The Wonder Years:
The Wild World of NYC Preschools
We were at an authentic hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan having dinner with a couple looking to buy an apartment in New York. Despite priding myself on being the most worldly in the bunch, I was embarrassed to be the only one who couldn’t get through the tom yung goong soup without tearing up from the spice.
“We want to be within a few blocks of Brick Church,” the woman explained. “We’ve already started going there.”
Right away, I knew why: they were both highly educated, ambitious Harvard Business School graduates with a newborn baby girl. A lot of the time, what followed was talked about coyly with a little restraint, but not today. “We’re just going there for the preschool,” she said with a New Jersey accent, loud enough for the entire restaurant to hear. “It says that to qualify for preference, families must have joined the church at least two years prior to November 1 of the year they are applying. So we’re on time!”
I forced a smile that hid my sense of resignation. The Brick Presbyterian Church ran one of New York City’s most exclusive preschools, and the city did not offer universal public pre-K at that time. Some NYC preschools are reputedly harder to get into than Stanford (which now has an annual 4 percent acceptance rate), and that may be true. Thousands of parents apply each year, and some schools have fewer than thirty openings a year, including the ones reserved for church members and legacy kids (kids whose parents or siblings went to the school). Applying for preschool in New York is a competitive, Olympic-sized sport.
But joining a church so your kid can go to school there later? Ugh. I was pretty sure they weren’t Presbyterian before.
More to the point, the school spelled it out clearly: you not only had to be a member of the church but a “financially contributing member” for at least two years to get preference into the preschool. Even then there were no guarantees. So this couple could buy an apartment in the “right” location, switch religions, throw big checks into the collection plate each Sunday, and still possibly not get a spot. It felt that they were selling their souls to get their kid into preschool—and their daughter was only five months old at the time!
That didn’t seem to faze them.
“She’ll go to Brick, and then Spence or Chapin for kindergarten,” the woman declared. These are two of New York’s most exclusive all-girls’ schools. “I mean,” she continued, “it’s all about the exmissions.”
Exmissions. The taboo word for where the kids get admitted after they finish preschool. Most NYC private preschools have an exmissions staff that works with parents to guide them on how to write “first- choice” letters, addressing which of their child’s strengths to emphasize and which weaknesses could be framed as positives, and which ongoing school would be the best match.
“Then our daughter can go on to Harvard, like we did!” Well, she didn’t actually say this, but she may as well have. She was beaming with pride as she was setting her wheels in motion. Her husband didn’t beam back. He was stoically British, and she was a boisterous American. De- spite the fact that both were still using their Harvard email addresses a decade after graduation—the email version of vanity plates—it was an odd pairing. She went on about how the preschool was going to set their daughter up for life because it was connected to the best schools. Finally she said, “Garrod! Stop kicking me under the table!”
I felt like we were in a Saturday Night Live skit.
And the thing is, as ill as I felt about the whole thing and as much as I wanted to bolt out of the restaurant, I didn’t hate her for it. They were doing exactly what they aspired to do. They were making it in Frank Sinatra’s “if you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere” New York. They had their eye on the prize, and that’s the only way to get ahead in this city. I got it.
My aspirations for my family were different. I didn’t know exactly what they were yet; I just knew by my visceral reaction to this couple that I needed to change the preordained path I was starting down with my two children, where they would face no real-life hiccups.
I had two little boys—a baby and a toddler—and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t getting nervous about the whole school thing. I had thought that our midtown apartment wasn’t close enough to most of the “good” preschools uptown. I had also started asking my husband if we should move. It was hard not to get caught up in the craziness, even when I knew it was craziness, because what other option did we have?
All I knew about education came from growing up in New York City. How did parents in other places navigate this time in their kids’ lives? Were moms in Oregon also trying to navigate which preschools their one-year-old would go to and how they’d finagle their way in?
We were competing with every other parent around who was moderately to obscenely wealthy, some of whom could pledge major donations to the school prior to admissions (which, of course, schools all say has no bearing on acceptances. Clearly). We were even competing with celebrities.
Aside from that, parents also hired counselors to guide them through the preschool application process. For $150 to $400 an hour, some parents hire a private coach to guide them through the applications. For preschool! This counseling runs the gamut depending on what you are willing or able to spend. You can hire a consultant who will know how to get your six- and sometimes seven-figure donation into the right hands at the right school, or you can work with a consultant just to help you figure out how to apply to a New York City public middle school.
