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Failing at Four


"If both parents are working and the child is being cared for by a nanny," DeLuca explains, "sometimes the parents don't have much ability to discipline or control the child. If it's not working in my office, can you imagine how it's going to work in the interview?"

DeLuca's counsel culminates the night before the big day, when she calls the parents at home -- either their shared abode or separate ones, depending on their marital status -- and reviews what they've studied. She knows from experience that families will phone her shortly after the interview if all went well. If she doesn't hear from them by the end of the business day, she'll call them. "One of the parents usually loses their temper -- not yelling and screaming, but they become sharp, arrogant," she explains.

While the private schools certainly aren't immune to the charms of an Internet mogul who's eager to bankroll the retractable dome on the new field house, the maddening thing for some parents about kindergarten admissions is that money alone usually isn't enough to seal the deal. A-list kindergartens are also looking for kids who can do the work.

"I try to explain to the parents that the interviewer is not their opponent," DeLuca says. "When people really want something and don't have the control to get it -- we live in a society where instant gratification is almost the norm -- they lose common sense."

Parents may think the blame for the sharper edges of the kindergarten-admissions process lies with the schools. The schools return the favor. "In the sixties and seventies, it seemed as if parents in the independent schools knew a great deal more about child development and education," observes the Trevor Day School's John Dexter. He says that despite the popularity of books such as Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence and the "multiple intelligences" theories of Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, "it hasn't percolated into the hearts and minds of parents. They still seem driven into a very traditional lockstep type of education. Now the question is just focused on, how can I get the highest test score out of my kid?"

It's hard to blame parents if the schools use test scores to weed out some of the applicants. On the other hand, there might be something more important at stake than whether a child gets into his parents' first-choice kindergarten. By paying excessive obeisance to tests, parents may be squandering an irreplaceable part of their son's or daughter's childhood.

"People are so concerned about shapes and colors," laments the head of one preschool. "They'll say, 'You teach shapes and colors, don't

you?' What does a circle mean to a 21Ž2-year-old? You can teach it, but why? It's not very interesting to a child. People learn from the concrete to the abstract. Now they want children to be at the abstract right away. There's no time for the learning process."

Cynthia wasn't focusing on the finer points of early-childhood education in the weeks after Andrew's testing home run. Though the family may have been back in the running with the first-tier schools thanks to Rosalind Blum's glowing wppsi evaluation -- Cynthia will never know how much weight the schools to which Andrew applied did or didn't assign to it, though it certainly did wonders for her own self-confidence -- the little boy was still a long way from being fitted for his private-school blazer.

Separating from his mother was proving to be a problem. At one interview, a teacher had to retrieve Cynthia to prove to Andrew, who seemed on the verge of tears, that she wasn't far away. At another school, Andrew simply refused to come out of the coat closet.

The boy's attitude held little promise as the family crossed the park in a cab on their way to their third interview, at one of the city's most prestigious schools. "He said to me, 'It's okay if I cry a little, isn't it?' " his mother recalls. "I said, 'Not really. Why would you cry?' I didn't want to squeeze too tight. I just said, 'I know I'll be proud of you.' "

Cynthia and her husband, David, toured the school the same day as Andrew's interview. The word on the park bench was that the institution was so selective that while children were given small gifts after their visits to other schools -- a plant here, a pad with the school's insignia there -- at this place, "you have to bring a hostess gift because it's such a hot-shit school," Cynthia says.

However, as soon as she saw the place, she knew she wanted Andrew to go there. Its park-bench reputation aside, she found the school and its faculty refreshingly unpretentious. Besides, the facilities were spectacular.

"I'll never forget it," Cynthia says, recalling her emotions as she sat in the waiting room after Andrew had been taken off with several other little applicants to play. "We were there with six or eight other parents. I was doing needlepoint, and my hands were actually trembling."

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