Exclusive: Inside the Cutthroat Preschool Wars


May 3, 2006 — -- The most sought-after spots in Manhattan or San Francisco are no longer multimillion-dollar Upper East Side apartments or houses by the Bay. They are places at some of the most elite private preschools in America.

This week, ABC News' "Nightline" features a two-part series on this ferocious competition, where parents compete with parents for a strictly limited number of places for their 2- and 3-year-old children.

"Nightline" followed three families from the beginning of the process to the moment when they received their letters of acceptance and rejection.

The pressure for places has never been greater -- particularly in New York where there has been something of a baby boom. The Census Bureau estimates that the number of children in Manhattan, under the age of 5, has risen by 30 percent since 2000.

And the number of preschool places hasn't kept up with demand. Amanda Uhry, founder of Manhattan Private School Advisors, estimates that there are now 15 applicants for every private preschool spot in the city.

"I describe it as a war zone," Uhry tells "Nightline" anchor Martin Bashir. "Because there is so much collateral damage. There are people who should be getting places ... that just don't get in."

"Nightline" was given exclusive access to the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, as prospective parents embarked on a spring tour of the classrooms.

Ellen Bell, head of admissions, said New Yorkers can be tough if their child's application is rejected.

"The majority of families are very gracious. But upon occasion, one time, someone did say to me, 'Just wait till my attorney gets into touch with you, just wait,'" Bell said. "I had another parent say, 'Well, what kind of check do I have to write?' But that's so rare, that's incredibly rare."

An e-mail written by former Citigroup analyst Jack Grubman, which was released as part of a legal settlement, shed light on the competitive process of preschool applications.

In seeking to secure places for his children at the 92nd Street Y, Grubman wrote: "I used Sandy [Weill, former chief executive of Citigroup] to get my kids in 92nd St Y preschool, which is harder than Harvard."

Weill acknowledged writing a letter on behalf of Grubman's twins, and the children were admitted to the school around the time Citigroup pledged a $1 million donation.

Ellen Bell said that financial inducements wouldn't influence Fieldston's decision to admit a child. "It helps the school but not their case," she said.

But she did admit that a large donation can make the school take a closer look at an application. "If they gave the school $500,000, if they gave the school a million dollars, we would be asked to look closely at that application process. But it's not necessarily a guarantee anyway," she said.

Bell insists that the school only gives special consideration to siblings and legacies. "We take 36 children for Pre-K and that's two sections. And we could probably fill four others," she said.

Such is the demand for places and the quality of applicants.

The three families that "Nightline" followed began the preschool admissions process about seven months ago.

Two of the families spent Labor Day weekend repeatedly calling their schools of choice. But these phone calls were only to secure an application form. It's just the first hurdle in the process, and the schools generally limit the number of applications to around 300. If you don't get through, you don't get an application form.

Parents are also often required to write an essay about their child, which they submit alongside their application. In one case, Amanda Uhry recalled, a parent went to a higher authority to seek support for her daughter's application. "She figured the kid wouldn't get in so she contacted the Vatican to have them write a letter of recommendation. And I said, 'Are you out of your mind? What is the pope gonna say? That he goes to Gymboree with your daughter, and she's a most enjoyable little person'?" she said.

"Nightline" cameras were also present when the parents received their letters of acceptance and rejection. In some cases, it was a heartbreaking experience.

Although these young children didn't realize it, they had engaged in the first serious competition of their short lives. And, inevitably, there are winners and losers in this battle for a preschool place.

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