In addition to hiring consultants, parents had their kids take “pre- school prep” classes so they’d do better in interviews—even for inter- views for admission to preschool. Sometimes they call it a playdate, but it’s clearly an interview. Most of the time they talk to the kids with the parents in the room; a couple of schools bring the kids to a different room while the parents quietly have heart palpitations in fear of how Avery or June is going to screw up her chances of finger painting at this elite academy. Heaven help her if she proves that she isn’t reliably potty-trained.
Some preschools want docile kids. Some are looking for creative thinkers. They all want bright kids, of course. And each school has a cut- off date for birth dates. Some will take only 3.1s or 3.4s. I never understood if that meant 3 years and 1 month old or 3 and a tenth years old.
There are private preschool admission workshops that run more than a year in advance. And a directory of Manhattan’s private pre- schools, with more than four hundred pages, is available on Amazon. People are not messing around here. They are asking former US presidents to write letters of recommendation. They’re hiring ghostwriters to write admissions essays. They’re trying to get their toddlers to learn an instrument or a second language just so they can claim a special skill to stand out among the other applicants.
Not only is it extremely difficult to get into these schools, there’s also huge competition just to get an application. When I was starting this process in 2004, before the age of online applications, there was one simple system: the day after Labor Day, you had to call the admissions line at each preschool just to request an application. The school limited the number of applications because each completed application (with application fee—cha-ching!) also meant a tour of the school and potentially a family interview. The administrators simply didn’t have the time to do that for the thousands of people who would apply for the very limited open slots.
You needed to have other people helping you to cover your list of potential preschools. Your best friend might call Bank Street, Madison Avenue Presbyterian, and Christ Church, while your mother-in-law covered Episcopal, Brick, and All Souls, and you handled Horace Mann, Montessori, and, of course, the 92nd Street Y if you’re Jewish.
You had to figure these things out early. Without a plan, your child would never get into the right school and would never become the neurosurgeon she could have been.
It was important. This was our children’s future on the line.
Back in New York, I had narrowed our choices down to academic pre- schools as opposed to play-based, Montessori, or progressive schools. It was what I felt most comfortable with and what I felt I could best support at home.
Although there were no guarantees, my husband and I were much more likely than many others to get our kids into our preferred ongoing schools later simply by riding the wave of our parents’ choices—an unfortunate truth about our elitist and nonmeritocratic educational system.
My family had significant advantages that made me less worried about our school options in New York City. I had lived in New York since second grade and had attended Dalton, one of the nation’s best private schools, through middle school. My husband’s family was drip- ping with academic credentials; he had attended Trinity, another of the best private schools in the country. It’s sort of the Ivy League of K–12, and many parents want their kids to go there because they often lead to Ivy League colleges. It had worked for my husband and me (we wound up at, respectively, Princeton and Dartmouth), and I figured it would work for our kids too.
Being an alumnus carried weight, which was why we were suddenly getting so many playdate requests. Conversations with acquaintances from work and social groups with young kids would inevitably find their way to it:
Little Timothy’s mom: Where did you grow up?
Me: In New York City, actually.
Little Timothy’s mom: Oh, really? Where did you go to school?
Little Timothy’s mom: How nice! [Pause.] You know, I’ve been meaning to ask you and your family to come over for dinner. Are you free on Friday night?
I was fooled the first couple of times into thinking these were real invitations to connect just for the sake of friendship, but before long, I realized these parents were often courting us to find out if we could pull any strings for their kids. Why would I do that when I’m stressing about how to get my own kid in during the same year? I wondered.
At least we got some nice home-cooked meals in the process.
These experiences were only slightly less shocking than dinner par- ties where parents discussed how much donation money it took to get kids into the Ivies. Right after “Please pass the butter,” came “How much does it take to get into Harvard?”
“Legacy gives you a leg up, but if you give a bone, your chances go up to 75 percent.” (Bone is code for $1 million.)
“When you give $5 million to Harvard, you get a nice letter of thanks, but if you give even $500,000 to Middlebury, the president flies to your house to thank you.”
“It’s much cheaper to get into Dartmouth, though, right? Teru, how much do you have to give to get in there?”
“I don’t know,” I mumbled. It was jarring to hear it put out there so openly. I wanted to believe the majority of students got in based on their academic credentials, despite mounting evidence that money and athletics were key—and that status begets status.
