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Cracking the Kindergarten Code

No matter how perfect you think Trinity is for your child, your nursery-school director won’t recommend your kid if she has any doubts. Linda Herman, who runs the Weekday School, acknowledges as much. “The schools have to trust me. If I send them a couple of kids who can’t cut the academics when I said they could, maybe they won’t listen so hard the next year when I recommend someone. I have to be honest.”

Well-connected preschool directors can be dictatorial when it comes to selecting schools. “Parents would come to us very upset because their nursery-school director had such strong opinions on which school their child should go to,” says Karen Quinn, a founder of Smart City Kids and the author of The Ivy Chronicles, a novel based on her clients’ and her own experiences of applying to kindergarten. “Christ Church and the Mandell School are among the five or six pre-Ks that stand out for their dictatorial ways,” says a consultant. “But at least those directors tell you to your face.”

Then there are nursery-school directors who just aren’t good at their jobs. One woman whose son applied last year initially found herself shut out in February, despite assurances from her pre-K director that she’d have no problem getting into at least one of the six schools she was wait-listed for. The director also strongly discouraged her from collecting recommendation letters from connected friends “because, she said, after the Grubman thing [an admissions scandal involving telecommunications consultant Jack Grubman and the 92nd Street Y], admissions don’t want any of that,” she says.

The best way to get your pre-K director in your corner is to lay the groundwork long before your applications are due. There’s no guarantee that your director will advocate for you over another family when Riverdale’s admissions director calls and says, “Who do I take?” But you can avoid the opposite. Volunteer, give, participate in school social events, get on a committee, and don’t make trouble.

2. Will bribery work?
In a word, no. “Not only will making a big contribution to the kindergarten of your dreams not help you get in, it will hurt you,” warns Uhry. The schools don’t appreciate being treated like the maître d’ at Per Se.

And the most selective schools, finding themselves flush with both healthy endowments and negative press over preferential treatment for those who can add extra zeros to donation checks, have put out the word that money doesn’t talk like it once did.

Of course, not all schools are so loftily uninterested in money. “Look at the schools in the Bronx,” says one admissions expert. “With all those acres and buildings, they’re the size of a small college. For them, a $20 million endowment is nothing, so you better believe they’re aware of how much you can give.”

Chapin, for example, makes no bones about its expectations. “Annual Giving makes everything at Chapin possible,” it posts on its Website, listing the gap between tuition and cost ($6,900 per student and growing). The schools, however, can’t come right out and ask what you’ll give. So consider giving to your nursery school. Your pre-K director may remember your generosity at a crucial moment. “That’s definitely one of the topics of conversation, and it doesn’t have to be asked explicitly. Your pre-K director will let the school know,” says one consultant.

3. Should you despair of sending Junior to an Ivy if he doesn’t get into a top-tier kindergarten?
Contrary to popular belief, the top-tier schools are not a go–to–Ivy League–school–of–your–choice pass. Only a few of them are able to send as many as a quarter of their graduating seniors to an Ivy or Ivy Equivalent. Not bad but not extraordinary, considering the high number of kids who have an admissions edge at Ivy League schools by virtue of being legacy kids. If you go to one of the top few elementary and ongoing schools, you’re competing against some very well-connected families.

This means that “coming from schools like Spence and Dalton can actually be a disadvantage,” says Michele Hernandez, a former admissions official at Dartmouth who runs a college-admissions consulting service. “The admissions staffs at the Ivies bend over backwards not to take kids from those schools,” Hernandez contends. “Unless your kid is at or near the top at those schools, your chances of getting in from the top of a mid-level school are probably better,” she says.

It’s important to evaluate what getting your child into a top-tier school means to you. “There’s this whole mystique to getting into the ‘right’ kindergarten that goes way beyond putting your child in a school where she’ll thrive and be able to get into a good college,” says Mary Knox, a mother of a second-grader who chose to send her daughter to public school for kindergarten and first grade. “My friends thought I was crazy not to apply to private schools. It speaks to a basic human psychology of ‘Do I measure up?,’ which is magnified by ten in New York.”