L.A. Parents Now Prepping Toddlers for Entrance Tests

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In the increasingly cutthroat battle for admissions to Los Angeles' top elementary schools, it’s never too early (or too expensive) to give your kid an edge

SAT prep has long been an accepted practice for kids (and parents) looking for an admissions edge. But the newest trend in afterschool help is skewing a bit younger: 3-year-olds. Hollywood children — many of whom are attending very progressive preschools — are being trained for kindergarten entrance exams, pushed by parents who are concerned about placement in the more traditional and highly competitive elementary programs. “It’s becoming more common across the whole city,” says the Whitney Guide author Fiona Whitney, who started a manners course that aims to give young children the skills they need to start learning in kindergarten.

Janis Adams, founder of Academic Achievers, says 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act served as a catalyst for many schools raising kindergarten entrance requirements. “That was when they started to change the courses to keep up with international curriculum; it went from having milk and cookies to writing their name, and the kids were frustrated.” Academic Achievers began offering a “highly academic, but play-based” Kinder-Prep program about seven years ago ($120-$150/hour for one-on-one sessions). “They aren’t chained to their desks, but they are learning to read and write, learning numbers,” says Adams, who works with many industry families. (The center is located in the same Santa Monica building as the Hulu and HBO offices, and many employees are clients.)

Whitney says there are great reasons to get early tutoring, given “kids are sponges at age 3 and 4,” and one study posits that 90 percent of a child’s brain develops during the first five years, but cautions such programs aren’t always necessary. “There are many schools that don’t expect the kid to come in reading,” she says. “The most important thing a school wants to see is that the kid wants to learn.” Psychologist Fay Van Der Kar-Levinson agrees that schools are foremost looking at a child’s capacity to understand, and tutoring may even hurt a child’s chances of getting in: “I had one admissions director tell me there was a child that came in and performed beautifully, counted to 100! Then the little boy talked about having been prepped for kindergarten admissions, and that child wasn’t admitted for that reason.”

According to Levinson, over-preparation risks concealing a child’s desire to engage and think outside the box. “You risk masking the spark,” she says. A student may also end up in a school that is not a good fit. “You have a kid who has been prepped for John Thomas Dye or Brentwood that would be happier with a different kind of experience.” Adds Whitney, “Not every kid is the same, not every family is the same, so let’s stop trying to pigeonhole families into these same top seven schools.” But there is no sign of this trend slowing down, at least according to Levinson: “One parent hears about another who did it, and it’s fear of missing out — your kid has got to go.”