Saturday, May 02, 2009

tales from the cusp of a baby boom

(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.


  1. Wow! I just don't know what to say but wow. And that's just so ridiculous. My sympathies are with you in your situation!

  2. dang. . . just dang. I'm so sorry you were treated that way. It makes me so sad to hear about human beings treating other human beings that way. Jeesh.

  3. I had no idea, I always wondered whether the stories you hear in the media were slightly overblown and isolated to the very affluent. No wonder parents get a bit crazed. There are so many kids in this age group everywhere (my daughter entered kindergarten in a record sized class at her school this year.)

    A preschool director acting as she did...your daughter deserves better and so do all the other kids.

  4. Wow, Liesl. I am in shock! I will be praying for you and your family - that God will provide an opening, in a good place, for little Tsia. Wow. Wow. Wow.

  5. Aaack, what a nightmare! I live in London where the admissions process at the private preschools and regular schools is nowhere near so competitive or arbitrary.

  6. Oh Liesl, I am sorry. If you want to move out here to Grass Valley, CA, I know of a great school with openings for our little Tsia. Of course there are not some of the other opportunities that there are in NYC, but there is some great music as well as school openings!

    I agree with April about praying for a good spot for your little one where she will flourish.


  7. Wow!! My daughter is only 1.5 and I am already dreading figuring out where she is going to go to kindergarden! Good luck to you and your family!

  8. That's crazy. So what do you do with your kindergartner if you don't have a spot in the public schools and can't afford private? Do those kids get bused out to who knows where or are they just not allowed to go to school?

  9. i can understand the shortage but to be treated that way is outrageous! unfortunately, education problems don't seem to be any better in any other place or placed on a high priority list. praying for a solution for you!!

  10. Anonymous6:19 PM

    I don't know what to say to that. We private school our son and daughter, and while our city does not have a large selection of super outstanding over the top private schools, we do have several very good ones. They don't cost NEAR that much(somewhere between 7,000-14,000 for Kindergarten a year depending on the school.)NOBODY at any public or private school has ever treated me or the people I know that way. A school with an administration like that would not be tolerated here. Girl you need to move! We would love to have you here! NY is awesome awesome awesome, but there are lots of places in the country you could live and have better school experiences. Find an area you like and look for a school in that area which meets your criteria. You will most likely find something close to what you are looking for. Including courteous staff! Makes you wonder how they treat children that are sent to the office for correction....

  11. Wow, that's just so incredibly horrible that I really don't know what to say except I'm sorry. I hope that you can get something worked out and, if there's justice in the world, it'll be a better place for Tsia.

    My son is 19 months and we live in Chicago. I'm not sure what the situation is here but I appreciate your story since you've just prompted me to check into it.

    And again, I'm really sorry you were treated that way. There's really no excuse for that.

  12. Anonymous7:58 PM

    This is precisely the reason I want to move away from NYC when my son (now 22 months old) becomes school age. It is ridiculous and I can't believe that people put up with it year in and year out. I love NYC, but I will leave it in a heartbeat for better and MORE FAIR schooling for my son.

  13. I am so sorry! That is absolutely unacceptable. We are lucky to go to a wonderful UES preschool; where I can't imagine anyone being treated like that. I would write to the board of directors of the school. Good luck finding a good summer spot, and best of luck with the pre-k lottery!

  14. what a jerk!! Man, being a Mom is so tough having to worry about so many different things. I hope things work out for you.

  15. Wow. I'm speechless . . .

  16. Wow...I'm floored by your story. I had no idea getting in to school/going to school was like this in NY! I work with preschools & schools as a librarian here in Ohio and this story seems worlds away. How frustrating as a parent. Kids and families are getting left behind here. The behavior of that director is unacceptable! I am so sorry

  17. Anonymous7:14 AM

    Wow. What a terrible position that school administration has left you in. I'm so sorry! It's agonizing enough making sure your children are in their own best schooling environments but to be left with so few to no options must be heart wrenching right now.

    I'm blown away at how poorly NYC meets the demand for education. Shame on them. With all the taxes they collect in that's inexcusable.

  18. I live in Asheville, NC and one of my best friends moved here from NYC because of the very experience you describe. At some point for her, the benefits of living in such a fine city as NY fell away when faced with the education nightmare. She and her husband who are both from theatre backgrounds, have found fulfilling work and are very happy here.
    It is terrible that your system works (or rather doesn't) in the way it does. Makes you wonder what the situation is like for kids that live in the projects.
    Sorry and good luck in finding what you need!

