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The Three C's
From the moment the idea for this book inflicted itself on me, before I began meeting with admissions directors and following families around the country, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who were frantically applying to private school kindergarten began bombarding me with questions: Is private school that much better than public school? Will getting into an elite kindergarten get my kid into an elite college? Do people of diversity have an edge? What should I write on the application to make me stand out? What are admissions directors looking for in the interview? Are there really such things as feeder nursery schools? Do first-choice letters matter? Do siblings automatically get in? Do people buy their way in? Is a private school education worth $500,000 per child from kindergarten through twelfth grade?
This book attempts to answer those questions.
But the first question everyone wanted answered, the one that encompasses most of the others and stands above them all, remains:
How do you get in?
After two years of talking to dozens of admissions directors, school heads, collegecounselors, educational consultants, teachers, and preschool directors, I can honestly say ... I don't know. When I posed the question to admissions directors and school heads, I was greeted by bewildered looks, vacant stares, uncomfortable shrugs, and one actual scratch of the head.
"I go by instinct," an admissions director told me.
"The process is not an art," another director of admissions said, "and it's certainly not a science. It's a feeling. At the end of the day, both the school and the parents are taking a leap of faith."
"The decision-making is intuitive," a school head said. "We can reduce it to numbers if you want to. I'm sure that works for a lot of people. I've been doing this for so long that the system I've created over time has become a sort of nonsystem. But it works."
Apparently, I'm not the only one who doesn't know the answer; the people who actually make the decisions don't know either.
Except I don't believe them.
I believe that the admissions directors and school heads of top-tier private schools know exactly what they're doing because they have certain needs and obligations they have to fulfill. They know which siblings, legacies, and children of faculty, diversity, and prominence they're letting in. The "no-brainers," one admissions director called them. I believe that their instincts, intuition, and leaps of faith are reserved for what another director of admissions called the "leftovers," the "regular people," when and if they have openings.
"Every school wants normal folks," an educational consultant told me. "They all want people who are going to bust their butts, work hard, and be present. Otherwise, God forbid, they might be seen as elitist."
People apply to private school for one or more of three reasons. I call them the Three C's: children, college, and country club.
All of the parents I followed applied to private school kindergarten primarily because they felt it was in the best interest of their children, the first ITLITL. Shea Cohen, who lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, said, "For us, it really is about the education. We want the best for our kids. We are not a family with unlimited resources. We will take a serious financial hit paying for private school. But we're willing to do that because education is our number one priority."
Beyond that, Shea said that sending her children to her public school was out of the question. "We want to raise our kids in the city. We're not going to move. The public school that our children would have to go to looks like a prison. And we live in a really nice neighborhood. So we're stuck. Out of options."
Shea was not speaking from an elitist perspective. MK, director of admissions at Longbourne, a prestigious private school in Manhattan, echoed Shea's feelings. "Public schools are not an option. That is not just a perception. There are maybe half a dozen on the grammar school level that I think are decent. That is the sad part of the story. Used to be public schools were better. Not anymore. I hate that that's happening but you cannot deny it. You cannot put your head in the sand."
Ruth, an educational consultant, echoed MK's feelings. "It used to be that everybody just went to their local school. There were smarties, dummies, fatties, skinnies, rich kids, poor kids, and everything was fine and you learned how to live in the world. That's just the way it was."
In another city, Katie Miller, one of the moms I followed, toured her local public school twice. The first time she was disappointed. She went back a second time to be sure.
"I wanted to like it," she said. "Believe me, I tried."
Her neighborhood school was spread out into three long diagonal sections resembling a giant M. The walls were industrial gray and in need of new paint. The library, where she met for a kindergarten "roundup," was a long rectangular room with worn carpeting and dull brown walls. A cluster of iMac computers huddled near the door. They were blue and enormous and eight years out-of-date. The teachers who spoke to the prospective parents were all over forty and well-meaning, but their presentations were uninspired.
"They seemed lovely but they were exhausted, burned to a crisp," Katie said, and paused. "And I have to be honest. Spanish is the first language for over fifty percent of those kids. That's huge. These kids are just learning English and my daughter is reading. That concerns me. Will she be pushed aside?"
