Between Garden Tours, Funds Go To Work
Private School Admissions Can Be Testing for All
Alison Schafer • August 15, 2013
You can see them huddled together near the basketball court at Rose Park. Catch a snatch of a conversation between two moms on N Street. Watch them fret over iced tea and poke at salads at Patisserie Poupon. Parents. Fretting.
It is private school admission season, and tensions are running high.
“It is a tragi-comedy,” mutters one mother, whose son is in kindergarten at Georgetown Day. It certainly generates a lot of anxiety, and a great deal of discussion among a certain set. It is also time-consuming. All those school tours. All those parent coffees, Q and A’s, and child visits. A lot of bother for the privilege of paying $25,000 a year for something you can also get for free.
“It is a long process,” says another mother. “You go look at the school, at yet another posh art room, then you apply and write essays about your kid’s strengths—painful—and then, worst of all, you take the kid in and the school decides she ‘has trouble with transitions’ and they don’t let you in!”
Then, there are the standardized tests for four-year-olds with questions like “Can you name a vegetable?” Then there are SSATs for the bigger ones. “Boat is to ship as log is to…” The tests mean more appointments, more fees, more stress, and more time spent away from schoolwork, running around outside, or sanity.
Parents complain the process can make you crazy. All the rumors and “helpful” tips have a famous parent. Okay, then, know any famous people? Hillary Clinton wrote for one kid. He got into Sidwell. Or do you have a lot of patience and a lot of dough for myriad $50 admissions fees? Another family applied to 13 private schools—13! That girl got into Washington International School. Got private-plane kind of money? One school is rumored to have let in both its richest and the dumbest class during the first year of a massive capital campaign. “All the rooms in this building,” the mother of an 8th grade boys says, “are named after the families in our class.”
Annie Farquhar has been the director of admissions at Maret for 24 years. She says applications come in at a healthy clip, despite the economic downturn, and she recommends a relaxed attitude toward the whole process. That’s probably because she is in the enviable position of gatekeeper, when demand for spots is high and supply is low.
“If parents are nervous about applying,” she says, “their child will pick up on it, so try to relax and enjoy this discovery process as much as possible.”
Of course, the best way to approach it all is with a big worldview. How much does it really matter? Perhaps less than it seems on that March day when the letters fall through the mail slot? Perhaps admissions directors know what they’re doing when they don’t let little Tommy in because he cannot sit still? Maybe he would not thrive at school X, despite what his parents want?
Megan Gabriel is the mother of three kids—one in college, one at St Albans and another at NCS. She says perhaps private school parents ought to “jump ship, save our money and put the time, effort and thousands of dollars into public schools. After all, as far as colleges are concerned, an A is an A, no matter where it comes from.”
‘God Is in the Details’ for a Georgetown Mystery Novel
Alison Schafer • June 20, 2013
It drove me crazy when I watched the finale of the first season of “Homeland” and the street sign in “Foggy Bottom” read “Obey State Speed Limits.” I mean, c’mon! I couldn’t watch the thing after that—as Mies van der Rohe says, God is in the details, even if he ain’t in Hollywood.
Here’s one that will get it right, though. One of my Georgetown neighbors and friends, Mary Louise Kelly, has written a mystery, “Anonymous Sources,” partly set in a not-so-anonymous locale. One of the key scenes is a murder on Dumbarton Street, which the novel’s heroine, Alexandra James, describes as “full of well-kept gardens, gas lanterns, and historical plaques. Through the windows I caught glimpses of antiques and trays of polished silver.”
The heroine is clearly not looking in my window, where she’d see piles of mail and footballs, but the reason the details ring true is that the author is a longtime Georgetowner who used to live on Dumbarton.
“Anonymous Sources,” which is published by Simon and Schuster, comes out June 18, and is peppered with references that Georgetowners will recognize, ranging from a sheath dress at J. Crew on M Street to lush descriptions of the shiny cars lining the streets.
While she was writing the book, Kelly hung out at Saxbys, on her way to write at Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library. She hit Patisserie Poupon to reward herself with a chocolate chip cookie each time she finished a chapter. And as a former national security reporter for National Public Radio, she knows how to get the details right.
