What You Didn’t Know About the Private School Kindergarten Process (and neither did we once)

There was a point in time where I laughed at sitcoms showing nervous parents trying desperately to get their children into private schools that were tougher in their admissions process than Ivy League colleges. Oh the humor in watching parents jump through ever higher hoops and ever more stressful situations in the hopes of getting little Johnny or Suzy into the ‘right’ preschool or kindergarten!

That was, of course, before GeekDaddy and I gave birth to Buttercup and agreed that we’d sooner cut off our own arms than send her to most public schools.

Given that we don’t live on either coast, I didn’t suspect that we’d be subjected to quite as rigorous a process as might be expected in areas where the wait-lists for preschools start at birth, and a year’s tuition is comparable to a semester at Harvard.

Still, the experience has been enlightening and it has its brighter moments. Or at least, its moments of humor.

This is actually our 3rd year in the process. The first two years involved only one school. In the hopes of avoiding the masses that start showing up at Kindergarten level, we applied to the private school my niece has attended for the past 9 years for preschool when Buttercup was just turning 3 years old. Gritting our teeth and telling ourselves that it was an acceptable price to pay 2 1/2 times the tuition we were already paying at her then preschool if it meant assured enrollment at one of the better schools, we began the dance.

The numbers at 3 and 4 year preschool in terms of applicants versus acceptance at that point was only 8-to-1. Apparently, in Kindergarten, the numbers go up anywhere from 10-to-1 to 25-to-1 or more, depending on the year and the school. I’ve been told from a reliable source that one of the local private schools (where she works) has a 40-to-1 applicant to availability ratio starting with first grade.

Despite everything I won’t bore you with here, we were wait-listed the past 2 years at that school. Buttercup was the first non-sibling, non-faculty-member’s-child, girl on that wait-list. If she had been a boy, apparently, she would’ve gotten in. But as it was, we breathed a sigh of relief at not having to pay the tuition for a couple more years, and still having the familiarity with that school. At least because she was wait-listed, we don’t have to pay the application fee again, just say “yep, put us in the pool for this year…” and get her teacher recommendation and go.

But this year has been a little different. And by ‘different’ I mean ‘more stressful.’ Most of the private schools around here pretty much start accepting kids at 5 years old. Whether K-8 or K-12, they leave the preschool to ‘feeder’ schools and the big influx starts at kindergarten. So we began the process as early as we could – starting the investigations of the potential schools last Spring.

After much research, we narrowed the field down to 5 schools to tour in the Fall, and after touring – 3 to apply to. I’ll spare you the details on how that was decided – but suffice to say, even when you are just ‘touring’ the schools pre-application, there is much scrutiny on the part of the school as to whether or not you are the type of family they would welcome an application from or not.

Of course the vetting process begins long before the formal application/interview/selection process does. From the first moment you are on the phone with an Admissions person, you are being assessed. No, not your child – you. Private schools aren’t all about the child, you see. They are also about the family. Unlike public schools, private schools rely on a sense of community to further their school’s success. Tuition doesn’t cover the actual costs of running these schools – there are fund-raisers, donations, and fees as well. It’s important to have a community of families that is willing to work together to make sure the school thrives. Much of the process is about the prospective student, but believe me when I tell you that the parents are just as scrutinized.

Late September and early October begins the touring process. In most cases, this means both parents coming in to meet with someone in Admissions and get shown the campus (sans child) and have the school’s philosophies, practices, and environment explained. This might be done with or without the child (mostly without) and it might be just you, or you might be grouped with another couple or two, depending on the number of applicants. In October and November come the Open Houses. Despite having already toured the campus, parents show up (again, whether or not child-friendly depends on the school) and re-tour it with large hordes of other parents. This is done when they can meet with faculty and administrative types and wander about ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’ when the children aren’t busy using the facilities themselves.
Once the touring and Open House hopping is done, parents must begin the application process. This means pages of applications filled out, teacher recommendation forms delivered to the current teacher(s) with stamped envelopes and instructions to return them in December (after they’ve had time to get to know the child), photos, parent statements, and if you have a child over 1st grade applying, testing.

Oh, and check-writing. Did I forget to mention the check-writing? Even here in the middle of the country each school has a ‘non-refundable application fee’ that is anywhere from $35-$150 but averaging about $75 per school. This makes sense when you realize that it keeps the number of ‘well let’s just apply to all of them and then decide later’ types down. But it still kind of hurts to write a check to a school that might never even consider letting your child go there, or knowing that it’s just money that you spent as a backup in case your first choice didn’t come through.

January. Ah, January! We’re in January now – and this is when the dance starts in earnest. At this point, we have gotten all of the applications, teacher recommendations, checks, photos, statements and whatnot completed. And so begin the “Kindergarten Roundups.”

