"Is Your Daughter Smart?" the Principal Asked

My Sweet, Funny, Kind (and Smart) Daughter

This is a somewhat warped tale about class, geography, race, wealth and bureaucratic bungling. As a private elementary school mom, I’m often asked why the Los Angeles private elementary school admission process is so competitive? Why are schools that charge up to $30,000 per year, per kid for elementary school receiving hundreds of applications for every open spot? Is L.A really overflowing with parents who are carefully orchestrating plans to steer their kids to the “right” private schools and then on to the Ivy League? Why are parents doing everything in their power (some of which is substantial) to get their kid admitted to a good private elementary school in L.A?

Depending on when you live in L.A. the public school system isn’t up to many parents’ standards. There are definitely some excellent public schools, but they vary by geographic location. Recent, severe public school budget cuts and scandals of epic proportion have driven even more parents to look at private schools as they confront increased class size, teacher layoffs and cuts in essential school services. The public school crisis has been on of the biggest factors keeping private school admissions competitive, despite the recession. I could easily turn this into a discussion about why too many public schools are failing our kids, but much has been written on that topic and I certainly don’t have the answers. 

As a product of L.A. public schools, I am intimately familiar with its many challenges. I experienced bullying, incompetent teachers and an uneven education. Naturally, I was seeking something better for my kids. I repeat, there are some excellent public schools in our city, it all comes back to the question of where you live. Does it make sense to buy a house you can’t really afford just to send your kid to public school in Bel Air?

The year before my daughter started elementary school, I wanted to put my public school memories behind me. After all, who had a great middle school experience anywhere?  So, I decided to look at our local public elementary school. It was three blocks from our house in Hancock Park, had high student test scores and seemed like a real possibility for my daughter. When the school’s computer lab was broken into the year before, I made a generous donation based on a letter sent to neighbors by the school. I was trying to keep an open mind, despite the fact that I only knew one neighbor who sent their kid there.  

Another mom at our preschool and I set up an appointment with to meet with the principal and tour the school . The day of our appointment we arrived on time just to learn that the principal was “unavailable.”  So, we waited, politely sitting in the front waiting area. Finally, after about 20 minutes the receptionist told us the principal wouldn’t be able to meet with us. We asked if a teacher could show us the school. A very nice kindergarten teacher gave us a quick tour and told us the principal was now available to see us in her office. We sat down and introduced ourselves. The principal seemed uninterested in us and bored with the conversation. We asked about class size, hot lunch and homework. Waving her hands and practically shouting us down, the principal didn’t answer our questions. Instead, she aimed a pointed question at me, “is your daughter smart?” she demanded to know. She didn’t ask the other mom the same question. My response was, “I live in your district.” In other words, you have to enroll my kid, whether or not she’s smart. I refused to answer her question. I found it offensive. We asked to see a 1st grade class. The principal said no. As we were leaving, the kindergarten teacher told us, “just be quiet, I’ll show you the 1st grade class.” We peeked into the 1st grade class and I suspected the reason why the principal didn’t want us to see it. It was a Korean-language immersion class. None of the kids in the class spoke English.  The principal was also Korean. Could she have been subtly trying to discourage me from enrolling my daughter in the school?

A few months later, I went back to the public school again during a school community fair. I tried to like it, but with 1000 elementary students, I felt my shy daughter might be lost in the crowd. And, I knew I wouldn’t be able to deal with the principal’s personality. The mom from our preschool who toured with me decided to enroll her child. Her perception of the school was vastly different than mine. Then again, the principal never asked if her white daughter was “smart.” That question was reserved for me, the African American mom.

Despite living in a “good” public school district, my husband and I decided private school would be the best option for our kids. And so began the hellish, ultra-competitive process to get our daughter into a top private elementary school in L.A.

In September 2005, we embarked on a time-consuming whirlwind of tours (10 schools), applications ($100 each), parent interviews, kid testing days, parent coffee chats, and then the agonizing waiting period in late March, as we held our breath to find out if our daughter had been accepted to private school. The LA Times dubbed the day the letters arrive as “Black Friday” because there are so many rejection lettersreceived, so much bad news for families who applied. On “Black Friday,” parents begin obsessively checking the mail, email, phone messages for any sign of admission letters. A fat envelope signals an acceptance. A thin, flat letter means rejection, or so the rumor goes. Stalking the mail truck, going to the school, drinking large quanties of wine, eating everything in sight and spending hours on the phone with girlfriends are just a few of the survival tactics my friends and I used until our letters arrived. When they ripped open their letters, overjoyed parents have admitted to running crazily into the middle of the street shouting to everyone they know that their kid got into private school. A bunch of “no” letters sent one mom friend of mine into the closet for a tear-filled, drinking binge, devastated that her child was denied admission everywhere she applied. I felt the process was very personal. You’ve put your entire family on the line for admissions directors to evaluate. The parent interviews are like a job interview that includes your 4 or 5 year old’s “resume.”

