New York’s wealthiest parents always knew-and feared-that, someday, it had to happen. And on Feb. 18, 2000, it did.
That’s the day the city’s 69 private schools mailed out their letters of admission and rejection to the kindergarten class of 2001. Almost immediately, a collective “Waaaaa” could be heard from Park Avenue to Central Park West. And the echo shows no signs of fading.
For the first time on record, children graduating from Manhattan’s private nursery schools-at least 60 kids, by some estimates up to 150-have failed to land spots in any private school. Since then, anxious parents and nursery school directors have been scrambling to find places for the stranded tots.
“It was a difficult year for everybody,” said Dr. Elisabeth Krents, the director of admissions at the Dalton School First Program. “I felt terrible when parents were calling and wanted the spaces.”
Beneath the frenzy lies an uncomfortable truth: There are few, if any, spaces to be had. The waiting lists at most private schools are stagnant or closed to new names. Nursery schools that once landed their students in elite private schools as a matter of course are telling the bewildered and angry parents to look at… public schools. Even the top-notch Episcopal School, according to sources close to the school, had several-by most estimates six-children from its graduating class of 2000 without spaces in private schools. Cheryl Anton Kelly, the director of the Episcopal School, declined to comment. The Dwight School, a second-tier private school, is considering opening an additional section of kindergarten in response to increased applications.
Cynthia Bing, head of the school advisory service for the Parents League of New York, a nonprofit counseling group, said she’s never seen anything like it. “We’ve never had any 5-year-old children sitting on our doorstep looking for spaces. Sure, we’ve had the usual Sturm und Drang with parents unhappy with where their children were accepted, but this year we have families with no school to send their children to at all.” Ms. Bing said she had a premonition that this year might be a bad one. “The economy is hot. New York is hot. I told the parents that in previous years we could guarantee that their children could be placed. I did not make that guarantee this year.”
While the Parents League estimated the number of stranded students to be somewhere between 60 and 75, Sandy Bass, the publisher of the monthly journal, The Private School Insider , said the number is more like 150.
“I started getting calls in here like crazy,” Ms. Bass said. “People have been banging away here all throughout March. ‘What am I going to do?’ I got phone calls from people that were not even subscribers. They’d say, ‘Oh, my God. My child didn’t get in. I’m not on a waiting list. What should I do?’ I’d say, ‘You have to work with your nursery schools directly.’ They would say, ‘But my daughter is very smart.’ So they’d fax me their children’s E.R.B. [Educational Records Bureau] scores. They were desperate for anything. For reaffirmation that there wasn’t anything wrong. Of course, there’s nothing I can do. It’s not what I do. I’d tell them this and they’d send me them anyway, saying, ‘Maybe you can explain what’s going on.’”
“We don’t consider this over at all,” vowed Patricia Girardi, executive director of the Parents League. “We like to think that these children will be placed between now and September. The dust hasn’t settled yet.”
One parent whose daughter attends Episcopal had applied with some confidence to Chapin. “I had support at Chapin, and the support of the head of Episcopal that Chapin was the appropriate choice,” said the parent. “We had friends on the board, people we knew who were big parents on the board with children at the school. It’s never a done deal, but we felt pretty confident about it. And at Spence, which is just as hard a school to get into, we had no support and we didn’t ask anyone at Spence. Because you can’t really ask people at Spence to help you when you know you have people bucking for you at Chapin. But lo and behold, Spence wanted her and took her and Chapin did not.”
To most administrators and parents, the overflow of students came as a complete surprise. Lydia Spinelli, director of the Brick Church nursery school and co-chair of the Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater New York, said, “It does appear that there were more children applying this year. Initially we thought that was due to an increase in the number of applications per student, but it appears that there were more children.”
Said one Upper West Side parent, “I just don’t think that the directors of the schools were ready for this. They weren’t able to communicate to the parents what a difficult year it might have been.”
And so 2000 may well mark the year that the traditional arithmetic of the city’s private schools irrevocably changed.
It used to be so simple. Once you got your child in a fancy nursery school-and that was relatively easy, because how many other parents would shell out thousands of dollars for a nursery school?-your child’s future was set. After nursery school came a fancy private school. Then the Ivy League. In other words, the so-called “feeder school” theory, long denied by school officials but treated as gospel on the greens of Shinnecock and on Upper East Side playground benches.
But that formula has gone the way of the Old Math. Money has always made a difference, sure, but now there’s a lot more of it floating around. “There may be families who are so wealthy that the schools can’t turn them down, but there are so many people with money ready to make donations that it is not really a factor,” said Mitten Wainwright, the director of the Park Avenue Christian Church Day School.
“Connections have always worked and I’m sure they always will, but when you’re in a city like New York and a borough like Manhattan, everyone is connected in one way or another,” said Ms. Bass of the Private School Insider . “The landscape is changing here. It’s upper middle class parents and moneyed parents who are going to feel the pinch.”
“There is no need for hysteria!” insisted Victoria Goldman, the co-author of The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools . She said the simple solution to ambitious parents’ worries is, well, not to be so ambitious. “Any nursery school director worth their salt will make sure that their families apply to this range of schools. If children apply to a variety of schools, some less demanding than others, they will absolutely 100 percent gain admission to a New York City private school. Isn’t it just common sense?”
But many nursery school parents refuse to listen to their director’s advice. According to Ms. Wainwright, “There are a number of families who will apply to three top schools and say, ‘Well, if I don’t get into these, then I’ll just go to public schools.’ And then when they don’t get in, they don’t like the options.”
School administrators knew that applications to kindergarten were up, but many thought the increase was explained by the fact that parents were applying to as many as 12 schools at a time, rather than to the traditional three or four. But gradually the truth dawned: The increase in applications came because there were more kids. Lots more.
“The economy is good so that more people have more money to spend on independent schools and [there are more] families that hadn’t considered independent schools in the past,” said Park Avenue Christian’s Ms. Wainwright. “There’s a larger pool applying, too, from minority students. Schools have been trying to reach out to families that hadn’t considered independent schools in the past.”
Peggy Marble, director of the Christ Church Day School, said, “We’re guessing there are about 150 more applicants into a situation that was already extremely tight. Certainly the economy is playing a role here. Some of those applications came from people who might have had their children in their local public schools, but now that they have more money, they are considering independent schools. There are also more families with three or four kids, which raises the sibling situation. Schools always like to take siblings if possible. The legacies make it hard for admissions directors.”
“We had more siblings than usual,” said Richard Blumenthal, headmaster of the Dalton School. “It was an upward blip. Almost half our class will be either siblings or alumnae.”
There’s also been a change in the practice of writing “first place letters,” a tradition in which parents tell a school that it is their first choice, and that if their child is accepted, he or she will definitely attend. According to many private school administrators, parents have recently been abusing the practice by writing two or more first choice letters. And this year, the Independent Schools Admissions Association advised schools not to recommend writing letters. “That was an experiment that didn’t work,” said Ms. Bing.
“Parents were told not to send a letter to declare a first choice school, and this created a lot of confusion at some of the schools,” Ms. Bass said. “Because generally schools like to know where the parents like to go.”
About this year’s admissions crisis, Christ Church’s Ms. Marble concluded, “It’s big mess. A lot of people are saying now is the time to start a new school. There are definitely enough kids to fill it.”
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