  19. Anonymous9:27 AM

    Wow I couldn't even imagine what you are going through. I work in a preschool in alabama and I kow no one would ever be treated like that here. New York is hard core!! My prayers are with you. Good luck,

  20. Wow! I am completely appalled. I really feel for you....good luck finding a spot for Tsia.

  21. Okay, so you don't wamt Tsia going to a place where there isn't even common courtesy and decent manners anyway, I'm sure. You have to wonder how they treat the children who don't have the vocabulary yet to stand up to people like that. Being 'bored' with you for two months has got to be better than having her mistreated elsewhere. We have that kind of fight here in Canada for daycare spaces...........the minute you find out you are pregnant, you register for daycare (preschool) -its ridiculous.

  22. Unbelievable!!! All of it. Just all of it. And hard to imagine. I don't think any other start has that problem. Of course, I don't have any school age kids, but I know there's isn't a question of wether or not there is a spot for her at public school.

  23. I hear these kind of stories--but they are always unbelievable. So sorry.

  24. the same thing has been happening here in Baltimore city, md. Local school aren't all that great, but the standouts get hammered by this kind of thing. May I suggest looking towards nontraditional types of preschool, inhome teaching, a teacher who perhaps teaches on the side, montessori schools, camps for pre-k. Have you or are there other options that other parents have found that you can connect with?

    good luck

  25. Anonymous6:25 PM

    That is appalling. I think the silver lining is that your daughter didn't get in. You are meant to find something better. I remember having some hair-raising experiences with preschools before I found the right place for my kids. Good luck!
    "The bumps in the road ARE the journey." I am misquoting someone here, but that's the gist of it. Doesn't help much with those sleepless nights, however.

  26. Oh wow. Unbelieveable.

    Right from their website:
    "Eileen has developed staff development programs and projects to make parents feel they are part of a compassionate and supportive community."

    What a load of crap.

    And this:
    "Sara Curry Preschool provides a supportive environment where children can express their feelings freely and learn to respect the feelings of others."

    Obviously someone is expressing her feelings freely, but certainly I wouldn't trust them to teach my child to respect the feelings of others.

    It makes me spitting mad when parents are treated so poorly by people who are supposed to HELP their children.

    I hope you find someplace for Tsia.

  27. gosh, i am really upset reading this

    i live in australia & in the inner city where we live, 3 year old kinder places are in very high demand. many people will send their children to private school for kinder & then to a public school from prep, but no matter which road you go down it is stressful & highly competitive

    the thing that really upsets me for parents trying to find a spot for their kids (wherever in the world that you live) is that this is the beginning our our kids education & we want them to have the best start possible. this should be a right or all children & parents

    we have gone down the private school route (not as expensive here as in NY) & been lucky enough to get places for both our kids & have been treated with respect, warmth & kindness, but you should not have to pay for that privilege

    i wish you so much luck with your kinder search, i really hope that you find something that feels right...

    PS that kinder director is clearly in the wrong job

  28. wow, i'm shocked at that woman's behavior. i'm so sorry you're in this situation. fingers crossed for a speedy solution.

  29. I'm sickened by this - hearing what you went through and thinking about how I'll be in the same position, with possibly the same schools, in a few years.

    I hope you find something for the summer and next year that you and your daughter will be happy with.

  30. I hear these kind of stories--but they are always unbelievable. So sorry.In Italy the schools are only pubblic schools.
    The private schools are very expensive only for a few rich people.

  31. UGH - this is the case in Boston as well. Add to this the recent public school teacher lay-offs (no, not because of the economy, but because of mismanagement of stimulus funds. Apparently, the money will be used for "more basic things." More basic than teachers???? Hmmm...), and I am left feeling incredibly cynical about schooling...

  32. That is an incredible story. How terrible for you. I'm so sorry. What a mean lady. I probably would have broken down crying! We don't seem to have those issues here in Colorado at this time. Plenty of schools both public and private. I can't imagine. I hope you get it figured out. Does this mean a lot of kids are going to be home schooled?

  33. That's why we choose to homeschool our children...we don't have to rely on others to possess the ethics and virtues we want our children to be exposed to daily and hourly. We can create that environment at home. it's a sacrifice, but definitely worth it!

