Competition for admission to the country's top private schools has always been tough, but this year Elisabeth Krents realized it had reached a new level. Her wake-up call came when a man called the Dalton School in Manhattan, where Krents is admissions director, and inquired about the age cutoff for their kindergarten program. After providing the information (they don't use an age cutoff), she asked about the age of his child. The man paused for an uncomfortably long time before answering. "Well, we don't have a child yet," he told Krents. "We're trying to figure out when to conceive a child so the birthday is not a problem."
School obsession is spreading from Manhattan to the rest of the country. Precise current data on private schools are unavailable, but interviews with representatives of independent and religious schools all told the same story: a glut of applicants, higher rejection rates. "We have people calling us for spots two years down the road," said Marilyn Collins of the Seven Hills School in Cincinnati. "We have grandparents calling for pregnant daughters." Public-opinion poll after poll indicates that Americans' No. 1 concern is education. Now that the long economic boom has given parents more disposable income, many are turning to private schools, even at price tags of well over $10,000 a year. "We're getting applicants from a broader area, geographically, than we ever have in the past," said Betsy Haugh of the Latin School of Chicago, which experienced a 20 percent increase in applications this year.
The problem for the applicants is that while demand has increased, supply has not. "Every year, there are a few children who do not find places, but this year, for the first time that I know of, there are a significant number of children who don't have places," said Krents, who also heads a private-school admissions group in New York.
So what can parents do to give their 4-year-old an edge? Schools know there is no foolproof way to pick a class when children are so young. Many schools give preference to siblings or alumni children. Some use lotteries. But most rely on a mix of subjective and objective measures: tests that at best identify developmental maturity and cognitive potential, interviews with parents and observation of applicants in classroom settings. They also want a diverse mix. Children may end up on a waiting list simply because their birthdays fall at the wrong time of year, or because too many applicants were boys.
The worst thing a parent can do is to pressure preschoolers to perform--for example, by pushing them to read or do math exercises before they're ready. Instead, the experts say, parents should take a breath and look for alternatives. Another year in preschool may be all that's needed.
Parents, meanwhile, may need a more open mind about relatively unknown private schools--or about magnet schools in the public system. There's no sign of the private-school boom letting up. Dalton's spring tours, for early birds interested in the 2001-2002 school year, are filled. The wait list? Forget it. That's closed, too.