Guest Blogger Isla: An Unlikely Road To Mirman School

“He has a soft marker for Down’s syndrome”, the ultrasound technician told us.  At 35, I was expecting our second child and thrilled to find out we were having a boy this time around (we already had an amazing 2-year-old daughter).  Now my head was spinning.  Ultimately, we decided that Down’s syndrome would not alter our plans to have a baby, so we proceeded through the pregnancy without further screening.  At 33 weeks, I woke at dawn with stomach pains.  Within a couple of hours, my son arrived.  His lungs were not fully developed and he needed a respirator, but he was otherwise healthy (without any signs of Down’s).

 

Unlike our daughter, who seemed to reach milestones at lightening speed, our son was significantly slower in many aspects of his development.  He did not crawl until he was over a year.  By the time he was 2, he only said “mama” audibly.  Concerned about his speech, we had him evaluated. Testing was negative, and we were advised to give him more time.  Soon after, he began to make great strides.  As he became fluent, he quickly learned the alphabet and could count up to 30.  He displayed a laser-like focus when it came to listening to stories or watching television programs.  Then he spontaneously began reading my daughter’s kindergarten books aloud.  He had not yet turned 3.

 

At this point, my husband and I were experiencing challenges with my daughter’s learning.  She was not performing well in school, and required tutoring at a learning center while being evaluated for a learning disability.   As our son waited quietly in the waiting room, one of the tutors (who is also a lawyer and special education advocate) took an interest in him. Each time we came in, she began talking to him more and more.  Soon, he began insisting on being taught.  Turns out, he could follow the lessons and perform all of the computer programs better than many of the 8-year-old kids.  That’s when the specialist told me that our son was highly gifted and should be tested for admittance to the Mirman School.  In fact, she went, as far as to say that there is no other school in LA that he should attend.

 

We live in a community South of LA where few people opt to send their kids to private schools.  The public elementary schools are some of the highest performing in the state.  More importantly, I had already heard about Mirman, through some of my colleagues who lived in LA and were entrenched in the private school admission process.  I heard NOTHING good. “The kids are freaky”; “all of the students walk around school bragging about their IQ score.”  However, our specialist was relentless.  She was rapidly gaining our trust with the amazing advice that she provided for our daughter (who by this time had been diagnosed with a reading disorder).  Her own children had attended Mirman. But, I could not shake the reputation, rationalized that bright children (without LD) do well in most educational environments, and decided against applying.

 

Until, at the very last minute, 3 days before the application deadline, I panicked.  I was spending so much time and effort to make sure my daughter was in an educational setting suitable for her needs, yet I was ignoring the special needs of my son! I called 5 psychologists in a desperate attempt to get my son tested.  By some miracle, one had an opening and could see me the next day.  And so the process began.

 

The psychologist came out and said, “Well, you sure do have a bright little boy”.  The doctor proceeded to tell me that although he hadn’t added all the scores, he was certain that my son would qualify for admission.  Then there was the slightly judgmental “not in a very academic preschool right now is he?” Wow, was it that obvious that he was not being adequately stimulated?  When we saw the test scores, we were in disbelief.  How does a former 7-week preemie, born via an emergency caesarean section with an Apgar of 1, end up with a stratospheric IQ?  Could there be some mistake? I decided to roll with it by quickly submitting the on-line application and psych report.  Within a few hours, I was called to schedule an interview.

 

The day before the interview, we received a call requesting us to arrive a half-hour earlier than originally scheduled.  This meant that we would have to leave at 6:30 a.m. to deal with the traffic.  My husband and I are both physicians, so it took a lot of juggling for both of us to be in the same place at the same time.  We arrived 15 minutes early and checked in at the front office.  Then we sat perusing the literature about gifted education, and looking at the schoolwork on display.   After 30 minutes, my husband was getting irritated.  I inquired at the front desk to make sure we had not been forgotten.  Twenty more minutes passed, and my husband approached the desk this time.  Big mistake.  He began to inform the receptionist how inappropriate it was to call us to come in early, and then keep us waiting for over an hour.  I feared that our chances were over right then and there.  A few minutes later, the Admissions Director came to greet us.  She quickly apologized for being late and immediately honed in on our son.  She invited him to come to her office while we continued to sit the waiting room.  After 20 minutes we were ushered in.

