Mrs. G. recalls it as "the darkest year of my life." She cried all the time. She had trouble speaking in complete sentences. She lost 15 pounds. One of her friends remembers fearing that the stylish blond mother of two, and owner of both an Upper East Side apartment and a Long Island beachfront home, was suicidal.
A child stricken with cancer? The collapse of her husband's business? The death of a beloved parent? Menopause? No, the darkest year of Mrs. G.'s life came the year her son was rejected from kindergarten.
It's hard to imagine writing such a sentence as anything other than a joke, but for members of New York's elite like Mrs. G., kindergarten is an intensely serious business, given the status anxiety that besets even—perhaps especially—the elites, in a dizzyingly meritocratic society. Between a baby boom and an economic boom that have sharpened competition, getting your child into one of the city's select private schools has become a grueling, multi-year competition, with its own rules, code language, and intrigue. It's a mean competition, too—one that can turn sensible, mannerly, child-loving parents and educators into hard, calculating, and paranoid operators. (Almost everyone interviewed for this article insisted that she not be quoted by name and that all identifying characteristics be disguised. "I can't talk about it," one mother of twins announced, banging down the phone.)
That applying to kindergarten should become such a cutthroat business is doubtless an only-in-New-York phenomenon, intertwined with New Yorkers' considerable self-regard. If Mr. and Mrs. Big have made it here, then their children have to make it here too; they must "take their rightful places as leaders in the world tomorrow," as the promotional literature from Chapin, one of the city's toniest girls' schools, puts it. Still, if this Park Avenue version of the game of Survivor is something of a cultural oddity, the attitude toward young children that it imposes is not. The pint-size contestants of the jungles of Gotham are merely the most striking example of a profound change in American sentiments about early childhood, as our meritocratic knowledge economy transforms toddlerhood from a mommy-and-me period of fantasy and free play to turbocharged years of resumé-building and networking.
The 70-odd private schools in or near Manhattan are a varied lot, but with few exceptions they share one notable quality: age. They have the mystique of wood-paneled privilege that is hard to manufacture anew and that continues to radiate the glamour that makes even pop divas like Madonna aspire to Scottish castles and English nannies. Many of these schools are housed in fine, old Upper East Side buildings or ivy-covered campuses; students often wear uniforms, including blazers or kilts; they honor traditions like teas and Founder's Days; they may even call teachers "Sir." History has given each of these institutions a unique character. Towne and Allen-Stevenson are small, traditional schools with a neighborhood tone; Little Red Schoolhouse and Trevor Day have a staunchly 1920s left-wing feel; Grace Church, Marymount, and Sacred Heart have proud religious affiliations.
But it is what Victoria Goldman, co-author of The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools, calls the Baby Ivies that are the million-dollar prize of this Survivor game. These are the crème de la crème, the Harvard, Yale, and Princeton of the K-12 set. Decades ago, these schools could easily be divided into two broad categories. The coed, progressive schools—Dalton, Fieldston, Friends Seminary, Horace Mann, Riverdale, and St. Ann's—appealed to New York's artistic and intellectual elite. The unisex traditional schools—Buckley, Collegiate, St. Bernard's, and Trinity (now coed) for boys or Brearley, Chapin, Nightingale-Bamford, and Spence for girls—educated the children of the Protestant establishment, at least until adolescence, when many of the boys went on to board at Groton and Choate. (St. Bernard's and Buckley still only go up to ninth grade.) These days, all the schools pride themselves on a progressive, multicultural curriculum that counts as today's conventional wisdom; you would be just as likely to find a first-grade "interdisciplinary project" on Eskimos at Collegiate as at Dalton and a tenth-grade African-American literature course at Spence as at Fieldston. All of them "respect different learning styles." Yet despite the trendy veneer, the curricula remain fairly rigorous, and the schools still turn out graduates who know the difference between a Van Gogh and a Vermeer, speak French, and play decent tennis.
At one time, getting into these schools, even the Baby Ivies, wasn't hard. Up until the end of the hat-and-white-glove decade of the fifties, your child's school simply reflected the Natural Order of Things. She went to Spence, he went to St. Bernard's—or Dalton or Horace Mann if you were Jewish—in the same way that you belonged to Brick Church or Temple Emanu-El or that tulips bloomed on the central strip of Park Avenue in the spring. But by the sixties, a burgeoning upper middle class of businessmen and professionals, many of them Jewish, began knocking on the doors of the clubby Protestant schools. At the same time, the emerging vision of meritocracy that was leading Ivy League colleges to prize brains over breeding was filtering down to the city's private schools. At least when it came to their children's schooling, it was beginning to seem that the rich could no longer afford to be careless. As of 1968, The New York Times Guide to New York City Private Schools was reporting growing anxiety among Manhattan parents: "As a dinner party conversation, [private school] is beginning to replace such subjects as the shortage of apartments and household help." Rumor had it that Brearley was actually turning down the "academically below par" children of wealthy alumnae!