Lauren Pernice, the third mom I followed, lives in an exclusive neighborhood that, by reputation, is home to one of the top public elementary schools in her city.
"I checked it out," she said. "My first impression was confusion. Lots of traffic. Parking hassles. Cars negotiating with each other. It struck me as very disorganized. I watched for a while, then came home and called a friend who's an educator. She said, look, it really is a good public school. She called it enriching. But she was afraid that it might not be flexible enough for my son. It might not teach to his level."
Lauren decided to visit a kindergarten class. What she saw made her feel slightly better. The teachers seemed skilled, the children engaged, the facilities decent. It was fine. But Lauren wanted more than fine for her child.
"I want a school that offers the academics that Killian needs and is nurturing enough to give him individual attention. Academically, he's quite advanced, but socially I think he could use a little help. He's not going to get that in our public school. There are just too many kids."
Finally, I followed Trina D'Angelo, a single mom, who for safety reasons refused to consider her local school.
"Send my son there? I wouldn't drive by there," she said.
When these same parents visited private schools, their jaws dropped. Objectively speaking, there was no comparison. An educational consultant described it this way: "It's like comparing apples and tuna fish. You are not even in the same category."
The private schools they toured offered state-of-the-art music and art rooms; theaters and science labs that would make actors and scientists drool; libraries rivaling those found on college campuses; sparkling new gymnasiums; cutting-edge technology centers; class sizes that rarely exceeded twenty students, often limited to fifteen; two teachers in every classroom, invariably young, dynamic, nurturing, and enthusiastic about what they were teaching because they helped design the curriculum; a bank of computers in every classroom; green, parklike school grounds; open playing fields and intricate redwood play structures; after-school programs offering courses from yoga to knitting to karate; hot lunch choices that were either catered or presented in spotless cafeterias resembling corner coffee shops ("I eat at my kid's school twice a week," a mom said. "The food is terrific"); and kindergartners who would routinely surprise their teachers with impromptu hugs. The touring parents also encountered a sense of community in every school they visited; these schools felt like homes away from home. The kids wanted to be there. And often so did the parents.
According to our current political administration, we have entered "a new era in education," more commonly described by the hopeful yet problematic catchphrase "No Child Left Behind." But in fact, many parents living in or near cities consider the school possibilities available to them and come away with a sad and frustrating conclusion. Their school choices are limited. The public schools, whether the parents' perceptions are factual or apocryphal, are no choice at all. City schools are overcrowded, underfunded, poorly staffed, and seem unsafe. And as the architects of NCLB claim, many are failing. Parents are inundated with reports of this in the media. A Los Angeles Times headline screams, "13% of State's Public Schools in Peril of Failure" (October 13, 2004). According to the rules of NCLB, a failing school has three years to "succeed," meaning its students from third through eighth grade must achieve minimum scores on a standardized math and reading test they are given each year. If the students don't pass the test, the school is deemed "failing," funds may be cut off, and the school may be closed.
Parents who fear that the public schools teach to the lowest common denominator see a broken system on the brink of becoming irreparable as teachers, in order to bring up test scores, teach to the lowest-performing children in the class. As educator, author, and editor George Wood writes in the book Many Children Left Behind: How the No Child Left Behind Act Is Damaging Our Children and Our Schools (Beacon Press, 2004), "Many of the supporters of NCLB have good intentions, hoping for schools to work even harder to meet the needs of our children. Unfortunately their intentions have been hijacked by a one-size-fits-all, blame-and-shame agenda that will do nothing to help our schools and will only exacerbate an already unfortunate trend." In the same book, renowned Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond says, simply, "The biggest problem with the NCLB act is that it mistakes measuring schools for fixing them."