While “Anonymous Sources” begins at Harvard Square, the story shifts to Cambridge, England, and then to London. The second half of the book is set in Washington. The reporter, Alexandra James, rushes from interviews at the White House to off-the-record trysts at CIA headquarters.
“Those were some of the most fun scenes to write,” says Kelly, “because I know first-hand how those conversations unfold, since I covered the spy beat at NPR.” Kelly says several former sources agreed to read her manuscript and offered tips and corrections. And even though, Kelly says, those old sources were notoriously tough to pin down when she was working as a reporter, a few even gave her blurbs for the book, which was far more convenient than trying to pin them down for a sound bite on the daily news. [gallery ids="102441,121369" nav="thumbs"]
Tudor Place, Georgetown’s Washington Family Connection
Alison Schafer • December 6, 2012
It is the nooks and crannies. The sleuthing, the surprise at the bottom of a box, learning about the hands that touched the bowl, dusted the lamp, paid the bill. The ghosts at Tudor Place have plenty of stories to tell. Like every beloved old house, Tudor Place still retains the imprint of its people, the family who built it and lived in it for six generations.
At Tudor Place, the past is not only present, it vibrates. In the bottom of an old box, Tudor Place staff found, under layers of old papers, a big piece of wallpaper. The piece is, according to Tudor Place’s executive director Leslie Buhler, probably one of the largest samples of late 18th-century wallpaper in existence. It is finds like this that make an old house come alive — the tastes and foibles of the very real people who once inhabited it. “Because the house is so intimate,” Buhler says, “people really connect with it.”
But even in a town where only the very latest polling data is news, people still care about what came before the rattle of the Metro bus and the latest scandal. Leslie Buhler looks out her window at the Tudor Place gardens below. “We did a paint analysis of the front door, and it turns out it was verdigris. The house itself was a golden color. I think about riding on a horse down here from R Street . . . it would’ve really made a wow!”
It still makes a wow. Think of seeing it through the eyes of a first grader who’s never before left her neighborhood. The house’s size, the tall old trees, the history; the place is fantastic. One of Tudor Place’s most successful programs brings about 3,000 school kids a year from all over Washington to visit. They can try on colonial costumes and learn about the past. Some classes do performances and recitals out on its South Lawn at Q and 31st Streets.
Education is one of Tudor Place’s most important tasks, Buhler says. To bring people in, the old house offers everything from Girl Scout programs to birthday parties to lectures and crafts classes for adults. Once people come inside the front gate, the sense of another era is inescapable. And, as Buhler says, “because we’re in the nation’s capital, many people here and who visit are interested in history.”
Preservation, of the house and its grounds, of the objects and artifacts, is Tudor Place’s other major goal. There are more than 15,000 objects in Tudor Place’s collection, and all of them tell a story. Two years ago, Tudor Place threw a party to welcome home an old friend: a chest-on-chest that George Washington kept in his bedroom. In 1816, it moved to Tudor Place, and, after some wanderings, in 2010 it came home again. After repair work, it now lives in the upstairs hallway. Preserving those old vases, spoons and books, and their histories, is expensive. Even the old trees need expert attention. Tudor Place spends between $25,000 and $30,000 each year maintaining its trees.
Even the ground underneath those trees is worthy of preservation. Tudor Place’s old outbuildings lie underground, waiting to be uncovered. The remains of a smokehouse are on the grounds, and the remnants of a dairy are just north of the property. Intriguingly enough, Tudor Place’s archeologists have found no trace of a freestanding kitchen building.
“The hardest challenge is grabbing peoples’ attention and helping them understand why Tudor Place is important, and why they should help fund it,” Buhler says. Tudor Place’s annual budget is more than one million dollars. Buhler says it ought to be about $1.5 million annually to run smoothly and provide enough for upkeep and conservation. But, like almost all art institutions these days, Tudor Place scrambles for every dollar.
The staff must also convince potential donors and even potential visitors that it is a worthy place for attention even if George Washington didn’t sleep there. He didn’t — the house was built in 1816 by Martha Washington’s granddaughter and her husband. But the lives they and their children led, the people they knew, the things they ate, are of great interest even if no president ever darkened the sheets.
