SCHOOL TALK: Anxiety vs. Optimism at Admissions Time

Apr. 01, 2013

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Bobby Knight, the former Indiana University basketball coach, was quoted as saying, “One of the worst things that I think I heard was, ‘It will be okay.’ I would wonder, ‘How the hell is it going to be okay?’”

After reading that story, I rethought my use of “okay,” which I use regularly, particularly when facing nervous parents handing in their children’s kin­dergarten applications. “It’ll be okay,” I’d say, downplaying the anxiety about overcrowding that hits parents this time of year. Bobby Knight would hate me.

I am the daughter of an optimist. My father’s parents never re­covered mentally or financially from losses stemming from the Great Depres­sion. As I was growing up, they seemed lethargic, bleak and fearful, compared to my charismatic, sunny and energetic dad. Being optimistic was his way of rebel­ling against a diminished life—and I wanted to be like him. This may explain why I have been accused of being “Pollyanna-ish” about the kindergarten admissions crunch Downtown.

I do not trivialize concerns about overcrowding in the neighborhood’s elementary schools. After all, I work in a school that was built specifically to address parents’ fears about overcrowding at P.S. 234. They began by knocking on the doors of the Gateway buildings in Battery Park City and asking if there were any children living in the apartments. It turns out there were.

The admissions process has changed dramatically in the 10 years that I have worked as a parent coordinator. We used to open the doors for registration in April, accepting all the zoned students, as well as siblings whose families had moved out of the zone. When we could, we even made exceptions to the rules by admitting children whose parents worked in the neighborhood.

Then things began to change. One year the number of our kindergarten classes went up to four. Then there were six, requiring some creativity to fit them all in the building. Consequently, parents became activists; Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver formed an overcrowding task force. New schools were built, and the DOE was paying close attention to how many five-year-olds were registering for seats. Kindergarten classes were capped at 25, and the “Kindergarten Intake Application Process” began.

Life has definitely become more stressful for families. In a recent New York Times piece, “Born to Wait,” Soni Sanghea described waiting lists for schools, summer camps, sports teams, even hospital delivery rooms. We’re not alone; school overcrowding is happening all over the city.

Anxiety is contagious. Did I feel it last month, watching yet another mother with three young children come into my office, holding a folder of documents and a crumpled yellow intake application? Absolutely. Did I scan the application for the birth date, hoping to find that the child was too young or too old for kindergarten? I confess that I did. Was I hoping that the address indicated that the child was zoned for another Downtown school? Yes, my fellow parent coordinators, I admit it, I did, particularly when she handed me a second crumpled yellow form—for twins.

But I did not express my worry to the exhausted-looking mother with a bawling baby fastened to her chest. When I told her she did not need to fill out applications to other schools, that if she ended up on the waiting list and was still on it in June, the DOE would as­sign her child to the nearest school with room, she nearly cried from relief. I hope she went home and took a nap.

Pre-registration is taking place this month for the lucky families who are “in.” Others will spend the spring anxiously awaiting that phone­ call with the message, “There’s been a cancellation.” I, along with parent coordinators from  other Downtown schools, will meet with angry and emotional parents to whom I will express my heartfelt sympathy. I have kids and know what it’s like to need to make an adjustment when Plan A doesn’t work. But I also know that Plan B can turn out to be a fine alternative.

The politics of overcrowding are one thing; helping families is another. My job is not to talk statistics or projections, but to encourage parents to believe that they are capable of handling disappointment. Resilient parents raise resilient children, who will face the future realistically—with optimism, grit and a sense of humor. Very much like my dad.

Hope is in my DNA, but I will make an effort to stop saying that everything is going to be okay. Even though it probably will be.

Connie Schraft (connie@tribe­catrib.­com) is the P.S. 89 parent coordinator.