Still, between stagnant birth rates, economic downturns, and a stock-market crash, the competition to get into private school over the next several decades never went too far beyond genteel. The same could not be said of the nineties. Applications to private kindergarten increased by some 25 percent between the beginning and the end of the decade. One mother applying to Friends Seminary two years ago was told that the school had enough applicants to fill up seven kindergartens. In each of the past two years, some 100 nursery schoolers failed to be admitted to any tony kindergarten.
To ensure that their children get in somewhere, parents now apply to ten or even 12 schools, some of them in godforsaken Brooklyn. Brooklyn Friends has seen a 35 percent increase in applicants in the past several years, a significant number of them Manhattanites. Poly Prep, in other-side-of-the-tracks Bay Ridge (once best known as the location for the disco movie Saturday Night Fever), now boasts 25 percent of its student body from Manhattan, up from 5 percent only ten years ago. And "boasts" is the correct word: except for the eccentric and prestigious St. Ann's, Brooklyn schools are the Appalachian cousins of the Baby Ivies and take great pride in the number of their Manhattan applicants; they manage to let prospective parents hear about it on tours and in interviews.
So keen is the kindergarten competition that it has trickled down to the nursery schools. Manhattan parents have always banked on the assumption that getting their three-year-old into a "feeder" nursery that has traditionally sent its children on to the top-tier elementary schools would assure them of one of those coveted spots. Last year, however, for the first time in anyone's memory, some of the city's most elite nursery schools saw families like Mrs. G.'s rejected from all their choices. This has only spread the Survivor frenzy to the city's elite nursery schools. Manhattan parents are now applying to six or seven nursery schools. Several years ago, the 92nd Street YMHA, a school whose director, according to the parents' grapevine, has a way with Baby Ivy admissions people, held eight meetings for prospective parents, some of them packed with 50 families. The school had only 25 openings and applications from so many sisters of current students that they told the desperate masses, "If you're a girl, don't apply."
Just about everyone points to four reasons for this crush of ambitious tots. First, a record number of births nationwide—the "baby boom echo"—has hit densely populated New York especially hard. The city's public schools had the biggest jump in enrollment in 1997–98 of any school system in the country; the Big Apple's comfortable private schools are part of the same trend. Also, more families with school-age children want to stay in New York, because (Reason Two), with lower crime rates and a less in-your-face street life, Gotham has become a more family-friendly town, and (Reason Three) the bustling economy means that more people can afford private school—which is saying a good deal when kindergarten tuitions hover around $14,000. It used to be that families headed to Scarsdale or Chappaqua when their firstborn hit school age, but today private schools are seeing plenty of three- and even four-child families. Finally, like colleges, private schools increasingly want to recruit a diverse student body. Jackie Pelzer, executive director of Early Steps, which guides neophyte minority parents through the application process, reports that last year she placed 125 children, by far the largest number since the organization was founded in 1986.
Add the diversity imperative to the number of children of alumni and siblings of current students, both of whom get preferential treatment in admissions, and what you have left is only a handful of openings. One Upper East Side nursery school director making her routine yearly phone call to discuss her applicant pool was told by the director of admissions at one top school: "We're only looking for diversity. We're not interested in your Caucasian kids."
But though no one likes to talk about it, there is more at work here than increased demand. The Darwinian struggle for a private kindergarten spot is also evidence of the triumph of the cognitive elitism that began in the sixties. The meritocracy has arrived at the playground. As a general rule, the more prestigious the private school, the more aggressively brainy the kids. To get your child into Collegiate or Horace Mann (a school where, legend has it, parents chanted, "Our SAT's are higher than yours!" during a soccer game against Fieldston) is to confirm that he is one of the cognitive elect. "Old-money parents were not out to impress anyone; they just wanted to be with their own kind," explains Ronald Bazarini, author of Boys: A Schoolmaster's Journal and a teacher at St. Bernard's for 25 years before retiring five years ago. The new-money parents of today are a different matter. Their children's school reflects their most revered quality, their own intelligence. As a result, according to Barbara Root, director of admissions at Sacred Heart, the school becomes part of a "product orientation—measurable success: where you go to college, what kind of job you have."
