do to evaluate schools,” she says. She didn’t know it while she was doing it, but Reid was laying the groundwork for the base of knowledge—and the personal experience of having been through it herself—that would eventually allow her to launch Smart City Kids. Like many NYC parents, Reid did a lot of soul searching about the relative merits of public school versus private school for her son. Initially, Armani attended a G & T program at a neighborhood public school, but ultimately she switched him over to private school because, as she described it: “The teachers were overwhelmed, the parents were not as engaged as I had hoped they would be, and to help the situation I found myself volunteering so much it was like I had become the assistant teacher—it just wasn’t what I wanted in terms of my aspirations for him.”

More than anything, what she wanted for her son, she realized, was a school that seemed like a really good fit—from its academics to its values—and that realization has been the cornerstone approach that she offers her parent-clients at Smart City Kids.

“When I started there was nothing like us around. No one had the nuanced understanding of what placement in this city meant,” Reid says. “I really wanted to be an intimate service that provided clarity on fit, which for me is the most important guide for admissions. It’s not about the best schools—it’s about which schools are best for your child and family.”

Families primarily seek out Smart City Kids for guidance to nursery and grade school admissions. Most of the families are affluent and are largely focused on independent schools (i.e. private nursery and ongoing schools) but Reid, with her clients’ interests in mind, will often counsel them to be savvy about their public school options as well. She also does a lot of work with lower-income families who can’t afford her normal fees.

The process of getting to know a client begins with a detailed three-page questionnaire. “I’m a clinician by training, so talking and vetting is an essential part of the discussion,” Reid says. “We take a lot of time pinpointing what each family’s values and priorities are—and will try to take a 360-degree look at each child… And you know what? When you ask parents big questions about who they are and what they stand for, they know that you are someone who will care deeply about their child.”

Her child-focused approach is an important part of her appeal; but needless to say, so is her astute knowledge of city schools and admissions. “I’m strategic. I don’t sugar coat. I don’t speak in veiled terms,” Reid says. “In an [admissions] system that has too many veils, I operate with transparency with my clients.”

Both public school and private school admissions have their public face and their less public nuances—but, by and large, private school admissions has a bigger personal component: there is more time spent with applicants and their families, and school admissions directors will often speak with nursery school directors about the applicants from their school. One of the ways that Reid has gained the respect and trust of many in the private school admission world, if not everyone, is by not only being a trustworthy partner but also by having well-regarded consultants on her staff who are from that world, like her “main squeeze,” Terri Decker, who previously worked in admissions at Ethical Culture/Fieldston and at YMCA Co-op Nursery School.

Still, Smart City Kids never makes any guarantees—as some other school consultants are reputed to do. Reid asserts that she has a very high success rate. Families who work with her and her team to focus on schools that really are a good match for their child; and who are willing to apply to a decent number of schools (and not just the ones that are the most competitive to get in to), usually end up with good options. She also commits herself to an ongoing relationship with any of her families who don’t initially end up with a spot somewhere.

Another part of her success that she takes enormous pride in is her work with parents with low incomes but big dreams for their kids (families, in other words, with backgrounds much like her own). “Yup, we do a bit of Robin Hood here, we leverage our resources,” Reid says. “I’m no longer a social worker, but I’m still totally passionate about education—and how it can make the biggest difference in a child’s life.”

It certainly has for Reid and her children. Her youngest son, Ty, is in grade 9 at a top boarding school in New Jersey. And as for Armani, whose educational fate was the early catalyst that led his mom into school admissions, he’s now at Yale, where he’s studying psychology and economics, and is one of the stars of their resurgent basketball team.