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High-Pressure Choices - for Kindergarten?

Dru Carey had her heart set on getting her twin four-year-olds into one of New York City's top private kindergartens. She achieved her goal: Both children are now enrolled at one of the city's highly esteemed preparatory schools for next fall.

But it's a good thing she doesn't have any more children, she says. She's not sure she could survive the process a second time.

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"I literally cried when they called [to say the kids were accepted]," says Mrs. Carey. "This is the most stressful thing I've ever been through, more stressful than law school, finding a job, or getting married."

It's that time of the year again, when a certain number of parents are uncomfortably watching the mail and nervously dialing admissions offices to check on the status of waiting lists - not for college, but for private kindergartens.

To the vast majority of Americans who never think twice about sending their children off to the local public kindergarten, the process may seem absurd - especially when they hear stories about four-year-olds doing interviews, collecting references, and taking standardized tests.

Yet for some parents it's anything but a laughing matter. The problem is particularly acute in urban areas, where faith in public schools is weak. In addition, many parents believe that a strong start in kindergarten will pave the way to future success and acceptance to elite schools.

Yet each year, the same questions come up: What can possibly take place in a kindergarten classroom to justify such a high level of anxiety over admissions - not to mention tuitions that can run as high as $17,000? Are these parents giving public schools a chance?

Jeanne Lepper, director of the Bing Nursery School in Stanford, Calif., and lecturer in psychology at Stanford University, says there are basic hallmarks of a good kindergarten, private or public. When looking for one, parents need to remember to focus on the right questions: "Are there enthusiastic, well-trained teachers? Is the space attractive and ample? Do the kids seem engaged?"

Washington parent Marty Cathcart says the process of choosing a kindergarten for her children ultimately led her to a career change. Some years ago, while her older child was attending private nursery school, she heard a presentation by a group called "Parents United for D.C. Schools." She was so impressed by their plea for parents to give the city's public schools a chance that she opted for public kindergarten for her son.

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Today, her seventh-grade son is still in public school and her daughter is following along behind him. As time went on, Ms. Cathcart found herself becoming more involved in the schools, to the point that a few months ago she switched careers and took a job with the Washington school system, working to establish corporate partnerships for the schools.

For many parents, it's not simply a question of warming up to public schools, but rather the lure of the extras offered by many private schools. Jerri Mayer, a New York mother of two, says her husband attended public school in Manhattan, and originally wanted that experience for their children. They visited their neighborhood school, and "were really quite impressed."

When it came to the final decision, though, they chose private school. The deciding factor, she says, was "that extra measure of attention: a class of 16 kids versus a class of 30 kids."

About 70 percent of New York City's 110,000 5-year-olds are enrolled in public school. The city's public kindergarten classes average 25 or 26 students per teacher. Most of its private kindergartens are limited to 18 to 20 students per class with two full-time teachers - not to mention a broad range of other resources.

Kindergartners at Manhattan's Dalton School, for instance, have two full-time classroom teachers, four full-time art teachers, a composer-in-residence, time on new computers, archaeological digs in the school's backyard, and a guaranteed part in the annual musical production.

Even for suburban parents in good school districts, such offerings have allure. Wendy Gibson, an attorney who lives in Stow, Ohio, says many of her colleagues send children to private schools.

She too considered the possibility. The quality of the teaching in private school, in addition to feeling that students there are "people likely to go places, contacts that would be useful later on in life," were both attractive ideas for Ms. Gibson. Ultimately, though, the concern that private school might not offer sufficient exposure to "lots of different kinds of people" outweighed the advantages of private school.

That's an issue that troubles many parents. Richard Zbaracki, a professor of curriculum and instruction at Iowa State U. in Ames, sent his six children to private school through sixth grade. Then they went to public high school so they would "come to know the broader society."

Linda Espinosa, an associate professor of education at the University of Missouri in Columbia, has mixed feelings about private schools. She sent her daughter to public school, which was less "elitist." Yet as an educator, she remains a champion of private schools. Such schools, she says, often serve as models of innovation.

As for the parents and the experience of applying to those schools, Stanford's Dr. Lepper says that, in one sense, it warms an educator's heart. "It's admirable that they care so much."

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Public Vs. Private: Keep these tips in mind

Here are some factors to consider when choosing between private and public kindergarten:

* Don't assume private school is better. Your public school may surprise you. Ask for a tour of the facilities, and to meet teachers and the principal.

* Conversely, don't assume a private school can't offer diversity. Most private schools today work hard at balancing the racial and economic mix of their entering classes.

* Try to get to know some of the other parents considering this kindergarten. Their attitudes may reveal a lot about what your child would encounter at this school.

* Don't be awed by offerings that may not speak to your child. A school with a great outdoors program, for example, may not be the best place for a child who prefers indoor activity.

* Stay calm. Tension and concern that your child must get into a certain school will only complicate the process and bewilder your child.

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