Tudor Place, 1644 31st St., N.W. — 202-965-0400 — TudorPlace.org [gallery ids="100500,118118,118117" nav="thumbs"]
Alison Schafer • November 6, 2012
You might not see them right away, but you sure can hear them. The teacher bellows, “Supermans!” and a bunch of people a quarter of his size giggle and reach out their arms. “Now, Hulk,” he rumbles, flexing his biceps, as several smaller pairs of arms Hulk out on the blacktop. “Batmaaaaans!” he sings, his rapt audience following every move.
A half block from busy Wisconsin Avenue, where the buses blow exhaust and the cab drivers honk, Hyde-Addison Elementary School is a vibrant, integral part of Georgetown life. This D.C. public school is a place of non-stop action—with 15 classrooms, a library, a cafeteria and a science lab—even after school. “For starters,” says Kara Sullivan, whose son Curtis is in Kindergarten at Hyde, “the strong sense of community is strengthened by seeing classmates, teachers, parents, and Hyde t-shirts as we walk around Georgetown. Where my elementary school had school buses lines up to swiftly take kids away from school at 3:15, there’s a lingering open play date for all kids after Hyde gets out.”
The social curriculum, in the playground, is just as important as what goes inside the school’s walls. Hyde operates on a philosophy that positive interaction is crucial to learning and that learning itself is not simply academic learning. One of the school’s tenets reads, “There is a set of social skills that kids need to be successful: cooperation, assertion, responsibility empathy and self-control.” The school’s physical layout and its meetings and rules are designed to encourage positive interaction—between students and teachers, parents and administrators. And, though it is not explicitly stated, between the school and its environment.
Hyde might once have been a place that drove parents to move out of Georgetown and ignored by those who could afford to send their children elsewhere. Now, Hyde pulls families into Georgetown. The price is right, the commute to school a pleasant stroll, the parents and kids proud of the place. “Georgetown often feels like a small town tucked in a big city,” says Dana Nerenberg, Hyde’s principal. She adds that the school benefits greatly from the community, from volunteers to partnerships.
A local school makes the big city seem manageable and, perhaps, not so scary. “One of the benefits of a neighborhood school is having other kids to play with after school and on weekends,” says Leslie Maysak, who has two boys at Hyde and a block-long commute. “As well as, for me as a parent, knowing the other families personally and having a network of people that can count on each other to pick up your child in a pinch or keep an eye on them for a few minutes,”
Hyde’s presence makes Georgetown about more than just shopping and (lack of) parking. Bob Tompkins’s son, Jack, is in first grade. “To really be a community,” he says, “you have to cover all the aspects of life. It is great that among all the other things Georgetown has to offer, it is a great place to raise a family.”
Ten years ago, there was zero buzz about Hyde. For some parents, sending a kid there was a radical move; few of their neighbors in Georgetown did. Many of the kids who grew up near Hyde were driven, or took the bus, up and out Wisconsin Avenue to private school. Now, Hyde is a strong and growing part of the life of the neighborhood. Enrollments are up, and interest in the school is high. With the PTA’s help, the school has bought iPads and intends to incorporate them into next year’s curriculum. The school is looking to expand its library and build a gym.
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Rose Park Tennis
Alison Schafer • June 29, 2012
One quick glance as you walk by and you can see it. They are good. They are really, really good.
The regulars at the Rose Park tennis courts include lawyers, former members of Congress, diplomats, doctors, liberals and conservatives. They are young, or a little creaky, from all parts of Washington—and from all over the world. But they all bow to the altar of tennis. And many of them have been playing pick-up tennis together for decades.
“I’ve only been here three years, they barely talk to me!” says Drew Hodge, a banker and tennis player.
Hodge is sitting in the shade, on a plastic chair bought by the tennis players, watching a heated doubles match. Next to him sits Clarence Lyons, a 30-year regular here and the unofficial boss of Rose’s three courts. He tamps down disputes when they arise and helps organize volunteer maintenance squads to trim back bushes and keep the courts neat. Clarence is locally famous, greeting the mothers and their kids by name— even if they never step foot on the courts.