Late in 2005, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings acknowledged the flaws inherent in NCLB and attempted to alter the law by proposing that students' success be measured by individual improvement, as opposed to forcing each student to reach a predetermined score. In an editorial entitled "Some States Left Behind" (November 28, 2005), the Los Angeles Times credits Spellings for at least attempting to "bring some sanity to a law so unworkable that it was causing even some solidly Republican states to rebel against the Bush administration." The editorial slams NCLB further, stating, "The new rules, though admirable, cannot overcome the limitations of a law that was well-intentioned but ill-conceived, clumsily crafted and drastically under-funded. The major contribution of No Child Left Behind is that it has revealed how badly impoverished students are doing-and how little many schools were doing about it."
Fixing our public school crisis requires vision and the means to finance that vision. Educators working in conjunction with concerned parents and citizens and well-intentioned politicians endlessly debate new ways to revamp or revitalize NCLB. But as of this writing our nation is distracted by the costs of homeland security, a Middle East war, and the aftermaths of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. Solutions to our crisis in public education, and the financing of those solutions, will have to wait. However, when it comes to our children, time is the last thing we have.
On May 17, 2000, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the State of California, claiming that the state deprives tens of thousands of low-income students of the bare necessities to receive a quality education. An article in the Los Angeles Times, "Suit on Schools Near Resolution" (July 10, 2004), describes the details of the class-action lawsuit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court on behalf of more than sixty students in eighteen elementary and high schools throughout California. The lawsuit, Williams v. California, named after an Oakland middle school student, Eliezer Williams, states that the sixty students were subjected to the following conditions in their schools: "no textbooks, outdated or defaced textbooks; no access to a library; no or not enough basic school supplies; no or not enough labs or lab materials; no or not enough access to computers; no access to music or art classes; no or too few guidance counselors; as few as 13% of teachers with full teaching credentials; chronically unfilled teacher vacancies; heavy reliance on substitute teachers; no homework assignments due to lack of materials; massive overcrowding in the classes, including classes without seats and desks; cramped, makeshift classrooms; multi-track schedules that prevent continuous, year-to-year study in a given subject; multi-track schedules that force students to take key exams before completing the full course of study; broken or nonexistent air conditioning or heating systems, resulting in extremely hot or cold classrooms; toilets that don't flush; toilets that are filthy with urine, excrement, or blood; toilets that are locked; hazardous facilities, including broken windows, walls, and ceilings; leaky roofs and mold; and infestations of rats, mice, and cockroaches." Finally, after more than four years, the state and the ACLU settled out of court for $1 billion, money that will be used to repair 2,400 schools across California over an indeterminate period of time. The article quotes Pastor Sweetie Williams, the father of the plaintiff in the case, as being "thrilled that an agreement had been reached.
"I thank God that it's coming to an end," Williams said. "This has been a great opportunity not only to help my children but also to remind parents that we've got to stand up for what is right."
The state of American public schools, especially in our cities, is truly shameful. Our schools have not failed; we have failed our schools.
Pastor Sweetie Williams is in his mid-fifties, a gentle, soft-spoken man. The timbre of his voice exudes kindness. A pastor for over twenty years, he is courteous in the way of many former military men, of whom he is one.
"The lawsuit started when Eliezer was in seventh grade," he says. "He would come home after school and he would never do any homework. I asked him about it and he said that he didn't have any books. I went to the teacher. It was true. There were no books. At that point, the ACLU had been brought in, and we got involved, along with a lot of other people throughout the state. The conditions in Eliezer's high school are terrible. The classrooms are very overcrowded. The bathrooms have no doors. There's no privacy. There's graffiti all over the place. You walk in there, it seems like the place has been forsaken. I know the lawsuit won't benefit Eliezer, but it will help other children. These are the future of our country, let alone our families. Also, I have a three-year-old daughter. I'm really keeping an eye on her education. We thought about homeschooling her but we can't do it. My wife and I both work. I've been thinking a lot about private school. When I was stationed in Texas, our older daughter was in private school through sixth grade. She is the only one of our children who graduated college. Going to private school made all the difference for her."
Pastor Williams's voice sinks into a lower register. "So far I haven't found a private school near us for my daughter. I don't want her to go through what Eliezer did. I'm not sure what to do."
Excerpted from The Kindergarten Wars by Alan Eisenstock Copyright © 2006 by Duck Island Productions, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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