Sunday, November 9, 2014

More on "The Process"

The kindergarten "process," as it's called here, is still in full swing. Since it all started with the online posting of the first application on August 18, I have completed 16 applications. Each has its own set of requirements. Some want essays, some want a series of short answers, some don't want any of that but want two letters of reference or to know who you know at the school. Most want a photo -- some of the applicant and others of the whole family -- which I can't help but object to, though not enough not to send one in. Some waive their fee for those applying for financial aid but most do not. We have paid fees ranging from $40 to $100. We have withdrawn from two so far -- one because I really just couldn't see Bee or us there and the other because their website talked about introducing the curriculum of Jesus in kindergarten -- and we have been taken out of the running for one because of Bee's test score. We have interviewed at six and toured seven. We have gone to four open houses and Bee has had seven playdates. She has taken two of the three standardized tests she is signed up for. This means we are only about halfway through, but I'm totally and completely burned out. Every day I find myself putting the salt in the fridge or chocolate chips in the coffee grinder. We forget keys, lunches, backpacks. Last night Johnny and I both went to bed at 7:30. Lights on, clothes on. Like getting unplugged from the Matrix, we were both out.  

Today it occurred to me as I skimmed the website of a school we are visiting tomorrow that I have learned a whole new language in the past three months. Some of these concepts I was aware of before, obviously, but recently I have attained a whole new level of fluency. Here are some of the words and phrases that mean things that our four-year-old daughter might be scarred forever without, depending on whom you ask:

global citizenship
affinity groups
single-sex vs co-ed
mission vs philosophy vs strategic vision (some very self-important schools have all three)
focus on the whole child
intellectual independence
cross-divisional teaching
experiential learning
concept-based differentiated teaching
inquiry-based learning
bullseye model
Turk system
Singapore Math
problem-solving math
Exeter method
Orton-Gillingham reading approach
Orff music approach
Kodaly method
Wilson Fundation
co-curriculars (not extra-curricular because the school has a commitment to the whole child)
STEAM (STEM is no longer enough? Is this somehow the "new" art?)

Not to mention that for every school there are different definitions of words like diversity, learning resources, "labs," community service, green and sustainable. Each school we've seen has a slightly different philosophy on when and how to learn languages (and how many), when (not whether) to introduce chess to teach critical thinking to lower school students, what musical instruments to offer and how exactly to prepare students for the (as one school put it) "lifelong transformation of self and the world with purpose, passion and perspective." It's hard to keep track of it all. 

Maybe that's why we felt like we bombed our most recent interview and playdate. I had neglected to study for this one (by reading and taking notes from the school's website, their wikipedia entry and their writeup in the "Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools" and calling anyone and everyone I know who went there, worked there or has children there). We showed up unprepared, bleary eyed and unsure of what exactly we were there for. Playdate and tour? Interview? Q&A? We were too scared to ask anyone lest we appear ignorant. We hoped someone would remind us.

We waited for the receptionist to call our names in their little waiting area and helped ourselves to coffee. Among an array of goldfish and cheddar bunnies, Bee spotted a box of accidentally-vegan crackers and went to town. We were busy sipping and munching when our names were called for Bee's playdate and our interview. The playdate person had to pry Bee away from the box; she actually took a fistful of health-food brand wheat-thins wrapped in a napkin with her as she left. I was horrified. To make matters worse, the admissions lady we met with was clearly unimpressed with our obvious lack of commitment to the process and reiterated at least a half dozen times that we had to sign up for a tour of the lower school and of course the open houses and tours for the middle and upper schools as well. When we came down after the interview, there was Bee, sitting by the crackers again. I asked her if she ate through the whole playdate and she nodded happily. Did you have a good time? I asked her. Yeah, she shrugged. I was a little shy though, so I meowed a lot. She swallowed her last cracker and asked for more, meowing again for effect. Wonderful. As we went out the door, they reminded us of when our tour was scheduled and that we should sign up for the twenty-seven other admissions-related events that will fill up soon so we really should call back today to get on the waiting list. I mean really. We are now on thirteen mailing lists that constantly send out invitations to fireside chats, open houses, coffee hours, Q&A sessions, student evenings, curriculum nights and God knows what else that is not mandatory but strongly encouraged. We get the weekly blogs and newsletters from fifteen heads of schools and the piles of booklets, pamphlets and brochures on my kitchen counter rivals the college crap I received in the mail as a high school junior. What do they think we do all day? Certainly not raise a four-year-old child or do anything else other than hang out in kindergartens all over New York. It's like they all want us to move in with them... until February 6th that is, when they have the pleasure of mailing us our devastatingly thin envelopes that politely remind us that we are Out Of Our Fucking League and Crazy To Think We Could Ever Compete. 

