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Cracking the Kindergarten Code

4. So what are the alternatives to the top tier?
Many more schools are now worth—relatively speaking—their $25,000-plus tuitions. As it’s become harder to get into the top schools, kids who might have gotten into a Fieldston in years past are going elsewhere and lifting the levels of other schools. “There are so many more schools I’m comfortable recommending to parents as high-quality and academically ambitious than just five years ago,” says Gabriella Rowe, director of the Mandell School.

So go ahead and shoot the moon with a Dalton or Collegiate, but balance that with selections from the city’s many other high-quality schools, preferably ones that fit your kid’s—and your own—style. To find them, look for schools putting their new money to good use via new libraries and gyms, lower student-teacher ratios, and more experienced teachers, often poached from top-tier programs. Allen-Stevenson, Birch Wathen Lenox, Browning, Cathedral, Hewitt, Marymount, St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s, Trevor Day, Poly Prep, and Brooklyn Friends get nods as schools on their way up, as do hot schools like Bank Street and Columbia Grammar, which are receiving as many applicants as the top tier.

Fieldston Lower School often gets short shrift because most parents apply to Ethical Culture instead. Claremont Prep is only in its first year but has great facilities, and nursery-school directors say parents are giving it strong recommendations.

5. Is public school a viable option?
Of course, no matter how many private-school obsessives choose not to think so. The answer to this one largely comes down to three words: location, location, location. If that sounds like we’re talking real estate instead of education, well, we are. Save for the handful of non-zone schools, such as Midtown West and NEST, that accept students from the entire district or in some cases the entire city in a process much like private school, and the “test-in” programs, headlined by Hunter College Elementary and the Anderson School, and including the gifted-and-talented programs that often determine eligibility according to scores on the Stanford-Binet IQ test or similar tests, landing your child in a quality public elementary school is a real-estate play.

If you live in the Department of Education’s District 2, encompassing the Upper East Side and much of downtown, you’ve got a heckuva chance to benefit from two decades of a district administration that brought in and actively supports terrific principals who’ve hired gifted teachers from around the country, and active and wealthy parent organizations. Even a high-poverty school like P.S. 126 is considered a model of urban education and attracts middle-class families from outside its zone.

Until now, the 239 schools in the city’s gifted-and-talented programs have been administered according to a mishmash of different standards—some using IQ tests, others relying on interviews or the whim of the principals. Though deficient in many ways—many accused them of racial bias—the programs often kept kids in public school who would have gone the private-school route. But next year, schools chancellor Joel Klein is planning to apply uniform standards for gifted-and-talented students citywide, removing much of the guesswork—and loopholes—from the process.

Beyond these options, public school is a real-estate play. There are a few other schools in the city that, to certain families, might even be worth moving for. Tribeca has three great schools: P.S. 234, P.S. 89, and P.S. 150. In east midtown, the Beekman Hill School (P.S. 59) on East 57th Street rivals P.S. 183 and the schools on the Upper East Side, and is considerably smaller—always a virtue. In Park Slope, Brooklyn, the William Penn School’s (P.S. 321) main fault is that it’s too popular—and therefore somewhat overcrowded.

6. Do private-school connections still count?
One legacy dad at one of the top-tier schools who’s been a steady contributor to his alma mater figured on a sure thing when he sent in his son’s application. “I was shocked when they told us he was too young”—admissions jargon for a kid deemed not ready. “Not ready for what? The rigors of morning meeting and blocks?” His son was accepted when he reapplied the following year, “but you better believe we put a lot of work in the second time.”

Gabriella Rowe at the Mandell School sees a seismic shift in the less-than-meritocratic admissions policies. “It’s not just talk. Several schools issued directives to their boards last year that they wouldn’t accept recommendation letters from directors,” she notes.

Programs like Sacred Heart and Friends look askance at people who trumpet their connections. “The best way to turn off Barbara Root [admissions director at Sacred Heart] is to talk about who you know,” says Smart City Kids’ Quinn.

But the revolution, however, is far from complete. Schools like Trinity, Dalton, and Columbia Prep have well-earned reputations for being places where not having a strong connection can mean not getting in.