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Preschool Confidential

Finger painting’s nice, but will it get you into Harvard?

By Peter Holley November 3, 2014 Published in the November 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Ryan Snook

No other word strikes fear in the hearts of early childhood administrators, teachers, and parents of 3-year-olds than—Manhattan. That fabled isle where money and insanity meet has many charms, but the blood sport known as preschool admissions is not one of them. And yet, Manhattan is just what Houston is becoming, warns Gabriella Rowe. She should know. The new head of The Village School in the Energy Corridor was, until earlier this year, headmaster of New York’s prestigious Mandell School. 

“I remember the trajectory we were on when preschool education took off in New York 16 or 17 years ago,” Rowe says. “I see the inklings of that here, and in some cases more than the inklings.”

What sort of inklings, you ask? The desperate mothers, their faces panic-stricken, besieging Rowe with questions about whether this or that institution is a feeder school for the city’s top high schools. The hundreds of applications that pour into a preschool with a dozen open slots. The parents who pay tutors top dollar to coach their toddlers on what’s known as the SAT of preschool admission, the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI) test.

“If I don’t get them in at preschool,” the thinking goes, “they’re never going to get in anywhere,” explains one mother who asked not to be named.

“When things changed we were in a real economic boom and the types of families taking residence in New York and choosing to stay were slightly older, affluent and professional couples who were having children later in life and for whom parenting and education really mattered,” Rowe remembers. “I see an awful lot of those couples around Houston today.”

“The increase in application load in huge,” confirms Alexandra Orzeck, assistant director of the Esperanza School in the Heights, noting that mothers regularly call her to reserve spots in the school before they’re even pregnant. “Three or four years ago, maybe 20 percent of applicants were looking to get into the top tier schools in Houston. Now, I’d say that 30 or 40 percent think that if their kid is not in one of these schools by three years old, they’re not going to Harvard. They’ve lost their chance in life.”

Whither the hysteria? Houston is growing faster than any city in the country, its economy attracting well-off families from all over. With more families comes more students and with students more competition for a limited number of preschool slots. And fanning the flames of competition is the WPPSI, which has morphed from being a psychological test for detecting learning differences into a de facto entrance exam.  

Blame the change on a perfect storm of sorts: preschools overwhelmed by applications and a parent population that both values high educational achievement and has the means to pay for it. Almost overnight, preschool has gone from being a choice to a necessity, one that can make or break friendships, end marriages, inspire bribery, and—not incidentally—make some people a lot of money.

“It sounds ridiculous,” Rowe says, “but unfortunately it’s real.”

Another administrator, who requested anonymity, puts it more bluntly. “I deal with moms that have so much anxiety—so much anxiety—that sometimes I have to distance myself, even on a phone call. They’re all freaking out.”

Things have gotten so bad, say administrators, that some schools have started requiring parents to sign a waiver saying that their children have not been prepped for the WPPSI. (Schools say that the test will not accurately assess children’s readiness for preschool if they have been coached.) But they’re doing it anyway, hiring tutors or logging onto websites like, says Neha Gupta, CEO of Elite Private Tutors. Her business has increased 150 percent in recent years, she says, as parents scramble to ensure their preschoolers’ lifelong success. Invariably, her clients are stay-at-home moms for whom parenting is a full-time job. Make no mistake, though. These are not the domestic goddesses of days gone by. 

“The moms I spend time with…they’re competitive about everything,” says Gupta, adding that social media has only served to fan the flames. “They work out two hours a day, they’re intense, and all of these women are very smart and very sharp. They had careers before.”

What kind of career, we ask?

“Banking, law, architecture,” Gupta says.

And now the kids are their career?

“Bingo,” she says.

“People are concerned. They want to know if they should go to the school’s galas before and donate a lot of money. I’ve heard that from numerous families.”

Gupta has seen a new tactic of late. 

“People will get letters of recommendation from really important people about their 4-year-old.” (Who does the recommending, one wonders, and what do they have to recommend?)

Amid the insanity, some preschools have made their peace with a new reality, accepting letters of recommendation and the like. Others remain adamantly opposed to such elaborate efforts, arguing that to take part in the competition is to further it. Change, these stalwarts say, will only occur when we stop asking 4-year-olds to sit still and learn mind-numbing WPPSI puzzles, and start letting them finger paint and make mistakes they can actually learn from.  

“I do believe in the WPPSI and I have no problem saying that,” Gupta says, not surprisingly, given that she tutors kids in it. “I think moms are exhausted and there’s nothing wrong with outsourcing. Besides, if I’m a top school and I have hundreds of applicants and I only have 25 spots in my grade, why would I take a kid who is difficult to deal with?”

“Here’s what I tell parents,” says Rowe. “I get it, you want your child to win a world championship in robotics. Then they need to take apart the radio, they need to put the basket on their head, and come up with a different way to use it. I can give you the exact connection—how hearing moves to listening, which moves to reading, which moves to writing—and how that is going to be quantified in standardized test scores, and ultimately in real creative problem solving. 

“But we still have to do the play.”

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