But it’s the tennis players, racket in hand, who ask for him all the time. “Who’s Clarence?” and “Someone told me to ask for Clarence?” are constant refrains.
After all, he’s their connection to a good game.
“People—its DC, after all—leave to go to other countries. When they come back, they come back here,” Lyons says. He says the concierges at nearby hotels often send players up to Rose. One of them told the regulars that there are only three public courts in the U.S. with a level of play this high—one in Chicago, one in San Diego and Rose Park.
David Dunning lives a block from Rose and spends most of his time there, organizing events, cleaning up, playing tennis, chatting with neighbors or just hanging out. “It’s the best pick-up court for tennis in DC, there are a lot of good players here who come from all over the city,” he says.
During prime time, weekends and week nights, the Rose Park players are clearly a literally slice above the average. People show up and get folded into games, or they sign up and a game comes to them. Usually, a wanna-be comes and hits on the backboard next to the courts for a while. That’s sort of a tryout—if you look good on the backboard, you get to move up to the regulars. Of course, anyone can bring their own game and sign up for a court; this process is only for the hard-core players.
On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, the action is intense. Two ferocious pick-up doubles games flank a gentle grudge match between neighbors. Many of the people on the court played in college, and some are tennis coaches. Only a few, though, are women. The vast majority of the regulars are men, though the few women who do play are impressive.
One of the spectators muses that the good players come to Rose because the courts are build in a slight “V” shape, so the big hitters can slam the ball and it (mostly) stays in. “Everyone looks like a super star,” suggests Hodge.
Another says that good players attract good players. Ville Waites has been a regular for some fifteen years. He identifies himself as “the king of everything around here,” and says players have got to be able to handle the pressure of constant ribbing and a little supportive trash talk.
“They come for camaraderie and they come to hang out, to shoot the breeze,” Waites says, “that’s half of what people come here for.”
Every September, the park hosts a doubles tournament, complete with a cookout and trophies.
The Rose Park courts are such a draw that the occasional celebrity sometimes stumbles upon them. Last year, the actor Owen Wilson came by a couple of days in a row. Carlos Santana, of the eponymous band hit balls there once (which is truly hard to imagine, if you remember the ‘70s). A few years ago, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf warmed up at Rose before a Legg Mason tournament. Of course, they only raised the level of play at the courts a little bit.
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Romantic Country Retreats
Alison Schafer • June 18, 2012
A February weekend is the perfect time to drop in on two of America’s grandest old ladies. These are ladies with the wisdom and experience of long maturity as well as the fresh look of a Madison Avenue facelift — you know, the super expensive kind that actually looks good. These classy old dames will welcome you with chintz and china, sweeping staircases and strawberry scones. They are the original spas, the ones who set the standard for American resorts, the Homestead and the Greenbrier.
To visit them, you have to drive past a lot of cows. Then, there’s the roller coaster up and downs through the hills, down into the valley, and there she sits. The Homestead. For old school WASPs like me, it looks familiar even if you’ve never been there before. My mother used to take me to a giant pile in Florida called the Bellevue Biltmore that carried exactly the same vibe. Nothing bad could happen to you in the comfy old rooms, you could get lost for days in the endless corridors, it matters if you have a decent backhand. Families, including grandparents, play cards in front of the fire. Gin and tonics outsell umbrella drinks four to one. Pinot noir is considered exotic.
Just a hop into West Virginia, and the Greenbrier offers the same genteel feel, underlined by the resort’s tagline, “When you’re at the Greenbrier, you’ll know you’ve arrived.” It refers to its on-site eateries as The Restaurant Collection, as if they were gathered up fully formed and placed here. And the Greenbrier offers weeklong interior decorating courses, by Dorothy Draper Decorating, which is advertised in a kind of loopy 1950s’ font. Lots of oranges mixed with crimson. Sometimes, what you really need a little dose of old-school. You can get it here, along with bridge mix and a spritzer.
Both resorts have been around for a while and want you to know it. The Homestead’s website offers a rather charming timeline that starts in 7,000 B.C., when people first discovered the local hot springs, but things don’t really get going until George Washington hits the scene. After that, it is a parade of presidents — golfing presidents — and the Homestead hits its stride in the 20th century. Everybody from Calvin Coolidge to Bill Clinton puts in an appearance. The Greenbrier promotes its ties to royalty, having hosted the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, for some international notoriety.
