i went through the notorious preschool admissions process for my son ages ago. he went to the now defunct circle of friends, on west 98th street, a school as sweet as its name. my husband and i were loath to have our 2-year-old tested or screened. it seemed ludicrous and even limiting, and circle of friends didn't require it. we just signed him up, and he joined the circle. now, the soon-to-be-released documentary nursery university allows us to voyeuristically watch others go through the contortions of the preschool admissions process. the insanity is about "getting in, fitting in" and "belonging," says victoria goldman, author of the manhattan directory of private nursery schools, in an appearance in the film. but it's also described as a "blood sport" and a "nightmare," and the filmmakers, to their credit, delve into issues of inequity and access and how parents react to a shortage of schools.
nursery university follows five families from a variety of backgrounds and economic circumstances going through the admissions process: the upper east side pratofioritos; the ivy league-educated moons of the west village; bartender kim ashton and wife kris ragoonath of harlem; former rocker wyatt sprague and stay-at-home mom sneha kapadia of greenwich village; and aleta st. james, the 58-year-old mother of twins. a combination of factors both real and imagined fuel the parental angst, which tony pratofiorito said began moments after his daughter's birth at the hospital where he was twice asked about her preschool prospects. context is given via overlaid text at the beginning of the film. the number of new york city children under age 5 has increased 30 percent since 2000, resulting in 15 applicants for every spot. demand has caused price tags to soar as high as $24,000 a year, and admissions consultants can cost thousands more. the perception is that graduation from one of the "top tier" preschools will open doors to the best elementary schools, the best middle and high schools, and on to the ivy league. parents swept up in this emotionally charged scene can easily "lose perspective," according to gabriella rowe, head of the mandell school, who was once approached for an application as she stepped out of the shower at the gym. not all the participants, i was told, had signed on for more media intrusion, but last week i queried father tony pratofiorito, educator gabriella rowe and filmmakers marc h. simon and matthew makar on their motivations and methods. pratofiorito said he and his wife, cynthia, agreed (reluctantly on her part) to be filmed, hoping it would "help other people" through the process, but had no idea of the magnitude of the project. "it was a huge, huge time commitment, involving multiple hours of footage," he said. "they came to our thanksgiving dinner and juliana's birthday. they watched us do our essays and applications." in the movie he approaches the admissions challenge with zeal. we see tony and cynthia arguing over whether to send out four to five applications, as recommended, or six to eight, as tony prefers. he has a thesaurus on hand to find the best words to describe juliana. "i would think a new york city private school education would be coveted," he said, "just like a central park west address would be coveted? a coveted preschool will give her the tools." eager filmmakers were approaching the mandell school's rowe "about once a week" when a mutual friend convinced her to grant simon and makar an audience. preschool admissions has become a "hot topic" she said in an interview at the end of a school day last week. flashbacks in the movie show the sensational headlines and news clips of recent years and remind us of the 2002 "nursery school scandal of all time," when securities analyst jack b. grubman allegedly finagled a million-dollar donation bribe to get his 2-year-old twins into the 92nd street y. "private schools did themselves a tremendous disservice by not answering the hype," rowe said when we spoke. "parents were sending resumes for 2-year-olds and the implication was it was about money, what work you do and pedigree. no one in the education world was saying a word." that silence made the topic "quite appealing" to simon. his previous documentary, after innocence, concerns the wrongful convictions of people who have since been released through the evidence of dna testing. for his next film, he wanted to stay in new york for practical reasons (he is a full-time lawyer here), and searched for a story that would appeal to the mainstream. but he was told he would "never get cameras into this sensitive material." how sensitive could it be? "i had interviewed people in maximum security prisons," he said. "that was sensitive material."
