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The "private" school admissions season begins the day after Labor Day when New York City parents start to drag their children, barely out of diapers, through four months of touring and testing, then wait in a state of suspended animation until the middle of that bleak wintry day in February or March when a thick or thin envelope arrives in the mail. (Thick envelopes contain a contract; thin, a non-acceptance letter). Parental egos are either elated or deflated, but for those who are disappointed, it's still not too late to go house hunting in Westchester.
There are over seventy independent schools in the New York City area; these include some of the best schools in the nation. There are schools with religious affiliations, schools for children with learning disabilities, Montessori Schools and a Waldorf School: There really is an independent school for everyone, but it just might not be the one you have your heart set on. And though applying to New York City's independent schools has not gotten less stressful over the years, there have been important demographic changes in the city itself that have significantly altered the admissions game.
What Is an Independent School?
All of the member schools of the Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater New York (ISAAGNY) are not for profit, racially nondiscriminatory, have their own board of trustees, are chartered by the New York State Board of Regents and accredited by the New York State Association of Independent Schools or the Middle-States Association of Colleges and Schools. Independent schools have six basic characteristics: 1) self-governance, 2) self-support, 3) self-defined curriculum, 4) self-selected students, 5) self-selected faculty, 6) small size. Private schools, on the other hand, are owned by individuals who may derive profits or incur losses from school operations. Teachers in these schools do not need to be certified by the state. They are, however, likely to be experts in their fields, for example, a historian teaching history or a drama department head who is a playwright and director when he's not teaching. Most independent school kindergarten teachers have a master's in early childhood education.
Perhaps the most important difference between independent and public schools is that the formers' "fundamental freedom from state and local governments' regulation has allowed independent schools to develop outside of the ferment that has rocked the public schools." And, of course, public schools do not charge tuition and every child is entitled to placement in such a school (subject to residence requirements and other such prerequisites).
Each school has its own unique character, with a board of trustees that appoints the head of school, who ensures that the school fulfills its educational mission. The headmaster (in conjunction with the development office) assumes the role of CEO and major fund-raiser. Every independent school has its own philosophy of education, its "statement of mission" (the primary aims of the school). This mission statement is always included in the school's literature, but you sometimes have to read between the lines to find it. Each independent school is accountable to its students and their parents; if the parents are not happy with the fulfillment of the school's mission they can remove their children and find another that suits them better. If enough parents do so, the school will fail.
A good reputation is so vital to independent schools that although some myths about a school such as "having the brightest kids" or admitting "only the most terrific families" or "getting the most kids into the top Ivy League colleges" are misleading and often false, they do attract applicants. And some school admissions personnel, perhaps inadvertently, help perpetuate these "positive" myths. The fact is, independent schools are much more mixed than anyone admits. (We found that siblings and legacies were the great equalizers.) As the New York State Association of Independent Schools Guide to Choosing a School states, while SAT scores and college admissions records are "good indicators of the quality of the student body, not necessarily of the school ... the schools of worth are those whose students, facile or not, are helped to realize their highest potential, develop a lifelong love of learning and forge good character."
The level of work, the pressure, pace of learning and challenge, hours of homework and amount of remedial support provided by the school all contribute to designation as "very selective." The qualities a child needs to get in and stay in one of these schools are strong academic potential, an outgoing nature, intensity, good self-esteem, independence, maturity and perseverance. A less competitive, more nurturing school would be better for a child with an average IQ, a known learning disability, a very creative or artistic nature or a nonconformist or shy personality. A desire not to subject a child to externally imposed requirements at an early age and a belief in a child's innate abilities, which, given time to flower, will lead him to a happier, more fulfilling life militate against the choice of a highly pressured school experience.
We believe that there truly is a school for your child, but it is not true that if you can pay, your child can go to the school of your choice. The apparent arbitrariness of admissions decisions is hard for "power-house parents" to accept. Said one admissions director: "After all, they got into an Ivy League school, joined the sorority/fraternity of their choice, landed the job of their dreams and they expect the same for their child too." The baby boom echo is making admissions at all levels very competitive. In response, many schools are expanding their lower schools, adding an extra kindergarten or first grade class that will continue up through the school.
