Credit: Illustrations by Tom Deja

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Washington parents don’t fool around where education is concerned, even for children barely out of diapers. If success equals the sum of potential plus schooling, well, at least schooling can be bought.

In a region among the wealthiest in the country, schools are fighting—with class and dignity, of course—for their slice of the paycheck. For parents willing to shell out, classroom choices depend only on their plans for Junior. And their ability to get him in.

If it’s a concert flutist you hope to develop, the Levine School of Music­—for $29.59 an hour—will introduce your 4-year-old to orchestral splendor. Prefer a tennis champ? A week of morning practices at TennisStar’s PeeWee summer program at Bethesda Sport and Health sells for $250.

Regardless of what brand of genius you’re raising, pre-K is a decisive first rung on the education ladder. Several schools approach $20,000 a year. A few go higher.

For parents aiming at the tiptop of the elite, there is Sidwell Friends, a Quaker school where pre-K costs $6,000 more than a year at the University of Maryland. Based at the school’s Bethesda campus, the program feeds into Sidwell Friends’ lower and upper schools, whose alumni include Bill Nye the Science Guy, Gore Vidal, Chelsea Clinton, and Root Boy Slim.

But money, to the mortification of would-be Sidwell parents, won’t automatically buy a spot at the most expensive place in town. Their kids must be tested at Sidwell and by an outside agency ($300 to $400). Parents also interview and submit a written application ($60). Some parents pay educational consultants several thousands of dollars to guide them through the application process and to use their presumed pull at the school.

Parents have also been known to post questions on the D.C. Urban Moms and Dads Listserv, asking advice about how to dress their children, and themselves, for the interview. Prevailing wisdom says preppy is best. For moms, don’t drip with diamonds, don’t dress too flashy, and don’t put on airs like you expect to be accepted.

Preparation aside, the sad fact remains that even with a consultant’s help, even with toning down the bling, many parents gunning for Sidwell will fail. Sound ridiculous? Richard Lodish, head of the Sidwell lower school, believes the pre-K program is worth the stress and the price tag. But even he admits the admission process borders on the absurd. “It’s very strange looking at kids who are a thousand days old and making judgments,” he says.

Benefits of the Pre-K Program at Sidwell Friends

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(Illustration by Tom Deja)

At Our Lady of Victory School in Northwest, preschool is a mix of outside play and classroom fun. The cost per year is around $8,000 for nonparishioners. For the extra cash at Sidwell, don’t expect your little genius to learn how to speak Chinese or crank out logarithms. From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (an hour shorter on Tuesdays), class revolves around the same rotation of games, storytelling, and finger-painting sessions that other good pre-K programs do.

(Illustration by Tom Deja)

A standard rectangle of pre-K pizza at non-Sidwell locales consists of precooked dough topped with processed cheese and chunks of ground mystery meat. Sidwell employs a school chef. A recent day’s menu included tortellini pomodoro, Provençal organic spinach salad, roasted spaghetti squash, and Italian ice. Not to your kid’s liking? The next day he could get marinated local cucumbers, grilled “all natural” burgers, and roasted organic fries. And for dessert? Local apple-cranberry compote. Vegetables grown in the student garden may also make it to the organic menu, depending on the harvest.

(Illustration by Tom Deja)

A child dropped off by a Euro-nanny in a Mercedes-Benz might be excused for learning early that it’s money that matters. But Sidwell promises to swipe away marks of the privileged life. When the Benz pulls away, it’s Quaker-values time, which means nurturing one another’s gifts, working toward peace, and serving the public. Few kids forget to donate vegetables on Wednesdays for the 50-pound pot of soup the school gives to the District’s Martha’s Table mission. When local apples turn ripe, students make apple crisp for Bethesda Cares.

(Illustration by Tom Deja)

Despite the price tag, the digs at Sidwell aren’t meant to impress. “It’s not opulent in any way,” says Georgia Irvin, a leading private education consultant. “They go for purposefulness. That’s the Quaker way.” Minimalist values make for a fine and cheap marketing scheme. For humble kids, who needs fancy landscaping and an interior decorator?

(Illustration by Tom Deja)

Once a child is accepted to Sidwell, the family is in the club for good. There are 22 open slots for pre-K, half for each sex. Landing one can seem impossible, but it’s much easier than trying to get in at a later grade. Start at pre-K with Sidwell, and 14 years later, your child could be off to Harvard, Yale, or Stanford. If you can’t secure a spot, there’s always Dartmouth.