The real reason to go to either place, although they don’t advertise it enough, is breakfast. The breakfast at both places will forever remain the Platonic ideal of the meal: homemade sugar doughnuts, piles of silky scrambled eggs, yogurt and granola for the abstemious types. Table after table of excited kids sneaking Danishes. Trim ladies eating corn flakes. Dads going all out with sausages and grits (Did I mention that you’re in the south?). The trouble with breakfast is, if you have no willpower, you eat so much that you then need to loll around feeling slightly remorseful. And it takes a while to get excited about lunch.
But your options are many. You can sit by the fire and read a book. I recommend something gritty and urban, like Richard Price’s “Lush Life,” about cops in lower Manhattan, to remind you how nice it is to be just where you are. Or you can just embrace it and bring along some Edna St Vincent de Millay and daydream the morning away.
Activities-wise, the indoor options are plentiful. Shop in the resorts’ plentiful boutiques, where most of the offerings relate to golf. And Virginia peanuts. Or you can spa it. Both resorts tout their spa services (not that I’ve ever sampled any, alas), and are, of course, built around the original spas — hot springs. At the Homestead, if the weather isn’t great, you can bowl in the eight-lane bowling alley, which is next to the large indoor pool. At the Greenbrier, the indoor offerings include bowling, billiards and a tour of the bunker, to which the political leadership could flee to in times of crisis, leaving the rest of us Washingtonians to go up in smoke. The Greenbrier also has an extensive health and wellness program, if you want to recover from the stress of thinking about what will happen when something catastrophic sends the politicians running for their bunkers.
Or, better still, in keeping with the ADHD list of activities offered, you can go outside.
In the winter, there are nice hikes in the woods. Or go for a walk (or run) along the golf courses, though if there the weather isn’t too cold, there are likely to be actual golfers out, doing their thing with their deadly little white balls. The Greenbrier offers a “meditation trail,” but I suppose any trail could serve in a pinch. Mountain biking is also an option; the resorts will rent you a bike and a helmet or you could bring your own. Some of the single-track bike trails are not for the timid. And some of them go up up up. Yet the Allegheny Mountains are beautiful, even in winter.
Skiing and snowboarding at the Homestead and skating at both are some of the typical winter sports offered. They both have paintball battlefields, which would blow the socks off your favorite 12-year-old. The running around will help with the breakfast digestion. In my limited experience, paintball seems a lot like real war. Long moments of boredom and ill-defined paranoia followed by bursts of excitement and extreme apprehension. You worry about what could happen, and then it happens. And then, thankfully, unlike real war, it is over and you get to take a shower and eat dinner.
The Greenbrier also boasts an off-road driving school (which would be awesome for working through road rage) and falconry, to get you in touch with your inner Middle Eastern sheik. Carriage rides, sleigh rides, all manner of things to do with horses, and after all that, hot tea by the fire.
There are also gun clubs for those who are working on their shooting skills (perhaps for paintball), with instructors if you want them. There are clays courses, skeet shooting, simulated wild creatures to shoot at, ear plugs, ammo, and a trap and five stand, though, living in the wilds of Georgetown, I have no idea what that actually means. But the idea of shooting anything, even a small clay disk as it flies through the air, would help me manage my stress. I’ll have something to dream about when I am thinking about killing all the people who block traffic on Wisconsin by turning left into the Safeway during rush hour.
Perhaps, most importantly, for you harried citizens of the real world and for overworked parents of kids, both resorts offer plenty of supervised action. Little ones can join the Kids’ Club. They’ll be pleasantly exhausted when you fetch them at the end of the day and will have lots of adventures to share. There are movies, on real screens, not TV sets, at night for everybody to fall asleep to.