The truth is, while each of these schools claim to be so innovative and unique, they're all basically the same. Bee's preschool director keeps telling us that there are so many applicants that the schools are scrutinizing us at every step to find the one thing to move our application to the NO pile. And I'm sure she's right, so I wear a nice outfit and cover my tattoos and maybe even wear a little lipstick or some heels. I make Johnny shave and put on a button-down shirt. I tuck my phones out of sight and try for that hour or 90 minute period to pretend that I haven't a care in the world except to hear about what percent of their students come from Westchester and New Jersey or how many sessions of robotics the first graders have per week or in what year their state-of-the-art black-box theater was renovated. We pay attention and make sure our tour guide or admissions associate or director of outreach or whoever we're meeting with knows we've done our homework by asking detailed questions. We arrive five to ten minutes early, are always ridiculously polite and of course we send hand-written thank you notes. But we are scrutinizing too, doing the same thing that they are doing to us. 

I know Bee will be happy anywhere. She will do well anywhere that has any kind of structured academics of any kind. She's a smart kid and a creative one but she's not that different from the nine million other four-year-olds out there. So I can't help but look for ways to rank these schools in my mind, to want for some reason to cross them off my list. I've been encouraged not to fall in love with any one school since the competition is so fierce and the financial aid, while imperative for us, is just not necessarily there for a family that is pretty squarely middle class and not the "kind of diverse you can see." (I guess wheelchairs are invisible?) But in this ISAAGNY soup of names that until this year made me think only one thing (rich kids and not for me), I have to find ways to make them each different from the next. So I ask hard questions about diversity, about how they accommodate special needs, about how they make the "socioeconomically diverse component of the student body" feel at home. I watch them squirm. I take notes on what we hear from the "parent ambassadors" who are stuck giving us tours in schools that either have too few admissions employees or whose admissions employees are too busy or too uninterested in this part of the process and ask pointedly about parent involvement in their experience. In my head I judge the schools for being too PC or not PC enough, parents for being too rich, too involved or not involved enough, the children for being too Aryan or too obviously "diverse," the schools for being either too loosey-goosey or so traditional that their students don't seem to have time to smile. But really, with few exceptions, they're all variations on a theme. And that theme is that their kids all graduate with one hell of an education. One school's admissions director told me if the family is secure with their kid and the kid is secure in her family, then both kid and family will do fine in the face of any adversity. I'm not sure their idea of adversity and mine are one and the same, but I think she's right. It was reassuring to realize that in September of next year, Bee will be going to kindergarten somewhere and if it's not at School A or B or even C, that it might be X, Y or Z and she will do fine and so will we.

And someday -- maybe in twelve years or so, when Bee is a junior and we're talking about college and it's a breeze because we've essentially already done it all before -- I will look back and laugh. Right? 


  1. I can't even imagine applying for private school in Manhattan. All I could think while reading this is that you must really love living there. I hope you find out somewhat soon so you can relax and get back to living life. It brought back memories of the stress before my oldest went off to Kindergarten. We were in the city too (Seattle) where there was choice among the public schools. Although it was a tough decision and a lot of stress at least there weren't application fees and "auditions". Now my oldest daughter is going off to high-school next year. Yes, you will look back on this and laugh a little, but mostly just be hugely relieved that it's over. And it'll happen in the blink of an eye.

  2. we are in the midst of the preschool application process in Manhattan, and all I keep thinking is that OMG if this is the preschool app process, how will we ever survive the kindergarten app process, which is so much harder?! Hang in there!


  3. I hope you find out somewhat soon so you can relax and get back to living life. It brought back memories of the stress before my oldest went off to Kindergarten.
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