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Cracking the Kindergarten Code

Demystifying the process of getting your child into a good school, in eleven easy lessons.

In the old days, New York City horror stories tended to involve street crime. Nowadays, many of the most chilling tales have to do with getting children into the right kindergarten. “Next year is going to be even worse,” warns Amanda Uhry, the president of Manhattan Private School Advisors, which charges $6,000 to help families get their kids into desirable private elementary schools. “It’s the post-9/11 baby boom. So many more kids were born in the city, and now they’re applying to kindergarten.” Roxana Reid of Smart City Kids adds, “Several nursery schools had ten or more children shut out from getting into school altogether last year” (and had to, gasp, resort to public schools). But is it really true that getting into a good kindergarten in New York City is as tough as getting into an Ivy League college? There’s no question that there’s a crushing demand-and-supply imbalance at the dozen or so top-tier schools, entrée to which seemingly assures future success for junior and unrivaled cachet right now for Mom and Dad. It’s true enough, too, that at those schools—Dalton, Collegiate, Trinity, Spence, Chapin, Brearley, Horace Mann, et al.—your kid’s application might not even be looked at, much less seriously considered, if you don’t submit it within the first few days after the applications are made available, around Labor Day. And since 1997, the number of kids taking the ERB (an aptitude test used by many kindergartens) to get into kindergarten has grown by almost 40 percent. More families are applying to more schools now, too—five or six was the typical number in 2000; now many families apply to nine or ten.

But in fact, the panic and excitement over kindergarten admissions is analogous to, say, half of New York trying to squeeze into the same hypertrendy restaurant on a Saturday night. Sure, you want to go, and you’d love to brag to your friends about sitting next to Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones—who is, incidentally, planning to star in a movie about getting into an exclusive Manhattan kindergarten—but will you have a bad meal if you don’t? If you take a deep breath and realize that there are roughly 70 private schools in New York—and a growing number of great public schools, too—and that many of these, far from second choices, might even provide a better experience, you’ll discover that you can be much more in control of the process than you’d believed possible. Herewith, the strategies and tactics of getting your child into a Manhattan kindergarten.

Illustrations by Sandy Nichols  

1. Who’s the most important person in the application process?
The ultimate gatekeeper is . . . your preschool director. “The schools review everything with the nursery-school director. ‘Is the kid really like that?’ and ‘What about the parents?’ And it’s the nursery-school director’s job to tell them,” says Victoria Goldman, author of The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools.

Not only must directors serve three masters—individual families, the class as a whole, and the school itself—but an awful lot can ride on how well they play the admissions game.

Even a “Baby Ivy” preschool like the 92nd Street Y sometimes places as few as 15 percent of its little graduates at the elite elementary and ongoing schools. So at pre-Ks all over the city, directors are faced with the task of deciding which deserving children are a little more deserving than the rest.

The process is called brokering, which sounds kind of evil, but in a numbers game, where a pre-K’s main objective is to avoid a shutout—a kid getting rejected everywhere—“there’s not much choice,” said one harried head of school as she took a break between parent conferences last week.

Always remember that your preschool director is not fully on your side. “Your pre-K director’s primary loyalty is to getting everyone placed somewhere, versus getting your kid placed in your ideal school,” notes Emily Glickman, an admissions consultant at Abacus. “That often places parents and directors in an adversarial position.”

One father of a boy now in first grade at a good second-tier school is still bitter when he recalls telling his son’s nursery-school director at their first admissions conference that the family had a very good connection at Dalton. She pushed them to make Dalton their first choice, but after they visited, they found that they much preferred Ethical Culture and even Calhoun over Dalton. Come January, they sent a first-choice letter to Ethical. “She didn’t say so directly, but she was clearly not pleased we didn’t make Dalton our first choice,” he says. The result: The boy was admitted to neither. “I should have kept my mouth shut until we knew which school we really wanted,” he says.