 

“Well, he’s still developing”, she started off.  “He’s 4 years old”, I thought. She described her impression of his reading, writing, and math skills.  She showed us artwork that he had made at her request.  We could not gage whether he had made a good impression or not.  We proceeded on a tour of the school, which lasted the better part of an hour.  It was incredible.  My son was hooked at the first stop-the courtyard where two cute girls with headsets were dictating story lines into their laptop computers in the warm sunshine.  We saw the calm, focused classrooms were students worked on computers, the science lab, music room, Spanish class, and art room.  Most of the children could type more words per minute than I ever could by the time they reached their fourth year.  They begin their second language in the 6th year (after becoming fluent in Spanish).  Their creative talents were highly encouraged with photography classes, chorus, and drama, in addition to the usual stringed instruments.  We wanted in.  As we were leaving, the Admissions Director did not reveal any clues as to whether our son was Mirman material.  She just said as we parted “Take our waiting list seriously”.  We did not find that very reassuring.

 

So here is what we did:

 

I asked a friend/colleague, who had served as head of the board at a prestigious girl’s school and acquainted with the headmaster to write a letter of support.  She highlighted my son’s kind, reserved nature, and love of swimming, as well as the support that our family could provide the school.  I also asked for letters of support from the educational specialist that had recommended Mirman and the director of the learning center where he received tutoring.  Both attested to his love of learning and sweetness.  I wrote an email to the admissions director immediately following the interview and also mailed a handwritten note reiterating that Mirman was our absolute first choice and best match for our son.

 

I don’t know if any of those efforts made a difference.  On that long anticipated day in March when the admission letters were mailed, I emailed the Admissions Director to see if she could tell me something about my son’s status while I was waiting for snail mail.  She did not.  Just a friendly reply that the letters were on their way.  Finally, in Saturday’s mail, was the fat envelope every parent hopes for.  Pride. Happiness. Relief.

Isla Garraway, MD-PhD is an Assistant Professor of Urology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and mother of three children, ages 9, 6, and 3.  She is President-Elect of the Park Century School Parent’s Association and also has a 6- year old son at the Mirman School.  


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Private Elementary School Buzz…

  • Families are using tutors to prepare their preschoolers for the kindergarten testing day at uber-traditional schools like John Thomas Dye and Carlthorp. 
  • One mom we spoke to recently toured 27 LA private elementary schools! We think that’s a record number! Her child will be entering Curtis School this fall. 
  • Sometimes, home is where the heart is. A friend declined a spot for kindergarten at Oakwood for fall 2011 to stay at Temple Israel of Hollywood. Another acquaintance is leaving Oakwood to return to Temple Israel in the fall where her child attended preschool.  
  • Overheard: “The Center For Early Education is our neighborhood school”. That’s the problem! It’s everybody‘s neighborhood school (or at least many want it to be). 
  • Admissions secrets…what are friends for? A mom who has already gotten her kid into a top private school gave a friend her entire file of applications, essays, letters and everything else. Don’t panic! We have all this stuff in our book, Beyond The Brochure. And, mom #1 invites mom #2 over to look through her private elementary school roster so mom #2, who will be applying to mom #1’s school can identify other moms she may know who can call admissions director on her behalf. 
  • There’s a big effort underway to increase the number of families staying through middle school at K-8 schools like Willows and Turning Point. Some K-6 school heads are concerned because this means fewer middle school spaces for their graduates. 
  • We hear there are 6 kids who won’t be continuing on to The Willows kindergarten from the DK class. Typically, most kids continue on to kindergarten from DK…
  • Check out our new Facebook Page! “Like” Beyond The Brochure on FB and you’ll get our updates in your news feed. It’s noteworthy private elementary school events, news and information we can’t always post on the blog.  

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Guest Blogger Jenny: I’m Learning The REAL Cost Of Private Elementary School

Fund-Raising Season Ends At The Merry Spring Fair
As anyone who’s sent her child to private school will tell you, the financial commitment doesn’t end with the insane tuition costs. Not at all.

First off, usually in the first half of the school year, the school (in my case, Mirman), hits you up for annual giving. Although private school tuition is steep, it apparently doesn’t cover expenses. No, there’s a shortfall for each child, and, at least at Mirman, the school keeps it simple by informing you of that exact dollar amount. Even if you can’t swing the whole thing (in the low thousands), you need to give something, because the school needs 100% parent participation in annual giving in order to qualify for grants (which also help fund the school).

Annual giving, however, is just the beginning. There are videos to purchase of your child’s various holiday shows (you will never watch these. Your child will never watch these. But you will have to purchase them nevertheless). If there’s a building campaign, there is additional pressure for donations, even though there’s a chance that your child will never even enter the buildings you fund. There’s “free dress” clothing emblazoned with the school logo to buy. And then, just as the year’s winding to a close, there’s that last push, the Silent Auction/Big Fundraiser.

This last event takes many forms at different schools. Some have a big, fancy, catered dinner. Not Mirman. They have a Spring Fair, an entire day of themed food, games, rides, and activities, funded by you.

