Elite America’s Summer Preschool Madness

Fewer spots, slashed budgets, and more applicants mean upper-crust parents are having a harder time than ever getting their kids into elite preschools. By Eliza Shapiro.

Steve Pope/AP

June is to supposed to be the one month parents have off.

But this summer, there’s no rest for the weary helicopter moms and dads desperate to get their toddlers into the best preschools in the country. Even as warm weather sets in and kids get out of school with months to go before the first day back, this June is shaping up to be a doozy for parents who think a good preschool is the only way to ensure their kid a spot in the Harvard class of 2031.

Why now?

In major U.S. cities from coast to coast, prominent school directors are resigning or retiring, destroying the connections parents have spent years—and plenty of money—trying to build. With fewer pre-K posts and more applicants every year, wait lists are long and barely move. Families from small towns and foreign countries move to major cities in the early summer and try to get their kids into the last few coveted open spots at the best schools. And massive budget cuts have crippled public-school options.

In 2011, the last year for which data are available in New York, there was a 10 percent increase in students applying for spots at the city’s private schools from the previous year. And many wait lists are basically polite rejection letters that offer little actual hope of a spot, experts say.

As the frenzy for coveted preschool spots intensifies, schools are restricting who can apply and keeping their class sizes miniscule. At the 92nd Street Y preschool in New York, for example, the admissions team handpicks who is even permitted to apply after families tour the school.

And while many of the most exclusive schools are notoriously tight-lipped about their pre-K acceptance rates, the number of applicants applying for every given spot at top-tier schools across the country dwarfs the tiny class sizes available. Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., which Sasha and Malia Obama attend, has a mere 22 open spots for its preschool every year.

“Nobody is relaxing this summer. If they’re relaxing, they’re silly,” says Amanda Uhry, the owner of Manhattan Private School Advisors, which helps parents get their children into top-tier New York City private schools. Uhry says the preschool-admissions bottleneck in New York is being made even tighter this summer by parents moving to the city from all over the world.

“Parents from Chicago or L.A. call me and say, ‘We’re going to come interview schools in New York.’ I tell them, ‘That isn’t the way it works here,’” Uhry says. “And foreign families from Russia and China in particular are buying condos so they can send their kids to the best local schools. But there are enough American kids to fill all the spots ten times over!”

It’s no secret that well-heeled parents have obsessed over preschool admissions for years now, but this summer appears to be bringing a perfect storm of anxiety. Public pre-K options are particularly scant in Philadelphia and Chicago this year as school budgets are slashed and several schools have been forced to close.

In Philadelphia, a $304 million budget deficit forced 23 public schools to close Friday, draining resources from after-school programs and flooding other schools, from pre-K to high school, with new students. School-obsessed Chicago parents are comparing notes on widespread budget cuts at individual public schools.

One Chicago parent, Rebecca Labowitz, says she’s heard that some schools had to cut costs so much that the city won’t provide toilet paper and soap. Other schools will lose their art or music programs, meaning schools can expect parents to shuffle their kids around to the programs least affected by cuts, creating a tricky bottleneck.

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Even President Obama stoked the fire of pre-K recently, when he said every 4-year-old in the country needs access to a high-quality preschoo., or else “they’re going to be behind on their first day of kindergarten.” Gulp.

In Los Angeles, parents are facing a fresh wave of panic this summer as Tom Hudnut, the longstanding president and CEO of Harvard-Westlake, a middle and high school widely considered L.A’s most prestigious, steps down. The major catch for pre-K parents: Hudnut is married to Deedie Hudnut, the admissions director of one of L.A’s most exclusive preschools, the Center for Early Education. Barbra Streisand and Denzel Washington, along with a coterie of A-listers, have sent their toddlers there.

The center is known as a feeder school to Harvard-Westlake, which is why so many parents are desperate for their 4-year-olds to start at the center in the first place. But now parents are terrified that, with the Hudnut tie severed, the center will no longer feed into Harvard-Westlake.

“It was virtually guaranteed that a bunch of kids from the center would go to Harvard-Westlake every year,” says Christina Simon, an L.A mom who runs the local school blog Beyond the Brochure. “Now parents with kids at the center are worried their kids will be stuck. I can’t tell you how many people pick the center for just one reason: so their child can go to Harvard-Westlake.”

The center is so exclusive that parents have to apply to the school—including a $100 fee—before they can even tour it.

Not everyone thinks the frenzy inspired by preschool applications is worth it. A 2012 study by a psychologist at the University of Texas found that preschool education only made a significant difference in a child’s development when they came from a poor or unstable home. “The very children who benefit the most from preschool are the least likely to be enrolled in them,” the study concluded.

And when asked in a recent Slate article how important pre-K education is for a child, Richard Nisbett, a social psychologist and co-director of the Culture and Cognition program at the University of Michigan, responded, “It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.”

Tell that to the hysterical parents with children at Central Synagogue preschool and the Jewish Community Center preschool, on the Upper East and West Sides of Manhattan, respectively. Both the directors of those schools are departing this summer, and parents are “in hysterics,” says Uhry, the private-school adviser, trying to determine what this means for their children’s hopes at getting into the very best kindergartens.

Much like the Harvard-Westlake debacle, many parents pick these preschools just because they’re considered safe bets as feeder schools to the city’s top elementary schools.

“The contacts for elementary schools go when the directors go,” Uhry says, meaning that the well-connected directors will no longer be able to pull strings for their students to go to the best elementary schools. “These parents are left high and dry.”

Three thousand miles away, San Francisco parents are taking matters into their own hands to try to get their preschoolers spots at top-tier kindergartens. Hundreds of Bay Area parents lined up in the middle of the night last week to put their names on wait lists for dozens of public schools. One local blogger wrote that she got in line at 6:40 a.m. to put her name down and found 100 people already in front of her. One woman said she paid someone to wait in line starting at 3 a.m.

Speaking for every nervous parent from the Bay Area to Chicago to New York City, Uhry put it bluntly.

“We’ve reached a crisis situation.”