Top Schools: The $12,000-a-Year Preschool

Where can you find Haverford and Baldwin’s 2018 graduating classes? Sorting beads at Gladwyne Montessori, the Main Line feeder preschool.

Back in March, the New York Post reported that it is now harder for the son or daughter of an Upper East Side family to gain admission to a top Manhattan preschool than it is for a high-school senior to get into Harvard. There are more than 500,000 babies and toddlers being wheeled around in Bugaboos and carried in Snuglis in New York right now, and room for only a few thousand of them in the expensive hallways of Spence and Chapin and Brearley. This kind of pressure led to the case of Citigroup banker and South Philly native Jack Grubman, who in 2002 arranged a $1 million donation to get his twin two-year-olds into the vaunted 92nd Street Y kids’ program. (It worked.)

All hail the happiness of not living in New York, where everything is a drama. But then, you might not yet have tried to find a preschool for your child on the Main Line, and might not know that there is really only one program that is right for her: $12,000-a-year Gladwyne Montessori, which the children of wealthy cable heirs have attended, where the infants of Art Museum committee members gurgle happily during Mommy and Me classes, where the scion of one of the city’s biggest sports stars comes to learn addition via colored beads and Velcro numerals. As potential GM parents trade reports on who has managed to triumph over the wait-list, they can contemplate lists of where the school’s tiny alumni most frequently matriculate (Baldwin, Shipley, Haverford, Friends’ Select, Episcopal) and eventually go to college (Harvard, Yale, Penn and Duke). It’s best to start early, because if you’re in at age two, you’re in till sixth grade (barring disaster), and admission only gets more competitive each year.

Of course, there are other excellent preschools nearby, such as the Wetherill School and Har Zion, both of which are also very desirable. (See the box on page TK.) The barriers to entry are varied: The elite St. Peter’s School in Society Hill requires a psychological evaluation of all its miniature applicants (luckily, not of their parents). But right now, inquiries about admission to Gladwyne Montessori are coming in for 2007-’08, from parents with babies in utero, from Main Liners who are even thinking about getting pregnant.

The school has grown more popular every year since its 1962 founding in a carriage house in Rosemont, and one imagines the topiaries and the baskets from FoodSource and the handwritten notes winging their way to its unassuming headmistress, Usha Balamore, who laughs when asked about some of the more lavish admission bribes sent her way. “We do get that,” she says.

Welcome to the new Upper East Side: the Main Line. If you think for one minute that anxiety about getting your kid into Gladwyne Montessori — or general insanity about whether one’s three-year-old is ready for math tutoring yet and the wisdom of teaching eight-month-olds sign language — is any less right now in Philly than it is in New York City, you haven’t been spending enough time at dinner parties or lunching with the girls at Plate.

Not only is Gladwyne Montessori the hardest school on the Main Line for two-, three- and four-year-olds to get into; it’s also — as the luxury SUVs stacked outside its charming stone building each weekday morning at 8:30 ensure — the hardest to get into.

“You have to be within two minutes of your time slot, or you get backed up on Righters Mill Road,” mourns one former GM mom, who switched to a smaller preschool when she could no longer face the infamous drop-off line from Youngsford Road. “It’s just impossible to maneuver.”

But inside, past the Gucci-sandaled gridlock and the building’s chiseled entryway, all is kid-scaled and delightful; the halls are lined with open lockers and cut-out letters and cheerful signs. Children wearing Lilly Pulitzer and Polo mix easily with attentive teachers who give off a groovy vibe.

The school’s theme this past year has been “peace,” and whatever skirmishes the parents are encountering outside on this late spring day, all is quiet inside the circa-1860 structure. “Hello, Ava,” says Balamore to a tiny girl walking into the front hall. Balamore, who speaks in the soothing accent of her native India and calls everyone “my dear” in the most elegant way, holds a Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr College and was the school psychologist at GM two decades ago, before teaching kindergarten for 14 years at Episcopal Academy. As she gently greets a little boy — “Hello, Finn” — it’s clear that Balamore, in her long skirt, rippling hair, flowered top and comfortable sandals, is the exact person you want to entrust your beloved toddler to.

En route to class, Ava, Finn and Balamore pass through a hallway hung with a mobile of white birds suspended on white strings — each of the 310 children in the school has crafted a cut-paper dove for the mobile, part of the “peace” initiative. The fact that it looks exactly like the butterfly mobile that dangles from the center of the couture floor at Neiman Marcus is purely coincidental.

Not so long ago, there was no such thing as pre-K. Kids played at nursery school, did art projects, learned letters and numbers, but the focus was on socialization and managing their initial anxiety upon being separated from their parents; they eventually got around to reading in kindergarten or first grade. The rush to full-blown academia by age four has been necessitated to some extent by the phenomenon of two parents working, but there is also now considerable pressure to choose the right program, socially and academically, for babies still in Pampers. The question “Where do your children go to school?” is as likely to be asked of parents of binkie-sucking infants as it is of those whose offspring are teens or college-age. (Ironically, letter grades are now so un-chic at many private schools that reading the average report card requires constant referral to a grades key explaining the difference between “proficient” and “advanced.”)

