Competing for a foundation to success
|Photo gallery: Getting into preschool|
By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Mary Kaye Ritz
Paraskevi June moved here four months ago with a list of things to do: get situated, find some good doctors and check out schools. There were interviews to schedule, applications to fill out, the question of "feeder schools" to be asked — all for her son Dimitri, who's nearly 2 1/2.
June, a former middle-school teacher who is now a stay-at-home mother, says she and her husband don't want to get sucked in to the hype they're hearing in the grocery aisles of Hawai'i Kai. But she's still prepared: She is keeping a spreadsheet of which preschools she has yet to tour, and what their application entails.
She said she's also keeping her options open.
The prestigious private schools say there are no "feeder preschools," but places like Mid-Pacific Institute offer what she calls an "enticing" proposition: If Little Darling gets accepted at the preschool, that's potentially the last application to be filled out until college.
The question of getting into the "right" preschool was something Hawai'i and middle America once laughed about when looking at their tots, fingers stuck in their noses and scratching body parts too rude to mention. That was New York. That was L.A.
Surely that wasn't happening on O'ahu.
But these days, parents across the island are reporting that the coconut wireless is buzzing with which private preschools cost what, which have waiting lists and which are best for getting their charges into top schools.
"I knew it was competitive; it was in California, but not to the degree encountered here," said June.
Jacqui Pirl, author of "The Parent's Guide to Private Schools in Hawai'i," has turned her attention to the pressures preschool parents face. She's working on a new book, "The Parent's Guide to Daycare, Nursery Schools & Preschools."
"It's hype," she said, "but parents are drinking the Kool-Aid."
Open the door at Mid-Pacific Institute's summer preschool and out spills the happy noise of 3- and 4-year-olds engaged in creative play.
It's easy to see why MPI's $16,000-a-year preschool slots are so coveted.
In one area, two boys can be found amid bright-colored puzzle pieces. Elsewhere in the spacious room, keiki are banging on tambourines.
At one table, a tiny girl is drawing her version of a chocolate machine, complete with conveyor belt and wrapping station, as she explained to one of the six adults watching the 19 children.
The preschool — and its low student-teacher ratio — are sources of pride for principal Edna Hussey and associate admissions director Ella Browning, who explained how the cost helps cover staffing needs.
Preschool tuition, which does not include summer school, is the same as at Mid-Pac's high school. Why? Hussey said education provided at preschool is as important as it will be in later years, and Mid-Pac aims to pay teachers what they deserve.
Of course, Mid-Pac may not be the right preschool for all applicants, whose families pay a $75 nonrefundable application fee. But the demand is great, and there are many fewer slots than qualified candidates.
"We can't take them all," said Browning ruefully.
Mid-Pac offers financial aid to 10 percent of its kindergartners, but no preschoolers are on scholarship. It offers priority admission to siblings of current students, and children of faculty and alumni, and the school says it is looking to create a diverse, yet balanced, preschool class.
Both Browning and Hussey run admissions not only for the preschool, but for kindergarten classes, too. So they're in a perfect position to answer the controversial question of whether there truly are "feeder schools," with a better track record for paving the way to admission to prestigious private schools.
The answer: Not necessarily.
But the Mid-Pac administrators straightforwardly say they do want kindergartners who have been socialized to some degree — if not at a preschool, then in a play group or baby hui.
And a stellar teacher's report in a kindergarten application packet never hurts.
When it comes to feeder schools, "every school will tell you no," said author Pirl, "but that's not necessarily true."
Which schools qualify? Some show up on the parents' short lists, others don't. And how do you measure success?
Some preschools have all parents applying their keiki to Punahou, 'Iolani and the like, and about half are admitted. Others may see only three from a preschool class applied to the same schools, yet all three get in.
At 'Iolani, admissions executive Kelly Monaco said all incoming kindergartners this year attended some preschool, and the school doesn't have many applicants who haven't.
The pattern could be traced to expectations or demographics, she surmised. Expectations: that to get into 'Iolani, you have to attend preschool. Demographics: Hawai'i sure has a lot of two-working-parent households.
