(Let me start this long post with a note. If you’re a regular reader, you’ll probably want to read this whole post. But if you’ve found this because you’re a parent researching the Sara Curry Preschool at Little Missionary's Day Nursery, you may want to skip to the end. You’re already living what’s in the first half.)
My sister in Chicago emailed me the other day with a link to a TV program that will be airing sometime soon. I forget exactly what the details were, but the topic of the show was the cut-throat competitiveness required to get a child into a good New York school.
You’ve heard this story before, right? The media resurrects the story every year. The trouble is, it’s always presented wrong.
Every time I’ve seen any sort of “expose” of New York schools, it focuses on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and getting into the “right” school. Parents do all sorts of crazy and even unethical things to get their child into the preschool or private school of their choice. (Remember the Salomon Smith Barney equity analyst Jack Grubman who upped his rating on AT&T stock in order to get his twins into a certain preschool?)
Inevitably, this makes all New York parents look ridiculous. Personally, I would prefer that my daughter not go to school with well-connected social climbers of the moneyed set. I want her to get a good education and have a happy childhood, and I think it’s more difficult to do that when other parents of children in the class have different priorities.
I’ve mentioned this struggle before, but so far I haven’t really seen the story told of how regular parents fight (and often fail) to get what would be considered a choice-of-last-resort in another other American city—a slot in what’s no more than an average kindergarten or preschool program.
I’m going to tell that story. It’s not a sensationalistic one like TV producers prefer. I’m not going to set up a nouveau-riche, social-climbing straw man just to knock him down. But I am going to tell you about what’s happening today in New York because of the imbalance between supply and demand.
There was a story in the New York Times yesterday about the shortage of kindergarten space in New York City public schools. The article talks about how too many children are still on waiting lists for kindergarten assignments for next fall, and how their parents are panicking that there won’t be a school for their child to attend. Any school. No one at the Board of Education, it appears, tracks birth rates in the City and plans for what the school system’s capacity will need to be in coming years.
Some public schools in this city are good, and others are not so great. The situation is especially bad in neighborhoods with good schools. Parents with young children move into these neighborhoods to be able to send their kids to the local public school. But these schools don’t have space. The article talks about one family whose child is number 79 on a wait list that’s 90 children long to get into one of the two neighborhood public schools.
It’s that bad here, and it’s only going to get worse in the next few years. “Suck it up and send your kid to a private school,” you’re thinking. You don’t know New York, do you? Private school slots are as difficult to get here, and the median price of private school tuition in Manhattan is $32,000 a year. Yes, $32,000 a year. For kindergarten.
This is what we have to look forward to when we start applying to kindergarten programs for S next year. And while we haven’t even really entered the system yet, we’re already starting to see what the experience will be like.
We’re currently in the lottery for one of the coveted slots in a “Universal Pre-K” program for next year. That’s what they call it in New York State, but the “Universal” part is a misnomer. Since a pre-K program isn’t required by law (even though our lawmakers have said that they want pre-K programs to be available to all New Yorkers), there’s no guarantee that a child will get into one. (If you’re interested, there was a good article in the Times about this a while ago, too.) There are many, many more applicants than spots available. One of Tsia’s current classmates lives in a district in Brooklyn that will only have spaces for 10% of applicants.
So as a parent, can you hedge your bets by joining the lottery for the universal pre-K program and fall back on a private-school option if you don’t get in? Unfortunately, not. The way the Board of Education sets the timing for the process, it’s impossible to both go for a pre-K slot and register for a private pre-K program. Private programs require commitment and significant deposits more than a month before the pre-K applications are even due for the public school system.
Are you seeing a trend here? Any slot in any program is coveted. Nothing is guaranteed. No matter what you do as a parent, you run the risk that your child will be left without an option. But the competition for slots in any sort of program starts even early than kindergarten and pre-K. It trickles all the way down to preschool programs.
The exceptional co-op preschool where we send S will be closed for the months of July and August, and I need to find a spot for her for these months. Last month I registered her for a summer preschool program at a new school, the Sara Curry Preschool at Little Missionary's Day Nursery in the East Village. I’ve heard decidedly mixed reviews of the school from parents who send their children there, but when we contacted the school they told us they had plenty of summer openings and we were welcome to join. I figured it was just for two months. Even if the program was just OK, it was the bridge we needed.
We signed up for the summer, confirmed that we had a space, and were told to bring payment on May 1. Whew! What a relief. I’ve got a lot of projects this summer, and Tsia loves school so much I was afraid she would be bored hanging out with me for two months.
Yesterday I went to the school to pay my deposit. May 1, right on time as requested. When I went to the office they pulled my paperwork and informed that, in fact, no space was available for us afterall. The school gave me no advance notice of this—even though they must have known some time ago that they had oversold their program. There was no apology. No suggestion of other programs in the area that might still have space. They just told me that they now had too many students for the summer program and that we no longer had a space. Period.
I asked to speak with the director about this, to see if there was anything we could do. When the director, Eileen Johnson, was called she stormed into the room looking for a fight. She snapped that she was too busy to talk to me and that it was my tough luck that they didn’t have any space left. When I tried to ask her why this had happened, she repeated, “I’m busy. I don’t have time to talk to you.” I called my husband on my cell phone to see if she would speak with him. I got him on the line, and she said, “I’m not talking to your husband.” She turned her back on me, and as she was breezing out of the office she snapped, “Be sure to close the door behind you on your way out.”
Really? Can the director of a preschool that gets mixed reviews from parents who send their kids there get away with treating the families of potential students this way? What does this say about how she treats the children and families who make it into her program?
Unfortunately, in New York today this is how too many parents are treated by the educational institutions they are reliant on. And apparently many schools think that it’s fine because there is no shortage of children lining up for the rare openings at their schools—even at schools like the Sara Curry Preschool at Little Missionary's Day Nursery. When demand exceeds supply this strongly, it’s a seller’s market. Courtesy, ethics, decency, and professionalism be damned.