In the past few years, schools that give preference to siblings and legacies (descendants of former students) have often had more applicants than places, and have been forced to make some difficult decisions. Your child's year might be a year in which many siblings apply at the school of your choice but take heart: If your child doesn't get into your first-choice school in kindergarten, you might try again in a few years, by which time attrition will probably have occurred due to divorce and families relocating to other cities and the suburbs. Because more families are now staying in the city, fewer places are available in first through fifth grades. Places do become available in sixth and seventh grades at most schools. (Another interesting trend is that of single, divorced parents moving back into the city with older children to enroll in independent schools.)
Changes in School Services
Gone are the days when women volunteers devoted their time exclusively to serving on school committees, chaperoning field trips and organizing fund-raisers. The two-career family is now the norm (and you are as likely to see a forty-five-year-old father attending the school play or walking afternoon safety patrol as a mother). There is an increased need for after-school, vacation and summer programs, and working parents are happiest if those programs are part of their children's own schools. Most schools now have after-school programs. Caedmon School was the first to introduce "child-minding" until 6:00 P.M. Even the Collegiate School and Brearley School finally added their own after-school programs, recognizing that working families depend on these services and if they want diversity in their schools they have to provide support for them. (Parents are also scheduling more after-school activities such as sports, music and religious instruction, in addition to playdates, for their children.)
One outcome of working parents' desire to have their children in school for longer hours is that the Guild of New York Independent Schools agreed to extend the independent school year from 160 days to 170 days (still ten days short of the public school schedule). Schools also agreed to open their doors earlier in the fall, closer to the Labor Day holiday weekend. A handful of schools still give "travel days" on either side of spring break, a vestige of the era in which families routinely packed a trunk for Europe. Now many of these families travel to snow country in Utah or Colorado.
The question of the affordability of private school education is becoming more acute as tuition for Manhattan day schools, which doubled in the past decade, continues to rise. Now parents can expect to pay about $14,000 and up for third-grade tuition. In addition, the gap between income generated by tuition and rising operating costs has widened and all schools count upon voluntary giving and annual fundraising revenues. "Schools are under more pressure for outside fundraising from corporate and private sources than at any time in the past," according to an administrator of educational grants at a prestigious foundation. "Capital campaigns seem to come around as often as White Sales these days," says one beleaguered family. We know a couple who received a solicitation letter from their son's school announcing a new capital campaign with a return card enclosed showing a suggested contribution of $10,000. The next day the couple marched into the development office and asked, "Do you expect this much every year?" They were informed that they could pay in monthly installments over a five year period. The pressure to give can be especially intense when the class representative tells you they are hoping for 100% participation. What most parents don't realize is that there is no threshold for annual giving. Parents are asked to give whatever they can; contributions within a given class may range from $5.00 to $25,000. Of course only a contribution of $10,000 and above will earn you inclusion in "The Headmaster's Circle"; the new millennium's equivalent of The Social Register.
The economic boom has allowed the independent schools to make capital improvements and raise the bar academically; tuitions have gone up as well. While endowments have doubled since the late 90's, a deep recession could strain a school's finances. (However, parents who are concerned about the financial health of a prospective school should not ask for the annual report until after their child has been accepted.) A healthy endowment shouldn't be the only reason to pick a school. But unless a school has a substantial endowment current parents will be the school's prime source of revenue.
Many parents do not know that tuition covers only about 80 percent of a school's operating expenses and budget, much of this going toward teacher salaries and fringe benefits. Capital improvements, new technology and science labs, and improvements and repairs to existing facilities, are necessary to keep the schools competitive. Adding to this pressure is the increased need for tuition assistance of parents whose children are already in the schools. "A tremendous increase in the amount of money raised by annual giving and capital fund programs over the past decade" has helped schools make ends meet, according to Fred Calder, Executive Director of the New York State Association of Independent Schools. Thus it doesn't hurt to have families who manage charitable foundations in the parent body. As one admissions director confided, "We are a business, you know."
