As high schoolers around the country fine-tune their applications to Columbia, Upper West Side parents are preparing for another grueling application process: getting their kids into kindergarten.
Local parents got their first taste of that ordeal Saturday at an elementary school fair hosted by Community Education Council District 3, which covers the Upper West Side. The fair, held in the P.S. 165 gymnasium, was a chaotic scene, with toddlers running around in circles, parents juggling strollers and babies, and some attendees just standing around looking confused.
“It’s worse than applying to graduate school,” said Olivia Velez-venvension, a post-baccalaureate student at the medical center. “It’s a full-time job. You have to go on tours, take time off of work.”
New Yorkers have a long list of kindergarten options, including public schools, charter schools, magnet schools, and schools for the gifted and talented. At the fair, administrators from public schools around the neighborhood advertised for their schools with posters and balloons.
For most children in the city, elementary school applications take place between January and March. Many parents spend a great deal of time doing research, visiting schools, reading progress reports, and talking to parents who have already gone through the process.
“I’ve started looking seriously last spring, but this fall and next spring, it will take at least five hours a week,” said Tina Stede, who is preparing to send her four-year-old daughter Kiep to kindergarten next year. “I think there are parents that are spending more time. I wouldn’t be surprised if they spent 10 hours a week. There are so many options and you want to be a good parent. You want to make sure you did your homework.”
Columbia political science professor Timothy Frye was at the fair searching for a good school for his son Vanya, who will soon be ready for kindergarten.
“It is worse than everybody says,” Frye said. “They said that choosing your child’s school is the worst thing about being a parent in New York because it’s so complicated, it takes a lot of time, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about it. People say the stakes are very high.”
While the fair only included public schools, more and more parents are turning to charter schools, leaving some public school administrators worried.
“Charter schools try to push public schools out, but we have to survive that,” said Monika Vargas, a parent coordinator at P.S. 185. “I would always choose the best for my kids, so I’m not against charter schools, but the way they are implemented is sometimes hurtful to public schools.”
Vargas believes that co-location of charter schools—placing them in buildings alongside separate public school—is bad for public school students. And some parents at the fair said that they are more inclined to choose public schools.
“We are trying to stay away from charter schools,” Velez-venvension said. “We feel like public schools are more accessible and we want to support them. They hire better teachers, as far as I’m considered, as opposed to uncertified people.”
Beyond the public/charter divide, parents at the fair were looking for schools that satisfy a wide variety of criteria.
“When you see the building, the first thing I look for are the art projects,” Vargas said. “When I see art in schools, I know those schools are the right ones for the children.”
Frye said he will make his choice based on “academic excellence, a safe and silent learning environment, and a place where he will be comfortable.”
Patricia Coleman sends her children to P.S. 76 in Manhattan, even though she lives in the Bronx.
“I don’t like the atmosphere there—it’s overcrowded,” Coleman said, referring to the Bronx. “It’s not really a one-on-one school environment.”
In the end, Velez-vevension said, it comes down to one thing: “It could be a very good school, but if your child won’t feel comfortable there, you shouldn’t send them there.”