The Finish Line, by Anna Li (Part 2)

Here is Part 2 of Anna Li’s story about her experience getting her daughter into a NYC Gifted and Talented school. Thank you, Anna, for sharing your personal story with us.

The Finish Line
by Anna Li

I don’t know how the rest of the New York City parents feel who applied for the public school’s Gifted & Talented program, but I am still reeling from last week when the G & T placements came in. Although we had nothing but fortunate options, I cannot shake the mental and physical exhaustion from what I have had to accomplish while navigating through what I feel is an unbalanced, certainly unjust system.

We were of those NYC parents who chose to put down a deposit at a private school in order to secure a spot, while waiting to see if our daughter scored high enough to merit a Gifted & Talented seat in the public school system (read: free). There was no way to predict how well she would do; I know of children who far exceeded the Hunter College Elementary test cut off while did not earn a G & T placement later on.

Like approximately 1,200 other New York parents of top scoring children, when we received Lili’s ranking of 99%, we elatedly assumed she could go anywhere in the city. It was one of the finest moments for my husband and me, being eligible for something of such excellence, without financial consequences.

Little did we know that in order to get a seat in the G & T program, our child not only had to score in the 99%, but then had to simply be lucky enough for the computer to pull her name early enough in its “lottery” to be assigned one of 400 seats. For entry to the citywide programs, the very best gifted schools that go to eighth grade or through high school, a child needs to score 97%-99%. This year, only one in three 99% scoring students had a chance of a citywide seat. As a glimpse: Anderson had 38 available seats, NEST a similar number. Of course we were going to gamble $7,000 on a spot at a private school.

After we received my daughter’s placement notice from the Department of Education via email last Friday, I felt that it was only fair that we make an immediate decision if we were to withdraw my daughter from the private school she was slated to attend in order to give that admissions office as much time as possible to fill the empty seat we might leave. I myself attended New York City private schools, all of which I loved. They helped me to be the well-rounded individual I believe I am today. I had always dreamed my child would attend similar institutions, but this dream was about to cost us a half a million dollars.

It seems as though, these days, a deposit at a private school serves merely as a reservation, like a restaurant seating. This part of the application process, which has gone so greatly askew, cannot be good for the private school system. Eventually private schools will find a way to stop parents from “making reservations”, and that will surely be heavy-handed. The ping pong effect is this: they charge an inordinate tuition, parents hedge bets waiting for something (anything?) more affordable, and last minute changes are forced upon the private school admissions offices as parents wait for answers that come on an entirely different timeline. It’s a process that is becoming increasingly disrespectful to both sides.

Anyway, our notes from all of the tours and interviews told us that our first choice Gifted school where our daughter was placed was right on par with the private school which had our deposit. If this hadn’t been the case, if we felt in any way that a public school education would short change our daughter, we would spend this money without blinking.

I spent the rest of that Friday composing a note of withdrawal to the Admissions Office of the West Village private school that had accepted her. If you were in my shoes, you may have felt some of what I did: regret, remorse, self-doubt, relief. It may be hard to understand why I was not simply happy at choosing an excellent school whose tab is picked up by the city. Since we put down our deposit in February, we had increasingly become more and more comfortable with the idea of sending her to this private school, befriending the black hole in our income that would be her tuition cost. The school to which I am referring had not just accepted her, but complimented her in a way no other institution had, making me feel that she was special to them as an individual. They wanted her as much as we wanted them. I surreptitiously share this with you, because one could apathetically assume a school would want any child along with her $40,000 annual tuition payments. However, a good school, one worth it’s salt, can easily fill their classroom seats. In fact, our NYC schools are so overcrowded, a failing school can fill its seats.