This was my daughter’s first at Mirman, and I was pleasantly surprised by the unpretentiousness of the event. The Fair had carnival rides and tons of food (although I really think they could have used a few more food trucks). There was an enormous Silent Auction in the auditorium, stuffed full of gift baskets and extra special seats to sports games (all of which was collected and donated through parental efforts). There were tennis cans filled with our kids’ tiny toys from home, sold off to other kids for 10 bucks a pop. And there was the Bake Sale.

I worked the Bake Sale. For two hours. My impressions are thus: Mirman children are very polite, and, when it comes to baked goods, people will consume just about anything. We sold out of everything by 5pm. Even the gluten free cookies were gone. It was the only bake sale at which I wasn’t even remotely tempted to snatch anything (ok, I did eat one cold, chewy churro). As volunteer stints go, the Bake Sale was great.

My daughter had a wonderful time at the Fair. She ran around with her best friend, terrorizing the place. We were very busy and felt useful. All in all, it was a good experience. Except that I wonder a bit about sustainability.

I mean, how long can private schools keep plowing the same fields for funding, over and over again? By the time the Silent Auction came around, my family was pretty much done giving money. Bidding on items we neither wanted nor needed wasn’t an option. I watched parents dutifully line up to pay their winning bids and collect their goodies, and I wondered if they were as grateful as I am to get a summer fundraising respite.

Jenny Heitz has worked as a staff writer for Coast Weekly in Carmel, freelanced in the South Bay, and then switched to advertising copywriting. Her daughter started 4th grade at Mirman School this year. She previously attended 3rd St. Elementary School. Jenny has been published recently in the Daily News and on Mamapedia, The Well Mom, Sane Moms, Hybrid Mom, The Culture Mom and A Child Grows In Brooklyn. She now writes about gift ideas and products on her blog, Find A Toad

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Guest Blogger Isla: What Do You Do When Your "Perfect" Child Has Difficulty Achieving In School?

Park Century School, Culver City

At the age of 5, our daughter was eloquent, precocious, and seemed to have a photographic–like memory. My husband and I were in absolute awe and assumed, when she hit kindergarten, that she would be at the top of her class.  But she wasn’t.

 

From the moment that I entered the room at our first parent/teacher conference, I knew something was wrong.  Her teachers sat with uncomfortable smiles and explained that she was not meeting expectations in reading, writing, and math.  Looking back, she did exhibit difficulties learning the alphabet and sight words.  Homework seemed to take more and more time.  Her teachers suggested that, perhaps, it was just a developmental thing.  Most people “redshirt” in the community where we live, and she was one of the youngest in her class. By first grade, however, she still had not caught up to speed, despite outside tutoring.  We knew something was wrong.

 

We requested that the school test her for a learning disability.  However, she was still making progress and had not fallen far enough behind for the administration to recommend testing.  After reading several books on learning disabilities, I realized that we had no time to waste.  My husband and I took her for private testing, and a reading disorder was diagnosed.

 

We agonized over whether to try and work with the public school system and advocate for an individualized education plan.  After consultation with an educational specialist, we decided that the quickest way to get our daughter back on track was to move to an independent school that could teach bright kids with learning differences. Now she is in a diverse, multi-sensorial environment, Park Century School (PCS) that educates children, grades 2-8. She gets one-on-one reading and math and is soaring above grade level. Children in her school come from John Thomas Dye, Curtis School, The Willows, Wildwood and more. All are unbelievably creative, smart kids that happen to learn differently.

 

Parents at PCS all have a similar story: failure of teachers to recognize signs of learning differences (LD), lack of support or resources in most schools (public and private), and dropping self-esteem/confidence/overall happiness in the affected child.  The reality is that 1/5 kids have a learning issue and most of them are not identified.  Parents (and, sadly, many teachers) may be unaware of the signs of LD and how to procure diagnosis and treatment.  Early intervention is absolutely critical!

 

The previous stigma associated with LD is dissolving, as the flip side is so commonly observed: exceptional creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. As an example, Yale University has a Center to study LD and is highly supportive of recruiting and retaining these students.  Like many other “elite” private schools in LA, the parents of children at the Park Century School are some of the most recognized names in the world and dominate the entertainment, financial, political, and medical fields.  They are also unapologetic advocates for children with LD.  Although it was a nerve-wracking journey to navigate through, I can honestly say there is nothing about my daughter that I would change, and I am confident that her future is unlimited!

Isla Garraway, MD-PhD is an Assistant Professor of Urology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and mother of three children, ages 9, 6, and 3.  She is President-Elect of the Park Century School Parent’s Association and also has a child at the Mirman School.  