The how-early-to-educate debate has raged since the ’80s, but never before has there been so much emphasis on introducing academics before kindergarten. Children with no need for remedial work are getting tutored at age four in reading, so that they’ll be über-prepared for pre-K; tutoring factories like Huntington Learning and Sylvan are a $4.6 billion business, and a nice chunk of that is being spent to spur on the reading skills of children who still use sippie cups.

 “That’s so not appropriate,” says Bonita Blazer, a Moorestown preschool consultant for both schools and parents, of the binge of computer-driven academic tutoring for three- and four-year-olds. “Children need to find their own level of development. And they can feel like a failure early on if other kids are ‘getting it’ and they’re not.” A preschool should be chosen on the basis of whether it provides a safe, clean, nurturing environment, on the credentials of the teachers and their assistants, and on the emphasis it gives activities that encourage creativity and language, social, and visual motor skills, she says. “Preschools that are pretending to get kids into Ivy League colleges are a lot of hype,” Blazer adds. “There’s an overemphasis on this to the extreme of mania.”

“Play equals learning,” agrees Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a Temple University psychologist and the author of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. Hirsh-Pasek has written that the “pressure to boost children’s brainpower is harmful because it threatens to erode aspects of childhood that are crucial to social, emotional and cognitive development.”

Blazer does approve of the Montessori method, designed in the early 19th century by Italian educator Maria Montessori, who advocated for children to be themselves in a safe, comfortable learning environment that involved all the senses. It’s a bit granola, actually: Everything is child-size, including mirrors and art hung a foot high in the classrooms. The emphasis is on the individual, and learning is done at a pace determined by each student. There are no rows of desks, just informal tables, even into the sixth grade (the highest taught at Gladwyne Montessori). Math is introduced through sorting games and with sets of colored beads; simple everyday tasks like pouring beans from a pitcher into a cup prepare the children for writing, as do cut-out letters and numerals in bright-colored sand paper, so students can feel as well as see what they are learning.

“This is a real school,” says Beth Dahle, who is incredibly passionate about GM and serves on its board. Dahle likes the fact that the teachers call what even the littlest children are doing “work,” and says her two daughters love the school and its ­independent-minded curriculum. “It’s always involving the kids,” Dahle says of the school’s charity work, part of the Montessori vision. “You can’t be a parent at this school and not want to be involved, all the way from being a classroom parent to the PTA to the board.”

In a hushed Gladwyne Montessori classroom that commingles three-, four- and five-year-olds, children are lying on the floor putting together a wooden map of the world. “This is Honduras,” an assistant teacher says patiently, in a whisper. The room is flanked with neat baskets of beads, letters and maps, ordered by level of difficulty, that children can plow through at their own pace.

But all this perfect simplicity costs money, of course, so in addition to its hefty tuition, Gladwyne Montessori holds an annual cocktail and dinner gala at which hundreds of thousands of dollars are raised at a silent auction — emceed by parent Michael Smerconish — featuring items like a week in Vail. “You can’t believe this auction!” says one former mom, who describes parents outbidding each other in a stylish frenzy. Socialite and designer Christina Funston and cooking show host Hope Cohen get involved with school projects such as the ­community-service casserole baking, as does star real estate salesperson Lavinia Smerconish. Usha Balamore knows how to play this game — while she’s focused on the kids, she has to pay attention to the parents, too, as well as the finances and social standing of the school.

Downstairs in the two-year-olds’ classroom, everything looks normal, with the red-checked curtains and little vases of daisies on the adorable foot-high tables. But then you notice something very strange, something that is true of the entire school but takes some time to recognize: There’s no noise.

“Miles can throw away his paper towel,” says a teacher calmly, in a low, soothing voice. Miles, who’s in a polo shirt and has dark curls, actually does so. “Beautiful,” says the teacher. “Can you bring your work to the table?” “I’m painting a spider,” says Miles;  his friend Max is quietly matching pairs of objects like thumb-size green bicycles and moons and stars at the same little table.

“Augustus, you can go to the bathroom,” says another teacher calmly; the child docilely complies and heads into the little loo.

These are the children of the most powerful lawyers and venture capitalists in Philly, whispering politely at age two while learning how to sustain God’s green earth and being taught that peace is the most important commodity? Thirty years from now, where will the litigators and corporate boondogglers come from? Will the richest people in Philly turn out a whole generation of considerate pacifists? Will these children explode with repressed rage in their 40s in a frenzy of divorce and indictments?

Suddenly there’s a scream: “Apple juice!” yells a boy at the other end of the room. Everyone perks up at this miniature rebellion. Perhaps there is a future lawyer in the classroom after all.