Moonstone Preschool: The Bella Vista Toddlertopia Your Kid Can’t Get Into

For a growing horde of hip young parents, life in Philly couldn’t be better. Then comes preschool.
Photography by Trevor Dixon

Photography by Trevor Dixon

Danielle Baker stared at the sheet of paper in her hand.

There were more than 150 parents squeezed together in a too-small room for the school’s annual October open house — Danielle had heard that if you didn’t go to the open house, you had zero chance of getting in. Apparently, the other parents had heard that as well. Shit, Danielle thought. The parents had their heads down, and were desperately reading the paper the teachers had just handed out. In all, the school would receive 158 applications for the following fall. There were 38 spots available.

The class that Danielle’s daughter, Maddie, would be eligible to enroll in had just three available spots. Admissions were handled by lottery. Each application would be assigned a number. Five months later, in March, a computer program would pick the numbers at random. By April, the parents would be told — were they in, or were they out?

The handouts were supposed to make it easier for the parents — most of them trying to pretend they weren’t sizing each other up like sorority pledges at a pool party — to understand their chances.

Maddie’s odds of getting in? Seven percent.

“What am I even doing here?” Danielle, then 33, thought to herself. (Some names and details have been changed.) “This is impossible. This is craziness.”

If she’d been standing in a conference room at Penn after a campus tour, it would have been craziness. If she’d been waiting while Maddie interviewed — one
of 1,000 kids applying for a coveted ninth-grade spot — at the Science Leadership Academy, it would have been craziness. Even if she and Maddie had just arrived at Friends Select’s “Play Day” in order to make a good showing for kindergarten admissions, it would have been craziness. This wasn’t craziness. This was
pathological.

The school was Moonstone Preschool.

Maddie was 18 months old.

And as hard as Danielle tried to be rational … to be normal … to be un-Tiger Motherly … the first thing she said to her husband when she got home was this: “We have to get Maddie in there.”

THIS TYPE OF MAIN LINE mama drama would seem clichéd … if this particular mama drama had happened on the Main Line. It didn’t. Moonstone is in Bella Vista, tucked on 11th Street between Catharine and Fitzwater, in a section of Philadelphia that’s known for stoop-sitting and homemade salamis, not for competitive, aggressive new parents plotting and scheming and swearing like truckers to get their toddlers into a preschool.

Actually, Center City at large isn’t known for competitive, aggressive new parents, period. These are a new breed of Philadelphians, these hip city couples who had kids and chose not to retreat to the suburbs. They’re the generation that birthed 17,100 babies in Center City from 2000 to 2008 — nearly 10 times more babies per year than at the start of the ’90s — and then stayed.

Now, the So Many Stayers need preschools. But Center City simply doesn’t have So Many Good Preschools to go around. More schools are coming, practically racing to get in on this cutthroat game of musical chairs. Since 2013, six new preschools have opened or announced plans to open in and around Center City. Eventually, these schools — if they’re as good as they promise to be — should help ease the current wait lists, which can be up to two and a half years long. Until then, these new Philadelphia parents, who also happen to be the most child-focused and involved generation of parents ever, have no choice but to treat the preschool admissions process like the Hunger Games.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the open house at Moonstone changed Danielle Baker.

“I became another human being,” she says, transformed from a laid-back, cool, witty new mom into a hyena, ready to kill — or at least bribe — to ensure that a photograph of her daughter made it onto one of the cubbies in the hallowed hallway of Moonstone.

She was convinced that Moonstone was the only school for Maddie, and for her. It was within walking distance of their home. It far exceeded those basic requirements of a “good preschool”: low teacher-to-student ratios, low turnover, teachers with education degrees, a balance between play time and learning time, warmness and fuzziness. It was super-diverse, practically a mini-me microcosm of the city itself, which was precisely the world Danielle wanted Maddie to grow up in (hence the decision to be A Stayer). It had an added bonus as far as Danielle was concerned — “that old Jewish hippie vibe.”

