The Kindergarten Wars

The Battle to Get into America's Best Private Schools


By Alan Eisenstock

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The Kindergarten Wars is the first narrative nonfiction book ever to take the reader inside all aspects of the private school application process. Eisenstock follows several families across the country from their first school tours until the moment they open their admissions letters. He interviews admissions directors, school heads, teachers, educational consultants, and kindergarten tutors, who coach both parents and kids.
Did you know the most important line in your child’s application is where you–the parent–went to college? Did you know that you can qualify for financial aid even if you make $192,000 a year?
Eisenstock uncovers startling information, starting with how private school admissions directors decide who gets in. Does the child of a single woman of ethnic diversity on financial aid have a better chance of getting into an elite kindergarten than a child of a middle-class white couple? He will ask Ivy League students, their parents, and their admissions counselors the $500,000 question: Does where you go to kindergarten ultimately help you get into the most prestigious colleges?
At its core, The Kindergarten Wars is a human drama. It’s the story of a quest and the people who are vying for the prize–a space in private school kindergarten–at any cost. The book is honest, funny, suspenseful, and emotional.



The $500,000 Question

The Three C's

From the moment the idea for this book inflicted itself on me, before I began meeting with admissions directors and following families around the country, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who were frantically applying to private school kindergarten began bombarding me with questions: Is private school that much better than public school? Will getting into an elite kindergarten get my kid into an elite college? Do people of diversity have an edge? What should I write on the application to make me stand out? What are admissions directors looking for in the interview? Are there really such things as feeder nursery schools? Do first-choice letters matter? Do siblings automatically get in? Do people buy their way in? Is a private school education worth $500,000 per child from kindergarten through twelfth grade?

This book attempts to answer those questions.

But the first question everyone wanted answered, the one that encompasses most of the others and stands above them all, remains:

How do you get in?

After two years of talking to dozens of admissions directors, school heads, college counselors, educational consultants, teachers, and preschool directors, I can honestly say . . . I don't know. When I posed the question to admissions directors and school heads, I was greeted by bewildered looks, vacant stares, uncomfortable shrugs, and one actual scratch of the head.

"I go by instinct," an admissions director told me.

"The process is not an art," another director of admissions said, "and it's certainly not a science. It's a feeling. At the end of the day, both the school and the parents are taking a leap of faith."

"The decision-making is intuitive," a school head said. "We can reduce it to numbers if you want to. I'm sure that works for a lot of people. I've been doing this for so long that the system I've created over time has become a sort of nonsystem. But it works."

Apparently, I'm not the only one who doesn't know the answer; the people who actually make the decisions don't know either.

Except I don't believe them.

I believe that the admissions directors and school heads of top-tier private schools know exactly what they're doing because they have certain needs and obligations they have to fulfill. They know which siblings, legacies, and children of faculty, diversity, and prominence they're letting in. The "no-brainers," one admissions director called them. I believe that their instincts, intuition, and leaps of faith are reserved for what another director of admissions called the "leftovers," the "regular people," when and if they have openings.

"Every school wants normal folks," an educational consultant told me. "They all want people who are going to bust their butts, work hard, and be present. Otherwise, God forbid, they might be seen as elitist."

People apply to private school for one or more of three reasons. I call them the Three C's: children, college, and country club.

All of the parents I followed applied to private school kindergarten primarily because they felt it was in the best interest of their children, the first C. Shea Cohen, who lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, said, "For us, it really is about the education. We want the best for our kids. We are not a family with unlimited resources. We will take a serious financial hit paying for private school. But we're willing to do that because education is our number one priority."

Beyond that, Shea said that sending her children to her public school was out of the question. "We want to raise our kids in the city. We're not going to move. The public school that our children would have to go to looks like a prison. And we live in a really nice neighborhood. So we're stuck. Out of options."

Shea was not speaking from an elitist perspective. MK, director of admissions at Longbourne, a prestigious private school in Manhattan, echoed Shea's feelings. "Public schools are not an option. That is not just a perception. There are maybe half a dozen on the grammar school level that I think are decent. That is the sad part of the story. Used to be public schools were better. Not anymore. I hate that that's happening but you cannot deny it. You cannot put your head in the sand."

Ruth, an educational consultant, echoed MK's feelings. "It used to be that everybody just went to their local school. There were smarties, dummies, fatties, skinnies, rich kids, poor kids, and everything was fine and you learned how to live in the world. That's just the way it was."

