As a third generation native New Yorker, I thought I would be well-prepared for the high-pressure, high-stakes ridiculousness of choosing a school for my kids. “I got this,” I would think, as my pre-k daughter’s teachers started sending kindergarten info notices home about a month before she even turned four. But I was wrong. After pushing two babies out of my body, I can honestly say that deciding on a school in NYC is tougher than giving birth.
Seriously, I had no idea how stressful it was going to be. Even if we were to register her at the elementary school across the street, we had to vet all our options, right?
But how would I know what kind of school is “right” for my child? When my daughter was 4 years old, I had no idea what kind of “learner” she was. I didn’t know if she was right-brained, or left-brained, or if being exceptionally verbal meant she couldn’t also have a facility with numbers. If a parent can’t even know these things about a kid, how do test proctors and school admission teams have a clue if my kid is a good “fit” for their highly sought after educational experience?
Things beyond our control can go wrong in childbirth, but most of us come out the other side of it stronger. Sending your kid to the “wrong” academic institution, though… Well, at least that’s what all these schools made me feel.
Along those lines, here are a few things that make deciding on a school in NYC tougher than childbirth.
The Number Of Choices
This city offers such diverse options for kids and you can get giddy with excitement, dreaming up successful futures for them. We have dual-language programs (if you can get a seat), gifted and talented tracks (if you you can get a seat after scoring in the top 10% of a test), integrated grade classrooms (where the big kids teach the little kids). We have two zoned elementary schools in our district, but we could also apply to about ten more in-district, out-of-zone schools. Then there were the in-district charters — about five of them. And those are just the public school options. There are also private schools, with or without religious instruction. Researching everything out there was a second full-time job for me.
For all the different theories out there on how to “best” bring a child into this world, the underlying principle is pretty much universal: take deep breaths and trust your body. But if you want to get your kid into kindergarten and set her up for success for the rest of her life, there are no fewer that a bajillion educational philosophies you can choose from. You should really start figuring this out before you even decide if you want kids.
I remember there was as a bunch of paperwork I had to fill out at my OB's office prior to having my baby. Once at the hospital, there was the social security form and the birth certificate form, and my signature was required in a few spots, but I think that was about it. Cut to: four years later when I'm filling out applications for about a dozen public schools, which I follow up with more forms, in triplicate, as proof of address, proof of vaccinations, and proof that the Department of Education really hates trees.
The Time Commitment
I don't make decisions quickly. Whenever possible, I prefer to sleep on it. But in the case of deciding on the school for my firstborn, I actually lost sleep. Not only are you trying to weed out a winner from the sea of choices available, but you're also wrestling with this gigantic milestone of sending your child to "Big Kid" school. It's a lot. I was ready for my baby when she was born; Those nine months were enough to convince me I was destined to be someone's mother. But during the eight-month decision-making process for a school, I was never completely convinced the one we picked was "the one." That's a lot of time spent feeling nervous. Now, I'm fine with our choice. My daughter has been happy and she's had amazing teachers. And if it wasn't working out, we'd just start the whole thing over again (no big deal, right?).
The Unsolicited Advice
It was fairly easy to take or leave the childbirth advice that got tossed my way. It was fleeting, informing me about what ultimately amounted to just one day. But school? I mean, that’s for the long haul. If I screw up getting my kid placed in the absolute “right” program, I am ruining her life. And everyone — my family, my co-workers, my hairdresser — had opinions about what would be best for my incoming kindergartner.
The FOMO Factor
The fear of sending my kid to the “wrong” school is real. We had to make sure we were giving our child every opportunity to discover her hidden talent, realize her full potential, and maybe even grow her own food (because how cool is that?).
We knew we would be sending our kids to public school, as private school tuition can run upward of $30,000 a year, and also because I’m a byproduct of the NYC public school system and I’d like to think I came out OK. But you have to put in the time to suss out the free education options that speak best to not only your kid, but your family. There were well-known, amazing-sounding programs my daughter qualified for, but they were in Manhattan and we live in Queens and I couldn't imagine this tiny kid commuting to that extent. So I had to dig deeper and poll parents, and email schools. Even though my kids' school is "free," the cost is the time I spent doing my own homework to find the options that would integrate well with our lives.
Tours And Open Houses
We checked out the Labor & Delivery floor at the hospital where my OB was affiliated. And that was that. I attended seven public school tours, two charter school tours and a district principal’s night in preparation of my first kid entering kindergarten.
Those tours and open houses usually take place during the day, so I had to take days off from work to check these schools out. Yes, days!
The Admissions Process
Show up at a hospital to have a baby, and you're a star. Show up at a typical, over-crowded NYC public school with your acceptance letter, and you're just a number. The good news is, my experience with school faculty and administration has been mostly positive once my kid started in school. It's just that they are even more overwhelmed during the admissions process than the parents are.
The Overwhelming Dread Of Being Judged As A Deficient Parent When You Bring Your Child To Kindergarten Registration And She Refuses To Rise From A Prone Position On The Floor
This feels far worse than the late-term pregnancy panic brought on by the sudden realization you will somehow have to get this baby out of your body. Seriously, nothing felt worse as a parent than watching my otherwise sweet child cycle through demonic and button-pushing behavior at the one time we were trying to make a good impression.
The Other Parents
Everyone wants the best for their kids. But unlike the other new moms in the maternity ward, with whom I'd share a knowing "we did it!" smile, it's every parent for themselves as we jostle to the front of the tour group, angling for face time with a principal to ask about homework policies and the possibility of starting a kabuki theatre program.
That Feeling Of Never Being Done
With childbirth, there is a definitive end in sight. Even when I was convulsing in pain from the contractions that were brought on fast and furiously from my IV of pitocin, I was able to keep my eyes on the prize. But as the process of getting a kid into elementary school starts in the middle of their pre-k year and continues until the following September (longer, if you decide to change schools at some point in the year), it can feel endless. Still, I can't imagine raising my kids outside of New York. And there's time before we need to decide about high schools. Should be easy. There are only about 500 of them.