Scenes from the Pre-K Admissions War Zone

A preschool lesson in supply and demand: A baby boom in New York City means competition for spots in top tier nursery schools has gotten more and more fierce.
A preschool lesson in supply and demand: A baby boom in New York City means competition for spots in top tier nursery schools has gotten more and more fierce.
"Nursery University"

At some elite pre-schools reality, as they say, IS stranger than fiction. Here's Tracy Smith:

For kids at New York City's top pre-schools, the first day is a beginning.

For many parents, it's a victory lap.

In big cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, nursery school admission has become a maddening math lesson. With dozens of applicants for every available spot in some cases, getting your child into a good pre-school is tough at best. Admission to a top pre-school is all but impossible.

"In some cities it's as competitive as getting your child into Harvard, which seems insanely crazy, but it's a result of having a reduced number of slots, or greater number of kids who want to attend," said Stacey Boyd, who founded The Savvy Source, an online guide for parents.

"For some of the pre-schools in San Francisco you need to start [the admission process] in utero," Boyd said.

"It's that competitive?" asked Smith

"Stunningly so, stunningly so."

And in New York, it's even crazier than you might imagine.

In the film "Nursery University," five families go through the year-long admissions process . . . tears and all.

"There's the interview, there's the applications, there's the essays, there's the first choice letter, there's the tour - I mean, it's kind of like college in a sense, except it's for a two-year-old," said filmmaker Matt Makar.

He and fellow documentarian Marc Simon were amazed at the intensity.

"If an individual in the United States wants to apply to any college, they will have the opportunity," Simon said. "But here in New York and other cities across the country, you do not absolutely get the opportunity to apply to the pre-school of your choice."

Gabriella Rowe, who is head of Manhattan's Mandell School, describes the process as "somewhere between the running of the bulls and getting tickets to a hot rock concert."

And what do people from outside New York City say to her?

"They think we have all just about lost our minds."

It wasn't always this crazy. Rowe's grandfather, Max Mandell, started the school on a shoestring in 1939, and for years Mandell only did well enough to survive.

But now, with an increased awareness of the value of early childhood education, schools like Mandell are doing turn-away business . . . literally.

"For our twos and younger and older twos, we are probably going to have about five spots for 150 applications," Rowe said.

"Oh my goodness, you just made me break out in a sweat!" Smith laughed.

A lot of parents are sweating pre-school: Between 1985 and 2006, public pre-school enrollment rose 611 percent. Enrollment in many private nursery schools is also up, despite the cost: on average, full-time annual tuition runs $3,800 a year or more . . . much more.

"How much does it cost to go to Mandell?" Smith asked.

"It ranges from about $12,000 up to close to $30,000 for our elementary school," Rowe said.

"Which is more than I paid for college," Smith said.

"Uh-huh! It's a huge amount of money."

Believe it or not, some students go to nursery school on scholarship. Mandell holds a fundraiser every year.

Still, there's no shortage of people willing to pay their way, so most New York schools limit the number of applicants through a kind of speed-dial obstacle course.

The day after Labor Day, as captured in "Nursery University," parents have to phone their desired schools beginning at 9:00 a.m. sharp just to get an application.

Predictably, everyone calls at once.

Some get applications, but the only thing others ever get is a busy signal.

Lauren Braun Costello, whose son got into a top school, says the process can be trying.

"You basically have to sit at the phone all day and call, make tons of phone calls, just to get an application, so that's all you're doing," she said. "You're sitting to call to hope they'll give you the piece of paper to apply.

"I thought it was a massive waste of everyone's time, actually - really shocking waste of people's time."

Some schools allow application requests online, including Mandell, and the school Braun Costello eventually chose, Epiphany.

Of course, many believe sending a child to the right nursery school can set them on the path to the right high school, the right college, in a process known as exmissions.

Smith asked, "Can getting into the right pre-school put a child on the path to Harvard?"

"If that's what parents think, they have lost the battle before they've even started," Rowe said. "Because the factors that take a child through that course of growth and development over their lives are so vast, no pre-school could cover them all. No pre-school could solve for that equation."

Tell that to the parents who keep the phone lines buzzing.

At Mandell, Rowe said more than 300 applications came in over the Web site, and they fielded another dozen over the phone. "And we're only five minutes into the process."

"So to those parents out there who say, 'You know, this is all just too crazy. I'm not going to deal with this,' what would you say?" asked Smith.

"I asked them to try and separate the insanity of the process from the prize," Rower replied. "Early childhood is a beautiful, beautiful rich thing. And I hate for any parent to take that away from themselves and their child because they're afraid of this process."

But with a record number of applications this year, the process is as daunting as ever: A bruising courtship between schools that promise the best in childhood education . . . and parents for whom any cost is a small price to pay.

For more info:
"Nursery University"
The Savvy Source
Mandell School
Epiphany Community Nursery School