Making things more loaded for today's parents is that other sources of identity and status have faded in significance. For Manhattan's hereditary ruling class, the private school was only one of many signifiers. For the educated elites who now dominate Manhattan, school, appropriately enough, dominates. "Private schools have replaced the church and country club," says Russell Pennoyer, a St. Bernard's alumnus who has served on its board and is the parent of three private-school children. "It's where you look for your social set." The authors of The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools quip that "The Headmaster's Circle," a select group of large donors at some schools, is "the 90's equivalent of The Social Register." One mother I interviewed described how her daughter's nursery school director gently suggested that the child would be happier at a "nurturing" (read: less academically high-pressure) school like Hewitt instead of Spence, the high-powered school she had hoped for. I asked another director about Hewitt. "I have plenty of families who would rather die than say their child goes to Hewitt," she sniffed. "It paints 'loser' on your forehead." In short, your child's perceived brain power says a lot about who you are in New York City.
So, just how do admissions directors measure braininess in a four-year-old? Through an IQ test, the revised Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence, required of all children applying to kindergarten in Manhattan private schools. Actually, people never call it an IQ test; they refer to it as the ERB, after the Educational Records Bureau that administers it. One Upper East Side nursery school director speculates that today many schools base 50 percent of their decision on IQ scores. "Now I hear all the time 'He didn't do so well on his mazes [one of the tasks on the ERB].' You never heard that ten years ago. [At that time] I could have said to a director of admissions, 'We have a wonderful child,' and they would take another look. Now they say, 'No. I can see this dumpling is adorable, but his fine motor skills are a little weak.'"
Given the size of the stakes, parents go into full battle mode over the ERBs. They buy workbooks of mazes and shapes; they ask their child's nursery school to practice ERB-type tasks in class, which many of them do. Some families hire tutors, though they never call them that. When I asked one Upper East Side child psychologist if she knew of any children being tutored for the ERB, she said no—before proceeding to describe how she had placed her own child in a program "to develop his fine motor skills." Bellen Nicholson, a private tutor, recalls asking one of her clients if she could give her name as a recommendation. The woman refused: "I think this program is wonderful," she explained, "but this is my find. I will not share it." Actually, the unspoken rule is that you never allow anyone to know your child is being tutored. People don't schedule play dates for at least an hour after Nicholson leaves their home, to avoid the danger of a nanny-spy barging in on a session, partly because parents want their child to seem effortlessly brilliant, sprezzatura for the educated elites.
Aside from the ERBs, the schools also try to weed out the master race from the adorable dumplings by age. To be considered for kindergarten at most schools, a child has to be five by either September 1 or October 1. But the simple truth is, older kids tend to know more than younger kids. Parents figured this out a while ago; they've been holding the applications of their late-summer babies back a year, hoping that the child will have a better shot at impressing an interviewer. Now schools are joining them at this game; several of them have informed nursery school directors that this year they're not looking for young birthdays—meaning June, July, or August. Why? Simple, one nursery school director answers: "They're looking for bigger, better, stronger children."
To be fair, they're looking for bigger and better children because they believe that school is harder than it once was. Maggie Granados, head of admissions at Berkeley Carroll, a small, second-tier Brooklyn school, says that, because of more preschool and parental tutoring, she is seeing so many kindergartners who are strong readers that she is no more impressed than she used to be if a child could tie his shoes. "It's not their parents' kindergarten," Granados cautions.
The result is an admissions process that is not for the tender-hearted. Take this statement from one nursery school director: "I have one family this year with a son at a well-known coed school. They want a very competitive girls' school; they've limited themselves to the Ivy League. But the child is totally ordinary. She clung to her mother during one interview. [The Baby-Ivy-bound four-year-old is far too self-confident to demonstrate any separation anxiety or shyness.] Her ERBs are ordinary. She's not particularly verbal in class; she has no insightful comments after we read to her. . . . She's a darling, ordinary child who needs to go to Amherst, not Harvard. The father has come to see me 98 times. 'I know this person on the board. I've heard you're really good at getting kids into good schools. I expect to be one of those families. You know how supportive I've been.' He gave me a modest check at the auction. This child will get in nowhere."
