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Kindergarten: You In?

It's a tough year for parents whose children are competing for the coveted slots at top-tier private kindergartens. Panic and hysteria? It makes preschool look like, well, preschool.

April 06, 2008|Audrey Davidow | Special to The Times

IT was a nail-biter of a month. But at last the news is in: The idle chitchat, the intense speculation and competitive jockeying are over, and families throughout the Los Angeles area are either exulting in victory or wallowing in defeat.

It's kindergarten acceptance time, the make-it or break-it moment when L.A.'s top private schools mail their acceptance and rejection letters, then conveniently take off on spring break to dodge the hysteria. And by all accounts, this year has been especially brutal.

"Most people received their letters on Good Friday," says Hancock Park mom Chesney Hill. "But all the moms call it Black Friday."

Although the numbers are still being tallied, consultant Jamie Nissenbaum, whose company L.A. School Mates helps parents plan an admissions strategy, has seen nearly a 20% increase in applications for schools that typically cost $20,000 a year. Parents who would've applied to four or five schools last year are now applying to seven or eight and are even considering -- gasp -- public school.

"I've seen parents with kids as young as 11 months schmoozing top admissions directors at fundraising events," says Nissenbaum. "Even siblings . . . are no longer guaranteed spots at certain schools."

Desperate for a new edge, parents are turning to private consultants such as Nissenbaum, padding admissions essays, plying admissions directors with lattes and sending family snapshots with recorded messages. When all else fails, there's always the time-honored tradition of name-dropping.

"It's been a really, really difficult year," says Ruth Segal, director of Wagon Wheel nursery school, a preschool often considered by parents to be a feeder for the city's most coveted kindergartens. "I've had so many mothers calling crying because they didn't get into schools." Segal spent much of last week working the phones, trying to find spots for students who got shut out.

Private schools in the Los Angeles area are now receiving up to 10 applications per opening, says Jim McManus executive director of the California Assn. of Independent Schools, and the quality of applicants is getting better. "The competition just keeps getting stiffer," he says. "And it's causing a lot of stress and agony for everyone involved."

"It was the worst experience that I could ever imagine going through as a mother," said one West Hollywood mom, who for obvious reasons requested anonymity: Her child was wait-listed at the two schools to which she applied. "Of course I broke down and started crying. I threw up. I had diarrhea. I locked myself in the closet and drank myself into oblivion. I felt like I failed my kid."

Harsh competition

Most parents living this rat race will tell you that scoring a spot at one of the city's top-tier kindergartens -- places such as the John Thomas Dye School in Bel-Air, Oakwood in North Hollywood, Crossroads in Santa Monica, Campbell Hall in North Hollywood and the Brentwood School -- makes getting into the Ivy League look like a breeze. And they may have a point. According to the National Assn. of Independent Schools, the acceptance rate for private school in the Los Angeles area is 34%. The national average is 52%.

One of the most coveted schools in the area, considered by many power parents to be the most desirable K-6 around, is the Center for Early Education in West Hollywood. Deedie Hudnut, the school's director of admissions, says applications for the center were up almost 20% from last year. Of the 178 applicants, the school had room for only 16 new students.

Earlier this year, when the center's director, Reveta Bowers, went into the hospital for minor surgery, there was talk that even the anesthesiologist couldn't help but put in a good word for his kid just before putting her under.

Consultant Nissenbaum charges parents $350 an hour to help crack the mysterious kindergarten admissions code and find the best fit for their family.

And the admissions frenzy is fostering a boom in kindergarten consulting businesses. Parents also now have Get Into Private School and L.A. School Scout to help them, and Fiona Whitney, author of popular guides to the local school scene, just added one-on-one consulting to her repertoire.

But there's more than one way to fix the odds. Never underestimate the power of courting the admissions directors, persuading important community members to write letters and, says one West Hollywood mom, showing up at morning drop-off with a latte for the preschool teachers who play a pivotal role in recommending kids to kindergarten.

It also means leaving nothing to chance. That essay prompt -- "Describe your child's strengths and weaknesses"? -- a gimme. Although the schools are looking for only two or three lines, says a Hollywood mother whose daughter was accepted at all four schools to which she applied, "they all say, 'Feel free to add an additional page' . . . and everybody does. I wrote a draft, then my husband edited it, then we each did multiple rewrites."

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