Among some New York parent circles, it's considered normal to spend $6,000 on a consultant to help toddlers get into private school.
The spending is spreading to public schools on the Upper West Side, where parents jostling for the seats in a few "it" schools are increasingly willing to drop hundreds or even thousands of dollars to get an advantage.
Maggie Ganias said she used to scoff at frantic pregnant New York City women applying to competitive private nursery schools before reaching their sixth month. She decided she would be sending her child to public school so she wouldn't have to go through all that. When her son, Alexander, turned 4, she realized her mistake.
"I had always laughed at that cliché of parents in New York. But here I was just a public school mom and all these choices were in front of me," she said. "It's overwhelming."
Faced with a staggering array of decisions and deadlines as her son prepared for his first day of kindergarten a year away, she did what a growing number of parents are doing each year: She turned to Robin Aronow.
Ms. Aronow is an elementary school admissions consultant who has created a niche by charging parents to help them apply for choice public schools. She is based on the Upper West Side, where public elementary school admissions are arguably the most competitive and complicated in the city. Autumn is Ms. Aronow's peak season: Applications become available, and school tours and testing begin.
Department of Education representatives are also stepping up their rounds to schools and parent meetings to disseminate information about admissions. After hour-long sessions, some of the representatives pass out their e-mail addresses and phone numbers to auditoriums full of parents eager to have lists of questions answered.
But for many parents — more than 200 this year — nothing compares to the individual attention they get from Ms. Aronow.
"I couldn't have done this without her," a mother of a 4-year-old, Brett Hill, who lives on the Upper West Side, said. "Friends call me crying, saying, ‘I don't know what to do.' They go to Robin's seminar and they come back better and calmer."
Ms. Aronow is a clinical social worker by training, with many years of experience as a therapist. She started the consulting business eight years ago, just after she had successfully navigated her way through the kindergarten admissions process for her first two children and her third child was in nursery school. Other parents were calling her constantly for advice about how to get their own children into their preferred schools.
"I was spending hours on the telephone," Ms. Aronow said. "One of the parents said, ‘You should get paid for this,' and I said, ‘What a novel idea.'"
She set up a panel discussion titled "Life After Nursery School," where she brought in parents of children enrolled in various schools to impart their knowledge. She began charging for phone calls. She met with nursery school directors, toured dozens of schools, and made friends with people in the Department of Education.
Parents began mingling with her therapy patients in the waiting room of her 12th floor office on Riverside Drive.
Later, she set up an e-mail service. She sorts through the deadlines, documents, and regulations put out by schools and the Department of Education, and consolidates them into daily letters that she sends out to dozens of parents and nursery school directors through e-mails they are not allowed to forward to others.
"There's no way I could have kept up with it. It's so crazily insane," the director of Columbus Park West Nursery, Emily Shapiro, said. "It is a full time job and I can't do it."
Ms. Aronow charges $50 a season to join the e-mail listserv, nearly $200 an hour for phone calls, or $2,000 for an annual all-inclusive package. She says she charges less than some of her competitors, who focus more on private schools. This year, she is also doing a pro-bono presentation at a nonprofit center for immigrants.
"Whatever it was, it was worth it," Ms. Hill said of the costs of Ms. Aronow's services. "It alleviated so much stress."
She said Ms. Aronow once spent an hour on the phone with her husband after 11 p.m., giving him advice the day before they had to make a big decision about where to send their son to school. Ms. Hill and her husband ended up keeping their son in his private nursery school to attend kindergarten, because the public school they wanted didn't accept him. The Hills are using Ms. Aronow again this year.
Her roster of clients changes every year, but she doesn't put much effort into advertising — word of mouth is enough. For the first time this year, the job is full-time. Major changes in public school admissions that have especially affected Upper West Side schools are part of the reason for the growth. A new lottery system has been introduced to fill seats in some schools, and this year is the first for a new citywide testing system for gifted and talented kindergarten programs. Many parents are confused about how the changes affect them, and worried admission could be even more competitive than in the past.
"I never promise I can get their children in," Ms. Aronow said. Instead, she says, one of her main roles is "to make the process less anxiety-producing."
Correction from November 2, 2006:
Public schools are what Robin Aronow helps parents get their toddlers admitted to. A photo cutline on page 3 of the October 31 Sun incorrectly identified her area of expertise.