She’s Warm, Easy to Talk to, and a Source of Terror for Private-School Parents

Jenny Anderson
Elisabeth Krents loves eating hot fudge sundaes, reading Wilkie Collins novels and trying, often unsuccessfully, to grow tomatoes. Yet in certain living rooms, in coffee shops and on Web sites, Ms. Krents, 61, incites the kind of fear and fascination usually reserved for a head of state or an over-covered celebrity.
“When sending thank you to Babby, address envelope to ‘Elisabeth Krents,’ correct? And leave off ‘PhD’?” one anxious parent asked on the online forum Urban Baby. “It’s like Santa Claus,” responded a more experienced anxious parent. “Just send it to the Babster, UES. She’ll get it.”
Ms. Krents, called Babby by intimates and hopeful applicants alike, is a singularly powerful New Yorker whose name inspires endless opinion — some informed, much unsubstantiated.
As admissions director since 1996 at the Dalton School on the Upper East Side, Ms. Krents decides each year which of the city’s supply of high-achieving 4-year-olds get the privilege of attending one of the nation’s best-regarded kindergartens, which costs $36,970 a year. Because many people believe admission to be a golden ticket leading to the Ivy League and a successful life beyond, and because of the increasingly bad math of private-school admissions in Manhattan, a kind of Babby Krents mythology has developed in certain precincts.
Admissions directors are a feared lot in a city where 10 children often apply for a single seat. Ms. Krents is, to some extent, the queen bee, if only because she has been doing it longer than most and is doing it at Dalton. The school is among the most selective in the city, in part because many parents believe it has perfected the balance between progressive education (learning matters) and results (graduates get into top colleges).
Power brokers fear her, well-heeled mothers seek advice on how to dress for her, wads of money are spent on preparing small children to impress her — and people, it seems, are unwilling to share their names along with their thoughts about her.
“I lived in fear of her because of all the rumors,” said one Dalton mother, speaking, like more than a dozen others interviewed, on the condition of anonymity out of concern that it could affect her children, one of whom has yet to face the admissions gantlet.

Conventional wisdom has it that not scoring a face-to-face meeting with Ms. Krents is tantamount to rejection. (Not true, she said in a recent interview; it is merely a matter of scheduling.)
Some posit that calling her “Elisabeth” in the parent or child interview will alienate her. (Nonsense, she said, though only her mother, now deceased, called her that.) Summer birthdays need not apply. (“No!” she said excitedly. “The school is filled with summer birthdays!”) Being rich helps. (“We look at the full pie, and that’s not part of the decision.”)
Ms. Krents turns out to be warm and easy to talk to; “she was perfectly lovely” is how the aforementioned fearful mother put it. She loves meeting people and hearing their stories, and she does not seem burned out from the drone of similar questions, anxieties and attempted bribes. (Recalling a vat of fudge offered by one parent, she said, “I had to turn that away with tears in my eyes.”)
She is famous for remembering details about every child. Another mother recalled Ms. Krents’s suggesting that her 5-year-old meet another boy with common interests; years later, they are best friends. “It’s weird,” the mother said. “She could see it.”
For her part, Ms. Krents said of applicants, “I feel it’s my role to hold their hand.” Her goal in interviewing parents, as she asks them to describe their precious little ones, is to see them settle back in their seats and relax their hunched shoulders. “That’s what I’m about,” she said. “I want to know as much as I can about their child.”
Perhaps it is her affability that feeds the “Babby” divide. Those who meet her like her. But most of their children will inevitably be rejected, so the warmth is often clouded, if not replaced, by feelings of resentment — hence the not-nice things that proliferate on the Web and in certain kaffeeklatsches.
“It’s upsetting,” Ms. Krents said. “People get very disappointed when they can’t have what they want.”
Ms. Krents and Ellen Stein, Dalton’s head of school, declined to disclose how many applications pour in each year, for fear of elevating the already-elevated anxiety.
In recent years, Ms. Krents, like many of her counterparts across the city, has been on a mission to diversify Dalton, which has only exacerbated the unfortunate odds and the attendant anxiety. Forty-seven percent of Dalton’s 97 kindergartners this year are members of minority groups, a fact that has upset some families in which a parent attended the school and perhaps donated to its endowment as a kind of down payment on that golden ticket.
“It’s creating resentment in the community,” said one alumna, who has refused to give any more money to the school until her child is accepted. “The whole point of a legacy is that it creates a sense of longevity and community.”
Victoria Goldman, an admissions consultant, put it this way: “Babby feels she’s doing right by the school, but families with siblings feel outraged.”
Ms. Krents, for her part, disputes the notion that legacies or siblings of current students have been disadvantaged by the push for diversity. “This is a misconception,” she said, adding that siblings make up a third to a half of each class, a portion that has not changed. “First and foremost, the spots go to siblings and alumni and faculty.”
The drive to diversify, Ms. Krents said, started as far back as she did, 15 years ago. She defines diversity broadly — “racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, socioeconomic, geographic, family background, family style, gender orientation, children with physical challenges, diversity of thought, co-ed” — and personally, having had a brother, Harold, who was blind and who became the inspiration for the Broadway play “Butterflies Are Free.”
“I saw families with a lack of understanding hurt him by not letting their children play with him,” she said of Harold, who died in 1987 of a brain tumor. “It’s instilled in you early on.”
Dalton is hardly alone in its push to look more like New York City: half of this year’s kindergarten students at Ethical Culture Fieldston’s lower school in the Bronx are members of minority groups, as are 65 percent of the school’s pre-K students. At Trinity School, on the Upper West Side, more than 40 percent of kindergartners are nonwhite.
But Felicia Washington, an African-American mother of two Dalton graduates whose name was provided by Ms. Krents, said hers was “the only school that talked about diversity up front.”
“They wanted children of color and other kids to have a more well-rounded education,” recalled Ms. Washington, who also sat on Dalton’s board.
Financial aid is increasing as well. Last year, Dalton granted a total of $6.5 million to about 20 percent of the student body, school officials said. That amounted to 16 percent of tuition dollars, up from 13 percent in 2005-6.
Ms. Krents herself is a Dalton legacy: she graduated in the class of 1968, though she went to Scarsdale public schools, in Westchester County, through 10th grade. Her children followed her to Dalton — in the classes of 1997 and 2000 — and she is currently trying to teach her months-old grandson the school song.
“He’s not doing well,” she said.
She studied English and fine arts at Harvard and earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. at Columbia, with a dissertation on humor development in children, including the hearing-impaired, that she defended the day she delivered her second daughter.
Ms. Krents went to work in Dalton’s development office in 1990. By the time she became admissions director, Ms. Stein was running the elementary school, and they became fast friends. Today the two women swap books, interrupt each other’s thoughts and frequently finish each other’s sentences.
Both women said they empathized with the anxiety that parents might feel in the admissions rush — which, for many, does not abate even after they have scored one golden ticket.
“I think I fear her more now than I did before,” another Dalton mother said. “She holds my kids in the palm of her hand.”
Indeed, as this reporter left her office, Ms. Krents’s parting words were, “Will we see you when your daughter turns 4?”