Co-author Porcha Dodson takes Project Knapsack to S. Africa!


Good Works!


Beyond The Brochure Co-Author, Porcha Dodson, CEO of Project Knapsack, a non-profit pen-pal and back pack exchange program, paid a visit last week to students at the Molalatladi Primary School in Soweto, South Africa. This year, the students from Molalatladi wrote pen-pal letters to their new friends from Campbell Hall School and Jefferson Middle School in Lennox, CA. In partnership with Loyola Marymount University, the program was able to provide each student in Africa with their very own back-packs filled with school supplies as well as help expand the school’s technology lab.
Project Knapsack supporters include:
The Rock Foundation, The Sheila C. Johnson Foundation, Care, Staples, Element Skateboards and The Washington Mystics.
For more information, visit

Private School Annual Giving: Not Optional

We all know what this means: $$$$. It symbolizes an expensive restaurant. It could also be the symbol for private elementary school annual giving campaigns.


New parents at private elementary schools are often surprised that contributing to the school’s annual giving campaign is expected. Yes, expected. Not optional. Private schools rely on the annual giving campaign to cover expenses that are not covered by tuition. You may get a letter or a call from another parent asking for your contribution. Subtle hints will follow. Banners around the school and articles in the school’s newsletter announcing the kickoff of the annual giving campaign.


So, your first year at private school, even if you do a TON of volunteer work, chair a committee, serve as room parent, host a party, contribute to the fair or other events, you will still be expected to contribute to the annual giving campaign. The amount is totally up to you. Schools hope new families will be generous with their annual campaign gift. But, they know that you’re still getting acquainted with the private school environment. If you have questions, ask the development director for guidance. When they tell you the “gap” between what tuition covers and what the school’s expenses are, that’s your clue as to the amount needed per family.


At The Willows School, the category with the most families in is up to $1499.00. Next is the $1,500-$2,999 category. The smallest category of families is the $25,000 and up. The chart would like like a triangle.


The most important thing (besides one hundred percent particiation) is that you increase your giving every year. And, if your second child enrolls at the school, expect to be asked to give twice the “gap” amount, once for each child. The amount of the gap depends on the school and can range from $2000 up.


What drives private schools crazy? Families who say that they are opposed to annual giving “on principle” because they pay tuition. In addition to building goodwill within the school community, schools can receive grant money based on the school’s annual fund particiation rates. Board members, teachers, staff, alumni, grandparents and corporations also participate in the annual campaign.


While it may seem like tuition should cover all expenses, it doesn’t. And, all the wonderful things the school offers are only possibly with a robust annual campaign. Yes, its an additional expense, but the contribution from every family is appreciated, no matter the amount. It’s not what you give, but whether you give.


Take a deep breath. Your contribution will be tax deductible.

Your Family’s Key Messages: Make Your Application Standout

If you missed our event on April 1 at the Beverly Hills Country Club, one of the ideas we discussed is the concept of developing “key messages” about your family and your child that you will use throughout the private elementary school application process.

I’m a former vice president at Fleishman-Hillard, a global public relations firm. So, developing key messages to define a client’s campaign or image is second nature to me. When it came time to write our daughter’s applications for kindergarten, I applied the same techniques I had practiced as a public relations professional. I developed clear, concise ideas or messages I wanted admissions directors to know about us.
The image of the family on the right is generic. It could be any family. It’s your job to add color to that photo. Give schools a reason to be excited about your child. Illuminate that image on the right. Standout from the competition. Use the admissions process to capture admissions directors’ attention and hold it.
Once you develop your family’s key messages, you can repeat them again and again, whenever possible, throughout your written application, your parent interview, your follow-up thank you notes to admissions directors and in letters of recommendation friends write for you. Then, when an admissions director thinks about your family, hopefully, they will think, “That’s the family that is involved with their local Red Cross Chapter”, or “They are the family with the kid who loves to perform in school plays or draw comic books”.
When I say key messages what do I really mean? I’m simply referring to the most important things you want a school to know about your child and your family. If an admissions director thinks about your child or your family after your parent interview, what do you want him/her to remember?
For our family, here are the key messages I developed:
  1. Both my husband and I are well-educated and we understand the value of education for personal and professional success. I graduated from UC Berkeley and have an MA from UCLA. Barry has a BA from Harvard in Math and a JD from Harvard Law.
  2. We are not an artistic family, but we would like our kids to be exposed to the arts.
  3. Our daughter is shy and studious.
  4. We have served on non-profit boards and we understand the mission of private elementary schools.
  5. I have fundraising experience that I’d love to put to work for your school. I’d welcome the opportunity to serve on fundraising committees.
  6. We have ruled out our local public school and we are only interested in private schools.
This is just one example of how to define your family in a few key sentences. Take a minute to think about well-known American public figures like Oprah Winfrey. When her name is mentioned, we instantly think of an outspoken, charitable, wealthy, groundbreaking woman. What about Brooke Shields? She’s an actress and mom. You get the idea. What comes to mind when people think about your family and your child?
The key is to be specific about what makes your family unique! Why should a top private school want to enroll your child and by extension, your family? Are you from another country? Would you bring diversity to the school? Do you volunteer in your community? Do you have professional skills a school needs i.e. computer skills, graphic design skills, the ability to organize an after-school program or enrichment class, fundraising or auction experience? One note here: private elementary schools have lots of parents who want to volunteer to bake cookies or read to the kids. That’s great, but it doesn’t help the school with their enormous volunteer needs in other areas.
Every child and every family is unique. We have friends with whom we’ve always joked that one day their child will be running the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai. Very bright, with a bold personality and tons of energy, their child was just accepted at all the private middle schools where they applied (from an LAUSD public elementary school). That brief description of their child leaves a lasting impression of someone a school would like to have as part of their student body.
The goal is to make sure you communicate the one-of-a-kind contribution your child will offer to each school where you apply. You’re helping admissions directors get acquainted with your family in a meaningful way. This takes some thought, but it’s well worth the effort. It will help ensure you make a lasting impression at the private elementary schools where you apply.