Of course, private schools, particularly in the early grades, can never be full-blooded meritocracies. For one thing, no one but the most hard-line test-crusader is willing to put that much stock in the score that a volatile four-year-old achieves on a 75-minute assessment. And, more practically, private schools depend on parent and alumni money. Annual auctions and fund drives have allowed Dalton to add its top-floor sky-lit art studios with Manhattan views and Chapin to build its new gym, choral room, library/multimedia center, and black-box theater, as well as to renovate its greenhouse (from which it is traditional that each child applicant receives a plant). And a stream of contributions allows all the schools to maintain impressive endowments and substantial scholarship funds.
In addition, a certain polish and je ne sais quoi are a must. No small measure of the enormous anxiety among today's prospective kindergarten parents arises out of the recognition that the elite private schools retain a modicum of class snobbery. Depending on the school, applicants must—or can—provide reference letters from someone who supposedly knows the child. Parents scour their social horizon, looking for any dignitary or semi-dignitary, however distant or implausible. One of your firm's partners is on the board at Chapin; a friend of a friend knows Chuck Schumer. (One desperate mother admitted that when she and her husband heard my message on their answering machine asking for an interview, he looked at her and said: "Do you think she can help us get into private school?") School administrators roll their eyes at all of this, and it's clear that there's no longer any one right connection that will seal the deal. But the fact that admissions offices still pay any attention to these letters helps explain the odd combination of old-world manners mixed with knowledge-economy hustling and self-promotion that characterizes this game of Survivor.
Consider the social climbing rituals associated with the early stages of the game: applying to nursery school. Even before their children are born, parents join prestige churches and synagogues that, in addition to exuding an old-money aura, are attached to nursery schools with a good record of private school admissions. "New Members" Sundays at places like Brick Church and All Souls Unitarian, both of them with highly regarded nurseries, are jammed with pregnant women and families with small children who have suddenly found religion. At nursery school interviews, wives obsess over what clothes they and their husbands should wear. They elbow their spouses who tell the wrong joke or yawn. And after these exercises in humiliation, they write thank-you notes. One mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old nursery school aspirant read me hers, composed over several hours, then edited and handwritten by her husband, who, the couple decided, has the better cursive (but not the better eye; the husband reduced his wife to sputtering rage when he inadvertently placed his completed letter, written on white Crane's stationery, in a cream-colored Crane's envelope).
Dear [director's name]:
We would like to thank you for a wonderfully informative tour of your school. We loved it! It was wonderful to see children so actively engaged in their play and their projects, specifically [describe specific project to avoid sounding like a form letter]. How lucky the children are to have the [name] School as their first formal educational experience. We would love for our daughter to have such an opportunity. We believe that she would thrive in such an atmosphere of enthusiastic learning and exploration.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to explore the [name] School.
Does the right nursery school matter enough for all this? One unsuccessful private school parent-applicant thinks so. "My kid had been in day care," she scoffs. "He might as well have been on welfare."
Besides cultivating charm and connections, parents also try to give their toddler-applicants a little knowledge-economy polish through extra-curricular—or, to be more exact, pre-curricular—activities. The aspiring Spence or Collegiate tot doesn't waste much time swinging on monkey bars at the playground. By 15 months, he has a busy schedule of four or five activities. One Upper East Side "feeder" nursery school director read me one applicant's Attachment A (Attachment B was a letter from a high-profile businessman whose child had gone to the school): Jodi's Gym, Hands On (a music course), and various classes at Rhinelander Center, 92nd Street Y, and 74th Street Magic. It also lists (as does almost every other application she has received) the Upper East Side baby fad-du-jour, "Language for Tots," a foreign-language program for kids starting at six months.
The truth is, educators subtly encourage this sort of hyper-strategizing. In evaluating applications, a number of preschools secretly give letter grades to families. And it isn't just a father who doesn't show up for an interview or a mother arriving in jeans that leads to a C-minus. "Our admissions are driven by how easily or not we can place a child in kindergarten," admits another East Side nursery school director. "We do let the occasional lowbrow family in. But if the mom's loud and is wearing garish colors, has bleached hair—I don't mean highlighted—I've got to say to myself, 'OK, nice family, terrific kid, but I'm not getting this mother past admissions at Collegiate.'" What's more, there are benefits to the hysteria. "A lot of my colleagues say, 'What can we do to alleviate this? It's out of control,'" the director continues. "But they take a certain glee that people will do just about anything to get their child into their school. The buzz validates that they are great schools." And this is just applying to nursery school!
