Preschool frenzy – some see crowds, others see hype


By Ronda Kaysen

Nursery school was not on Elise Mac Adam’s mind. Her son is only 14 months old, hardly the age to begin thinking about school, and she has no urgent need for daycare. But then a friend clued her in to a cold hard truth about preschools in Manhattan — it’s never too early to start looking — and Mac Adam went into something of a tailspin.

“I’m anxious that I won’t find a school for him. I’m also anxious that I won’t find a school that I like. It’s the fear of the unknown,” said Mac Adam, a Tribeca resident who keeps a blog (IndieMom) about parenting.

For many mothers, the search for a good preschool begins early — parents looking for infant daycare have been known to start the quest before their baby’s born. And Downtown moms are no exception. The neighborhood, with a ballooning residential population, has a handful of preschools, and parents vie to get their kids in the best ones.

Some providers and parents, however, have a different take on the hype around preschools—that it’s nothing more than, well, hype. Perhaps the infamous waiting lists are more mythical than real and the urgency to get children into a good program is fraught with unnecessary anxiety.

“I know the hysteria and it’s been going on for 10 years and that’s what sells,” said Linda Ensko, director of Buckle My Shoe, a nursery school on Worth St. that has been in Tribeca for 20 years.

Ensko said she was suspicious of schools that boasted mammoth waiting lists and said many of the parents at her preschool — the Tribeca location has 110 children — often received phone calls from providers telling them the waiting list has miraculously cleared.

“I see the hype about not enough schools to go around,” said Kate Delacorte, founder and director of Downtown Little School in the Financial District. “But we have space in our afternoon program.” Her morning program, however, “fills easily.”

Despite reassurances, a frenzy swirls around the preschool process. Park Preschool on Greenwich St. has a waiting list with 120 names on it, and that’s just for a tour of the school. “This is the first year we’ve had that extensive of a list,” said Khris Della Pace, the school’s admissions director, sitting in her office. As new residential developments flood the neighborhood — two are under construction directly across the street from Park Preschool — Della Pace has seen her waiting list balloon. “There’s quite a few people who call and they have that panic in their voice.”

“If I had a child today, I’d be very anxious because there are so many new families here,” said Joanna Goldsmith, a Beekman St. resident with three small children. Her kids all attend Downtown Little School. She found a place at Little School for her oldest child easily, who was three at the time. Her younger children were grandfathered in as siblings.

The neighborhood has changed since Goldsmith looked for a preschool. Since 9/11, the area has seen a spate of residential conversions and new residential development. The mayor singled out Downtown as a neighborhood targeted for residential growth and Community Board 1 estimates that 30,000 new residential units will enter the Downtown market in the next five years.

“It drives me a little bit crazy that these parents are going to need childcare and I can’t provide it,” said Denise Cordivano, educational director of Battery Park City Day Nursery School. Every year, about 80 families sit on her school’s waiting list.

For Elise Mac Adam, the quest for a preschool has proved daunting. Finding the right school involves more than simply signing her son up for a program. Schools require tours and applications and interviews — not necessarily in that order — and there is only a brief window of time to do all this. Many schools require applicants to apply before they visit the school at all and waiting lists often involve hefty fees. “It’s really puzzling, it’s overwhelming, unfortunately it brings out the worst of New York,” she said, sitting at Giorgione 508 on Greenwich St. one recent afternoon.

If the application process isn’t grueling enough, fellow New York parents are more than eager to up the anxiety ante. Urbanbaby.com, a Web site for parents, has an infamous message board with parents offering advice—good, bad and plain catty—to one another.

“What are the difficult schools to get into? (I actually want to avoid them…don’t care for the stress). Thanks,” wrote one parent on the Urbanbaby.com message board.

“All of them honey!” another member quipped.

Ensko at Buckle My Shoe has words of advice for frantic parents: steer clear of the frenzy. “You’ve got to be above the hysteria,” she said. Most families can be accommodated, she said, not necessarily immediately or with the exact program they want, but accommodated. “New York is a transient place, things change, people move,” she said, meaning that spots often open up mid-year. “It’s unnecessary pressure for a parent and a child. It’s not fair.”

But new schools are coming to the neighborhood. Last fall, Victoria Feder, founder and president of the Jewish Community Project Downtown launched the Early Childhood Center on White St. in Tribeca. The new preschool has two classes this year and will expand to three classes in the fall. “The numbers of children moving into the neighborhood was enormous,” Feder said in a telephone interview. “It was an obvious need and [parents] really wanted an alternative where you didn’t have to go crazy over where to go.” Nevertheless, the fledgling preschool already has a waiting list.

Disillusioned by the seemingly mad process, some Downtown parents are opting out of the pre-school route entirely. “I absolutely cannot afford preschool. It’s out of the question and I don’t feel that it’s crucial to their development,” said Anna Grossman, founder of Hudson River Park Mothers Group, a mothers group with nearly 400 members who mainly live in Tribeca and Battery Park City. Grossman, whose son is now two years old, founded the group in 2004 with a handful of other mothers eager for social interaction.

Private full day programs cost between $10,000 and $16,000 a year, a cost that Grossman, who is a photographer, says is too expensive for some families.

She launched the mothers group partly because even infant classes — which cost about $35 for 45 minutes — were too expensive. Hudson River Park Mothers offers barebones classes for about $20 an hour. This fall, Church Street School for Music and Art will start a 12-child program exclusively for Hudson River Park Mothers. “On the first day of class they will already know the kids in their class. It’ll be like a party!” said Grossman.

The group is in conversation with Bob Townley, executive director of Manhattan Youth, about using space at a new community center that Manhattan Youth will operate. The center is expected to open in 2007.

“There are a lot of parents that are so stressed out,” said Townley. The new community center on Chambers St. “is for the community,” he said, and will likely have space to accommodate Hudson River Park Mothers.

Grossman insists she is not the only parent having second thoughts about preschool. “There are a lot of moms who have the means, but are turned off by the hype. They’re turned off by the process,” she said. “There are people with very high educational backgrounds who are choosing to opt out of this frenzy.”


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