I know I was not the only parent who was withdrawing her child from a school right before summer. Many parents were forced to play this unfortunate game due to the misaligned schedules of our NYC scholastic options. However, I nonetheless felt I was doing a disservice to that school which opened their arms and their doors to my child. I composed that note thanking them for their most sincere appreciation of my girl, and I tried my best to convey how regretful I was. I hoped they would understand we were not in the position to treat such a hefty bill so lightly. I sent chocolates as well, not to sweeten them up but to try to relieve some of the bitterness I tasted at giving up our place in their wonderful school.

The next school day I called to confirm the Head of Admissions received my package. The receptionist was not sure, so I asked my husband to follow up with an email. I simply could not bear to read her possible words of displeasure or even retaliation. What happened was this: that Head of Admissions who had written us a heartfelt, caring, stunning note when our daughter was accepted in February responded to my husband now with words such as “heartbreaking” and “understanding”. She said it was a pleasure to know us ever so briefly, that Lili was exceptional and she would thrive anywhere, and she wished us all the best. Her note, I dare say, made me wonder if it wasn’t too late to get my spot back. Oy vey, us New Yorkers would say.

Although I did not try to get my private school spot back like a lunatic, I still have reservations: did we make the right choice? I am sad to leave her present school, with a superbly competent staff and community of remarkable parents, but somehow I suspect this is the right fit for our girl. I suppose no parents can know the answer until their child is experiencing the school and is learning and is most importantly: happy. Although I do not believe in homework, I do believe in teaching up to young children, so it’s the Gifted & Talented route for us.

I am sure not all of you had as a difficult an experience. I am positive, though, that we are all wondering why this process of getting a four-year old in to Kindergarten is so confusing and difficult? Could ISSAGNY and the DOE align their schedules to simplify the application process and perhaps alleviate the private school “reservation” trend? I am two degrees from knowing President Obama, and have briefly considered to writing him for help, but I know that even he is not powerful enough to fix the problems embedded in the Department of Education.

Today I took my daughter to her new school to register her for next fall. Each step was thrilling and frightening: sharing a bagel and cream cheese while waiting for the bus, conversing during the ride, crossing the streets, seeing what her new neighborhood would be. The little voyage was so mundane and so meaningful. Upon arrival, the security guard spoke to my little girl with empathy and warmth and pointed the way to the Main Office. Upon entering, we met the principle who introduced himself to Lili. He asked her to join him for a chat, and she bounded off, and, no, I did not cry. However, when they returned, the principle did report that Lili told him of our impending Disney trip. She informed him she would be going “nudie.” I asked him if I were still allowed to register. Thus, the beginning of our Lower School experience.

Truthfully, we are excited by this Chelsea school because it teaches not only accelerated mathematics, but global kindness. The humanity of the school is what we thought would get our daughter to someplace truly special. Although touted as the holy grails of education, we felt the citywide schools were a little too on the fast track for us. They are advancing their pupils, which is an understandable desire for some parents. I just feel that all children will all get to the finish line, their own finish line, no matter where their starting block is placed, no matter who gets a jump ahead of the whistle. Just as long as they get to play along the way, and remember to be kind.

Cheers to all of you who are done with the Kindergarten process. High school applications CANNOT be this hard.

Anna Li, born and raised in New York City, graduated Grace Church School, The Trinity School, and Vassar College. She is a writer, event producer and a mother.

The End of a Journey, Almost, by Anna Li

I wanted to share with you a wonderful essay written by one of our TestingMom parents, Anna Li. In this essay, Anna shares her experience navigating the NYC school admissions process. If you aren’t from NYC, you’ll be glad you aren’t after reading this! If you are, I hope this will help prepare you for what is to come!

The End of a Journey, Almost, by Anna Li

If you applied for a Kindergarten spot to the New York City’s Gifted and Talented Program for your child, then welcome to the finish line. The G & T placement offers are being released this week, marking the end of the brutal trifecta that some New York parents went through this year with the goal of securing the best educational option for their children.

