It starts in September, the day after Labor Day. The race for a place in the top schools begins. Then comes a seven month long marathon of application deadlines, interview appointments, school tours, gathering of references and standardized admission tests. For some, it’s a tense and anxious time. Finally, in March of the following year letters are sent. You are either in or out. Welcome to the world of exclusive preschools.
Why is getting a 3-year-old in “that” school so important? Most expensive American preschools are part of schools that also have middle and high schools and students tend to stay until they graduate. Vacancies can be rare, so if at the age of 3 you're in, you’re in. If you're out, you're out.
What do preschools do? They deliver early childhood education to children who are 3 (nursery) – 4 years olds (preschool). The theory is that children learn social skills, some basic pre-literacy and pre-math skills and world awareness. (Any mother will tell you that teaching a three year old to think of anything other than himself is an uphill struggle). A little art, making things out of clay and exercise are thrown into the mix. Some schools are half day while others offer the option of half day or full day.
You've seen the pictures where Katie Holmes walked Suri to her preschool in New York. Salma Hayek beams as she drops her daughter Valentina off for her first day of preschool. Some say preschools lay a sound foundation for the “academic” world of kindergarten and first grade. Others say it doesn't make much difference. Some even say it is a world of high pressure and higher expectations that can harm a child.
So what is the point of exclusive, expensive preschools? Education is big part of it. Americans tend to think that the sooner they start school, the more kids can learn. For well heeled over achievers, it’s also about fast tracking their child’s academic career. Preschool today, Harvard later.
For some of the most expensive schools, they figure at about $25,000 and in New York that’s only for half day enrollment. Eight of the ten schools on this list charge $40,000 plus a year. That’s $120,000 over three years, before you even get to Kindergarten. You could fund a degree at a pretty good college for that amount. It’s also going to take a cool half million to get your 3 year old out of high school
What do you get for the money? You get small classes, world class facilities and graduate degree level faculty. The average total student body for the preschools on this list (including all grades) is around 800. Class sizes are small, with student/teacher ratios of 9:1 or less. You also get a curriculum and teaching methods founded on long established (some say long in the tooth) early 20th century Progressive educational philosophy that emphasizes learning by doing, critical thinking, good citizenship and personal responsibility. There are signs that may be changing, as two of the schools on this list have radically different approaches.
Not surprisingly, New York City is home to all the most expensive preschools. Suri aside, celebrity preschools in California may garner the adorable photos, but NYC is where the real money is. L.A. preschools max out at under $30,000 per year for tuition. It’s a whole different ballgame in New York. Think East Coast establishment, penthouses on Park Avenue and summers in the Hamptons. All but two of the schools on this list have histories that go back to the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.
Tuition figures are for full time enrollment annually and include school lunch and books.
10 The Little Red School House: $37,750
From its red brick schoolhouse in the Greenwich Village district of New York, Little Red exudes an unpretentious, warm and happy atmosphere. It can claim Robert De Niro and Angela Davis (the political activist) as alums. A classically Progressive school, classroom time is supplemented with frequent trips to New York’s museums and parks. The school has a large amount of racial diversity amongst its students and over $3 million is given out every year in scholarships.
9 Grace Church School: $39,200
The 4th Avenue church house houses the Junior Kindergarten classes. Think East Coast establishment. Grace Church School is associated with the decidedly upper crust New York’s Episcopal Grace Church. Politically correct, it is “committed” to racial diversity and stages Peace Marches. Its standards are high and many graduating seniors end up at Ivy League Colleges. David Duchovny and the blogger Matthew Yglesias are former students.
8 The Calhoun: $39,860
Calhoun puts out a slightly quirky, environmentally friendly, artsy vibe. Founded in 1896 it is located in New York’s Upper West Side in a building that used to be called the television building. The Pre-K – 1st grade building on 74th Street has its own gym, a small roof top garden and outdoor play area. Like several of the urban schools on this list, it has converted the rooftop of its main building into The Green Roof Learning Center, where students plant flowers and herbs. In line with its “Eat Right” philosophy (Mrs. Obama came by to talk about healthy eating), preschoolers are given organic juice popsicles. Ben Stiller and “Dr. Ruth” Finkelstein are alumni.
7 British International School: $40,600
BIS stands out from the crowd. The school is a newcomer to the expensive preschool league, having been established in 2006. It is only one of two schools in this list that is for profit and its student body is a mix of British and American, so the focus is not totally East Coast. It also is unusual in that its classes combine academically rigorous British National Curriculum with the hands on, student centered approach of the International Baccalaureate program, which might be typified as a jazzed up, more modern version of the Progressive method. Located in Riverside Plaza on the East River in Manhattan, its high rise classrooms have water views and like virtually all British schools, there are uniforms.
6 Columbia Grammar: $39,900
Founded 250 years ago, Columbia is the grandmother of all New York schools. Like just about every other school on this list, its web site is vague about the specifics of what actually goes on in the preschool classes and falls back on comfy phrases "enjoyable and stimulating curriculum”. Apart from the standard subjects, Columbia does teach chess skills as part of the preschool curriculum.
5 Bank Street School: $40,045
Associated with Bank Street College of Education, Bank Street seems possessed of a rather serious air, considering itself a “benchmark” school. It offers preschoolers the traditional mix of reading, math, science, art and hands on manipulation of materials (blocks, clay) called “Shop”.
4 Horace Mann: $41,150
If Columbia is the grandmother of New York schools, Horace Mann, founded in 1878 is the mother. However, it adopts a somber, serious tone on its site.It has good reason. In 2012, The New York Times Magazine published a story claiming “multiple instances” of the sexual abuse of student by teachers. Other than the usual preschool fare, it does have an outdoor nature laboratory in Connecticut where preschoolers and older students can “explore nature and engage in outdoor pursuits.”
3 Ethical Cultural Fieldston School: $43,265
Fieldston was established as a “Workingman’s School” in 1878 by educational pioneer Felix Adler and is another Progressive school. Located on Central Park West, the school is one of the larger ones on this list, having 1,600 students. Kelly Ripa’s son has been a student at the school.
2 Avenues: The World School: $43,400
Located on 10th Avenue in New York’s Chelsea district, Avenues shot to the top of the preschool list at lightning speed, having only been founded in 2012. Avenues gained quite a bit of publicity when Suri Cruise became a student. It stands out from the Ivy League pack for a number of reasons. It is the newest school on this list and is, like the British International School, a for profit school and, like BIS, its focus is international. It is part of a growing network of twenty international schools. Older students can spend time studying in London or Shanghai. Another stand out feature: From Pre-K through the fourth grade, classroom instruction is half Spanish or Mandarin and half English. Parents of prospective students don’t take boring tours, they attend swish cocktail parties.
1 Riverdale Country School: $44,600
Number one in the tuition stakes, Riverdale's web site projects a smiling, well rounded, balanced, if traditional, feel where “Mind, Body and Character” are equally emphasized. Located on 27 acres in the leafy, affluent Fieldston area of the Bronx in New York City, it is decidedly not urban. Unusually for New York preschools, it has a S.T.E.A.M. curriculum where science, technology, engineering, art and math are taught, cross referencing one subject to the others. John F. and Robert Kennedy attended Riverdale’s Lower School.