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Tilting at Kindergarten

March 1st, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  11 Comments

The author on horseback; Theodore as Sancho Panza, far right

It’s 5 am and I’m up early to try to do some work before the kids get up because after we all leave the house, I will have to invest another morning in the quixotic search for a kindergarten (if I’m Quixote, who is my Sancho Panza? My iPhone? I am alone).

My itinerary this morning includes one school tour (PS75) and five other schools where I will drop off a copy of my ConEd utility bill and some other correspondence and fill out the same form as at all the other schools. If there’s a bilingual program, that merits its own separate application—with child language evaluations—at each school. This is the delightful federalism of applying to public kindergarten in New York: the Gifted and Talented program is run centrally, but general ed admissions are the specific fiefdom of each individual school. Each school seems to celebrate their autonomy by making their rules just a little bit different from everyone else’s. Whether it’s the hours they allow you to come by and fill out an application, or the way they run school tours, they like to mix it up just enough so that all the Ingenious Gentlemen of La Manchas out there are left feeling confused and vulnerable.

My particular favorite, at this time, among the autonomous schools, is PS333, otherwise known at the Manhattan School for Children, a gentle community of learning with a brutal application process. It is not their fault that their progressive curriculum, their scorn for Gifted and Talented, and their consensual community-building style fit well enough with the Upper West zeitgeist that they are oversubscribed. They are forced to hold an admissions lottery every year, and we are left to apply, like green card applicants hoping to migrate to some wonderful country of organic maths.

Except that we can’t apply. In a quirk of the PS333 application process, the school quietly closes the door months before any other schools even start giving tours. The premise is that you can’t apply if you haven’t taken one of their 9am tours to see whether the school is right for you (a fine idea, though I do wonder how working families ever manage this). And, for some reason, those tours are not offered after December (do they not have heating in the building?). Since we knew that our locally zoned school (PS333 is for anyone living in District 3; it’s not the closest school) didn’t start giving tours until January, we assumed the new year would be a fine time to begin looking into schools. In the case of PS333, though, we were absolutely and irrevocably late.

There’s a fine argument to be made that we should have been checking the message boards throughout the spring, summer and fall to stay up on the unique life cycle of PS333. We were on the public schools email list, but I believe there is some Bloombergian law that stipulates that no information that is actually useful or actionable gets passed along in those emails. If we were amateurish enough to rely just on those email notices and our gut feelings, then perhaps we deserve to be locked out.

My contention, which is coming under increasing fire in my household, is that it doesn’t really matter. Yes, our local school, PS166, is messing with our minds by saying both that there will probably be a wait list this year, and that no eligible zoned child has ever been turned down before. It’s seems almost intentionally unclear. But I’m enough of an optimist (or perhaps just lazy) to think that my daughter won’t be the first child ever who gets rejected from the school.

And even if she doesn’t get in, there are schools just 10 blocks away that actually need more kids than apply. They’re not the greatest schools, perhaps, but this is Kindergarten, right? At five years old, you are still shaped far more by your home and family than by your school. My wife and I both went to the public school down the street (though I imagine my wife’s mother moved away from East LA in part because she knew there would be better schools further west, and I know we island-hopped to Key Haven for a similar reason).

It is a widely held belief that getting your child into a school is the absolute worst part about raising a kid in Manhattan. And in those neglected acres of this island, the places uptown where snowplows do not go, where cops stop and seize at will, this is likely true. But in many other neighborhoods, the ones where the anxiety levels are spiking, I wonder if we the parents aren’t the problem. This has been a stressful process for us. There have been arguments in our home. And perhaps my laziness will be revealed as such when Dalia gets denied where the children of industrious fathers are not. But it’s just as likely that all the Drang will have stemmed from us, mewling in the face of a wholly imagined Sturm.

We all want to save our children. We have the good fortune to have enough free time and free thought to plot and scheme and plan how to elevate our kids. But this may not be the battle we think it is. We are looking for the best possible kindergarten, but maybe what she really needs is more of our time at home.  Saturday math or Japanese class. Or more unstructured playtime. Maybe she needs more potassium. What the hell do I know? Kindergarten is just the easiest fight to get worked up about, and it’s the one that everyone else is fighting frothily. Maybe we’re just following.

In a lovely and unintentional echo of all these conversations, my esteemed colleague Theodore posted some video on his Facebook page yesterday of JP playing hockey. The point, I think, was that JP can play hockey (which I find quite impressive, actually). But Theodore was, as I often do, filming one thing while having a deep conversation about another thing. In this case, he was discussing with someone [editor’s note: JP’s mother] off camera the relative merits of various schools in and around his neighborhood in Brooklyn.

I immediately mocked him for this unintended soundtrack, of course, but actually I was glad to hear it. If I am Quixote tilting at kindergartens, then at least my trusted squire Sancho Panza is doing the same in Brooklyn.


  1. Perpetua says:

    March 1st, 2011at 9:17 am(#)

    The horror of enrolling our kid in school is the number one reason we stayed out of Manhattan (okay, fine, Jersey City) when we had the chance to move.

    A year later, we come to find that Pittsburgh has adopted waitlists, lotteries, etc., mainly because they are attracting to the city the kind of people who care about schools faster than they can clean up a system that has been neglected for twenty years.

    So anyway, now we’re stuck in the suburbs, where the schools are top-rated and without waitlists. Huzzah?

  2. dadwagon says:

    March 1st, 2011at 9:32 am(#)

    Nathan–you have this all wrong. I am clearly Don Quixote and you are Sancho Panza, if for no other reason that I am somewhat more eccentric than you, have a far more interesting beard, and definitely have a longer sword. Make a note of it. –Theodore.

  3. Cool Dad says:

    March 1st, 2011at 11:47 am(#)

    When we lived in Manhattan, the tension that surrounded schooling conversations was palpable. Not envying your quest.

    You make a great point that the lessons learned in home life probably trumps those available in school life right now. It’s cliche, but oh so true — you don’t get these years back.

  4. Tim says:

    March 1st, 2011at 11:48 am(#)

    Find a group of parents and fight to fix those not so good school. We were blown away how easy this was to do with just 5-10 concerned parents. In Austin we just took an academically unacceptable school up to Exemplary. Last year we had 33% increase in enrollment. This year looks to be 100%.

    It’s hard. You have to be involved, but it’s much more satisfying to be working to make a school great, than to be hustling to try to get your kid into an already great school.

  5. Nathan says:

    March 1st, 2011at 12:32 pm(#)

    @Cool Dad — No doubt, I won’t get that time spent stressing about the whole process back. I’ll have to use that one when disputing with the wife
    @Tim — I know what you mean; and in fact, there are few schools here that don’t have a core of agitated and committed parents, no matter what neighborhood they’re in. The parent who led the tour today was committed to the point of actual insanity, in fact…
    @Perpetua — Suburban Pittsburgh? Rolling hills, wide open schools, horse country. Nice place.

  6. Giles says:

    March 2nd, 2011at 12:41 pm(#)

    I would worry less about the school and more about the teacher(s). Young kids can usually survive a year with a bad teacher, but two bad teachers in a row will turn the kid off school and learning for the forseeable future. The location nor the cost of the school equates to having good teachers.

  7. Marie says:

    March 3rd, 2011at 9:18 am(#)

    Tim- what school in Austin are you talking about?

  8. Donna says:

    March 3rd, 2011at 10:13 pm(#)

    In District 3 the Middle School application process may be even worse. Unlike District 2, we don’t have a zoned middle school. Conventional wisdom is that “most” kids get into their first choice but what do you do if they don’t? I hope I don’t need to find out!


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