Moonstone came into being 32 years ago as the love child of Larry and Sandy Robin. Larry was an artist and owned a bookstore; Sandy was an artist and an early-education teacher. They decided to wrap all that up into one kid-size nonprofit. At the time, their “arts-intensive” approach wasn’t what preschool in Philly looked like. Back then, there were the half-day programs at churches and synagogues, or über-expensive Montessoris. The Moonstone model was “philosophy-based” long before “philosophy-based” became a buzzword in the preschool biz (mostly because it was long before there even was a preschool “biz”). Sure, other Center City preschools soon developed similar programs where parents could match their values with a school’s — lots of play or lots of academics, lots of structure or lots of “Do whatever you want to, kid,” lots of music or lots of French. But Moonstone had history. Moonstone had a rep. Moonstone was cool.

As Danielle memorized every word on Moonstone’s website, she couldn’t help fast-forwarding a year in her mind, envisioning two-year-old Maddie developing her “positive self-expression” as she sang “Getting to Know You” from The King and I, as she learned “Five Little Pumpkins” in English and Spanish, as she watched her teachers put on a play for the kids every morning. That could all be Maddie’s — all day, every day — for $1,400 a month.

“It was a magical place,” Danielle says. At least, that was what she’d heard.

“When people said their kid went to Moonstone, they always had this look on their face, like they knew something I didn’t,” says Danielle. Friends told her about the Moonstone fund-raiser they helped organize at Frankford Hall, and the First Friday they went to with all their Moonstone friends. They shared the photos Moonstone posted online of its alumni (a.k.a. kindergartners), proud that they would forever be considered part of the Moonstone Family.

“Moonstone is a club the way Harvard is a club,” Danielle says. And the truth was, Danielle wanted to be in that club. It didn’t take too many months of strollering around Washington Square and Rittenhouse Square and Any Damn Square to figure out that the way new parents found their Center City parent friends, where they became a part of a community, was through the preschool they chose. Moonstone’s community seemed, to Danielle at least, to be a perfect match for Maddie … and for her. Moonstone parents were involved and diverse and educated and hipstery. They were the kind of people that pre-mom Danielle envisioned post-mom Danielle having over for playdates and cocktails.

“Moonstone is where I met my mom friends, my real mom friends,” says Paige Wolf, local PR maven and peppy blond mom-about-town. Of course, Paige’s son scored a spot at Moonstone four years ago, when there was still a wait list, not a lottery. Neighborhood friends who’d sent their kids to Moonstone advised her to put in her name ASAP. Paige, ever the planner, did exactly that — while she was pregnant. “I was lucky enough that they accepted him,” she says. She was also lucky enough that even though Moonstone has since switched to a lottery system, her 20-month-old daughter was guaranteed a “sibling preference” spot. Paige’s status as a “Moonstone Mom” was guaranteed.

Danielle’s wasn’t. After the Moonstone open house, she “became obsessed.” She started making lunch dates with moms she knew who had kids at Moonstone, and would casually mention over her organic greens that she was applying there. “I don’t know how to get anybody in,” snapped one mom, as if she’d been through this conversation many, many times. Two other parents promised they’d put in a good word with Moonstone’s director, pointing out how awesome Danielle was, how she was a chef and could volunteer to teach the toddlers how to make flan and stuff.

On the Moonstone application, there were essay questions: “What do you feel your family will contribute to our community?” “What made you apply to Moonstone Preschool?” Danielle searched Google for stats and smart-sounding quotes about showing children all the beauty they possess inside. She read her answers out loud to her husband — “Do we sound interesting? Do we sound educated? Do we sound Moonstone-y?” She hand-delivered Maddie’s application well before the December 31st deadline.

Her next — and most strategic — move was to call her dad. He’d spent his career as a businessman in Manhattan, where the race to get into the “right” preschool is so intense, and so costly — $4,000 to pay the “preschool application consultant” to guide you into hopefully getting your kid into a $40,000-a-year slot — that it was the subject of a 2008 documentary called Nursery University.

“Maddie has to go to this preschool,” she told him.

“You need to write a check,” he advised. “You can buy your way into anything.” Interestingly, she’d gotten similar advice from Moonstone parents.

So Danielle made a $1,500 donation to Moonstone. The school responded with a thank-you note and a packet of notecards made from art by Moonstone students. And then she waited. And waited.