When the Wall Street Journal analyzed the data for the University of Notre Dame, the University of Virginia, and Georgetown University, reporters found that legacy applicants have twice the odds of acceptance compared to the overall applicant pool; that rises to four times the odds at Princeton. But Harvard “wins” this race, with legacy applicants admitted at five times higher rates.10 Certainly many of these kids do have the credentials to be admitted owing to the high level of academic attainment of their parents, but so do many other applicants. At a time when many top schools claim to be diversifying, this preference for legacy applicants is a smoke-and-mirrors game that fa- vors keeping the status quo in place, which means that the wealthy will continue taking up spots at elite schools. And this is also at a time when US university tuitions are skyrocketing and increasingly cost prohibitive.
The New York City private school culture made me want to scream. I listened to parents bad-mouth little children who got into the “good” preschools (“She’s not even smart!”). I heard mothers act sweet to each other and then tear each other apart privately for applying here or there. At the same time, I felt insecure enough to get sucked into it. What choice do I have? I wondered.
I’m not sure if those preschool parents were proud of trying to pull strings to get advantages for their kids, but when everyone seems to be doing it, then you’re disadvantaging your kid if you don’t, right? And, frankly, we all do whatever we can to help our kids. But how was I supposed to teach my kids a moral code if this is what was all around us? Was I going to let them absorb the lesson that entitlement starts in pre- school? That kids born into rich families get to skip the line and grab spaces at colleges they didn’t necessarily earn their way into? That the most “successful” kids never have to deal with failures or frustrations?
Even John Allman, the headmaster of the esteemed and monied private school Trinity, openly acknowledged the issue in a bombshell letter to parents in 2017, referenced in a September 22, 2017, article in the New York Times: “Can Prep Schools Fight the Class War?” In it, Allman called for renewed efforts to build community by teaching children to “serve the common good and to give generously to others for the rest of their lives.” Without more work toward socially redeeming purposes, he worried that parents look at Trinity as a “credentialing factory” and that its students will wind up as adults on “a comfortable perch atop a cognitive elite that is self-serving, callous, and spiritually barren.” He even went so far as to worry that Trinity had become no more than a “very, very, very expensive finishing school” for the majority of its students.
These schools can create and sustain a pipeline, a path to top universities, and those who follow this path can eventually wind up with a job that pays at least as well as their wealthy parents’ jobs. The pipeline isn’t just about learning. It is also about access to more advantages. But there needs to be more awareness and social responsibility to the greater community.
The list of donors and current parents at some preschools is a who’s who of Wall Street. I wasn’t comfortable as a child or now as a parent surrounding my kids with privilege and excess, pressured to measure up socially. Yet I felt like I was swirling around in a vortex, getting closer and closer to the center. I resisted the pressure to insert my kids into a system that perpetuates inequality. I felt lucky to have escaped my own childhood without adopting those same values myself. But I didn’t know how to get out without giving up on the idea of my children get- ting the best education. And I wasn’t sure what “the best” education even really meant.
My own schooling at Dalton and later at Rye Country Day was excellent—the best money could buy. I felt confident taking tests and filling out applications for college. I won awards. I had the social capital to know who to ask for answers for any question I had.
On the flip side, along with that elevated education came snobbery and elitism all around me: black-tie bat mitzvahs at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan on the weekend, holiday cards from classmates’ families showing them in front of the Taj Mahal or at the Louvre on extravagant vacations, and a disdain for any of the 99 percenters who didn’t have live-in housekeepers. And I remember the devastating personal blows I had to deal with, like my father’s poor health and then his death, which made me feel even more different. Being bicultural and raised by a single immigrant mother added a deeper and sometimes painful dimension to my life. My schools were not diverse by any stretch of the imagination and made no effort to change their student body. I didn’t wish the same experiences for my children, but I wanted my privileged Caucasian-looking children to earn grit their own way. I also wanted to raise them to embrace people from different cultures as their equals, in a way I never felt accepted as a child.
I wanted to give them experiences money couldn’t buy, that would teach them culture, independence, and all the things kids don’t learn when their parents are “networking” their childhood. But how could I?
It seemed that their whole future was preordained based on making the right chess moves now, even when those moves felt wrong. Why was I was falling into lockstep with the crowd around me? I’d never been a follower before, and my circumstances made me question everything.
Many people flee New York City when they have kids. They arrive there after college graduation for jobs, but then they get married, settle down, and wind up at a crossroads: Do they stay in this uber-competitive world, move to the suburbs, or go back to their hometown to raise kids? In New York, either you get out or you declare, “Game on!” and bare your teeth. But we had nowhere to go. This was our hometown