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The lavish gifts and extreme moves wealthy parents use to get their kids into elite preschools, like recommendation letters from Bill Clinton and catering from 5-star restaurants

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"These parents have their sight set on a given educational trajectory and are not at all opposed to thinking (and acting) ahead."
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  • Cindy Chanin is an LA-based education expert who's helped Emmy award-winning actresses, Broadway performers, and athletes get their kids into top schools. Alina Adams is a consultant and the author of "Getting Into NYC Kindergarten."
  • The two shared their experience helping wealthy parents get their kids into competitive preschools — a time and money investment that's often as cutthroat as getting into college.
  • They said that gaining admission into top schools often starts in Mommy and Me playgroups and classes, where parents network and show their dedication to the organization.
  • Parents also often get involved in fundraisers or fairs way before their children are ready to apply, purchasing big-ticket auction items and offering preschool staff high-priced gifts.
  • The preschool interview process, called a "playdate," is also something parents invest heavily in, hiring tutors and consultants to train their kids to behave properly.
  • "Those who think the sparkle of celebrity might help produce letters of recommendation from Bill Clinton," Adams said.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

It's no secret that many parents who can afford it are willing to drop as much on their children's preschool experience as some might pay for college. As Melvin Beckman wrote in The New Yorker in 2019 when highlighting the documentary "Nursery University": "Child-rearing is a nexus of need, vulnerability, and fear ... The wealthy are able to throw money at this fear."

And throw it they do. 

Cindy Chanin
Cindy Chanin.
Cindy Chanin

"I hate to say it, but oftentimes admissions to some of these elite schools revolves around investment — investment by any means one can, whether it be financial investment, time investment, an investment in the school's philosophy and wellbeing, an investment in the school's growth," said Cindy Chanin, a Los Angeles-based national education expert and founder of Rainbow EDU Consulting & Tutoring who shared that she's helped Emmy award-winning actresses, Broadway performers, inventors, and athletes get their kids into top schools.

The battlegrounds

Parents with children as young as six months old contact Alina Adams, author of "Getting Into NYC Kindergarten" and "Getting Into NYC High School," for advice. They know that it can take up to two years to prepare for the kindergarten application process in New York City — the most well-known and fiercely competitive battleground for coveted school spots for tots — with preschool as one of the first stepping stones.

"In New York City, where it is believed the right preschool leads to the right kindergarten, which in turn leads to the right high school, which in turn leads to the right college, and then just the right investment banking job, parents go above and beyond when it comes to securing admission," Adams said. 

Alina Adams
Alina Adams.
Alina Adams

It isn't just New York that produces this type of fervor around early education, though. San Francisco and Los Angeles have also joined the fray, which has escalated in recent years. 

As one course description for "Coping with Preschool Panic" states, "In Los Angeles, choosing a preschool, and being chosen, has come to feel like a competitive sport. Parents attack it with the same fervor and intensity as a military general mapping out his next battle plan."

A 2016 article in Los Angeles Magazine on a "cutthroat rivalry" between two of LA's elite preschools noted that "preschools are considered a critical launchpad to an illustrious private school career." This is in part, the article states, because many monied parents put their trust in the "feeder-school" theory — which suggests that certain schools will see many kids who complete the program then move on to another specific, coveted school — and "believe that certain preschool directors wield serious influence with private elementary schools." 

Chanin, a former Ivy admissions rep, said that some of the big-name preschools on the West Coast that serve as feeder schools into the most sought-after LA private schools include Sunshine, Bel Air Presbyterian, Beverly Hills Presbyterian, Circle of Children, Cassidy, First Presbyterian Nursery School, Center for Early Education, Montessori Shir-Hashirim, and Wagon Wheel, to name a few. 

Read more: Getting your kid into the Ivy League of preschools is notoriously cutthroat. Real parents unpacked their greatest horror stories of applying.

Recruiting starts in Mommy and Me playgroups

The march toward the "right" kindergarten, Adams said, often begins with Mommy and Me playgroups, which she referred to as "basically, admissions interviews for two-year-olds." 

A common practice is for moms to put in time doing Mommy and Me programs that start as early as 18 months — programs that happen to fall during their child's afternoon naps so parents can mingle.

Chanin explained that it makes a "huge difference" when families establish a pattern of early-on engagement and follow through with their chosen schools — and make themselves known as "wholly invested, receptive, enthusiastic, committed parents" who will prove an asset to a specific school's community.  

"They are establishing a track record of caring about the school and how their child will thrive there, as well as getting their faces seen and recognized throughout the process," Chanin said. "Familiarity, reliability, and ongoing contribution to the school community will certainly help a family stand out in the admissions process."  

She added that some parents take this to the extreme, getting started long before their children are even remotely ready to embark upon preschool. 

"These parents have their sight set on a given educational trajectory and are not at all opposed to thinking (and acting) ahead," Chanin said. "Such parents get an A+ for effort." 

If a preschool offers a class, Chanin said, parents who invest in the class and commit to attending it regularly with their child — rather than sending in the nanny — will definitely have more of an inroad than those who don't. 

"Some schools actually require that you and your child take a certain number of these classes, which are oftentimes a huge amount of money," Chanin said. "One family with whom I've worked actually dropped as much as $5,000 on such classes and oftentimes, it's expected that the parent sits in the class the whole time."

Mommy and Me classes can be as frequent as one to three days per week at one to two hours at a time. 

"If you are vying for a spot at more than one school, you might find yourself juggling several classes full time," Chanin said. "It's a substantial time and financial investment, yet for many families, it usually pays off." 

