Our Guest Blogger Tours The "Gooey & Precious" School

The Fertile Crescent

Great Expectations: When School Tours Go Awry. Everyone has expectations about the private schools they’re considering for their child. When I was researching schools for my daughter, I spent plenty of time remembering what Anna’s preschool head had said regarding different schools. I read lots of online material. I chatted with friends about their experiences. And then I dove in and took the tours.


Expectations, though, are funny things. They come back to bite you. Like the time I marched into a tour convinced of certain things about the school, and walked out of the tour clutching my vitals. How, I wondered, could I have gotten it so wrong?


I was fully prepared to like this nameless, not to be identified school. I really wanted to like it, since I’d heard great things about its academics and approach (its location didn’t hurt, either). So, I entered the tour in a very friendly state of mind, as did my ex-husband and my significant other; a veritable threesome of good vibes, we were.


It was a lovely new campus, almost an oasis in the middle of surging suburbia. We were greeted and deposited in a modern library, complete with snacks and various giveaway items emblazoned with the school’s name. Fancy. And then the AD got up to speak. And speak. And speak.


Here’s some of the things said that gave me a headache:

▪    A gushy, mushy, corny rant about how our children are so special to each of us, and what good care they take of them. Well, for the price I’d be paying, good care is the least I should expect.

▪    A constant bragging about the wonderful middle schools the kids matriculate into. One mention is enough. More than that seemed to point to some insecurity.

▪    The headmaster telling a completely phony, self-serving story about some new kindergartner wanting to go to the school on a Saturday. Maybe the kid was just confused, not enthusiastic.


And then there was the very self-congratulatory community service program. The school hosts a “sister school” type program once a year for physically challenged kids at a public school in an underprivileged neighborhood. For these kids, the AD said, the visiting day to such a beautiful campus to play games “was like going to Disneyland.” Huh? The sister school is in an underprivileged area, not the Third World. There was even a video of wealthy kids pushing the poor kids’ wheelchairs around, with one of the pushers on camera, disingenuously saying, “This is the my favorite thing I’ve done all year.” I’m all for community service, but I didn’t like the tone.


What was even more bizarre was when they brought the elderly founder out to discuss his educational philosophy. It was very interesting, but it bore almost no relationship to what was going on at the school at present. This juxtaposition, in fact, was a bit stunning.


After about an hour of that, we finally got to the tour. It was given by two 6th graders, who were perfectly adorable (if perfectly canned). There was a lot of emphasis placed on an outdoor area with a silly name (I’m going to call it “The Fertile Crescent”). Such a verdant area was nice, although given the economic make up of the student body, how big a deal was it, really? After all, I’m sure all the kids had trees and flowers at home. Is it so important to have them at school? Just wondering about the need to point out the “Crescent” constantly during the tour.


In fact, the emphasis on The Fertile Crescent seemed to encompass the whole problem I had with this school and its tour approach. The staff kept emphasizing self-esteem and feeling good, yet then would do a double take and describe it as an academically rigorous environment. And to its credit, when I saw the academics, they looked good. The math class I saw was fascinating and stimulating. But just when I was getting good and interested in the academics, they’d ruin it with mush. There also seemed to be a bit of denial about how children behave. My significant other asked the Vice Principal about whether the school had a behavior code (a relevant question, and one that’s particularly important for our child, who will manipulate a system unless there are very clear boundaries). The VP seemed a bit stuck. He did point out a somewhat haphazard code, but he seemed to dismiss the question with the attitude of “we don’t have those problems here.” Please. Every school has those problems.


The capper, though, came toward the tour’s end. We walked into the music room, and a group of 1st graders “spontaneously” burst into singing “We Are the World.” Oh no. I thought the three of us were going to double over laughing. And yes, I realize that, to a less jaded little group, this musical display might hold appeal. Just not for us.


As we limped away, we all agreed that this school was wrong for Anna. She doesn’t need more coddling and self-esteem; she needs boundaries and discipline. We couldn’t get a real handle on the academic situation. And thus, we canceled her interview and tour almost immediately. One more school crossed off the list. Expectations dashed.


What was so disappointing about this experience is that the school had really shot itself in the foot. There was nothing wrong with the academics there. The staff seemed so well meaning. But the school was caught between what it really needs to be in order to survive in a competitive private school market, and what it felt the parents “needed” to hear. I guess we were the parents who just fully rejected the message as marketing, and that made us suspicious of its motives.


