Skip to main content

A new documentary, 'Nursery University' looks at the cutthroat world of nursery school admissions in The Big Apple.

In case you haven’t heard, getting your kid into a "good" nursery school in Manhattan  is akin to getting your 18 year old into Harvard - except the standardized tests involve crayons.  It’s a cutthroat process that leaves many parents reeling… and often considerably poorer. New York’s parents have been struggling for years to figure out the key to securing admission to the top schools, and this documentary provides an inside look into that process. MainStreet recently spoke with one of the film’s directors, Marc H. Simon, about the movie and his access to this world. What is Nursery University about?
Marc H. Simon: Nursery University is the first film to get inside nursery school admissions. We are the first cameras to be inside with the admissions director when they are making decisions, [conducting] interviews that always get a lot of hype... what in the world are the admissions directors looking at when they are conducting an interview with a two or three year old?

MS: What was the catalyst for making the film?
MHS: This is a story that has to be told… I’m also a full time attorney. And when I was at my law firm I went to speak to a colleague who was running out the door to go to a nursery school interview for his twin daughters… he was talking about paying 30 or 40 thousand dollars for two year olds and he was like, “this is just nuts,” and one of us said, this has to be the next film.

MS: The amount of money we’re talking about here is outrageous. What are people to think?
MHS: This is a microcosm, in a way, of life. It comes down to some old fashioned principals. Supply and demand. The "in" factor. People want to be with people like themselves. They want to be in places where it may help them in business or where the relationships may help. And this happens in this process and it’s just a fact of life. And rather than look at it and judge it, I wanted to examine it.

MS: The level of competition is also pretty incredible.
MHS: The truth of the matter is that the nursery school directors take absolutely no joy in saying no to hundreds of families, the majority of which the directors will acknowledge are perfectly great families. But they just don’t have the space. And even in today’s economy… there are just too many kids for too few spaces.

MS: And what about the kids who don’t get into the schools their parents want them to go to?

MHS: I’m hopeful that one of the benefits to come out of this film is that it will provide some perspective to the process and that maybe parents will not get so anxious about it. Because I think the film shows that there are alternatives in Manhattan and that if you have your heart on just three to five school, maybe that’s not the most realistic way to approach this.

MS: How do the parents deal? What are the alternatives?

MHS: The film has such a diversity. We have one family that’s underprivileged and think that to get out of Harlem they need the best education possible at the earliest age.  Then there is a family that is a downtown family and not only do they not get into one of the elite school but they are almost turned off by it. They are the everyman family and they just think, ‘why can’t I just walk down the street and put my child into the local nursery school. This is just nuts. I mean, that’s how we grew up.’ And they found at the very end of the process what’s called a parent-child co-op, where parents are more involved in the school. I filmed there and I got news for you, it’s a really great environment.

MS: What about the public schools? Are they so bad?
MHS: The reason why I haven’t brought up public schools is because my film focuses on nursery school… And there is no public school for nursery school. There are certain, not many, pre-kindergarten programs, but that’s for four and five-year-old’s level. But there’s nothing for two, three and early four-year-olds.

MS: So we’re talking $15,000 to $20,000 a year, for day care essentially?
MSH: If parents really do the research, there’re different schools for different price tags. But it’s certainly fair to say that not just for the top tier schools, but also some of the more standard schools, $30,000 for two years is the price families are going to pay... Sometimes more. Sometimes less. But there is this debate about whether this is just day care or is it education. I will say that I do think that early childhood education has real benefits for children. Does that mean that your child is not going to get into the Ivy League of their choice or of their parent’s choice if they go to one pre-school over another? Probably not.  All it means that if you’re in a very good pre-school environment then you probably are doing activities for socialization and very limited analytical activities at a better level.

MS: What about after pre-school?
MSH: [There is] the notion that if you get into the right nursery school, that school will put you on the right track to the proper ongoing school. And without a private nursery school whose admissions director has the right relationships with those ongoing schools… then you’re going have a more difficult time. That’s the notion… there is some truth to that. Is it an all or nothing proposition? No.

MS: Do you have kids?
MSH: I don’t. That’s the big irony.

MS: What would you do if you had a kid at this point?

MSH: That’s a fair question. I love living in New York City and I’m not ready to move out and this would be a struggle that I’d have to face with all the other parents, except hopefully I’d be armed with a bit of good knowledge. But certainly I know me and I’d want to make sure that my child was at school where I thought they’d get a good education.

Nursery University screens in New York beginning April 24, for tickets and theater information, check out the film's official site.