But not always. Chanin explained that even if you're a star attendee, it's not a surefire formula or guarantee for parents looking to get into the dream preschool. 

"I know a West Coast-based family who was wholly committed to First Presbyterian long before they even had kids," Chanin said. "The parents were married at that very church and made annual contributions as members of the congregation. After having kids who were old enough to participate, they signed their kids up for Sunday School for several years." 

The school encouraged the family to apply when it came time to consider preschools, yet even after all the invested time, finances, and engagement neither of their kids gained admission, Chanin said. 

'Buying their way in' through fundraisers, big-ticket donations, and gifts

Chanin said she sees many parents who, long before their child is old enough to actually apply, start attending preschool events like fundraisers or fairs and purchase "big-ticket priced" auction items. 

"I know of parents who have actually subsidized the remaining balance of these fundraisers in the tune of five digits," Chanin said. Adams similarly noted that parents wanting to "buy their way" into an elite preschool can offer a large donation years before they even have children.

Chanin added that many preschools rely heavily on the fundraising efforts of their parents.

"They often don't have huge endowments like colleges do, so they count on current and prospective families' time and financial contributions," Chanin said.

But when it comes to the usual suspects of donations, letters of recommendation from prominent former parents and alumni, or gifting the nursery school director with tickets to the latest Broadway show, Adams said that those are things "anyone" can do. 

"It is those who want to prove they are really serious — and would make a very beneficial addition to the incoming class — who offer one-of-a-kind experiences," Adams said. Chanin added that just like getting into coveted private elementary schools, parents definitely use their connections, keeping in mind that some preschools actually have an admissions director.

Adams recalled witnessing parents offering staff a behind-the-scenes tour of the United Nations, having five-star restaurants cater school fundraisers, or procuring a visit from anyone who the school's decision makers might be interested in bringing in for an assembly — from a "Hamilton" star to Jane Goodall to a UN ambassador or world-renowned research scientist to a New York Yankee.

"Those who think the sparkle of celebrity might help produce letters of recommendation from Bill Clinton," Adams added.

Chanin said that after gaining admission to a top preschool, some ambitious parents will continue racking up brownie points doing more of the same — providing lavish gifts to admissions directors, donating auction items for school fundraisers, and substantially subsidizing school events, all while vying to be "room parents" or school-sponsored "event chairs" in an effort to secure strong recommendations for whichever private elementary school they're striving toward. 

"In essence, the saga continues, as preschool is merely the beginning," Chanin said. 

'They're not rejecting your child, they're rejecting you'

Adams said that parents who are serious about their quest prep the youngest of toddlers for preschool interview situations. 

"Can you imagine interviewing a two year old?" Adams said. "What if they say something inappropriate? What if they burst into tears and try to leave? Worse, what if they do nothing at all?"

Adams has heard plenty of horror stories of preschool interviews gone awry.

"I've had parents tell me stories of toddlers who locked themselves in the closet and refused to come out," she said. "Of ones who would only answer by mewing like a cat. Or one who crawled under a table and insisted she was napping, so don't bother her."

She said that there are dozens of tutoring companies that prep children for their "interview," focusing on the "proper behavior of a preschool 'playdate'."

In this training, children are taught to walk in, shake hands, look the interviewer in the eye, and then launch into a discussion regarding their latest favorite hobby — whether it be piano or violin, modern dance, literature, physics, abstract art, or something equally erudite. (Those hobbies, Adams added, are taught by still other tutors.) 

"Kids are prepped on how to whiz through the IQ test tasks administered to them, such as sequencing cards in the order of events, copying patterns with blocks and tiles, and drawing family portraits where, afterwards, every eyelash and toenail will be counted, so the more detailed the better!" Adams said.

She added that while a child throwing a tantrum during a playdate will be overlooked, the same can't be said when it's the parent who loses composure. 

"Parents are the most important part of the equation, to be sure," Adams said. "I like to tell the families I work with, 'Remember, they're not rejecting your child, they're rejecting you.' Parents can do more to ruin their child's chances than any child ever could." 

Adams shared that there are a variety of ways that parents can tank admission opportunities for their children. 

"I've heard of parents picking fights with the admissions directors, or, conversely, of being on their phone all through the interview," Adams said. "But the absolute worst thing a parent can do is go on and on about how special their child is, and all the exceptions they expect to be made for them — before the child has even been accepted!" 

She added that there is always one parent on every tour who asks, "But what do you do for the truly, truly gifted child?" 

"Do not be that parent," Adams said. "Or, if you are, do not tell them you know me. I don't want to be a part of this."

COVID-19 opens up coveted spots as some families are turned off by virtual learning

For parents who are worried about getting into a prestigious preschool, the coronavirus may have a silver lining.

"The main disruptor during COVID-19 is parents telling me that if NYC schools aren't open come September and learning continues online only, they are not paying thousands of dollars to plant their three- and four-year-olds in front of screens," Adams said. "They are moving out of the city and to an area where preschools are open." 

The consultant added that these parents have expressed not caring if the preschools they end up at outside Manhattan are less prestigious than what they'd have in New York, since their kids will be "out from underfoot," and they can always return in a year or two to apply to the top kindergartens in the city.

What this means for parents who are staying put, according to Adams, is that spots might become available in schools that turned them down earlier. 

"If you are determined to land a seat at one of them (and don't mind losing your deposit at the school you landed in), call and keep calling your top choices," she said, adding that the schools will be facing withdrawals right up through September and even into October. Parents who don't mind paying for remote learning as a way to get their foot in the door and ultimately attend in person have a much better chance this year, she added.

This article was originally published on Business Insider June 24, 2020.

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