simon's bona fides-his claim to be looking for a "real human story"-convinced rowe to take part. "i don't believe secrecy leads to anything but elitism," she explained in an interview, "and that has no role in education." she called wendy levey, director of the epiphany community nursery, and once those two big names were on board, others followed. jean rosenberg, of chelsea day school, is also featured, as are a host of consultants, experts and teachers. co-director makar joined after the film had already been cast and found it to be an eye-opening experience. "i knew nothing about this world," he said. "for two single guys, it was a unique challenge." rowe said her participation was, "the single riskiest thing i ever did in my life" and confessed she lost sleep over it some months into shooting. she comes off largely sympathetic, a woman who grapples with what it all means and tries to keep her eye on the transformative power of education. "i grew up with nothing, so poor," she said in a separate interview, "but because of my private school education i could build up my areas of interest and i learned to ask more of myself. i want people to see it's available to them. i hope some people will hear and see that message." the message of the film, she maintained, is "about educating children-finding a fit and community you can feel wholly engaged in. a story about basic human instincts, about parents wanting for their children better than they had?not only about the journey of families, but the journey of educators trying to get it right." as a former preschool teacher myself, i wholeheartedly embrace the power of early childhood education. and as a mother, i can certainly relate to the parents in the film who want the best for their children-or at least better than what they had. but when faced with the preschool maze, i could not remotely respect the process, or feel that the hype and angst on the part of parents, or the interviews, screenings and veiled selection criteria on the part of schools, was solely about educating children. in the slew of media that came on the heels of the grubman affair, writer michael wolff's critique on the "values and mores and rituals that drive manhattan's private-school world"-published in a 2002 new york magazine piece called "the price of perfection"-was therefore a balm for me. we're attracted to the idea of the "perfect kid" he wrote, which we think can be found in the "right" milieu. "there's the perceived higher value of your children-you no longer have just a kid, you have a 92nd street y kid, or a spence daughter, or a horace mann son. it's something you can take to the bank. it's social currency-even a business currency," wolff wrote. "it's the country club effect fueling the fire," echoed filmmaker makar in a separate interview. "fathers often use this as a social networking tool. they network with other heads of businesses. mommy blogs fuel this as well." if "top tier" private schools can offer anything that other preschools can't, it might be what rowe was getting at when she said, "i learned to ask more of myself." if you are surrounded by powerful people who have learned to forthrightly speak their minds, knowing they will be heard when they do, the assumption is that given the "right" milieu, you can do this, too. this seems to be the goal of mother kris ragoonath, who, in one of the film's more moving scenes, meets with admissions consultant roxanna reid, her childhood friend. as reid ticks off the names of schools ragoonath could try for son kieron, she cautions that these are schools with "a certain culture and economic status." coming, as both women do, from a "black, latino, poor, working class environment," she asks how kris will feel about that? "i feel like i can't fail," ragoonath says, breaking down. "we're not doing bad. i'm not saying that. i have reached very far. but we didn't get a lot of what life has to offer. i want kieron to have what you and i and our parents didn't have the opportunity for." on the opposite end of the spectrum and arguably typed as the ones most squarely settled in the land of privilege, the pratofioritos nevertheless become increasingly human and comic throughout their many scenes together, and racial diversity is part of their story, too, since cynthia is from buenos aires. on one application they write spanish as juliana's first language, although she's apparently only learning spanish with her babysitter. "let's work it," tony says. it's hard to look good in this process. heidi moon, a busy entrepreneur, debates with her babysitter whether or not she'll look cheap if she gives less than $500 to the fundraising auction at city and country, the school she wants for her son (something many parents do). "we were the family that entered the process completely clueless," she said of admissions insanity. as a result, she says they worried they would have no school for their son, yet moon seems to cross a line when she asks to be reconsidered for a lottery they have lost, when she pans the entranceway of the only school that has accepted her son, and when she says, "frankly, we're used to getting what we set out to get." moon spoke in a separate interview about some of the "cheap filmmaking shots" she felt were taken out of context.we see her enter a school to express interest again, a delicate ritual encouraged by schools that was important to her and that she didn't want compromised in any way. but the cameraman snuck in behind her. "they had promised me they wouldn't follow," she said. even without cameras at your back the preschool race is tough. onscreen it is apparent that some parents simply have more time, more flexibility in their work schedules, better connections, more education, more self-awareness, better writing skills and greater incomes from the start. being a child of color also works in a child's favor in some cases. once the application is in hand, the pressure is on for parents to present themselves, and their child, as just what the school ordered. it is, perhaps, the ambiguity and subjectivity of who gets in that drives parents crazy and causes them to wonder what, exactly, schools are looking for. even schools that use lottery systems for applications still screen kids in "group interviews"-euphemistically called "play dates"-citing vague and ambiguous notions of "fit." parents are seen hovering, near-frozen, at the edge of these screenings as their children pound play-doh and teachers watch them like hawks. any parent would chafe at the notion that his or her child might be judged and found wanting, but parents are scrutinized here too. is he on his blackberry? did she use purell after shaking hands with the head of school? are there separation issues?