About a week after the tour, I received a little envelope from the school. It was a packet of sunflower seeds, the outside of the envelope stating it was from The Fertile Crescent. Needless to say, I didn’t plant them.


Thank you to our guest blogger, Jenny Heitz, for sharing her story. Jenny’s daughter Anna attended preschool at Montessori Shir-Hashirim. She attended 3rd St. Elementary School and will enter Mirman School for 4th Grade this fall (see Jenny’s post from 7/28/10…”The Gooey and Precious School is a reference from this post). You can find Jenny blogging at www.findatoad.com a fabulous, well-edited site for adult and kids gifts under $200.

My Daughter’s Visiting Day at Oakwood School

Even though it was about five years ago, my daughter’s visiting day at Oakwood School in North Hollywood is etched in my memory (just like all other aspects of the admissions process). Parents at our preschool, Montessori Shir-Hashirim in Hollywood, were abuzz about Oakwood School. They loved it. I toured the school and was completely captivated by its rustic, warm, unconventional feeling and its strong academics. We were definitely going to apply.

My daughter’s visiting day was scheduled for 8 a.m. My husband had to work, so I had to take her by myself. We arrived at the campus with about 15 minutes to spare. Except that we went to the wrong campus (I went to the secondary school, located at a different campus). Back in the car, headed to the lower school. Totally stressed. Whew! Arrived just in time.
We were greeted by the head of the lower school and the director of admissions. They were very friendly and gracious. We were shown into a large, bright kindergarten classroom where prospective parents and their kids were milling about. Everyone, including me, was nervous. Enormous donuts and coffee were served.
My daughter, who at that point, generally needed time to warm up to new situations, immediately and unexpectedly, struck up a conversation with the kindergarten teacher. Suddenly, my daughter became “Chatty Cathy.” She told the kindergarten teacher, “I love to read,” and “I like your books.” Then, my daughter picked up a book and began reading out loud. Other parents and kids stopped to look at her. She kept reading. And reading. And reading. It wasn’t surprising that she could read since she was already five years old (she has a late July birthday). “Mom, look at this book.” The teacher and admissions director both noticed. I could see they were impressed. But, this was just the beginning of an hour-long session without me in the room. It was far too early to be overly confident. I was standing in the corner, watching, but didn’t say anything. Suddenly, it was time for the kids to leave the room and go to another room for activities, sans parents.
The parents were invited to join the head of the lower school for coffee as we waited for our kids. As I recall, this served as the parent interview. There wasn’t a one-on-one parent interview at Oakwood. The head of the lower school talked a bit about Oakwood and its programs and answered questions. It was all very “casual.” The head of the lower school is warm and friendly, an “earth mother” type. There were moms and dads there, many of whom, it seemed, already had older children at the school. A lot of the dads were in suits. My outfit? Jeans, a blazer and a cute top with sandals…not too trendy, but not sloppy either. Definitely not sloppy!
I couldn’t get a read on any of the parents in the room. Entertainment industry? Corporate executives? Crunchy-granola? Rich hippie? Valley-types? Definitely not blue collar. I just wasn’t sure about the parents. The parents there with older siblings were, not surprisingly, at ease with the head of school. They seemed very confident and kind of smug, like they had an advantage (which they did!). Everyone seemed like they were trying to impress the head of school. I felt obligated to ask a question. I asked how the school transitions kids to kindergarten. The head of school explained that most kids don’t have problems starting kindergarten, its usually the parents. But, the school does have a summer picnic for new families, she told us. A few of the dads were obnoxious, but I knew they were prospective parents, not necessarily parents I’d have to deal with. Their questions were prefaced with phrases like, “I run a multi-million dollar company…” Some of the moms seemed very stiff and aloof. But, what did I seem like to them? Probably the same.
I was just wondering how things were going in the other room where the kids were being observed doing activities. A few parents told everyone this was their second time applying after being wait-listed the previous year. Yikes!! No wonder everyone was nervous about getting in.
Finally, after about an hour, the kids were back and ready to go home. Off we went back home to wait for our letters and get ready for the next visiting day.
We didn’t get any letters of recommendation for Oakwood because we didn’t know anyone who could write one for us.
A few days later, our preschool director, Elena, pulled me aside during pick up to say, “Oakwood likes your daughter.” I sent the requisite thank you notes and the “We love your school letter” to the admissions director. Fast-foward to March. My daughter was accepted to Oakwood. We declined the offer. Several families at our preschool were wait-listed. Oakwood is a wonderful, amazing school, but the distance from our house was a big drawback and we just felt The Willows was calling our name.