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Inside the Sandbox


West Side

West Side Montessori School

309 West 92nd Street

Price Ranges from $11,420 for five half-days (for all ages) to $17,884 for five extended days.

Motto "Where to begin."

Hot ticket "They said, 'You have to be prepared to have your kid come in the afternoon,' " one spurned parent sniffs. " 'It's the only way your kid's going to get a place.' Well, whose convenience is this about?"

Amenities A double brownstone near Riverside Park. In the works: a retractable cover for the rooftop playground.

The program "We focus on character-building and problem-solving, the fact that there are multiple realities," says headmaster Marlene Barron, "and how we can prepare children to live in peace with people with whom they might disagree."

The vibe Organic milk and green toilet paper. "Everything about the school is about respecting the community and the larger world," says one mom. "There's nothing that's taken for granted. Every song they sing, every outing they have. It's truly the best of p.c."

Social studies Barron calls her school the "multi-multi-school," as in multiethnic, -racial, and -economic. "My child's teachers are from four continents!" one mom gushes. "Thailand, Sweden, Colombia, and Brooklyn!" The racial and ethnic mix beats the East Side schools', though one parents says, "I don't want to make it sound as if there are a bunch of janitors sending their kids here. It's a rich school."

Hidden costs "There's no question that parents are expected to do things to help the school so the headmaster will work hard for your child's exmissions," says one parent. "Some people say all she cares about is exmissions."

Feeder to . . . Collegiate is a favorite, though about a third of the kids go on to public schools. "It's a good place if you want to get through the public process," says one parent. "The Mandell School ignores that -- they don't want a kid to go to public school."

Drop-off conversation Politics, politics, and politics. Barron has spotted a few Republican parents.

Nobody's perfect "We would like to have more gay parents," one mom says.

The Mandell School

127 West 94th Street

Price Ranges from $4,000 for two half-days (for 2-year-olds), to $13,000 for four full days, one half-day (ages 4 and 5).

Acceptance rate 120 applicants for about twelve spots.

Watchwords "Good citizenship," says Gabriella Rowe, whose grandfather Max Mandell founded this school in a stately Upper West Side townhouse in 1939.

The program The lofty goal: to have kids entering kindergarten ready for the first grade. "People think it's great that their kids come out knowing what a suspension bridge is," says one critic. "But they have these books that children make, alphabet books, a collage about an ant hill, a building. I looked at one and it was wonderful, and I looked at another and it was exactly the same. It was so noncreative."

Adult ed "This is not the school for parents who want to drop their kids off and pick them up two years later," says Rowe. Parents are expected to take their children on museum trips, help on projects, and keep up with the newsletter.

Feeder to . . . Dalton, Spence, and Chapin. According to Rowe's honor system, parents don't discuss the exmissions process. "We wanted to make sure that the Mandell community was a sanctuary from the hysteria," she says.

Hot ticket Still, for their own applicants, "they tell you you have to write a first-choice letter," one mom says. "Everyone makes you feel that if you write more than one first-choice letter, you'll get caught. So we only used the words first choice in one letter, but we wrote to every school. My husband was horrified, but I wanted my kid to go someplace good."

Barnard College Center for Toddler Development

3009 Broadway, at 118th Street

Price $3,800 for two sessions a week.

Hot ticket "I'm sure people in the community would say it's hard to get in," says co-director Tovah Klein.

The program Way scientific, bordering on the clinical. Run by Barnard's psychology department, this small program doubles as a research and training center -- complete with two-way mirrors -- for students and parents alike. "There aren't a lot of bells and whistles, like art or music," says one parent. "It's about teaching the child who's weak to stand up and say, 'No, this is mine,' and teaching the strong child that they can't hit." The mirrors do freak some people out. "Is your child a guinea pig?" one wonders.

Social studies "Last year, there were East Side people who are incredibly rich," one parent says. "And a woman who taught English as a second language with an adopted Guatemalan kid." Boldface parent Wendy Wasserstein.

Separation anxiety Klein explains that "parents are required to stay with their children the first four weeks of school, since our big focus is on the task of separation."

Bank Street School for Children

610 West 112th Street

Price Ranges from $14,300 for five half-days (for 3-year-olds) to $16,750 for four full days, one half-day (ages 4 and 5).

Hot ticket Way oversubscribed, so there are no guarantees, even with siblings. "They have so many applicants that they do it on a strict formula based on the number of years your sibling has been at Bank Street," says one parent. "At least they're trying to be fair," shrugs another. "They could stock it with just siblings and staff children." Adds a mother: "There are only sixteen spots for 3-year-olds. They don't even see people until they know how many siblings they're taking."

The program Bank Street practically invented the developmental approach to nursery school, in which kids are allowed to follow their own interests, in order to get them excited about learning. "It's not about workbooks," says one parent. "There's a lot of discussion in class, so they're really encouraged to think critically, to talk about their feelings."

Social studies Musicians, doctors, lawyers, reporters, social workers, psychologists. "It's diverse," says one parent, "while keeping in mind that the parents are very involved with their kids."

What they're looking for "I think Bank Street is looking for creative children who are self-starters, self-initiators," says one parent. "You can tell that from the way they just leave your child with things around during the interview -- puppets and plastic animals and blocks."

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