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No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: When School Volunteering Goes Wrong…Very Wrong

This is a true story. The movie, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” is brilliant fiction, but occasionally real-life imitates the movies. In this instance, it certainly did. My experience co-chairing the Willows School Auction introduced me to one mom who could have been a character in that memorable movie. 

This is a cautionary tale about what happened when I dedicated six months of my life to volunteering at my kids’ school under the false assumption that hard work and professionalism would be valued. As you may have begun to suspect, this experience didn’t end well.  Let’s just say I’d much rather know the head of the school parent association (and school board member) hates me before she sends an email to everyone calling me every vile name in the book.

It all started—or should I say—ended one evening in March at precisely 6:00 p.m. The summer before, I was asked by the parent association to co-chair our school’s largest annual fundraiser, the school auction. I agreed and began work almost immediately.

For many months, I spent about five hours or more a day planning the event. I felt like I was back at my full time job as vice president at a big public relations firm. Meetings, letter writing, soliciting pricey auction items, financial targets that needed to be met, reports to the board of directors, memos, more meetings. Most of the time I had the job of moving us toward specific goals while the parent association moms used the meetings as therapy sessions to discuss their inadequate husbands and issues with their kids, or lashing out at other moms—mostly the ones who (a) cared about their appearances and (b) had a life. But, I rationalized it by reminding myself that it was for a great cause: my kids’ school.

Fortunately, my auction co-chairs and our volunteers were amazing to work with. The event went well. It raised more than $200,000, an all-time record for our school. There were a few “minor” glitches. One memorable screw-up happened when party planner to the stars, Mindy Weiss, one of my auction co-chairs, had to make an emergency dash to In N Out Burger because the parent volunteer who catered the event was unable to feed a much larger than expected crowd. But, we carried on, drinking, bidding generously and having a grand ol’ time.

After the event, I was exhausted. Not suspecting anything seriously amiss, there was follow-up work to be done and I dragged myself back to the school to help supervise the event clean up. (Note to self: When the second parent association co-chair temporarily refuses to give you the box for the diamond earrings your husband bought you at auction, realize they hate you). 

Then, three days after the event, the email hit my in box at home like one of the U.S. missiles into Tripoli.  It was the draft of the official “thank-you” to all the auction co-chairs from the two moms who ran the parent association. They had glowing and kind things to say about everyone on the committee, except for me. Under my name they had written the most hurtful, insulting, unprofessional words I’ve ever heard in a professional capacity. Here’s an excerpt:

“Christina is arrogant, aggressive, and difficult to work with, with a true Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personality…” Oh, they did throw me a bone, saying I was “skilled at soliciting auction donations.”

WTF???

I froze. I felt like someone had slapped me across the face. Hard. Really hard. I couldn’t believe this was the thank you I was getting from the school’s parent association. I was embarrassed and furious. My tears flowed for days.

I was stunned because during the entire time I worked with this mom, we’d never even exchanged harsh words. We’d been cordial and friendly with each other. I had no idea how much she despised me.

But, I should have known. At the time, this mom was mid-50s, gray haired, granny-ish frumpster with three kids, including a set of twins in kindergarten. Her husband, she’d gripe, was useless with the kids. He was even older than she was. She’d complain constantly about the difficulties she faced raising her three kids. She complained she was often mistaken for her kids’ grandmother. She wore a neck brace for a period of time. Money was not the issue for this family, but they sure had other problems.  I always listened and tried to be sympathetic, but I just couldn’t relate to her situation. Luckily.

The evil email was intended for the other co-chair of the parent association and not the entire auction committee, which included me (and to which it was sent). Was I perfect to work with? No! When I’m working, I make decisions and keep moving. Doing “face time” in the parent lounge just wasn’t my style. Did I deserve this meanness? No!

A few weeks after the incident, she emailed me (yes, emailed me) a lame “apology” blaming me for the episode.

After the email debacle, I don’t think I set foot on campus for many months. I felt unwelcome and in some ways, I still do. It set the tone for my volunteerism at the school, which has never again involved anything having to do with the parent association.

So, what’s the lesson learned? When you encounter a menopausal, unhappy, bitter, frumpy, overwhelmed mom, run for your life. Don’t listen to her. Don’t try to be nice. Don’t gently suggest she color her hair. Don’t pretend like you have anything in common just because your kids are at the same school. Don’t hold the auction photo shoot at your home and invite her in. Act like a “Real Housewife Of New Jersey.” Hop in your minivan (or in this case, hers) and step on the gas pedal. Drive until you run out of gas. Make up some lame excuse as to why you can’t volunteer anymore and spare yourself the risk of having your reputation sullied by an “email illiterate” as she described her self in her “apology” to me. Trust me on this one. Oh, and tell Facebook to stop suggesting her as a “friend”. 


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