March and April came and went. No call from Moonstone.

In June, she finally received a letter. It was thin. Maddie didn’t get into Moonstone. She was number six on the waiting list.

“Fuck these people,” Danielle thought.

MARISA PICCARRETO KNOWS more about Center City preschools than any other person who lives in Center City. It’s her job. Marisa owns My Fabulous Mama on South Street — part shop, part community center, part “baby consulting.” The mother of three started her business in 2011 to help new moms and dads figure out how to parent in Center City — a service that 10 years ago wouldn’t have had enough clientele to put a three-ounce jar of mashed peas on the table. Now, for up to $125 an hour, Marisa can match-make a mom with a doula, helps parents find a nanny, and offer the DL on baby gear to “create the perfect registry.”

Recently she added a new service to her menu: “preschool selection,” to “debunk the myths, sort fact from fiction and understand the who’s who of preschool programs.” It sounds elite, almost Manhattanesque. (To be sure, there is one and only one preschool in Center City that describes itself as “boutique” — Right Steps on Rittenhouse Square, though one in-the-scene mom claims, elitely, “I don’t know anyone who goes there.”) However, Marisa believes Philly parents will never be Manhattan-level crazy. “We aren’t like that here,” Marisa says, very diplomatically. “My clients seem to just want a preschool that’s a good value, within walking distance, where their kids can thrive.”

Marisa discovered all of this firsthand when she tried to find a neighborhood preschool for her own daughter to attend full-time. That was about seven years ago, after the baby boomlet in 2006, when the city officially became a seller’s market for preschool. She was tacked onto wait lists that were so long, she’d likely have to wait until her kids had kids of their own to secure a spot.

Trinity Playgroup, at 22nd and Spruce, had the longest list — and still does. It’s one of what Marisa would consider the Center City “who’s who” preschools — in-demand and among the old guard, like Moonstone, which Marisa calls “fantastic.” “Trinity is hard as shit to get into,” notes one Trinity mom who applied to five preschools and, even though she got into a few right away, held out on the Trinity wait list for two and a half years.

Marisa also considered Beacon Center for Children at 21st and Chestnut. It was about $21,000 a year — $5,000 more than Trinity — and less difficult to get into, or so thought Ivy Olesh, who does economic development work in Philly. Her son Brody was just a few months old when she and her husband toured Beacon and decided, “This is it. We’re done.”

“Brody got in,” she says, very happy to be a Beacon Mom. She pauses for a second, then clarifies: “Of course, we had to be strategic. Brody initially got accepted for two afternoons a week. We took it and immediately told them to put us on the wait list if any other spots opened up.” Eventually, they did. Ivy kept wait-listing until she got what she’d wanted all along — a full-time spot.

Marisa eventually quit her job to wait out the wait lists. Her daughters ended up at Green Towne Montessori in Fairmount, which has a bona fide admissions process. “We had to interview. That made me think it wasn’t going to be welcoming,” she says. “I was wrong. Everyone was so kind.” They’d better be — five full days a week at Green Towne cost $28,200 a year.

“I’d have loved to have the options available now,” she says.

Just last summer, five new preschools announced they were coming soon to a neighborhood near you, all with different philosophies and vibes, including the Giving Tree in Queen Village, not-yet-opened Project P.L.A.Y. School in Graduate Hospital, and Mi Casita in Fairmount, a Spanish-immersion school set to open any day now. Maddie ended up at one of these new schools, one that Danielle loves, though she didn’t want to reveal which one, because she doesn’t want the preschool-less to apply and turn it into a Moonstone.

“Every mom I knew was on three preschool wait lists in Center City,” says Melissa Page, Mi Casita’s founder and owner. As far as her business model was concerned, there was no question in her mind there was a need. Yes, people in Fairmount are signing up, but so are parents from other neighborhoods. There’s also a family from Cherry Hill enrolled.

“I’ve even gotten a few calls from the Main Line,” Melissa says.

Wait. What?

Suburban parents are coming into Center City for the schools?

“There isn’t anything in the whole region like Mi Casita,” says Paige Wolf, who is handling PR for the school, though her kids are staying at Moonstone.