If you don’t know what I’m referring to, first of all, you are lucky. If you have heard rumors or unreasonable tales, I tell you now: it’s all true. Every word. I was born and raised in the Washington Square area of New York City, and being a cool native, I swore I wouldn’t sweat it out. But, a cucumber I was not. We did it all, and though we started on the right foot and with all good, controlled intentions, curves came up on our road that were so sharp, our wheels lifted.

The options NYC parents have, aside from their local public schools are, in a nutshell: private school, Hunter College Elementary School (which is free but blessedly not under the Department of Educations’s rule), and finally public Gifted & Talented programs both on a district wide and citywide level.

Since last September, here is a summary of what some parents have had to do to apply to private school: preliminary school tours, ERB testing (how we all refer to the ISAAGNY test, though the test itself is the WPPSI), testing fees and scheduling, application fees, application essay writing, second round of school tours, parent interviews, and child “play dates” where school faculty interact with your child in order to decide if she or he will be the right fit for the classroom they desire to create. This process is multiplied ten or fifteen times by many NYC parents who must apply to that many schools in order to get a few acceptances.

The Hunter College Elementary School application process encompasses an entirely different test, the Stanford-Binet, strict scheduling, hefty testing fees, and a complicated application procedure, all simply to qualify high enough to make it to the second round of testing. Your child’s play and interaction with others during the second test will possibly earn him or her an invitation to one of 50 spots citywide.

The NYC Department of Education Gifted & Talented application involves yet another pair of new tests, the OLSAT and the BSRA, stricter application procedures, and one to two rounds of touring.

Has anyone noticed I didn’t bother to mention preparing your child for any of this mentally, emotionally and intellectually? Nor did I mention the fact that, as parents, our jobs are to judge every single thing we see, smell, touch, hear, read and feel about these schools and their representatives?

Some families have settled on their Kindergarten decision at this point. Other than the 50 Hunter College Elementary “acceptees,” some have opted to stay with their public school, while others have made a decision on a private school. You might think this is the easy part, the coasting to the finish. The testing and applications process were demanding enough, especially when trying to protect a small child from feeling the weight of performance. However, unreasonable obstacles abound right to the end.

Private school placement offers went out in February, giving parents five days to return $7,000-$10,000 for a deposit, along with the legally binding signed contract. With an average annual tuition of $37,000 for K-5th grade, along with increases, miscellaneous costs, and donations as a matter of course, this adds up to a quarter of a million dollar decision.

For parents who had applied to the NYC public school Gifted & Talented program, which can be as good as, and in some cases exceed private school curricula, they opted to put that private school deposit down in February knowing that, depending on their G & T placement in May, they might have to forgo that deposit money in the end. However, that February decision was not the most difficult one. The next contractual payment for private school tuitions of $15,000-$25,000 are due in the spring. For some very unlucky gamblers, it was due a few days ago. More dramatically, some payments are due sometime this week. If the G & T placement announcements are as little as one day off a private school contract, that could be a $15,000 detail.

To make matters worse, many parents are right now waiting to hear about placements in schools that they did not have the opportunity to tour. To their credit, the DOE released our children’s scores much earlier than anticipated. But as luck would have it, scores were announced during Spring Break. Emails went out Monday April 9th, letters arrived closer to Thursday April12th. By Tuesday school tours started filling up, Wednesday most were gone. Many parents simply missed their opportunity to sign up.

Anderson had no sign up until Friday, April 13th: about 2pm the sign up was open; by 5pm it was full. I managed to tour every school I wanted to see, and for your entertainment’s sake, here’s how my experience went: on Monday the 9th I drowned in pride from seeing my daughters score, missing the important first 24 hours I should have been using to sign up for tours. I spent the next two days hovering over the school websites doing due diligence. I was late in signing up for a NEST tour, since the only tour opening left was Friday April 20th, from 1-3pm, which was a comical tour offering since the G & T application were due that same day. Anderson had announced that their tour sign up would be available Friday the 13th. I had my husband on watch while he was at work, and I carried my Ipad in front of me as I shopped in H & M for my daughter’s summer clothes. I looked insane, but we got a spot.