In another city, Katie Miller, one of the moms I followed, toured her local public school twice. The first time she was disappointed. She went back a second time to be sure.

"I wanted to like it," she said. "Believe me, I tried."

Her neighborhood school was spread out into three long diagonal sections resembling a giant M. The walls were industrial gray and in need of new paint. The library, where she met for a kindergarten "roundup," was a long rectangular room with worn carpeting and dull brown walls. A cluster of iMac computers huddled near the door. They were blue and enormous and eight years out-of-date. The teachers who spoke to the prospective parents were all over forty and well-meaning, but their presentations were uninspired.

"They seemed lovely but they were exhausted, burned to a crisp," Katie said, and paused. "And I have to be honest. Spanish is the first language for over fifty percent of those kids. That's huge. These kids are just learning English and my daughter is reading. That concerns me. Will she be pushed aside?"

Lauren Pernice, the third mom I followed, lives in an exclusive neighborhood that, by reputation, is home to one of the top public elementary schools in her city.

"I checked it out," she said. "My first impression was confusion. Lots of traffic. Parking hassles. Cars negotiating with each other. It struck me as very disorganized. I watched for a while, then came home and called a friend who's an educator. She said, look, it really is a good public school. She called it enriching. But she was afraid that it might not be flexible enough for my son. It might not teach to his level."

Lauren decided to visit a kindergarten class. What she saw made her feel slightly better. The teachers seemed skilled, the children engaged, the facilities decent. It was fine. But Lauren wanted more than fine for her child.

"I want a school that offers the academics that Killian needs and is nurturing enough to give him individual attention. Academically, he's quite advanced, but socially I think he could use a little help. He's not going to get that in our public school. There are just too many kids."

Finally, I followed Trina D'Angelo, a single mom, who for safety reasons refused to consider her local school.

"Send my son there? I wouldn't drive by there," she said.

When these same parents visited private schools, their jaws dropped. Objectively speaking, there was no comparison. An educational consultant described it this way: "It's like comparing apples and tuna fish. You are not even in the same category."

The private schools they toured offered state-of-the-art music and art rooms; theaters and science labs that would make actors and scientists drool; libraries rivaling those found on college campuses; sparkling new gymnasiums; cutting-edge technology centers; class sizes that rarely exceeded twenty students, often limited to fifteen; two teachers in every classroom, invariably young, dynamic, nurturing, and enthusiastic about what they were teaching because they helped design the curriculum; a bank of computers in every classroom; green, parklike school grounds; open playing fields and intricate redwood play structures; after-school programs offering courses from yoga to knitting to karate; hot lunch choices that were either catered or presented in spotless cafeterias resembling corner coffee shops ("I eat at my kid's school twice a week," a mom said. "The food is terrific"); and kindergartners who would routinely surprise their teachers with impromptu hugs. The touring parents also encountered a sense of community in every school they visited; these schools felt like homes away from home. The kids wanted to be there. And often so did the parents.

According to our current political administration, we have entered "a new era in education," more commonly described by the hopeful yet problematic catchphrase "No Child Left Behind." But in fact, many parents living in or near cities consider the school possibilities available to them and come away with a sad and frustrating conclusion. Their school choices are limited. The public schools, whether the parents' perceptions are factual or apocryphal, are no choice at all. City schools are overcrowded, underfunded, poorly staffed, and seem unsafe. And as the architects of NCLB claim, many are failing. Parents are inundated with reports of this in the media. A Los Angeles Times headline screams, "13% of State's Public Schools in Peril of Failure" (October 13, 2004). According to the rules of NCLB, a failing school has three years to "succeed," meaning its students from third through eighth grade must achieve minimum scores on a standardized math and reading test they are given each year. If the students don't pass the test, the school is deemed "failing," funds may be cut off, and the school may be closed.

Parents who fear that the public schools teach to the lowest common denominator see a broken system on the brink of becoming irreparable as teachers, in order to bring up test scores, teach to the lowest-performing children in the class. As educator, author, and editor George Wood writes in the book Many Children Left Behind: How the No Child Left Behind Act Is Damaging Our Children and Our Schools (Beacon Press, 2004), "Many of the supporters of NCLB have good intentions, hoping for schools to work even harder to meet the needs of our children. Unfortunately their intentions have been hijacked by a one-size-fits-all, blame-and-shame agenda that will do nothing to help our schools and will only exacerbate an already unfortunate trend." In the same book, renowned Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond says, simply, "The biggest problem with the NCLB act is that it mistakes measuring schools for fixing them."

