My daughter was 6 months old when I first worried that I had already ruined her life. During a friend’s wedding, another mother asked me where I had enrolled Siri for preschool. The question seemed absurd – school was at least two years away. But her look of concern sent me into a panic. If you want your child to get a good education, you have to enroll them in a good preschool, she explained, and getting into a good preschool takes years of planning. I immediately scheduled school visits and was relieved to get Siri into a Montessori program.
But that was just the beginning of our early education nightmare. The angst set in again when kindergarten rolled around. We left the Los Angeles area and moved to a new, unfamiliar state — Texas.
My husband and I were both public school kids. But to give our daughter the same well-rounded education that we had received, private school was the only option. In a majority of public schools, cursive is no longer offered. Physical education, art and music are offered once a week, once a month or not at all. Private schools in our area offered a more well-rounded education and daily opportunities for children to express themselves creatively.
We thought getting Siri into that kind of environment would be relatively easy. We expected Houston wouldn’t have the cutthroat competitiveness of LA, New York and San Francisco. We were wrong. By the December before she was to start kindergarten, some schools were already full, and application deadlines for many more had passed. We hired educational consultant Neha Gupta to help us navigate the process. She told us that stakes for early education are rising across the country. Increasingly, the process of getting into preschool looks more like getting into an Ivy League university.
We spent more than 10 hours a week researching schools, taking campus tours, filling out applications, and submitting Siri to required testing and observations. A friend of hers even had a playground observation, to make sure he could swing by himself.
The children aren’t the only ones under pressure. During school tours, parents make aggressive moves to get extra time with admissions officers. Applications require sometimes lengthy essays on your child’s personality and aspirations. You find yourself excessively judging your 4-year-old: What if her desired profession is one that admissions officers don’t think is important or smart enough?
Then there are the costs. Even before the tuition (which ranges from $17,500 to more than $20,000 a year), there were application fees ($75 to $300 each), an IQ test ($200) and meetings with the educational consultant ($100 an hour) to help us manage the rigorous process and identify the best school for Siri (some schools emphasize academic prowess while others focus on crafting leaders who know how to properly shake a hand). Other parents take it a step further, making donations to their top-choice school and submitting letters of recommendation from noted community members.
Even with all of our preparation, two of the four schools we applied to rejected Siri. That’s when I realized just how brutal kindergarten admissions are.
Schools send out acceptance and rejection letters immediately before spring break, so admissions directors are on vacation when parents call to thank, cajole or beg. The letters come in a few categories, which I internalize as: “emphatic yes”, “not mature enough but try your luck next year,” “we wish we had room, but…” and “not a chance.”
I called our “not a chance” school to find out their reasoning. Speaking to the admissions director was one of the worst feelings I have experienced as a parent.
“Her recommendations were good, and her test scores were great, but she didn’t give us anything to work with,” the admissions director told me.
What does that mean? He read through his notes.
The teachers who observed her, he said, called her “bossy.”
My daughter is smart, outgoing and independent. As a businesswoman, I believe confidence and self-awareness should be encouraged in girls. To hear an educator interpret that as “bossy” was disheartening. And the fact that any school would submit 4 year olds to that type of judgment was incomprehensible. That evening, I cried — hard.
The admissions director told me that, during her observation, Siri was asked to write a sentence and did not (she told me that she didn’t know how to write some of the words). She also didn’t complete a drawing of her family as instructed (she chose to finish it at home, so she could do other things she enjoyed).
Ultimately, we enrolled Siri in The Fay School, which offers everything we were looking for plus leadership and emotional intelligence development as part of the curriculum. It has been a great program for her. But I know the admissions process will begin again as middle school approaches.
Certainly, private schools are exclusive and competition is fierce, particularly in cities with growing populations, such as Houston. But the current process puts children under pressure that is difficult for even some adults to weather. It puts shy, test-averse children at a disadvantage. It forces parents to navigate the very narrow line between emphasizing the importance of an IQ test and not giving their preschoolers debilitating anxiety. Young children, at ages when temper tantrums are normal and mood swings are common, are challenged to put their best foot forward on demand.
The bottom line is that young children should be judged as such, with processes that assess their potential and don’t assume their personalities are set before they even understand their own emotions. Their minds and personalities are moldable. Yes, these schools have difficult decisions to make, and they can’t accept every child. But as educators, their judgments should better account for the nuances of child behavior. At the very least, the process should be kinder. Preschool shouldn’t determine a child’s success in life, and neither should admissions officers.
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