Of course, the primary schools are equally guilty. Their admissions directors, wanting to burnish their institution's reputation for being a hot school, maneuver to ensure that all the families they accept actually sign contracts, and nursery school heads have been known to suffer their wrath when one of their families turns them down. Meanwhile, no matter how much parents research and prepare, many end up mystified by much of what goes on in the kindergarten Survivor game. One mother puzzled over why her son was rejected at the five schools that she applied to last year. She had gotten the letters from influential people, she and her husband had avoided any grave faux pas at their interview, and the child had evidently scored well. "He had great ERBs. Listen to the last line: 'A delightful child.' And on top of that, he interviewed well." Then she paused in a way few parents or educators had paused in the scores of interviews I'd had. "I can't believe I'm saying this about a four-year-old."
But then in a world scouting for "bigger, better, stronger children," people seem to be saying—and doing—all sorts of things about four-year-olds that they've never said and done before. The fate of affluent Manhattan toddlers and preschoolers may not rank high up there on the list of childhood tragedies, but it poses its own dangers. A high-powered, meritocratic culture pushes adults to begin building their children's resumés and expanding their networks even in the preschool years. Says Sacred Heart's Barbara Root: "There's no trust in letting things happen in their own time." A veteran educator at one of the elite girls' schools is struck with the exhausting pace of life for these young children. "They go to a matinee of Amahl and the Night Visitors and then a night performance of The Nutcracker, a week of vacation skiing in Colorado and the second week on a beach somewhere, play dates every free afternoon and sleepovers every weekend." Third-graders, she continues, have taken to carrying Filofax planners. First- and second-graders complain of what are clearly stress-related headaches and stomachaches. " 'I'm flustered,' 'I'm hurried,' 'I'm stressed,' they say."
Nor is "parenting as product development," as William Doherty, a University of Minnesota sociologist calls it, unique to New York City. All over the midwest, Doherty says, parents hold their children back from first grade in order to make them stronger when it's time to be on the high school hockey team. In one Minnesota town, until some parents balked, a team of four-year-olds held a weekly hockey practice the only time that the rink was available—at 5 AM. Nationwide the peer pressure on parents is intense. What parents wouldn't begin to doubt themselves when they hear that their three-year-old neighbor can count to 20 in three languages or that their four-year-old niece can surf the Internet, when their child spends his days finger painting and playing Darth Vader, and counts going to the zoo as his greatest adventure?
The bigger danger is that, as parents put so much of their energy into branding their child-products, achievement threatens to become the only means by which they know and judge their children. As a result, to the most ambitious parents, bright kids don't seem bright enough anymore. When parents receive less-than-dazzling ERB scores, the doubt begins to gnaw. "They have a child who is bright and funny, and suddenly they're wondering, 'Should we get tutoring?'" says one nursery school director. Tutor Bellen Nicholson recalls one mother who called her after a disappointing but hardly disastrous ERB score, crying: "Is something wrong with my child?"
High-scoring children face a different sort of problem. Parents who believe that their child is "brilliant"—and teachers nationwide will tell you that there are many of them who've never even been near an IQ test—often seem to conclude that they should be immune from ordinary social expectations. "If he can't pass the juice or look you in the eye, they say, 'Oh, he's bored,'" according to one experienced nursery school teacher. Why should one of the elect be bothered about table manners, if cognitive ability, without virtue or civility, is the alpha and omega of human excellence?
Still, there are resisters. "I think it's nagging on people that we live in a mad, mad world. These kids are rushing into a New York power life," says one mother of four-year-old twins, who, amazingly, don't even go to nursery school. "But why is it so important to be somewhere at 8:30 when you're three?" Another disgusted mother told the one private school where her son was wait-listed to just forget it—and put him into public school. "At first I thought, 'I'm a bad mother,'" she reports. " 'I'm not giving him all the advantages I can. He's going to be pulling garment racks down Seventh Avenue.' That's crazy. He's in kindergarten."
What such resisters seem to grasp is that, especially in today's economy, there are many kinds of stories imaginable. A child goes to public school, discovers his talent at SUNY Purchase, and starts a successful consulting business. His rich cousin goes to Buckley and lands at Harvard Law before joining Cravath Swain, where he drowns his misery in Stolichnaya. Another child does well at Hewitt, graduates magna from Yale, but, wanting time for her children, takes a part-time job as a photographer at a small-town newspaper.
That's the thing about the wild ride of the American biography. It can be hard to guess the end from the beginning.