Late in 2005, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings acknowledged the flaws inherent in NCLB and attempted to alter the law by proposing that students' success be measured by individual improvement, as opposed to forcing each student to reach a predetermined score. In an editorial entitled "Some States Left Behind" (November 28, 2005), the Los Angeles Times credits Spellings for at least attempting to "bring some sanity to a law so unworkable that it was causing even some solidly Republican states to rebel against the Bush administration." The editorial slams NCLB further, stating, "The new rules, though admirable, cannot overcome the limitations of a law that was well-intentioned but ill-conceived, clumsily crafted and drastically under-funded. The major contribution of No Child Left Behind is that it has revealed how badly impoverished students are doing—and how little many schools were doing about it."

Fixing our public school crisis requires vision and the means to finance that vision. Educators working in conjunction with concerned parents and citizens and well-intentioned politicians endlessly debate new ways to revamp or revitalize NCLB. But as of this writing our nation is distracted by the costs of homeland security, a Middle East war, and the aftermaths of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. Solutions to our crisis in public education, and the financing of those solutions, will have to wait. However, when it comes to our children, time is the last thing we have.

On May 17, 2000, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the State of California, claiming that the state deprives tens of thousands of low-income students of the bare necessities to receive a quality education. An article in the Los Angeles Times, "Suit on Schools Near Resolution" (July 10, 2004), describes the details of the class-action lawsuit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court on behalf of more than sixty students in eighteen elementary and high schools throughout California. The lawsuit, Williams v. California, named after an Oakland middle school student, Eliezer Williams, states that the sixty students were subjected to the following conditions in their schools: "no textbooks, outdated or defaced textbooks; no access to a library; no or not enough basic school supplies; no or not enough labs or lab materials; no or not enough access to computers; no access to music or art classes; no or too few guidance counselors; as few as 13% of teachers with full teaching credentials; chronically unfilled teacher vacancies; heavy reliance on substitute teachers; no homework assignments due to lack of materials; massive overcrowding in the classes, including classes without seats and desks; cramped, makeshift classrooms; multi-track schedules that prevent continuous, year-to-year study in a given subject; multi-track schedules that force students to take key exams before completing the full course of study; broken or nonexistent air conditioning or heating systems, resulting in extremely hot or cold classrooms; toilets that don't flush; toilets that are filthy with urine, excrement, or blood; toilets that are locked; hazardous facilities, including broken windows, walls, and ceilings; leaky roofs and mold; and infestations of rats, mice, and cockroaches." Finally, after more than four years, the state and the ACLU settled out of court for $1 billion, money that will be used to repair 2,400 schools across California over an indeterminate period of time. The article quotes Pastor Sweetie Williams, the father of the plaintiff in the case, as being "thrilled that an agreement had been reached.

"I thank God that it's coming to an end," Williams said. "This has been a great opportunity not only to help my children but also to remind parents that we've got to stand up for what is right."

The state of American public schools, especially in our cities, is truly shameful. Our schools have not failed; we have failed our schools.

Pastor Sweetie Williams is in his mid-fifties, a gentle, soft-spoken man. The timbre of his voice exudes kindness. A pastor for over twenty years, he is courteous in the way of many former military men, of whom he is one.

"The lawsuit started when Eliezer was in seventh grade," he says. "He would come home after school and he would never do any homework. I asked him about it and he said that he didn't have any books. I went to the teacher. It was true. There were no books. At that point, the ACLU had been brought in, and we got involved, along with a lot of other people throughout the state. The conditions in Eliezer's high school are terrible. The classrooms are very overcrowded. The bathrooms have no doors. There's no privacy. There's graffiti all over the place. You walk in there, it seems like the place has been forsaken. I know the lawsuit won't benefit Eliezer, but it will help other children. These are the future of our country, let alone our families. Also, I have a three-year-old daughter. I'm really keeping an eye on her education. We thought about homeschooling her but we can't do it. My wife and I both work. I've been thinking a lot about private school. When I was stationed in Texas, our older daughter was in private school through sixth grade. She is the only one of our children who graduated college. Going to private school made all the difference for her."

