Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine
Survival of the Fittest

When Heidi Daniel’s husband, Phil Meany, heard that an Arlington nurseryschool was holding a first-come, first-served registration, he rushed over at 11:00p.m. the night before to sign up their one-year-old daughter for one of the six availableslots. To his surprise, the parking lot was full. Fathers with newspapers andglowing portable television sets sat in their cars, waiting to secure a place on the registrationlist. “More cars kept coming and coming, all night long,” says Daniel. “Wives were bringing food.”

Unfortunately, after a nine-hour wait, the Daniels didn’t make the list. The firstperson on the sign-up sheet had arrived at 2:00 p.m. the day before

by Margaret Foster
the registration. “My husband tried to buy his slot,” says Daniel, who added that his wife wouldn’tlet him back in the house if he sold it. Over a hundred parents arrived thatnight, desperate to get their kids into private preschool and willing to withstand unusualapplication procedures. “It’s kind of ridiculous,” says Daniel. “If you’re in your 20s andwant to camp out to see the Rolling Stones, that’s fine. But don’t make parents in their40s sleep in their cars.”

Daniel and Meany, like other District-area parents, have experienced similarlyintense competition when they apply to an independent preschool or elementaryschool. “Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was not nearly as competitive asit is now,” says educational consultant Jean Baldwin.

The shortage of openings in schools is due to the “baby-boom echo,” the 25-percentincrease in births that began in the late 1970s and ebbed in the early 1990s.According to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley’s 1999 report, the baby-boomecho has caused public and private school enrollment to hit an all-time high of 53.2million, a number that will rise each year.

In addition to the aftereffects of a population explosion, competition is fiercebecause most independent schools are small and simply don’t have room formany students. Sidwell Friends, for example, has only 34 spaces for kindergartenfor the 2001 school year; on average, the school receives six applications for everyslot. Georgetown Day School’s pre-kindergarten regularly has as many as 75 childrenon its wait list, says Wes Gibson, the school’s assistant headmaster.

Parents should begin early to increase the odds of getting into one of the area’s elitehigh schools. Some admissions directors say that students from independent preschoolsor elementary schools may be more likely to get into private high schools—or theinstitution’s lower school, which increases the odds of being admitted to the upperschool. At Georgetown Day School, for example, 95% of students are admitted tothe upper school. The attrition rate at Landon School for the current school yearis 2.6 percent, which means that almost all of the students from the lower school wereadmitted to the upper school.

Private Preschool
In addition, parents who want their children to attend a private elementary schoolshould consider a private preschool. “Most of our applicants are in preschools,” saysGibson. “In this town, it’s the norm.”

Admissions directors say that they normally admit students who have attendeda local preschool like Little Folks, Chevy Chase Presbyterian nursery school, ChevyChase Baptist Church nursery school, National Child Research Center (NCRC),Quality Time Learning Center, Spring Knolls, All Saints All Day, In Town, andthe Jewish Community Center.

Private preschool apparently impresses admissions directors. One parent whosechild attended NCRC last year said that out of 15 graduates, 8 will attend Beauvoirthis fall.

Start early: Some parents report that nursery schools have waiting lists thatbegin even before a baby is born. “To enroll a child in preschool, you almosthave to start when you’re pregnant,” says Fernanda Fisher, who recently adopted herdaughter. “I went to a preschool down the street and signed her up before we evenadopted her.”

However, preschools such as NCRC and All Saints All Day report that they donot compile waiting lists until a year before the child is eligible to enroll. Since NCRCaccepts children who are two and a half years old, parents must begin to registerfor private preschool when children are just 18 months old. It’s best to contactindividual nursery schools to verify application procedures.

Choosing the Right School
With over 200 independent elementary schools in the metropolitan Washingtonarea, parents have abundant options. Local educational consultants recommendapplying to as many as six schools. To find a list of schools in the area, consult a bookcalled Independent School Guide for Washington, D.C. and the SurroundingArea, which is updated every year.

Of course, the best way to find the perfect match for your child is to visit schoolsin person. “Look at lots of schools, because there are a lot of different kinds,” says RussGagarin, director of admissions and financial aid at the Landon School, the area’sonly boys’ non-religious day school.

When looking at schools, parents should make note of the administration’semphasis on academics, formality and discipline, athletics, the arts, student diversity,and unique extracurricular activities such as community service. Then determinewhat philosophy matches your child’s personality. “If you want to sendyour child to private school, you need to know what your child is like, what theirstrengths are,” says Karen Strimple, Director of St. Columba’s nursery school.“Every child is different.”

Consider your child’s uniqueness: He or she may thrive in a liberal academic environment.Schools like Georgetown Day, Lowell, Maret, St. Patrick’s, and Sheridan are structuredbut informal. At Georgetown Day, for instance, students do not wear uniforms andaddress teachers by their first names.

Some schools emphasize unique aspects of education. For instance, Sidwell Friendsand the Potomac School in McLean value community service. The Washington InternationalSchool stresses foreign language; pre-kindergarten students are immersed inanother language until first grade.

