The Kindergarten Wars: The Battle to Get into America's Best Private Schools
By Alan Eisenstock
I know that when parents visit a school, they're looking for a vibe. Well, so are we. If we don't get it, we won't accept. - a private school director of admissions
Private School Expo
In most cities, the kindergarten application season begins two weeks after it ends. While scores of parents are on edge, waiting to hear if their children will be accepted off waitlists, new armies of prospective kindergarten applicants mass at the borders of private school auditoriums and gymnasiums, ransack tables piled high with information packets and admissions brochures, and thrust themselves onto school heads and directors of admissions, attempting to create indelible impressions of themselves to combat the cold, unfamiliar names that lie merely handwritten or printed on thousands of application forms.
They are at war.
The Darcy School is a city school, vertical in design, layered like a massive concrete wedding cake. Entering the school through twin metal gates, you walk through a lush courtyard resembling the lobby of a Vegas hotel, which leads into a combination theater and gymnasium with a freshly burnished hardwood floor. The gym sits below two levels of classrooms, an art studio and music room, computer and science labs, capped by an enclosed rooftop playground.
But one night each April, the Darcy School gymnasium morphs from an elite private elementary school into a mini-convention center and host of "Private School Expo" or "Kindergarten Presentation Night," as the heading reads on the half-inch-thick handout each attendee receives. Below the heading, the handout announces a list of more than forty participating schools. Each school fills a full page, it's vital information clumped in dense, size-ten-font paragraphs: address, telephone, e-mail, Web site, contact person, year founded, religious affiliation, dress code, mission statement, ethnic diversity, and under separate headings, description of the application/enrollment process, including but not limited to projected openings for kindergarten. Three words in bold black letters top the final paragraph - Tuition and Fees - followed by ominous, insistent, and ludicrous numbers, resulting in sticker shock for even the most well-heeled in attendance.
Flipping through the school descriptions, the shock evolves into a sense of dread. Paying for school is one thing; being admitted is quite another. Skimming the breakdown of the applications to Meryton, among the most difficult schools in the city to get into, you read, "Projected openings for kindergarten: 26."
Meryton typically receives three to four hundred kindergarten applications. Of the twenty-six projected openings, siblings, legacies, and children of faculty will, in a conservative estimate, nab the first ten, reducing the available openings to sixteen. If Meryton hits its high-end projection of four hundred applications, the odds of being accepted are a daunting twenty-five to one.
Tonight, school heads and admissions directors representing the forty private schools stand at card tables that rim the perimeter of the gym. The schools are arranged in alphabetical order beginning on the left side. Each table is covered with brochures and application packets piled high in front of a sign announcing the name of the school in green cursive handwriting. The Expo has not yet begun but there are already two hundred parents massed outside the gymnasium doors. Once the doors open, a steady flow of incoming traffic promises to double that number within the half hour.
Dana Optt, director of admissions at Pemberley School, mid-forties, a shade under six feet tall, her hair snowball white and spectacularly large, prepares for the siege. Her first hint of the upcoming onslaught begins while she is arranging brochures in four neat rows on her table. As she finishes laying out the first row, two handsome men in their thirties appear. One is African American, the other Asian. They wear matching charcoal gray suits. To Dana's trained eye, they look as if they work out.
"Excuse us," the Asian man says. "I'm Howard and this is Lionel."
Lionel smiles. "We don't mean to bother you, but we knew if we didn't catch you now, we'd probably never get a chance to talk to you."
Dana returns his smile. "You guys are good. They haven't opened the doors yet. How'd you get in here?"
"We're very convincing," Howard says.
"So you want your kid to go to Pemberley," Dana says. "Okay. Convince me."