Pastor Williams's voice sinks into a lower register. "So far I haven't found a private school near us for my daughter. I don't want her to go through what Eliezer did. I'm not sure what to do."

Many public schools in our wealthiest suburbs and in booming cities such as Las Vegas feature facilities equal to any found in the most well-endowed private schools as well as classes that limit the number of students to a maximum of twenty. But as a former cochair of the board of trustees of a private school said, "Every school has a body and a soul. The body is the facilities, after-school programs, and so forth. The soul is the administration and staff, curriculum, and philosophy. You can be wowed by the body but I look for the soul."

The soul of every school is its faculty. Good teachers are rare; inspiring teachers are a gift. The best are adept communicators, innovative thinkers, and lifelong learners. They are not necessarily credentialed.

The dean of a private school, who began as a third grade teacher, graduated college with no thought at all of becoming a teacher. "I fell into it. I didn't know what I was going to do after college. I applied for a corporate job, didn't get it, then figured I'd follow my boyfriend to New York and look for a job there. One day, there was a job fair at school. I went and talked to the head of a private elementary school in New York. She described a dream job: working with kids, freedom to create your own curriculum, an inspiring work environment. I was hooked. Got the job and found my calling. I think that happens to a lot of people."

"Actually, we are the kids we teach," a middle school head told me. "We never want to leave school."

Many young college graduates, often from the Ivy League colleges, find a fit as private school teachers. Their background—as liberal arts graduates, high achievers with a passion for learning—flies against the stereotype associated with public school teachers: young people who have identified a career path in college and have graduated with a degree in education.

"There is nothing more meaningless than an education major," the middle school head said. "Those courses don't prepare you for the job. It's amazing. And there's nothing more suspicious than someone gushing, 'I got into teaching because I just adore kids!' That sends me running the other way. I want passionate, motivated, creative people. It goes without saying that they like kids. Why else would you apply for a job as an elementary school teacher?"

And what about the belief that public schools pay better than private schools?

"It's a myth," a school head told me. "We may not be able to offer the long-term security that a school district can because our teachers are not in a union, but as far as salary and benefit packages go, we're right up there. In fact, we might be pulling ahead."

Are private schools better than public schools?

The answer delves into the realm of judgment, that always dicey component required when assessing a quality. Some politicians and educators would argue that No Child Left Behind attempts to remove the qualitative component from the assessment process. Many educators would vehemently disagree, saying that you can't account for a child's mood on a given day, and that you can't test creativity, motivation, abstract reasoning ability, and collaboration skills, all cornerstones of progressive private school curriculums and factors that are the opposite of rote learning, which is what NCLB tests.

There is also a short answer to the question.

It depends on where you live and who you are.

Acknowledging that there are always exceptions, if you are poor, and especially if you are poor and live in a city, it is not out of bounds to say that any private school would be an improvement over your neighborhood school. Pastor Sweetie Williams participated in a lawsuit to try to improve sixty public schools across California, while his son Eliezer submitted himself to conditions in school every day that bordered on inhumane. But every case is not so clear-cut.

Eve, the daughter of a physician, lives in a wealthy suburb of a major city. She attended public school from kindergarten through twelfth grade. She received an excellent education and attends a top college.

Stacy, also the daughter of a physician, lives seven miles away from Eve in a desirable neighborhood in the city, but one where the public schools are decrepit, overcrowded, and a war zone for rival gangs. Having no choice, Stacy attended private schools from kindergarten through twelfth grade, and attends a top college.

In order to receive an education that approached Eve's in quality, Stacy's parents had to enroll her in private school. Their choices were either to pay close to $500,000 to educate her from kindergarten through twelfth grade or to move. Fortunately, Stacy's parents had the resources to afford to live where they wanted and provide Stacy with a quality education. Pastor Williams and millions like him simply do not have that option.

The four women I followed considered their local public schools. For each of them, this was the first step in their kindergarten application process. They came away with concerns about facilities, faculty, curriculum, class size, and safety. Only one mom, Lauren Pernice, who lives in an exclusive neighborhood, said that she would settle for public school should her son not be accepted to private school. The other three felt that getting their children into private school was nothing less than necessary.