Finally, none of this is terribly cheap. But you can drive to both the Homestead and the Greenbrier, and that helps a little. These are the sort of classic resorts that don’t really exist anymore — no poured concrete, no modern art, not much sign of the 21st century. And that’s pretty great for a weekend — a real retreat from the pressing, pulsing world of cities.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.” So, do something with it. February is kind of a downer. Don’t spend it online shopping or watching college basketball on TV. Go visit one of these stately old ladies and learn from the past. Spend this very good time taking a walk in the woods. [gallery ids="100471,115892,115894" nav="thumbs"]
‘Fowl’ play in easton, Md.
Alison Schafer • May 3, 2012
Every year for the last four decades, a small town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore has opened its doors to the world, inspired by the winter tradition of migrating wildlife. But the Waterfowl Festival in Easton is not just about ducks and geese anymore. With such a broad range of attractions offered at the festival, it might well be called the Waterfowl-Art-Eating-Strolling-Shopping-Watching-Learning Festival. Celebrating its 41st year, the Waterfowl Festival kicks off with a donor party on Thursday, Nov. 10 and runs through the weekend.
The festival is billed as many things. It is a homage to the migrating Canadian geese, soaring southward overhead throughout the weekend’s festivities. It is a showcase for local Chesapeake Bay area artists. It is the home of the World Championship Calling Contest, complete with stunt dog demonstrations and decoy auctions. And if, like me, you’re a city dweller through and through, you can only imagine what a Calling Contest entails—but that’s why you need to go! (I don’t think it refers to calling for takeout, at which I might already be the World Champion.)
According to the festival’s organizers, the calling contest—which, for the record, is a duck calling contest—attracts audiences of over 600 people, and covers six contests, setting the stage for an exciting evening. Whether a novice or a master quacker, anyone is welcome to try their hand. Proud duck and goose callers representing at least 16 states and Canada make the journey to Easton each year in order to compete for the coveted titles. And one of last year’s winners was Easton local Mitch Hughes. Watching Hughes defend his title is surely worth a look—or a listen.
The festival is also a dog-lover’s daydream. Some of the biggest attractions at the festival are the featured dog events—particularly dogs in motion. Judges measure so-called “Dock Dogs” on the distance they can jump from the dock into water. Divisions range from novice, an under ten-foot leap, to super elite, which constitutes jumps over 25 feet. And a few lucky Labs and Retrievers get to show off their fetching and swimming skills as well.
In addition to things with wings and tails, 400 exhibitors will be offering everything from master classes in painting and photography, to wine and food tastings, to a fishing derby for kids. Needless to say, ducks are a pretty dominating theme. There are decoy carving and waterfowl painting classes, a duck stamp exhibit and competition, and a chance to view antique “waterfowling artifacts,” some dating from as early as the 19th century.
Another reason to visit the festival is for Easton itself. The town goes all out dressing up for the festival, as volunteers decorate the old streets and historic buildings. Organizers expect Easton and the surrounding area to draw about 15,000 visitors during the festival. But the volunteers are as diverse as the festival-goers. Many come from Talbot Country and throughout Maryland, but still more come from other states around the region to help out; they are business leaders, teachers, government officials and members of volunteer groups.
And perhaps most importantly, the non-profit Waterfowl Festival, Inc., helps to preserve the life it so vividly celebrates. Over the past four decades, the festival’s organizers and volunteers have raised more than five million dollars to protect water birds and their habitats. The money goes to projects throughout the Atlantic Flyway, with a particular focus on the Chesapeake Bay.
“Whether you buy a cup of soup or a sweatshirt or a piece of art, it is the waterfowl that are benefiting,” says Megan Miller, the festival’s events and communications coordinator.
But the weak economy has hurt sales, and this year’s success hinges on whether the stock market is up or down and what the weather is like. Tickets sell after a good week on Wall Street, with blue skies and temperatures in the 80s. And what’s good for the festival is good for the birds. It costs ten dollars to get in, though the classes and the competitions are extra. But no matter what the outcome, one thing is for sure, says Megan Miller: “It’s all about the birds.”
For more information, visit on the event visit WaterFowlFestival.org
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One of the best parts of living in Georgetown is the array of secret lives glimpsed through windows, down pathways, and even underground. In the basements of two churches on the east side of Georgetown bubbles a life of intense industry and social tumult, hurt feelings and life-long friendships. And that goes for the one-year-olds and their parents.