My tour week was even more laughable: Monday morning while on a PS 11 tour, I got a call from a good friend whose son attends NEST, who knows the head of the PTA, who said they had just opened up another 20 seats for NEST’s Tuesday afternoon’s tour. I, and three other sets of parents, secretly signed up for those added spots while trying hard not to insult the gracious PS 11 parent coordinator tour guide. That afternoon I went with my friend to pick up her son at NEST, where I got to experience that process, see the yard, speak with teachers and parents, and cajole a few students in to telling me what their workload was like.

That night, I went to Anderson expecting a pervasive attitude since they only allowed parents of 99% scorers in to the tour. However, the lively parent coordinator told us that there were roughly three times the applicants for the citywide spots available. This means that any child scoring a 97% or 98%, in essence, did not do well enough to get a spot, simply due to the numbers. Kindergarten G & T felt more like Harvard Medical. (NEST issued the same warning, but only DURING their tour. A friend of mine told me she and her husband briefly considered faking an emergency phone call to exit their tour. Not to sound uninterested, but it was her fourth one in three days.)

Lower Lab began with only one scheduled tour. So many parents complained that they sliced that tour’s time in half to split it with another group of parents. We rounded up our week with our second tour of PS 33. To add absurd to this scenario, all these tours were taking place during testing week. The majority of classrooms we were supposed to be looking at were locked or had their walls covered up so the students could come in and test the next day.

I’d love to share my opinions about all of these schools, but each one of us, as parents, has a hundred different reasons why we liked or didn’t like a school. Both Anderson and NEST warned us not to chose their school because of the name, that we must be wary of the right fit in terms of homework schedule, commute, extra-curricular life in the early years – in essence, so many of the things that matter but whose considerations sometimes fall by the wayside. (I know of a set of parents who chose Hunter even though they hated it.)

Hopefully we keep our intuition up for what would be the best fit for our child. But who’s to say what the best for our own children? Is it the school that’s outstandingly rigorous, or the art’s based program, the neighborhood experience? (Another friend of mine chose Chapin over Hunter.)

We wound up listing a district wide as our first choice because my husband could commute with our daughter. He works late every night, and sees her only in the mornings. That relationship took precedence over opting for an “A-List” school. Though, even as I sit here, waiting for the email to pop up with my G & T placement offer, I am still not sure we made the right decision. By choosing a district wide school, we’ll have to go through the application process again in six years. I’m certainly not keen on that. By then, I’ll have just rested up from this one.

If we opt to attend a G & T school, I will have to call the private school whose spot we are holding with a deposit. I did not go through this process lightheartedly. When they accepted my daughter, they sent a personal note which told me they really talked to her, listened carefully, watched her, saw how she cared for the other children in the room, and how naturally courageous she was when conversing with adults as her peers. They didn’t just look at her ERB score, or fulfill a profile. In return, I will say that that school felt like home to me. I know I would disrupt them if I pulled her spot, and for that I would be deeply sorry. I am sure many parents feel the same as I do.

There is no easy road. To choose the right education for our children is a huge responsibility, second only to making them feel loved. Why do we go through this arduous race to secure specific schooling here in New York City? My mother-in-law doesn’t understand why we have put ourselves though this process. She says that where she is from, you get on a bus and go to the nearest school and that’s that. This holds true for most of the country. However, I truly believe New York City parents have access to some of the finest early education available in this country, a fact not easy to ignore.

A good friend of mine, a fellow native New Yorker who’s escaped across the river to New Jersey so she could live in a home with a yard, told me her seven-year-old daughter was currently studying trapezoids in math. I told her that was SO three-years-old for us Application Moms. I was joking, in part. Good luck to each and every one of you; may you find the right school for your child.

Anna Li, born and raised in the Washington Square area or Greenwich Village, went to Montessori in the West Village, Grace Church School, The Trinity School, and Vassar College, but don’t let that fool you.