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.