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Magical Thinking, or How to Apply to Kindergarten in New York City

magicring.jpgLet’s imagine a company that wants to launch a new product. They get the factories working to make this new product, figure out a name for the product, spend a lot of money to test the product, and tell all their clients when they can expect this new product to hit the stores.  At some point in this process, however, someone points out that there isn’t enough shelf space in the stores – or even enough stores, for that matter – to handle the amount of new product that is rolling off the assembly lines. So the CEO of this company says “oh don’t worry about it. Once the product arrives at the stores, we’ll figure out where to put everything. Go ahead and ship the product …  maybe we can just squeeze more boxes onto the shelf.”

Can you imagine a business that operates in this fashion? (Okay, no fair pointing figures at the Big Three auto makers. The CEOs for those companies have apparently been living in Skinner Boxes in Grosse Pointe for decades and thus are not responsible for their epically idiotic decision making. Hummers, anyone?) 

But there IS an organization that does function according to the decision-making process I’ve just described. An organization that holds in its bureaucratic palm the fate of thousands of four-year olds, one of whom is my son. Yes, folks, I give you: the NYC Department of Education.

During the boom years, when glass-box condo buildings sprouted on every other block, young couples with steroidal bank accounts moved to the city and started families. Then the economy tanked, the bank accounts deflated, and these same couples – now with kindergarten-aged children – struggled to make their mortgages. Suddenly, forty grand in tuition at a private school looked like a lot of money, they couldn’t unload the condo in this market, and so wham! Kindergartens in “good schools” are wildly over-subscribed: wait lists of thirty, forty, a hundred kids aren’t uncommon.

While these glass boxes were sprouting up all over town, you see, no one in the Mayor’s office seemed to think building new schools or refurbishing old schools mattered; I guess they thought that everyone would go to private school, or would move to the suburbs when kids hit school age, or that in some kind of loaves-and-fishes fashion, a kindergarten room designed for 20 squirmy four-year-olds would somehow hold…25? 30? In therapy-speak, we call this “magical thinking”: assuming that one can bring about a set of circumstances simply by imagining it or wishing for it. Magical thinking is common in pre-school children, schizophrenics, and your garden-variety neurotic.

Magical thinking, as a policy-setting mechanism, however, pretty much sucks. Which brings us to this spring, and to the comedy of errors called “kindergarten registration.” (Comedy, that is, if your child is safely enrolled where you want her to be – not so funny if your four-year old is languishing on a waitlist somewhere).

The DOE rolled out a streamlined process this spring that was going to make it easier for families to find the right kindergarten for their child, and give schools more control over the process. Sounds good, right?

Unfortunately, like my imaginary company, the DOE didn’t notice the lack of “shelf space” for their new product: there are hundreds, maybe thousands, more kindergarten-aged children in the city than there are spots in kindergartens. It’s like some pint-sized version of “Survivor” is taking place – or a high-stakes game of musical chairs.

The DOE seems completely stunned by this turn of events – and utterly unprepared to handle the problems.

One wonders, in fact, if the hapless Brownie, jobless since the Katrina disaster, isn’t working at the DOE. Because despite the DOE’s relentless drumbeat of “accountability” – for teachers, principals, and school staff – the DOE seems not to hold itself accountable to anyone or anything.

For one thing, these kindergarten waitlists, which get longer every day, are organized randomly; the lists don’t form on a first-come, first-served basis. But as all New Yorkers know, the cardinal rule of “the line” is first-come, first-served: you get in line first, you get the best seat or first pair of sample-sale Manolos or still-warm Claude’s croissant. A random waitlist? It’s as if getting into kindergarten has suddenly become a velvet-rope nightclub: you, in the cool faux-vintage rock t-shirt, you’re in; you with the pacifier, you’re out.

Another example: the DOE website said that scores for the “gifted and talented” test would be mailed out mid-April, and then, in mid-April, changed the deadline to April 30. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could tell the IRS “hey, you know? Just not ready with all the paperwork, so how ’bout I send that return to you sometime mid-May?”
 
And then, finally, there is the DOE’s solution to the waitlists and to the very real possibility that many children may not have a seat anywhere, come the start of the new school year. A waitlist letter sent to families at PS3 and PS41 says that all students will have a seat by September 17.

No, that’s not a typo. All students will have a seat in a kindergarten no later than two weeks after school has started.  And this from the letter meant to be helpful. God forbid they decide to send out the unhelpful letter.

Now do you see that the imaginary company I described at the beginning of this post isn’t so very far-fetched?  In fact, perhaps we should call that company the Factory of Magical Thinking and Joel Klein could be the CEO. After all, one of the great things about magical thinking is that you aren’t ever responsible for things not working out: the fault always rests in circumstances beyond your control (budgets, the economy, bad teachers, bureaucracies, unions, Albany).

In order to sleep at night, however, I’m going to force myself to patronize that factory of magical thinking. Instead of imagining Caleb wedged into a class of twenty-six kindergarteners taught by a harried and inexperienced teacher at some school miles from our apartment, I will imagine him trotting off with his older brother to the lovely neighborhood school that’s just six blocks from home.

If only it were that easy.

Thumbnail image for magic_wand.jpg 

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