If you’ve ever been through the private school application process, you know that it’s not easy. It consumes your life! We applied to eight schools for little 4-year-old Sara. And for almost all of them, that entailed:

  • Play date for Sara
  • School tour
  • Parent interview

The purpose of a play date is to gauge her personality and level of interaction with other children. It’s sometimes specific. Some schools sing songs, color and draw, or have the children write their names. Others will simply put them in a room with toys and watch them play. The tours are for parents to see the grounds. They will interview parents to determine if their personalities fit the school’s core values. I personally think this step is crucial as some parents can be overbearing.
So whether it’s a small town house on the Upper East Side or a large multi-acre campus in Riverdale, most schools want you to see the facilities and their kids in action. For some schools, that means multiple visits. Let’s suppose the extreme; that each school requires all three and each on a separate date. That’s 8 schools x 3 visits = 24 days of missed work and/or school! But it’s supposed to be all worth it, right?

What’s so alluring about private school education? What’s so wrong with public schools that parents initiate the arduous private school application process? There are applications that include fees and personal financial questions. Not to mention details which require parents to basically write an essay explaining why their kid is so great and why the school should consider allowing said child inside the doors of their prestigious establishment?
For me, I’m all about covering my bases. So I have this kid, she’s going into kindergarten in September. She’s bright and advanced according to her pre-k teachers. Not rain-man advanced, but she can add a few small numbers in her head and reads with pretty decent understanding. I’ve been a mom twice before her and I love all my kids, but this last one has got some serious knowledge. She is smart so I’m thinking maybe we should try to give her everything we possibly could to help nourish that. Ergo, the NYC private school circus!

We started with a program called Early Steps. It’s a great, free program for minorities. Their goal is to help partnering private schools admit more minorities from various economic backgrounds. We contacted them the September before Kindergarten was to commence and was invited in for a play date with a few other children at the Early Steps office. While they played, we were asked a series of questions that would help determine what type of schools would match our family.

They must have picked up on how smart and sharp she was 🙂 because she was one of a few to be selected to go onto the next phase; the private school application process. They recommended nine schools for us. After touring and applying simultaneously, we cut it down to eight. Most applications were free or discounted for Early Steps families, some were not. One thing became apparent as the process went on, ES was a valuable asset to have in our corner. We sort of got special treatment from certain schools. It was like going to a job interview but you’ve basically already got the job so it’s more or less an info session about the company.

Now, we’re not rich but we make what is considered pretty good money. Yet when you factor in cost of living, expenses like summer camp and debt, we qualified for a substantial amount of financial aid. We learned that financial aid for private school is not the same as aid you would receive from a college. This aid would be guaranteed every year for the duration of the child’s education at this Institute, and we would not have to pay it back at all! Suddenly the idea of private school didn’t seem like a shot in the dark it became real. We started to feel it was obtainable and well worth it. Tuition at a typical elite New York City private school can range from $35,000-$47,000 per year. But with aid, a friend of mine that earns about $150,000 annually pays $2,600 for his daughter’s’ education. It is likely he is the exception and not the rule, however those odds seem worth a try and very attractive!

Most schools that we were aiming for continued on from kindergarten until 12th grade. This has its pros and cons. If we loved the school then there’d be no problem to continue on until 12th grade graduation. But if we didn’t like it we would have to redo the whole application process somewhere along the lines. Normal entry points for private school are kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade, with K being the easiest entry point. For sixth and ninth grades, entrance procedures are much more involved. There are tests and required portfolios, plus the interviews are way more intense.

Trying to keep up with tours, interviews while staying involved in the lives of our three children had us fighting and resenting one another. As the process continued, we were stretched thin. But then it happened! It was over! The journey we began in September and lasted four months was now coming to a close and we survived! It felt good to have done what we felt was the best thing for our daughter. And we were crazy enough and willing to do it again for our big girl.
Private school sibling policies are the best because they work in reverse. As long as you have one child admitted to a school, their sibling is basically a shoe-in the following year, no matter which grade the kids will be entering into. This works in your favor because transfer students have a much harder time getting a seat in private school, if they aren’t initiating the process at the standard entry points. Those points being K, sixth and ninth grades. With public school, you’d have to have a child attending grades K-5 and a younger sibling entering into K, only then would the sibling policy take effect for the younger child.
So now, the process ended and the waiting period began. It was like torture. Waiting for that day, I think we drank more heavily than we had in months! FINALLY! We got word. Of the eight schools applied to, she got in to two and wait listed for one. Wait-listed meant the school was waiting to hear back from all students chosen to enroll in kindergarten for that fall. If a family did not follow up and make their down payment, the wait list would be enacted. We had a few weeks to decide which of the two schools we wanted to enroll her in. This was a no-brainer. One school wanted $26,000 for yearly tuition while the other wanted $10,000. Both rates were much cheaper than standard tuition, so both were offering a substantial amount of aid. We respectfully declined the higher tuition school and negotiated with the other school for an even lower rate of $8,000! This was great considering their full rate of tuition was $45,000.

We were excited! Throughout the summer, there were meet and greets, ice cream parties and parent meetups for the new incoming class to become acclimated. Early Steps had workshops giving advice on the ins and outs of private school. We were told things like, your child may get an invite to celebrate a classmate’s birthday on a private island, expenses paid or Ben Stiller’s kid used to attend that school or, don’t go broke buying gifts for Valentine’s day!
Everything seemed to be going well, until we had s bomb dropped on us! The school we chose to enroll her in would be in its last year. They were going to have one last hurrah and that would be it! Wait, huh? Turns out the hefty tuition was still not enough to maintain top notch education and all private schools have financial backers. Well the backers for our school were going out of business, ergo, so were we. It felt like a slap in the face. Nonetheless, we had made the decision and would stick with it. Whether our daughter would sink or swim would be up to us. We could withdraw and home school her, try to get her in public school with her sibling, or stick to the script. We stuck to the script.

In the end, we were happy to have experienced the schools the way we did. It opened our mind and gave us a sense of what is out there for our children. While inside most of these schools, you would never guess you were in New York City. I never knew our city had such magnificent places, where kids are nurtured and adored for their individualism and ingenuity. These kids are trusted to be responsible and take charge of their own learning. The resources available to them are tremendous and considered advanced for some places of work. We found that in most schools, the faculty were like an extended family and the school facilities a second home, a personal sanctuary where kids want to spend most of their time, all just a train ride away.

Michelle Caines
Author: Michelle Caines

Co-creator of Uptown Birdies, Michelle is a Harlem-born mother of three with a passion for anything educational and mindfulness. She enjoys hunting down affordable kid-friendly events within upper Manhattan and teaching mindfulness. Social handle: @mscaines & @tlbmindfulness