The second reason parents apply to private school kindergarten, the second C—the belief that getting into the "right" kindergarten will put a child on the track to an elite college—at first seemed flimsy, if not downright absurd. I asked an educational consultant if her clients actually believe that getting into certain kindergartens will get their children into the Ivy League.

"I get calls like that every day," she said. "Had a call today from a woman who said, 'I want my kid to go to an Ivy League college. Where should he go to kindergarten?' The parents both went to Yale. And of course their child is gifted. First of all, I say to parents, 'It is your job to think that your child is gifted.' You have to be a cheerleader. Much better than saying, 'My child? Dumb shit.'"

When I asked Brianna, director of admissions at the elite Hunsford School, she just shook her head.

"The most incredible thing to me is how parents want to know if getting into our kindergarten, getting into Hunsford, will help you get into an elite college. Parents ask me that all the time. They always have. People with four-year-olds are asking this. They're very concerned. I find it astonishing. People think that if they don't do it right, their kid is not going to get into a name college. What is a name college? To them, it's a narrow little range of schools that are considered to be elite. The truth is we really don't think like that here. If you ask our teachers what we have our sights on, they will say they are trying to help form kids into fantastic people who will make a difference in the world. That means to us kind, thoughtful, caring, contributing human beings. There is a real disconnect between what educators see as necessary and what parents want. We are not basing this on air. We know what skill set causes children to become successful, and it's not what parents think it is. It is the ability to collaborate, to be part of a team. It's not the ability to sit and calculate all day long in a cubicle. It's communication skills. That's number one. The ability to look at problems and to imagine solutions that are not readily apparent. And first and foremost, it's about having confidence as a person. Esteem. Someday somebody will come up with an EQ test, esteem quotient, and that will be the end of IQ tests and ERBs and all of it. Parents just don't get it that kids who are pushed into those narrow little molds, kids who sometimes do brilliantly on all those tests, sometimes fail miserably in the world. It's because they don't know how to get along, they don't know how to do anything but deal with their own intellectual incredibleness. They don't know how to think."

Despite Brianna's plea for parents to change their focus to their children's development rather than on getting them into a kindergarten that can lead them to an elite college, many prospective parents have college in their sights. Lauren Pernice expressed a common perspective.

"I probably shouldn't admit this, but when you're waiting in the admissions office to go on your tour, you flip through the brochure to see the list of where their high school graduates went to college. It's terrible but I'm looking for the Ivy Leagues. I am. I know we're talking about kindergarten but you want the possibility."

Tony, a successful businessman, whose daughter currently attends an Ivy League university, put it even more directly: "I wanted to put her in a better position for college. I knew that the private school track would give her an edge, improve her odds, especially for an Ivy."

Then, anticipating the next question, he added, "If she had not gone to her private school, she would not have gotten in."

Tara is an independent college counselor. She guides high school seniors through the stressful college application process, editing their college essays, holding mock interviews, and helping fill out their applications. Tara charges a flat fee of $5,000 per client.

"There is a perception that certain schools, mostly elite private schools, have a more direct path into elite colleges," Tara said. "Everyone thinks: get your kid into the right kindergarten, which gets you into the right middle school and high school, and, bam, you're into the Ivy League. And because kinder-garten is the main entry point there is this frenzy to get your kid in and put them on that track. It's not true that these colleges only take kids from these schools. But they do take the top kids. The best colleges are looking for the best students. The valedictorian at Pemberley has a good chance of getting into an elite college. So does the valedictorian at Such and Such High in Fargo, North Dakota. In fact, the valedictorian at Such and Such High in Fargo, North Dakota, has a better chance of getting into Harvard than a kid from Pemberley who's not in the top ten percent of the class. Ultimately, it's about the caliber of student."

Is it? There is evidence that getting into a top college can sometimes be more about the school one attends than the student who applies. A college counselor at one of the country's top private high schools told me that the "top ten percent of our senior class gets into colleges with an Academic Reputation Rating, according to U.S. News & World Report, in the ninety- seventh percentile, while the students in the bottom ten percent go to colleges with an Academic Reputation Rating in the ninety-second percentile." These numbers directly contradict Tara: even the poorest students at the nation's top private schools get into excellent colleges.

There is no denying that there is a connection between the private school kindergarten track and getting into a top college. A report in the Wall Street Journal's Weekend Journal


On Sale
Sep 18, 2006
Page Count
256 pages