Friday, February 11, 2011

Decision day for elite pre-schools, just another day for the rest of America

Anyone who harbors any teensy lingering doubt that America has become one of the most class-divided societies on the planet clearly doesn't know any affluent city dwellers.

Because then they'd know that today, in New York City, a certain set of parents are drinking vodka before 9 a.m., popping Ativan, breathing into paper bags and generally ripping their expertly coifed hair out over admissions letters.

Not letters from Yale or MIT or Stanford, silly.

From kindergarten. And pre-school.

They've whipped themselves into fits of apoplexy, because they've been made to believe that if Junior gets denied by the top-tier pre-schools, he can kiss Princeton bye bye. The pre-schools play to such insecurities; many of them proudly list the colleges their "alumni" go on to attend. And this is not some crazy New York thing. While Manhattan may have the most intense pre-school competition, the phenomenon exists in other cities and affluent suburbs.

I have a friend who jokes that she's morphed into a professional pre-school applier. Her family plans to relocate from Boston to New York this year. She has been flying back and forth with her three-year-old to attend tours, parent interviews, child interviews and school-mandated play dates at twelve prestigious pre-schools. Why so many? Because the odds are daunting.

What did she have to do to get to this phase of the process? Answer absurd essay questions such as, "If your child is in a room full of other three-year-olds, how would you tell a stranger to identify him without mentioning any of his physical attributes?"

Hint: Do NOT say he'll be the one in the corner by himself, eating paste.

Some of these schools have three or four open slots for September, and they'll choose their students from a pool of hundreds of applicants.

Friends, vague acquaintances and even complete strangers often ask what I'm going to do about the Grape's schooling. When I tell them I don't know yet, I'm met with incredulous looks.

Which I (kind of) understand. Many of my contemporaries have made the decision to fork over between $16,000 and $23,000 a year for pre-school tuition. They don't want to hear that law school didn't cost that much when I graduated. This set is acutely aware of the price of higher education. What these prospective pre-school parents desire is peer validation that they've made a reasonable investment decision.

And I can't fault them for that. They want to secure the best possible education for their children. As do I. So I haven't ruled any options in or out for the Grape.

One thing I think I'll do is enter him in the public school lottery. Among Boston's hundred and some elementary schools, three stand head and shoulders (and possibly torso) above the rest in terms of academics, facilities and quality of programming. Every year, the city holds a lottery to see which lucky kids will get to attend these stand out schools.

The idea of public school appeals to me; many of the elite private schools lack diversity and I'm loathe to bring the Grape up in a total bubble. But not so loathe that I'd send him to a typical Boston public school.

When the city's school lottery came up in a recent conversation, my dad was incensed. "It's ridiculous. All the schools should be excellent!" he boomed. And just so we're clear, my father is not a bleeding heart liberal. He pretty much views the Internal Revenue Code as a conspiracy directed against him personally. The man resents taxation more than he resents his own mortality.

However, the fact that thousands upon thousands of four-year-olds will have their futures decided by lottery clashes with his image of America.

He's an immigrant and a bootstrap guy, the charismatic type whose success story could be the stuff of a popular feel-good memoir for those who buy rah-rah America kinds of books. Forty years ago, he bought into the concept that America is great because it doesn't matter who your parents are, that everyone gets the same chance.

Which he now concedes is total bullshit.

A lottery, whereby the winners get better teachers, superior materials, a more demanding curriculum and nicer facilities, while the unlucky enter an urban jungle of schools filled with drugs, gangs, outdated textbooks and a pitiful 60% high school graduation rate, offends his sensibilities.

When I think about it in such stark terms, I second guess my plans to enter the Grape in the lottery at all. He could attend private school. So many kids can't.

Should we be taking a spot from someone with no other decent option?

I'm glad I don't need to answer that for another two years. Still, every couple of days, someone asks what am I going to do about educating the Grape. "He's almost two!" they exclaim, as if I haven't noticed.

Here's my stock response:

People can do what they want with their money. I haven't ruled private pre-school out for the Grape (nor have I ruled it in). But I wouldn't drop anywhere near that kind of cash on a two-year-old program. Why? Because if you tour the local pre-schools, you're likely to get the sense that they added "toddler rooms" as an after-thought. That would explain why they're often located in basements, attics and annexes to the main school.

Pre-school administrators sometime in the not-too-distant past realized that parents would be willing to enroll younger and younger children in school. To some degree, the admissions folks exploit parental insecurities; they tell the parents, and it's true, that the kids face less competition at the two-year-old level than in later years. So if you have your heart set on this school, they say, and then their voices trail off, to let the anxious parents do the math.

The Grape will have to take his chances. Because not only do I refuse to pay that kind of money so he can learn his colors and numbers and how to line up for the bathroom, I also think he's better off trooping around town with me that sitting in some classroom devoid of natural lighting.

Maybe during that extra year, Mayor Menino will make good on his promise to start reforming the Boston schools. The Grape will be okay whether he does or not, but so many lottery losers won't.

And that, in the town that hosts more institutions of higher education than any city on the planet, is a travesty.

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