I first considered preschool when my daughter was six months old — friends of ours were surprised that we hadn’t thought about it even earlier. When we started actively applying 18 months later, we found the process overwhelming. Sure, I’d heard of the documentary “Nursery University” and the rumors of Manhattan private school madness, but I hadn’t realized that this issue would actually affect me directly.
Our friends were not “Park Avenue primates” or the hedge fund/bagel moguls portrayed in Bravo’s “Odd Mom Out,” but rather hard-working physicians who were committed to eventually sending their daughter to their local public school. This was a few years ago, before universal pre-kindergarten (UPK) was launched in NYC. The few seats in public preschools, however, typically went to siblings of current students attending the attached elementary schools. Our chums were concerned about how they would educate their child in the preschool years in a city where it had been incredibly difficult — impossible for most — to get a seat in a public pre-K program.
My husband and I are both foreign — he’s from the U.K.; I’m from Canada (where childcare is $7 a day, as my parents continually remind me) — and in the exhausted throes of raising our first baby, this hit us: We didn’t know how the education system worked here.
I grew up in a chaotic, complicated family, and school had always been a structured savior for me — it was important. And so we began to research the preschool world.
Considering the Options
Many of our friends had clear goals for the preschools they were seeking. Some knew they wanted to send their child to private elementary school, so they sought “feeder preschools” that eased both the access to and preparation for those later schools. Others were driven by a philosophy, knowing they only wanted a German school, or a Spanish classroom, or arts-based instruction, or the Waldorf method. One of our friends was divorced, so his preschool decision was based on location — he sought a school midway between his and his ex’s apartments.
Balancing the Priorities
We were all from families with two working parents who were trying to balance not only life and work considerations, but also questions about child care, learning approaches, and the costs associated with each option. Some schools ran full-day programs, while others were in session for only eight hours per week. While certain schools may have been a perfect pedagogical fit, they could also have offered very limited financial aid.
Embarking on the Search
My husband and I were not nearly as prepared — we didn’t know what we wanted. So, when our daughter was turning two and we needed to take active steps if we hoped to enroll her in school, we spent several months visiting preschools to determine our own preferences. This, in turn, helped us think about what we wanted for our daughter. Sure, he and I had had “values conversations” before she was born, but once we became parents, unexpected feelings and ideas from our own childhoods came to the surface, pressing us to revisit many of those earlier discussions. And, as time passed, our girl grew into more and more of an individual who allowed us to see, in tiny glimpses, what type of education might suit her. We had to consider this as well as what would suit us best as a family.
Expending Effort and Making Choices
As a learning process, applying to preschools was stressful. Also, it was madly time-consuming. (Wait, shouldn’t I be spending this time with my kid? Wait, there’s a two-hour PowerPoint presentation at 10 a.m., and I have to listen to it while sitting on a miniscule stool? I have a job.) What’s more, we’d soon be faced with our first yeas and nays for our little star munchkin.
There were just so, so many options to consider, too — a circumstance that was overwhelming and crazy, and quite wonderful at the same time. We met interesting teachers and school directors, learned about many pedagogical approaches, and gawped at the parent and toddler facilities (a pottery studio?!).
At the end of the day, we knew we’d get in somewhere, but, like with most things parenting, hearing from people who’d gone through the process was invaluable.
To that end, I hope that some or all of this series is helpful if you’re embarking on the wonderful, wacky world of private preschool admissions.
Follow these links to read about my experience, and the lessons I learned, for each step of this process: