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May 07, 2009

For urban parents, getting their toddlers into a top preschool can be the challenge of a lifetime.

By Rachel Fernandes

Getting into the nation’s best schools is an exhausting and ruthlessly competitive process. And for those that aspire to attend an elite institution, an early start can be the difference between early admittance and relegation to the wait list.
The best students—and their parents—know it’s never too soon to start thinking about the future: going to the right grade school leads to the right junior high, then the right high school. If all goes as planned, the path eventually ends at their college of choice.
But should the families of future Ivy Leaguers start considering the pedigree of preschools? Can enrollment in a top early education program really lead to Stanford or Yale?
Many Manhattan parents are convinced it can.
In recent years, a baby boom in New York City has ratcheted up competition for admission to the city’s best preschools to an all-time high. Add to that the fact that private preschools haven’t come close to keeping up with the demand created by the burgeoning toddler population, and the result has been virtual panic among urban parents.
From 2000 to 2004, the number of children in New York City under the age of 5 increased by 26 percent. Experts estimate that there are now 15 applicants for every available slot at a desirable Manhattan preschool. The demand is so great that some now conduct lotteries just to get permission to apply.
In 2006, the growing struggle for preschool spots became big news. ABC ran a special called “Exclusive: Inside the Cutthroat Preschool Wars,” and The New York Times and other leading newspapers ran features on the phenomenon.
All the exposure had documentary filmmakers clamoring to gain access to this mysterious realm of exclusivity, where IQ tests and personality screenings were being used to determine the fate of America’s toddlers.
Enter filmmakers Marc Simon, an entertainment lawyer and the writer/producer of the indie-flick After Innocence and Matthew Makar, a cinematographer and the director/producer of Yellow Brick Road.
Though neither is married nor has a child, the two men managed to convince parents along with the preschool “gate-keepers” to let them peek behind their heavily guarded doors.
“We were able to get access based on communication with the directors of the schools, convincing them that we were approaching this in a responsible fashion,” notes Simon. “Once we got one director on board, we got more directors on board.”
“We’re extremely charming and very persistent,” adds Makar. “It’s like we were given the keys to the castle, and we had to do it right.”
The film they created, Nursery University, follows a diverse group of families from various Manhattan neighborhoods as they bravely (and often desperately) undertake the daunting task of getting their children into city’s best preschools.
The film focuses on New York City as the phenomenon’s epicenter. But as preschool admissions grow increasingly competitive, urban parents around the country are finding themselves in the same stressful boat as these Manhattanites.
Though the film’s subject matter can be both suspenseful and frightening, Simon and Makar handle it with a light touch. By focusing on several of the preschool directors and admissions advisors, the filmmakers expose an inherent absurdity behind many of the situations the families find themselves in.
But it’s the film’s verité style along with the sensitivity of the filmmakers that lead to moments of humor and compassion that provide the film with a much-needed sense of both levity and perspective among the constant strain being felt by the parents.
From nervous assumptions about the meaning of a skinny versus thick envelope, an anecdote about a father who tried to buy his child’s way into school and a nail-biting sequence of frenzied parents dialing their phones as they attempt to snare a coveted preschool application, Nursery University is an entertaining yet deeply disturbing exploration of the lengths parents must go to give their kids a leg up in the world.
Nursery University is showing in select cities throughout the spring and can also be seen on Showtime beginning May 10. Check in with Nurseryuniversitythemovie.com for updates and show times.

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