Washington Market Preschool

Washington Market School is the most polarizing preschool downtown. Some love it. Some hate it. And some probably love it and hate it at the same time. It's the only preschool in Lower Manhattan with a buzz. Search on urbanbaby and you will find parents posting controversy, sniping, praise, questions and confusion. One of the things that sets this school apart is its place in the "preschool as stepping stone for getting your kid into private elementary school" sport. It's not really clear that the school will make your chances of getting into a private school better, but it's the only one in Lower Manhattan that plays the game.

What you will get is attention and guidance in the process. The school hosts an admissions night where parents whose children went to Washington Market and now are at private or selective public schools come back and talk to preschool parents about their experiences, whether the school has lived up to their expectations and been a good fit for their kids. In addition to this, the school will give some guidance and direction in your application process. How significant this help is is subjective. Some people believe a preschool director can get your child into a particular school. And some people feel that Washington Market's Director, Ronnie, bestows favor to a select clique of parents and makes life difficult for others.

In the end, the whole thing is very mysterious. No one will ever know why a child does or does not get into a particular school. Having some help is nice, but can also be gotten from other sources such as consultants, books and friends. I think the whole thing is overblown, but then again I'm not worried about that particular issue. For those who are, having a little hand holding can be very comforting and perhaps that is enough.

Another polarizing issue is the Director herself. Some love her, some hate her. One parent says, "Ronnie can not always be pleasant and plays favorites." I found her to talk a very good game. She was obviously well-educated in early childhood education, with 30 years of experience under her belt, and her description of the school program was very impressive. She heaped praise on her staff, their dedication and training. She described their weekly meetings, the passion they bring to their work, and how they learn from each other. She also spoke of the way that they attend to each student, assessing how each child is doing and sometimes tailoring a lesson to engage a particular student in a way that they see he needs. This is the kind of environment that makes the best private schools worth their tuition.

But, I could also sense the undercurrent of politics in her tone. She is not a laid-back person and she was very careful with what she said and how she said it. For those who believe the preschool director is what gets you into private school (and care), I can understand that Ronnie's quirks could make them nervous. But if you look at preschool as a cherished and important part of a child's life, the most important thing is the teachers. And this is where the love comes in. Both from my observation and all the parents I have heard from, the teachers at Washington Market are phenomenal. They are engaged, sensitive, and well-trained.

The school practices a modified Montessori program letting kids guide their learning, teaching them responsibility and respecting their work. The classrooms are structured with the different Montessori activities: sensory, science, art, language, etc. Students can choose any activity they like, but they are expected to take one thing out at a time and put it away before they move on to the next thing.

Another thing to love is the facilities. The facilities of Washington Market are leaps and bounds above any school in Lower Manhattan and probably many in much of the city. The space is large, lofty, and sunny. The furniture and toys are all new, clean and bright. There is a very large gym in the basement with equipment and toys. A separate music and dance room. A drama space. Some feel the school is very noisy and I have to admit in some classrooms it was really loud and sometimes I couldn't hear what a teacher was saying, but in other rooms it was fine.

The school is actually housed in two separate buildings, two blocks apart. There is a toddler school on Duane Street for 18 months to 3 years. At 3.5, if they are toilet trained, they can go to the Hudson Street school. Although there seems to be some hierarchy and preference for the Hudson Street location, I found both schools to be pretty much equal. The Duane Street location has a smaller gym and music room, but did seem a little more intimate and the director is very warm.

Ronnie definitely sells Washington Market as a community school and makes it sound like one nice, little happy family. I have heard some parents say they like the school because community is important to them. To me it feels very big, separated and a little too political/fancy to give off the warmth that I associate with a community school, but then again, perhaps it is because of the kind of community that Tribeca has become. The families in the school are said to be mostly banking types and much less artsy types. Fundraising is a big push. Street fairs have been replaced with fancy auctions. And the handbags left casually open in the lobby could pay for tuition for a kid for a year. As one mom was quoted in New York Magazine's preschool run-down, "I don't feel like I have to dress up to pick up our kids up [from preschool]." That pretty much seems to sum up the social situation at Washington Market--a school for people that would contemplate dressing up for such a thing, but appreciate that they don't have to.

Getting in to Washington Market is just as mysterious as getting out. While on the outside the admissions process seems straight-forward enough (call several times in October until you are able to schedule a tour, fill out the simple one-page application, and wait), because of the buzz of the school the admissions process is fraught with anxiety. The school does not interview kids, but they don't do first-come first-served like Park or Downtown Little, leading to all kinds of speculation as to how they choose. Of course, everyone thinks that Ronnie looks for a certain type of parent, but what that type of parent is, of course, is anyone's guess. Some feel she looks for certain professions or stay at home moms or working moms, but more likely it may come down to simply who she likes at the tours. And of course what slot you ask for.

The Duane Street school offers half days 2-3 days a week. At the Hudson street location all classes are 5 days a week and you can do half days, full days (9-3) or extended day (9-6). One thing I didn't like, though is that the full day classroom is the one internal room - no windows and horrible florescent lighting. I got the sense that somehow these were second class citizens.

Overall, Washington Market is a great school, if you don't mind dealing with the nonsense.