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Manhattan's Elite Dalton School Drops Preschool Program

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One of New York City's most elite independent schools, hoping to break the "annual cycle of rejection" for scores of anxious parents, is shutting down its 70-year-old nursery-school program.

While other schools are making room for toddlers, the Dalton School's board of trustees voted this month to phase out the nursery program over the next two years and focus its resources on its K-12 students.

The program, which serves 70 3- and 4-year olds, has been a part of the school, located on Manhattan's Upper East Side, since its founding in 1919.

But as the demand for preschool education increased and the school's reputation flourished, officials faced the unenviable task of having to turn down large numbers of applicants. The school had 200 applicants for 34 slots for 3-year-olds this year.

"The numbers are such that we cannot offer places" to 50 percent of the children who have siblings in the school and 95 percent of the applicants who do not, said Gardner P. Dunnan, the school's headmaster.

"That process is so painful to the children, their parents, and the school that we have decided we really should not continue."

While a larger share of children are admitted upon reapplication in later years, Mr. Gardner said, "in the process, we are putting everyone through agony." Rejected parents, he added, "suspect that we have seen some flaw in their heretofore perfect child."

"It was a thankless task," said Evelyn G. Lipper, a board member.

'45-Minute' Decisions

Officials also cited the difficulty of assessing the academic potential of a 2- or 3-year-old.

Admission decisions for children entering the nursery-school program had been based on 45-minute interviews in which groups of children were observed as they played, spoke, and manipulated materials.

"Looking at 45 minutes out of a child's life at that age, in a very artificial setting, is very difficult," said Christine McDermott, admissions director for 3-year-olds to 3rd graders.

For kindergarten applicants, she noted, there is "more to go on," including a child's preschool experience and standardized-test data.

"For the few cases where we have to say no," Mr. Dunnan said, "the people we disappoint will not be as hurt or as angry or as uncomprehending as when you are talking about a two-and-a-half-year-old."

Trustees also cited a desire to "refocus the school's mission on the older grades, beginning in kindergarten, where they feel they do very excellent work," said Anne Rosenfeld, a school spokesman.

Mr. Dunnan added that the move would allow the school to make better use of a new building it purchased last summer. Officials plan to shift 4th graders now housed with older students into the same building with K-3 students, he said, and cutting out the nursery classrooms will allow them to offer "mixed age groupings on every floor."

'Kidding Themselves'

But Lucinda Franks, parent of a 5-year-old Dalton student, said the ''fresh, creative, nurturing atmosphere" of the K-3 program could be lost without the nursery program.

Ms. Franks, who led a petition drive and gathered 200 signatures of parents opposing the move, said the nursery program was an "essential part" of a philosophy of the child as "less of a superkid achiever and more of a well-rounded individual."

"If they think basing their admissions decision on an intelligence test of a 5-year-old is going to give them any better information," she added, "I think they're kidding themselves."

And while officials noted that parents can choose from among about 100 other prekindergarten programs in the city, Ms. Franks said Dalton's move would "further the glut" of contenders. Because there are many more applicants than openings, she said, parents are "told to apply to at least five."

She also noted that Dalton was one of the few co-educational schools in the city to serve 3- to 18-year-olds.

'Counter To a Trend'

While competition for preschool slots exists in other parts of the country, the phenomenon may be more pronounced in New York City because so many parents "are concerned about getting their children into a 'good' nursery school so they can proceed into a 'good' elementary school, secondary school, and college," Ms. Rosenfeld said.

Heidi A. Rowe, director of admissions services for the National Association of Independent Schools, also cited a trend toward independent schooling in New York City. "A lot of people think of it as a mandatory part of city living."

But experts say so far they have seen no indication that other independent schools will pull out of the preschool business.

Ms. Rowe noted, for example, that a survey of n.a.i.s. members revealed a 44 percent increase in preschool programs since 1981.

"This is really going counter to a trend nationally," said Frank Carnabuci, Dalton's public-information director. "We believe it is an important step in reducing the kinds of anxiety we've seen about nursery-school admissions."

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