SEARCHING FOR SUCCESS
Finding children who will be happy and successful at their school is the goal, but how do you do that? Monaco admits no one has the perfect crystal ball.
"Kindergarten is unique," she said. "They're little, they're still developing, and it's hard to get an idea of what they're going to be like 13 years from now."
There's faulty reasoning in parents who make a family goal of getting into one of Hawai'i's competitive private schools, she said: "That's the tail wagging the dog. Then all your choices revolve around your child getting in."
Parental support is key to a good parenting, not just private school admission: "If parents' values are clear, choices are easy."
Monaco doesn't see one school, or even a short list of schools, as the be-all, end-all precursor to 'Iolani admissions — "there are many wonderful preschools," she said — because the best thing to do is find a good match for one's child.
When Monaco counsels parents about why their children don't make it into 'Iolani, she tells them straight up: "These are two snapshots in time of your child, and sometimes the picture doesn't look at all like your child. Of course not. They're 4!"
WHAT PARENTS SAY
'Iolani's Monaco knows the private-school application process can be stressful for parents. She recalls the new mother who called when her baby was 6 months old and wanted to know about kindergarten admissions.
Author Pirl remembers a woman coming up to her at a book signing and asking which preschool she should send her child to. Pirl pressed for more details about the child: Boy? Girl? Sports? Hobbies?
The woman, thoroughly surprised, told Pirl that she wasn't a mother, nor even married, but thought she ought to get an early start in sorting out her options.
Noreen Kam of Mo'ili'ili, an account supervisor at public relations firm McNeil Wilson, has a friend who's already working to get a 6-week-old baby onto the waiting lists of preschools. But Kam waited to get started until her son, Tyler, was the ripe old age of 2.
"It's way crazy here," she said. "Especially because when we started looking, we'd hear, 'Oh there's a wait list of a year or so.' Friends pass it on to other friends, and it gets the pregnant moms worried. ... It's one more thing you have to think of."
Kam's heard the hype that if they don't get into this preschool or that, "they'll never get into Punahou or whatever, and Harvard down the line."
She applied Tyler, now 4, to seven preschools, but specifically chose ones that didn't require tests: "I didn't want Tyler to have that pressure — or us as parents."
As a wee li'l tot, Tyler was cared for by his grandfather; Kam wanted him to be comfortable in a social environment.
"It wasn't about preparing him for a curriculum of higher education," she said. "It was about getting him to play with other kids."
Now, he's at Kawaiaha'o's summer preschool before he starts kindergarten at the highly rated Hokulani Elementary, a public school, in the fall. (Because of where his birthday falls, he's of age to start public school kindergarten, but not within the deadlines for private school kindergarten.)
Next year, Kam's hoping he'll get admitted into 'Iolani or Hawaii Baptist Academy — where he would again attend kindergarten — but she's fine if he stays at Hokulani.
"Much as we love Kawaiaha'o, it's nice to save some money," she said.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
Money is no small consideration, said Pirl.
"Parents are willing to pay $15,000 a year to go to preschool," she said, then calculated 16 years of private school education. "That's $240,000 for 16 years total and you haven't even talked about college. That's huge, huge sums of money."
She argues that a $600-per-month preschool may offer as much socialization opportunity as a $1,500 option.
Surely every parent wants to launch children into the world by laying the best foundation. Still, Pirl notes, industrious parents are finding ways to cut costs.
"I have a friend on the Mainland who said she looked around for who has the best preschool, and that's the church she joined," Pirl said with a laugh.
Keep your eye on the real prize, she counsels parents: "I don't believe just where you put your kid in preschool is going to determine your kid's success. You can't tell me any of these schools have developed the perfect equation to determine which are the perfect genius kids. ... It's better to ask, is this where my child will be happy? Engaged? Eager?"
Treat it like a chessboard, just another piece of the grand plan to do your best as a parent: "The key is to keep your kid curious, engaged," she said, then added with firm emphasis, "happy."