There is increased concern about socioeconomic stratification within school populations as many middle and upper middle income families find that they are unable or unwilling to pay approximately $150,000 for thirteen years of private school tuition. Most schools are seeing an increase in families with high income levels applying for financial aid. According to Meade Thayer, Director of Financial Aid Services at NAIS, "Families may well have financial need from their perspective, but does the school have the financial aid available to meet the needs of all families applying?" Schools are being forced to make tough decisions about which families to support. "The decisions they make illustrate the school's attitude toward socioeconomic diversity and their desire to have it," says Thayer.
Following the national trend towards eliminating junior high schools in favor of middle schools (serving grades 6-8), Community School Districts 2 and 3 on the Upper East and West sides of Manhattan recently decided to end their elementary schools at fifth grade. A number of very bright and highly motivated fifth grade public school students now apply to the private schools for entrance at sixth grade. Many of the top private schools are scrambling to make space for them, while at the same time, reserving places for Prep for Prep program graduates who enter at seventh grade. Some schools we surveyed, such as Riverdale Country Day School, and Trinity School, told us that because of the way their schools are structured (the lower school is comprised of kindergarten through sixth grade, for instance) and/or because of space restraints, openings in sixth grade at those schools would depend upon natural attrition. Others, including The Brearley School, Horace Mann and the Dalton School said they had already expanded their sixth grades to accommodate public school applicants.
As tuitions climb and the competition for places in the most exclusive schools becomes more intense, the private schools face growing resentment from full-tuition paying families who find that their hard earned tuition dollars are subsidizing increasing numbers of scholarship students. However, NAIS statistics reveal that the numbers of students receiving full scholarship is in fact declining. Schools find it is more cost effective to support two families on partial assistance (each paying $6,000 toward tuition, for example) thus achieving a greater diversity of families for the same investment. In another instance of how elementary and secondary private school admissions parallel admissions at the college level, some middle class families of color, Hispanic and Asian families, (all of whom are historically underrepresented in private schools), cognizant of their marketability, find that they are able to shop around for the best deal.
Parents should keep in mind that there is a significant difference between applying for financial assistance at the elementary and secondary levels and applying at the college level where federal assistance is available in addition to institutional assistance. Parents of elementary and secondary school age children also have another viable optionpublic school. More middle and upper middle class parents are considering select city public schools for a portion of their child's education. Although Hunter Elementary is under the aegis of Hunter College of the City of New York, acceptance to this highly selective tuition-free school is considered as desirable as acceptance to the most prestigious private school. The specialized high schools such as Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech are still magnets for many private school students beginning in ninth grade.
At one independent school this spring, we watched as the "old" Macintosh computers went out the door and the "new" Dell computers came in. To remain competitive and up-to-the-minute, schools are under increasing pressure to spend more of their budget on technology. In addition, many schools are running "computer initiative" capital campaigns to further augment their technology programs. One school hosted a "cybercarnival" to give the school's technology program a boost.
Upgrading hardware, adding high speed connections to the Internet and buying the latest CD-ROMS and software is just a part of the expense. The best technology in the world is useless without people; almost every comprehensive independent school now has a Director of Technology. Many schools also find it essential to have a full-time "network administrator" to maintain the system.
And that's not all. A good educational technology program requires trained faculty to integrate all this "stuff" into the curriculum in meaningful ways. Staff training, whether through an outside workshop or an "in-house" technology coordinator, is fundamentaland expensive.
According to one technology seer, the day when "machines are the hand-maiden of cognition in the classroom" is not far off. Students at The Trevor Day School and at Hewitt tote Toshiba laptops to and from school in their backpacks and use the computer in every subject class as a "transparent tool"as they would use pencil and paper. Students at many schools already have access to a school "intranet" or internal website that allows students to access homework assignments, read school notices, join in school conferences, communicate with faculty and send in their homework via e-mail.
Excerpted from The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools and Selective Public Schools by Victoria Goldman and Catherine Hausman. Copyright © 2001 by Soho Press, Inc.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.