By Alina Adams
Three separate intelligence tests. Multi-page applications. Essays. Interviews. Tours. A list of achievements. Letters of recommendation. A one in 12 acceptance rate. Ivy League university admissions? No. New York City private school kindergarten. And the public school process is no better.
Local, zoned schools are overcrowded to the point where even long-time neighborhood residents can’t be guaranteed a spot and are put on wait-lists that stretch into August. Unzoned schools hold lotteries due to overwhelming demand and turn away hundreds. Citywide Gifted & Talented programs last year saw over 1,000 children qualify for only 250 seats spread out over five different boroughs.
Getting your child into kindergarten in NYC is a year-long job that kicks off 12 months before they even enter the building. And I am smack-dab in the middle of it.
You’d think, since I’m on my third child, I’d be an old pro at this by now. Why can’t my daughter just go to the school where her older brothers go? Because. Her older brothers go to an all-boy school. Very, very bad planning on my part, I learned much too late to do anything about. (I also learned that the worst thing you can do in NYC is have a baby in August if you’re planning on private school, or December if you’re thinking public. They end up being the youngest in the class, and often either miss out on the most academically competitive programs, or are asked to stay back a year. After two boys born in the summer, my mother remarked how “lucky” it was that my daughter arrived in January.
“Lucky?” I asked. “Lucky? You think it was an accident? I’m finally getting the hang of this!”) So now we’re thick in the process of finding a kindergarten for our daughter. Everyone tells me, “Make sure it’s a good “fit” for you and your family.”
Okay-dokey, do let me know where exactly a bilingual (English/Russian) daughter of a Soviet-born Jewish mother and African-American father is expected to “fit,” precisely. We’ve certainly looked everywhere: All-girls schools (my husband reminded me, “You know how I love all things WASP.”), Jewish Day Schools
(most of which couldn’t have been happier to see us walk through their doors, but one that took a single look at my husband and I and politely demurred, “It’s not that you wouldn’t be a good fit for our school. It’s that our school wouldn’t be a good fit for you.”), secular co-eds only a few years old, and schools with traditions that go back literally hundreds of years (one claims to be the first to have educated newly freed slaves and immigrants – how apropos!).
We looked at progressive schools and traditional schools (my husband is a teacher; we describe ourselves as Educational Fascists). We looked at schools for children who score highly in the aforementioned three separate IQ tests (different ones are required in NYC for selective admission to private school, public school, and one university lab school), and schools who swear they are able to teach any child. We’ve been to the Upper East Side, all up and down the West, and took the train to Harlem.
No one is going to be able to claim we didn’t look broadly enough. But, here’s the dirty, little secret of school admissions (well, other than the part where we pretend the choice is in any way ours, rather than theirs; the only true choice we parents have is in deciding where not to apply): The secret is, while my husband and I know what we want in a school, we honestly have no idea what would, in fact, be best for our daughter.
Because she is – say it with me now – 4 years old.
She is adorable and winsome and exasperating. She loves to sing and dance (truly, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a preschooler mangle Sondheim), and put on shows with her dolls and wrestle with her brothers and listen to me read
(endlessly) through Beverly Cleary, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and The Magic Tree House
. But, what kind of school does she need to guarantee turning into a lifelong learner and all-around successful human being? No clue.
With our 12 year old, who will be looking at high-schools next year, we have some sense of who he is and what he’s interested in and how he learns best. (In fact, several of the schools we visited for our daughter, we walked out of saying, “Don’t know if it’s the right school for her, but it sounds like a perfect fit for him!”)
My 8-year old got even more short-changed. He simply went to the same school his brother went to. Because it made my life easier. And that’s just how we roll.
Even though our two sons are as different as two kids – much less ones growing up in the same family – can be, they’ve both thrived at their Upper East Side, (quite WASP), all-boys school. Which maybe goes to suggest that the much-lauded, elusive “fit” isn’t particularly important (in addition to being most-likely unattainable). A good school is a good school is a good school. They know how to make all sorts of children feel welcomed and engaged and supported (while also pushing them to achieve; see Educational Fascists, above).
Or maybe, more than anything, our experience with the process merely supports the mountains of cognitive research that prove once a decision has been made – even if it’s one people were initially unhappy with, like an election – the human brain is wired to make the best of it, and everyone eventually ends up satisfied with their outcome.