Open an ugly brown metal door and step into a world of bright floor mats, busy babies and equally engaged parents and caregivers. This is Blue Igloo, a playgroup for kids ranging from six months to three years.
The schedule here runs from “transportation toys and tumbling,” at 9 a.m., to “songs, bubbles, puppets,” an hour later. It all wraps up by lunch, after story time and clean up.
Blue Igloo was founded in 2000 in a rebuff to Georgetown’s other playgroup, the 35-year-old Intown. Like the papal schism, the creation of a new gathering place for the pre-pre-school sent waves through a certain section of Georgetown. Which one is better? Where are my friends going? Will all the cool people go to Intown while I am stuck at Blue Igloo? Or vice versa? But as the population that rides in strollers continues to boom, there are plenty of applicants for both playgroups, and, to the outsider, the two groups seem to be almost exactly the same.
Blue Igloo is now the morning home to 55 kids and their caregivers. It is mostly moms, though the occasional dad comes by for an hour or two. It is a French, Spanish, English and sign language immersion program, according to the director, Sabria Lounes. And the children learn key skills, even if they don’t necessarily learn them in French.
“The kids learn to sit, for snack they sit, and they get into a routine. I have to write recommendation letters for kids for the next schools, and these things matter,” says Lounes, who has been running Blue Igloo since its creation.
Gavin, who is two and a half, “gets to interact with other kids, he loves to come here, he loves the singing, he loves the snack most of all,” according to Myrtle Perry, Gavin’s nanny. She says she, too, loves Blue Igloo. “I talk to everybody, all the mothers and the nannies, I look forward to coming here every day.”
Two blocks away at Intown, the scene is much the same. One and 2-year-olds buzz around doing animal puzzles and playing with plastic cars. 45 families are enrolled at Intown and, like Blue Igloo, Intown often has a waiting list of families eager to get in. Get over the admissions hurdle and you get an emphasis on child-centered learning.
“We’re focused, right now, on sensory materials,” says Mandy Sheffer, Intown’s director. “Soft and hard, finger paints, there’s a lot that goes on behind what we do with the kids every day.”
“It is nice to come to a space where the play and structure is thought-out,” says Jacqueline Bourgeois, the mother of 15-month-old Ferdinand. “At home, I don’t know how to do that. I am learning as much as he is.”
And therein lies the real success of Georgetown’s busy playgroups. They are places for moms. Moms need the companionship and learning time offered by Intown and Blue Igloo as much as their kids do. They learn when should a kid quit using a pacifier and what other parents feed their kids. They find potty training tricks, tips for getting along with others, and how to create tight bonds. Nobody needs to get out of the house more than a new mother with a little kid. This is a place to go.
“I’ve made my closest friends here and it has been a wonderful place for us both to come and socialize,” Intown’s Elizabeth Taylor, the mother of Mac, 16 months, says.
“Parents get to talk to other parents,” agrees Annie Lou Berman at Blue Igloo. “We’ve made really great friends here,” she adds, as 2-year-old Teddy scuttles up to see her. “We’re all in the same life stage,” nods Karina Homme, mother of Sebastian, who is 20 months old.
There is a certain type of family called to these pre-pre-schools. One mother refers to her playgroup as “the cocktail party set.” Most are from Georgetown, though a few come from as far away as Alexandria. About half the moms work, though on a recent day the nannies outnumbered the parents at both places. The parents have to pony up between $3,000 and $4,000 for block building and snack eating. And Georgetown’s playgroups mostly funnel into the private pre-schools, and from there into the private elementary schools.
Of course, there are occasional storms in the world of the bouncy-bounce. Two-year-olds won’t share. Parents try to ditch their “duty days” (dates on which they are required to show up and help out) by sending their nannies instead. And the playgroup admission committees sometimes mess up by letting in imperious parents who can’t seem to get along with anyone, or parents who insist that their bodyguards accompany field trips, or the one child who bites: a serious no-no in little kid land.
And then there are the scary parents who really do seem to think Intown leads to Princeton. But they are few. For most of them, Georgetown’s playgroups lead to a sense of community, fast friends, and, most importantly, a place to go on a rainy October morning.