If the term “roundup” conjures to mind a cattle-drive, I suspect that is not entirely unintended. These are group dates – wherein all those little would-be Kindergarteners come and visit the classrooms and the prospective teachers (and other evaluators) en masse. This is to see how your little Suzy or Johnny interacts in the classroom environment. It’s all well and good that you said on your application that your child was not only as brilliant as Einstein, s/he was also as angelic as Mother Teresa, and as sweet as honey… and that your child’s present teacher wrote glowing lines bordering on poetry about how s/he was a delight to teach and the light of each day… They want to actually see whether or not Johnny or Suzy is prone to eating glue, kicking other children in the shins, or emulating their favorite WWF character.

My heart goes out to some of these kids when we do this. It’s clear that there’s always a handful who are terrified when they face this ordeal. Clearly, they’d rather be anywhere other than a classroom full of prettily dressed but terrifyingly unknown other children vying for coveted spots in this school. To say that we’re lucky is an understatement. Buttercup seems to have a knack for this sort of thing and is her own best ambassador. We’ve watched her walk over to a crying child trying desperately to cling to her parents’ legs in hope of not being left and say directly in front of the teachers “it’s okay, this will be fun, why don’t you come play with me? Look, here’s a horse!” Wilting violet she is not.

However, whilst the children are being corralled at said roundup, the parents are lead elsewhere on the campus. There’s always coffee and food involved. Sometimes there’s a presentation. Sometimes there’s just socializing with the other parents. Sometimes it’s a Q&A session with the head of admissions or the Headmaster of the school. Again, depends on the school. But let not the unwary drop his or her guard! This is yet another time for someone at the school to assess the parents. Who showed up? Just Mom? Both parents? Are they talking to anyone? Are they staying at the fringes?

In some cases (but not all) there is yet another step – the ‘parent interview.’ We’ve been through 2 of these now – one 3 years ago at school number one – and one today, at school number two of the three. This is definitely a non-child event, and requires both parents to be there if there is more than one parent.

The ostensible purpose of this is that you, the parents will ’shed further light’ on the nature of your darling offspring. Having read your application, parents’ statement, and seen your child in action – you will be asked questions to help them to get a better picture of your potential scholar. Essentially? It’s a job interview. But you’re being asked more about your child than yourself.

Don’t get me wrong here – these people know what they are doing – they do it every year. They learn quite a bit about you without asking about you directly. Questions like “how do you spend your time together when you are with your child? Would you say it’s structured or unstructured?” tell more about your parenting style than the child’s readiness for kindergarten.

The thing is – whenever we’re there, going through these arcane processes and hoop-jumping, I can’t help but be reminded of those sitcoms I mentioned above. It makes me laugh… and you know, laughter is a good thing. It reminds you that while none of us like to feel that we are being judged and perhaps found wanting, at least there’s some good to be gleaned from the experience.

Apparently, most parents forget to laugh in their driven determination to assist their offspring in overcoming the competition and gaining the coveted invitation to enroll. I know this because every time we end up laughing or kidding around, there’s sort of this awestruck look on the face of those on the other side of the equation. I suspect they are far too used to dealing with tense, stressed-out parents on a regular basis – and not unlike traffic cops who are always met with anything other than friendliness when they pull someone over – they get accustomed to steeling themselves against the waves of emotional turmoil emanating from prospective parents. When met with genuine laughter and humor, there’s usually an initial look of confusion replaced by relief.

Take, to whit, what happened on our way out of School #2 today. We were leaving just as school was letting out for the day – and so, ensconced in a heaving mass of scurrying schoolchildren, we found ourselves coming out the front door of the main building just as the Headmaster was coming in.

He greeted us warmly (points to him for remembering!) and said “oh! Are you here for the interview? How did it go? “

I looked at him and said, wryly “Oh, fairly well – probably would’ve gone better if we hadn’t spilled coffee all over her and called her names there at the end…”

Which warranted me a confused smile and a momentary pause, until GeekDaddy chimed in deadpan with “Yep, fortunately, we were able to keep the Tourret Syndrome under control this time!”

The Headmaster looked back and forth at us, caught the gleam in our eyes and the grins starting to form that we couldn’t help and burst out laughing himself. “A sense of humor!” he said, “That’s a very good thing to have around here… Very good!”

And we smiled and replied “and we’re glad to find out that you have one as well, sir!” and took our leave.

Next week, school #3 – the Catholic one. Should be fun.

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~ by Lucretia on January 15, 2008.

One Response to “What You Didn’t Know About the Private School Kindergarten Process (and neither did we once)”

  1. Wow… I’ve never been more glad that I homeschool…

    It does make me certain that I can’t wait for that dinner out with you and yours though… Tourrets… Too funny…

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