If your child’s strengths are not necessarily academic, consider schools like Sheridanor the Hill School, which celebrate the many forms of intelligence, including music,art, and athletics. “We think co-curricular activities like drama and art are just asimportant as academics,” says Treavor Lord, assistant headmaster at the Hill School.“Students who have the opportunity to connect with the school in non-academic waysactually do better academically.”

Beauvoir, St. Alban’s, Sidwell Friends, National Presbyterian, and Landon areknown for being traditional, academically rigorous, conservative institutions. “Thereare some children that really thrive in a traditionally structured environment,” saysSusan Piggott, director of National Child Research Center, a preschool that givesindividualized school placement advice to parents. “That helps some children feel verysecure. There are other children who would find that kind of atmosphere confining.”

Step One: Open House
Parents must begin the application process a year ahead of time, usually by Septemberor October. Most schools require testing, an interview, and a formal application.The first—and most crucial—step, however, is to visit the school or attend anopen house, usually held in October.

Step Two: Standardized Testing
Most area schools, with the exception of some like Lowell School and Sheridan,require standardized test results for admission. To enter pre-kindergarten, your childmust take the Detroit Test of Learning Aptitude, which usually lasts about anhour. This test is a relatively informal one; trained evaluators “play” with your child,ask questions, and end the test when your child answers a series of questions incorrectly.For admission to kindergarten, most schools require a test called the WechslerPreschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence, or WPPSI-R; for elementarygrades, the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, or WISC-III, is required.

Register early for these tests, which cost $150-$250—contact any local testing centerin September, October, or November. It’s best to wait until your child has been inschool for several weeks and has grown accustomed to concentrating in an academicenvironment. If your child is sick or overtired on the day of the test, considerrescheduling.

Step Three: The Application
Most schools have an application deadline of February 1, which means parents mustgather teacher recommendations, attend a personal interview, and complete any testsby January.

Several parents report that admissions officers are more likely to accept your childif you make it clear that you are only interested in their school. Enthusiasm and honestycount. “What I learned is that you need to declare to the school that this isyour number one choice,” said one parent, who asked not to be named. “Thatappears to be part of the game.”

Understandably, many parents become frustrated during the application procedure.“Just remain calm throughout the process,” says Michelle Belton, AdmissionsCoordinator at Lowell School. “We have many schools in the area. Just ask yourself,‘Does the philosophy of the school match the personal philosophy of your family?’

Step Four: Getting In

Keep in mind that no matter how well your child did on the test and no matter howwell the interview went, many schools, like Sidwell Friends and Maret, give priorityconsideration to applicants who are related to current students, alumni, or faculty.About 70% of students who apply to Sidwell Friends’ Lower School are priorityapplicants, which considerably reduces the odds for average applicants. “I don’t knowthat Maret has accepted any students who are not siblings in the last couple of years,”said one father, who requested anonymity. “Why even bother letting people apply? Ifyour policy is to accept siblings, why are you going through the motions and takingeverybody’s $50?”

The good news is that many schools, recognizing the increasing demand for privateeducation, have recently added grades or increased class sizes. Lowell School, forinstance, recently added a sixth-grade class, and St. Patrick’s has also expanded.

Most schools make admissions decisions in March and mail acceptance orrejection letters to parents in early spring. After all the waiting and applying, what ifyour child is rejected from your favorite school? “Trust the system,” says Gagarinof Landon School. “Some schools are not meant for some kids.”

Most importantly, says educational consultant Baldwin, try to protect your childfrom the stress of the application process. “Parents should keep a lid on talking aboutit,” says Baldwin. “I’d especially discourage that in front of the children, because it createsmore and more anxiety. Just start early and visit a lot of schools.”

Many of the area’s elite schools regularly accept students fromthese prestigious lower schools and preschools.

Beauvoir, the National Cathedral Elementary School
3500 Woodley Rd., NW
Washington, D.C. 20016
(202) 537-6492

Georgetown Day School
4530 MacArthur Blvd., NW
Washington, D.C. 20007
(202) 295-6200

The Hill School
P.O. Box 65
Middleburg, VA 20118
(540) 687-5897

Little Folks
3115 P Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20007
(202) 333-9634

Lowell School
1640 Kalmia Rd., NW
Washington, D.C. 20012
(202) 577-2000

Maret School
3000 Cathedral Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20008
(202) 939-8800

National Child Research Center
3209 Highland Place, NW
Washington, D.C. 20008
(202) 363-8777

National Presbyterian School
4121 Nebraska Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20016
(202) 537-7500

Potomac School
1301 Potomac School Rd.
McLean, VA 22101
(703) 356-4101

Sidwell Friends School
3825 Wisconsin Ave., NW
Washington,D.C. 20016
(202) 537-8111

St. John’s Episcopal Preschool
3240 O St., NW
Washington, D.C. 20007
(202) 338-2574

St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School
4700 Whitehaven Parkway, NW
Washington, D.C. 20007
(202) 342-2805


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