Because it’s in her neighborhood. And because, you know, it’s Moonstone.

In the foyer of Moonstone, there’s a giant pile of little bikes and little trikes and little scooters, parked and waiting for the kids to ride them home at the end of the school day. Half of the lobby is a cage that houses Matilda, a giant, fluffy gray bunny that probably weighs more than the majority of the 93 children enrolled here. A teacher — a young artsy-looking guy with sculpted hair — emerges from a room and steps behind the front desk, rummaging for a stapler to repair a small mask that’s made out of cardboard and shaped like a fox’s face.

The oldest kids, the “Full Moons,” sit quietly on the floor in the library, which has such a sizeable collection of books that half of them are stored in a loft accessible only by a ladder. Down the hall and around the corner, the two-year-olds — the Blue Moons — shout out the word “fox” in Spanish. In the largest room in the building, the three-year-old Half Moons listen courteously as two of their classmates sing solo, wearing masks, accompanied by a teacher on guitar.

The youngest kids, the New Moons, sit packed around a table in the art room that looks more like Basquiat’s studio — two stories high, the walls plastered with self-portraits and drawings and collages, a giant red dragon made of toilet-paper rolls suspended from the ceiling. The kids scribble on a single piece of paper that’s taped to the table, their hands and shirts powdered with chalk.

“Actually, those are oil-based pastels,” says Moonstone’s director, Kim Carter, who’s worked here since 2005. She has a bachelor’s in elementary ed and a master’s in special ed. And she’s smiling. Everyone’s smiling. It’s very happy here — not in a weird Stepford Wives kind of way, but for real. Like … these kids love being here. Like … they get mad when their parents come to pick them up. Like … their parents probably don’t want to leave, either.

Moonstone is … kind of … magical.

The appeal of the place makes sense. Here’s this little school that has the same vibe as the city itself — rooted in history but simultaneously vital, founded by a genuine and diverse community of people who love it, bolstered by the sense of being a club that only legit members understand.

Moonstone gets it. In 2009 it moved from its home in the Italian Market to a new, bigger space at 11th and Fitzwater for one major reason — to be able to accept more kids. But applications increased, too. A lot. Pretty soon, the wait list was 3.5 years long. That meant that technically, parents who wanted to enroll a child in the 18-month-old class would have to get that child’s name on the list 14 months before they even got pregnant.

“It was hard to watch,” Kim says. “I mean, it’s a good problem, to have so much interest. But it doesn’t feel good to turn so many people away.” That’s why Moonstone switched to a lottery. She says the staff doesn’t even read the application essays until the computer picks the students for enrollment. She also claims that there is no way, none at all, to bypass that lottery.

“People tell us all the time that their friends are applying. We say, ‘That’s great,’” she says. “When people don’t get in, we encourage them to apply next year. They’re disappointed. But they’re always civil about it.”

Always?

“Always.”

“MOONSTONE PISSES ME the fuck off.”

Callie McGarvey thinks Moonstone’s a racket. She applied once, paid her $50 application fee, answered the essay questions, even donated professional services to the annual fund-raising auction. When you’re trying to carve out a place for your family, for your kid, for yourself, in a city that has still not quite adjusted to having So Many Stayers, you have to be aggressive. And a little bit crazy. In May, Callie got the skinny letter: Her six-month-old son was at the bottom of the waiting list. Even though it was all a crapshoot, she still felt rejected.

“It’s amazing how you get your heart set on something,” says Callie, who asked that her name be changed.

She swore she wouldn’t go through that again. She told everyone she wouldn’t give another dime to that place. But when application time came around, she relented. She blamed it on “the group-mom mayhem.” But it was more than that. It was personal. Because preschool in Center City is more than just preschool. It is personal.

So she wrote new answers to the essay questions, paid another $50 application fee. Once again, Callie got the skinny letter. “I hope these new preschools give Moonstone a run for their money,” she says. For a second, she says nothing. Then she laughs out loud: “We’re talking preschool, for Christ’s sake. Preschool!”

Originally published as “Welcome to Toddlertopia” in the January 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.