The New York Times
March 3, 2006
In Baby Boomlet, Preschool Derby Is the Fiercest Yet
By SUSAN SAULNY
The fierce competition for private preschool in New York City has
been propelled to such a frenzy this year by the increased numbers
of children vying for scarce slots that it could be mistaken for a
kiddie version of "The Apprentice."
Take the case of the Rabbani twins, who live on the Upper West Side.
Their father, Usman Rabbani, graduated from Yale 10 years ago, has a
master's degree from Harvard and works for a major drug company in
Manhattan. Despite his accomplishments, Mr. Rabbani was stumped when
he sat down to compose a short essay a couple of months ago.
His assignment? To profile his two toddlers. Of his 18-month-old son
Humza he eventually wrote, "He knows that birds like to sit on
rooftops when they are not on the ground, that cats and dogs like to
be petted, and that the blue racquetballs in the can belong in the
racquetball court upstairs."
About Humza's twin, Raza, he wrote, "He is happy to point out all
his body parts when asked."
With those words, Mr. Rabbani conquered parental writer's block and
entered this year's version of the altered universe of private
preschool admissions. After years of decline, the number of children
under 5 in Manhattan, where the most competitive programs are
located, increased by 26 percent between 2000 and 2004, according to
census estimates. Yet the number of slots has not kept apace.
"These are the kids who are 2, 3, 4, and 5 years old now, trying to
get into preschool and kindergarten," said Amanda Uhry, the owner of
Manhattan Private School Advisors, a consulting firm for parents.
"And it's a nightmare."
This is the moment of maximum anxiety for parents, many of whom have
applied to so-called safety preschools, just hoping their children
will be accepted somewhere. And the hot pursuit of slots has
continued despite tuition that can run over $10,000 a year for
3-year-olds. Acceptance letters were sent out last Wednesday for
private kindergarten programs, to be followed next week by the
telltale thick or thin envelopes from the preschools.
"We're feeling it," said Ellen Bell, an admissions official at the
Ethical Culture Fieldston School, an elite private institution.
"It's a real problem for us to deal with the number of applicants
and deal with them properly the way we want to, to be fair with
every family. These numbers are just becoming overwhelming."
"I see a greater angst in the parent, and that troubles me, and my
heart goes out to them," she added. "We're sending out more news
that people don't want to get."
Part of the problem is that the number of twins and triplets born to
women in New York City has increased, according to city Health
In 1995, there were 3,707 twin births in all the boroughs; in 2003,
there were 4,153; and in 2004, there were 4,655. Triplet births have
also risen, from 60 in 1995, to 299 in 2004. Because preschools
strive for gender and age balance in generally small classes — and
also, some parents suspect, as many potential parental donors as
possible — it is harder to get multiple slots in one class.
"I tell families that they may increase, hopefully double or triple,
their options, by telling schools they are willing to separate their
children," said Emily Glickman, whose firm, Abacus Guide Educational
Consulting, helps parents win admission to private schools.
"Unfortunately we are in a very cutthroat climate right now, where
the schools have the power," Ms. Glickman added.
New York City has about half the capacity it needs for its youngest
students, public and private, said Betty Holcomb, the policy
director of Child Care Inc., an agency in Chelsea that provides
referral services for early child care.
"Even if you're rich, you're not guaranteed a place in a preschool,"
Ms. Holcomb said.
So this year, the application essay, which parents might once have
dashed off in a few sentences, has become a reason for more hand
"What do you say about someone who just popped out?" Mr. Rabbani
asked. "You're just getting to know them yourself."
In a sign of how overwrought the process has become, production is
in progress on a pilot for a cable television reality series,
"Manhattan Mom," about the daily travails of a New York woman. A
producer said the series would include at least one episode focusing
on the mother's struggles to get her 5-year-old into a top private
But none of the 25 or so private schools the producers called will
allow the producers to film any part of the process.
"They don't want publicity," said Rachel Tung, one of the producers.
Few schools were interested in talking about the application process
to a reporter, either; nearly a dozen did not return calls for
comment. But many parents poured out their frustration.
The preschool essays are just part of the problem, they say.
Time-consuming interviews, observed play sessions, rising tuition
costs and application fees, preferences shown to siblings and
families who have connections to the school, and the increasing
difficulty of gaining admission for twins and triplets, parents say,
are making the process more stressful for the entire family.
"I didn't get a real sense of competition like this until I was
doing my college applications, and even that seemed easier," said
Mr. Rabbani, who went to high school in a small Canadian town near
Lori Malloy, who lives on the Upper West Side, watched friends try
to get their children into preschool last year, and she remembered
thinking, "I'm not going to get stressed out like the rest of these
ladies." But when Ms. Malloy, a federal prosecutor, applied for her
twins, a boy and a girl, she asked her husband to write the
"I was so nervous," she said, "and I'm someone who took the LSAT,
who's written for the federal judiciary and in law review." The
family applied to four schools.
"There's not a week that goes by that I don't regret that I didn't
apply to three or four more," Ms. Malloy said.
Consultants are reaping benefit from the competition. Victoria
Goldman, a consultant and an author of guides to Manhattan private
schools, said, "This year, I've gotten more calls for nursery school
In writing the essay, parents can turn to the seminars that focus on
"idea starters for application essays." Some good words to use in
describing your child? Enthusiastic, creative, inquisitive,
sensitive, consultants say.
Ms. Uhry, the consultant, said it was almost impossible to overstate
the importance of the essay.
"The first way of separating the wheat from the chaff is to get rid
of those essays in which the parents couldn't be bothered enough to
write a decent essay or take this whole process seriously," she
said. "It is your calling card. It is your entree."
Still, no one can say for sure how much the essay matters. Some
consultants think it is more important to have a strong contact or
family friend already in the school of choice.
Mr. Rabbani's advice? "You have to get creative in describing your
Hence, his son Humza, in his essay, is "a soft-hearted jock." And
Humza's brother Raza is "a thinker and a mischievous lover."
Perhaps Mr. Rabbani knows what he's talking about: Humza and Raza
got into their parents' first choice of preschool two weeks ago.
They were notified before most other parents because they applied
through an early decision program.
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