why aren't there simply more wonderful, sought-after preschools in new york city? on the face of it, this would seem to be the obvious and easy solution. but there are plenty of reasons why great schools don't just pop up; real estate is pricey, reputations are made over time and regulatory requirements are daunting. digging a little deeper as this film does, one wonders, if it isn't our perspective that needs adjustment and our definition of success and belonging that needs broadening. it's good to remember (and this is touched on in the film) that there are cheaper and more-accessible preschools out there in addition to the "top tiers" so richly on display. at the humbler options, too, kids are singing, hearing stories, napping, collecting leaves and learning to share. one hopes the toddlers there are blissfully unaware of the "tier" they inhabit. whether you're a parent going through this process or one who finds it sickly fascinating, you should see nursery university for yourself. for tickets, call 212-371-6683 or visit www.nurseryuniversitythemovie.com. the film is scheduled to run the week of april 24 to 30 at the phoenix adlabs imaginasian theatre, at 239 e. 59th st. there are five shows per day and special "mommy and me" showings at 11:30 a.m. on friday, saturday and sunday-they'll keep the volume lower, the theater warmer and the lights slightly brighter. each screening on opening weekend will be followed by a panel discussion and audience q and a featuring the filmmakers, the families from the film and some of the top experts and school directors. advanced purchase-like advance calls for nursery school applications-is strongly recommended.
break out the popcorn: nursery university is a movie to see with friends. deborah brewster and alissa torres, both writers and moms, joined me last week and agreed to watch and comment on the film. brewster's 4-year-old son attends twin parks montessori and torres's son (now in 1st grade) attended the west side ymca co-op nursery school. lynn rosen, a playwright, has a 1st grader who spent his preschool years at the studio school, and a 1-and-a-half-year-old. (she watched in her own home and we spoke by phone afterward.) "my cortisone levels are rising," deborah said. "i'm anxious," alissa said. "i felt like i was suffocating," lynn said. "i got a pit in my stomach." "the pressure on all of you is generated by you," says chelsea day's jean rosenberg in the film. "don't worry about anything." to which deborah responded: "of course they don't worry, because they don't have to apply! i don't think parents get crazy and disproportionate given how hard it is to get into any preschool. the process is crazy making." the issue of subjectivity was raised as the movie progressed. we see the mandell school's gabriella rowe and her teachers sitting in her office faced with a daunting stack of desirable applicants and ever-dwindling space. one teacher admires the "tasteful stationary" tacked onto an application and rowe says, ruefully, "it's come to tasteful stationary!" "i think they're trying to be fair, but it comes down to the splitting of hairs," said alissa, watching. when rowe talks about the hypothetical "really fabulous, wonderful family i have to say no to," we all wondered what a really fabulous, wonderful family looks like. "they actually have an opinion which they don't reveal to you," deborah said. she favored the method of wendy levey, epiphany's no-nonsense director, who at one point spells out exactly how many times per day parents should call to let it be known epiphany is their first choice. "she's straight. i like her," deborah said. "she's not trying to be all things to all people." as the credits rolled, deborah summed up the admissions process: "it's 70 percent fair and 30 percent not really fair." "but the 30 percent weighs 3,000 percent," alissa said. "they can't make those decisions within half an hour," argued deborah. "kids change." "lottery's good," alissa nodded. "i felt like it was a big cliffhanger," sighed deborah. "like i was watching a mystery film."