    Best to you in your dilemma!

  34. I hope you are thanking your lucky stars that there wasn't a place for your child at that school. With a director like that, one can only imagine how poorly the school is run!
    I think you may have some legal options regarding your kindergarten situation. I have a Master's degree in early childhood education and have four school-age children. According to U.S. law (not just State law), children of U.S. citizens are entitled to a FAPE (free, appropriate, public education). While most States have a say-so in local education issues, they must comply with Federal law in order to qualify for Federal funding. That means that is is the LEA's (local education agency) job to make sure that they have plenty of classroom space available for every qualifying child in a neighborhood school. If the LEA is unable to provide this, then parents have a right to demand that the LEA provide a free, appropriate, PRIVATE education (they pay, not you). The local LEA where you live may balk and try to divert/bus your child to a less crowded school, but you could definitely argue the "appropriateness" of that. I'm sure most parents are unaware of their legal rights in regards to the education of their children. I know you are incredibly busy, but I believe this issue is worth researching. I am sure other parents are as frustrated as you are. Good luck!

  35. Anonymous2:40 AM

    wow i had no idea NY schools were so crazy right now. i looked on the website for that teacher and the only one that looks more scary then her is the dance teacher.. EEK. I think it's a good thing you saw the truth about that school first hand before letting your baby go there. maybe all for the best anyway!

  36. How can the state government not provide enough school slots, isn't attending school required by law? It just doesn't make sense to me, especially in a city as rich as NYC. What does happen to all the kids who don't get a school placement?

  37. Anonymous8:40 PM

    okay I understand your anger, but at the same time I work with children and it sort of seems like you are teaching your children to judge people (by you commenting on the dance teacher). Who cares what she looks like, she is probably an amazing person. Before you judge people, remember that you don't want your children judging people based on looks.

  38. Schools were one of the things that drove us out of the city. We moved to the burbs when our twins were four because I just couldn't go through the schools process again after the horror of getting into a preschool. Like you, I am no interested in a socially well-connected school, just a good education at a reasonable price. With twins and without a giant trust fund or a good public school, we just couldn't face that 32K a year x 2.

    Happy to report that I love the suburban, public school my boys attend.

    Good luck! Don't let the bast*** grind you down.

  39. Anonymous6:20 PM

    I REALLY feel for you and your family. My husband and I lived in NYC for 10 years. I had my daughter there and had just started the preschool search when I found out we were being transferred with my husband's job. I was there just long enough to know exactly what you're going through. To say I was stressed was an understatement. When I found out we were leaving I was sad to leave NY, but THRILLED not to have to go through the application process (and expense) for preschool (and beyond). The schools we were looking at for preschool were more than I paid for four years of university education. Crazy. And stressful. All I can say is hang in there and good luck!

  40. That's awful! So sorry...

  41. Anonymous1:57 PM

    So sorry to hear that but a similar situation happened to me too when evaluating the program for my son. I applied way in advance for a full time spot only to find out that they lost my application and was only able to give me three days. No apologies no nothing. This probably worked out for the best as we went to My Little Village on Avenue A. My son had a fantastic experience there. They might have summer spots available there.

  42. Anonymous10:36 PM

    Sorry to hear about your bad experience. The Director at Little Mish should be expelled!!!!

    You can also check Village Pre School in Greenwich Village, University Nursery school, Little Red, but I know they already have a waiting list. Good Luck.

  43. I live on the other side of the country, but work for a program called Child Care Resource and Referral that is part of a national network. Something you might try (though it may not be exactly what you had in mind) is calling your local office (I think you can find it on this page:
    And ask them to pull a list of referrals for you. Everyone in the database is licensed, and you can specify that you would like to find someone that is accredited and also something with a "preschool component" or "montessori component" or "emergent curriculum." Often times the CCR&R database will have providers in it that are not listed in the phonebook, and they can do a search specific to your needs. Here in Washington, the service is free, but that may not be the case where you are. I know you are looking for a school program, and not child care, but sometimes the two merge and it might be worth it to try this sort of searching tool...

  44. Shame on Eileen Johnson!!!

  45. Anonymous8:42 PM

    Thank you for posting this. I was thinking of applying for my son for pre-k at Sara Curry Preschool. On second thought, I don't think so.