Reader Question: Feeder Preschools To Private Elementary Schools

We got a question from a mom who asked whether she should consider where preschools send their graduates (to public or private elementary schools) since she wants her child to attend private school. I’ve had the experience of both types of preschools. My daughter attended a preschool where lots of kids attend private elementary schools each year. My son attended a preschool where almost all the children attend public elementary school.

If it is your first child and you want him/her to attend private school, you should definitely consider the “feeder” preschools. Those are the preschools that feed into top private elementary schools. You shouldn’t try to send your child to a “feeder” preschool ONLY because it has a connection to a good private elementary school. But, I know firsthand how helpful it is to have a preschool director who is on a first name basis with admissions directors at the top schools, who knows what a parent interview is all about, who can tell you which schools might be good for your child and who can help you navigate the entire process. If the preschool director is not “in the loop” about private schools, it will be more difficult for him/her to guide you through the process. Elena Cielak at Montessori Shir-Hashirim was incredibly helpful to me and other parents as we went through the admissions process. When we stopped by her office to tell her about our visiting day, she knew exactly what we were talking about. She discussed our application with admissions directors. She helped me decide which school would be best for my daughter (and she was right because she knew my daughter and she knew The Willows School.). That knowledge comes with experience of helping families get into private elementary schools year after year. Private elementary schools accept children from a wide variety of preschools. Still, there’s a reason certain preschools are called “feeder” preschools. These are the preschools whose graduates go on to a few specific private elementary schools.
Preschool directors who have years of experience helping place their graduates at top LA private elementary schools juggle many potentially conflicting issues, including families from their own preschool who are competing for admission to the same schools. They are dealing with families that get wait-listed at their top choice and families who are declined admission at all the schools they applied to. They have to advise families who ignore their advice and only apply to one school, which then wait-lists their child. That’s a lot to handle! But, if your preschool director knows your child and knows the private elementary schools you like, that’s a huge advantage. Do preschool directors get upset at families who refuse to follow their advice during the application process? Yes, it can happen. Do preschool directors sometimes get upset if a family selects a school that they don’t think is best for the child. Sometimes. Still, most preschool directors will do their best to place each family at their top choice school.
The book, Coping With Preschool Panic, lists the elementary schools, public and private, where each preschool sends its graduates. This can be really helpful if you are just starting to look at preschools.
We also discuss the topic of feeder preschools in our book. 

Sleepover birthday parties and 14 hour playdates

Maybe I’m slightly old fashioned. Not the old fashioned parenting style of reality TV mom Kate Gosselin, of course. But, sometimes I wonder, despite the fact that I consider myself to be a liberal, modern mom. My kids are still young, six and nine years old. So when a parent at our school who I barely know, whose house I’ve never been to, invites my six year-old to a sleepover birthday party that lasts almost two entire days, I decline the invitation. My six year-old has never had a sleepover. My nine year-old has sleepovers at the homes of families I know well.

When a celebrity mom who pretends not to know who I am and routinely walks by me at school without as much as “hello” calls to request my daughter accompany her family to Disneyland (and spend the night there) I decline the request. Our kids aren’t friends. We’ve never been to her house and she’s never been to our house. Maybe it’s because we don’t know each other?
When parents complain about bad behavior among kids at sleepover parties, I’m not surprised. They’ve invited kids they barely know.
At private elementary schools, there are plenty of opportunities to drop off your kids with the nannies or babysitters of families that you don’t really know. Even on the weekends. They’ll take them on elaborate, all day outings that end late at night. I opt out of these type of invitations for my kids, no matter how generous they seem.
Sometimes I can tell a parent is annoyed that I’ve said “no thanks” to their invitation.
That’s ok. I’m a modern mom.