“You have to ‘work it’ to get your kid into private school,” I heard over and over from everyone. What did that mean? I filled out the applications, dragged my husband to the interviews with a strict warning to leave his sarcastic sense of humor at home, had my daughter tested, attended school events.  What else could I do? Well, there was more to do, I just didn’t know it. About two weeks before letters arrived, I found out through the parent grapevine that there is an entire “behind the scenes” process that is happening during admissions season. Parents who told me, “I’d never ask a parent at the school where we’re applying to write me a letter of recommendation” were not telling the truth. Everyone was getting letters from anybody they knew who was remotely connected to the private schools. Some parents have been known to go up the food chain seeking letters from U.S. Senators and Ambassadors. These types also send fancy gifts to admissions directors. Upon learning this, I scrambled to asked several families we knew to write letters on our behalf. Luckily, they wrote the letters, which at minimum eased my mind and at best helped my daughter get into all three schools we applied to. 

My daughter is now about to enter 5th grade. Was all the stress of admissions worth it?  Absolutely. But, private schools aren’t perfect either, although their challenges are different than public schools. They are insanely expensive and tuition rises 4-8 percent per year. On top of tuition, there are other costs, like annual giving and “extras” for your kid. There is also elitism and privilege like I’ve never seen before. Not surprisingly, there are very few working class or lower middle class families. The term “I’ll give you a ride” doesn’t necessarily mean a car ride. It can also mean a ride on somebody’s PRIVATE JET.

Because the admissions process was so stressful and there was so much “off the radar” networking happening, I collaborated with two educators (one of them is my step mom) to write a book about navigating the private school process. I also blog about it because I believe parents who wants a private school education for their child should have access to information that is accessible to some families, but not all. In order to play the game, you must understand its hidden rules.

I’m grateful my kids are at a progressive urban private school. I know we are fortunate to be able to pay the cost of their education. We also make this a financial priority in our family, in part because of my negative experience in LA public schools. My husband attended top public suburban schools outside Philadelphia so he doesn’t completely grasp the idea that public school isn’t an option. We contribute to our school’s scholarship fund to help finance diverse families who can’t pay the full tuition. On days when I’ve come across a particularly entitled, snobbish parent, I wonder if I made the right choice. Then again I don’t think the suburbs are for me.

Six years after the public school principal demanded to know if my daughter was “smart” I can tell her she didn’t need to worry. The answer is yes. She’s also sweet, funny and kind. 

* First published on Open Salon

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Book Giveaway! Beyond The Brochure’s 2 Year Anniversary

Hi Everyone!

It’s our blogoversary! Beyond The Brochure, the book and the blog. turn 2 years old today! We want to say a huge THANK YOU to our readers! It’s been an exciting adventure and we plan to continue writing as long as you’ll keep reading. To celebrate our blogoversary, we’re giving away a free copy of Beyond The Brochure! (see excerpt below).

Over the past 2 years, our blog has grown steadily. We’ve had more than 122,000 page views. We’re very proud that our blog won a Circle Of Moms award for “Best Parent Resource Blog.” Beyond The Brochure has also been nominated for a 2011 Parents Magazine best local blog award. 

We’ve been privileged to feature amazing guest bloggers, who offer expertise and perspectives different than our own. We’d like to give a huge shout-out to guest blogger extraordinaire, Jenny Heitz, Mirman mom and writer of the modern gift blog Find A Toad, for her incredible writing, insight into L.A. private elementary schools and her sense of humor. 

One of our favorite aspects of Beyond The Brochure is speaking to parents at preschools and private events about the admissions process. And, of course we love blog comments! You also send us heartfelt emails asking questions. This wouldn’t be a private schools blog without the occasional criticism or scolding from our readers. 

If you have topics you’d like to see featured on the blog, please leave a comment and let us know! As many of you start the admissions process for 2011-12, please know that we understand the emotions, the time and energy involved, the stress and the highs and lows of the admissions process. We’ve lived it. 

From our hearts, Anne, Porcha and I wish you all the best in your quest for a great private school for your child.

To enter the giveaway, it’s easy!

1. Leave a comment telling us why you want to win a copy of Beyond The Brochure. You must leave your email, but you can use the format, csimon2007 at gmail dot com (to prevent spam)

2. Earn an extra chance to win by subscribing to our blog! Click here. If you’re already a subscriber, let us know. 

3. Winner will be selected at random on Thursday, September 8, 2011. We will post the winner’s name on our Facebook page. 

A Portion Of A Real Sample Application For A Child That Was Admitted To Top Schools

The Inside Scoop: How Private Schools Hire Teachers by Anne Simon

One of the biggest concerns among prospective parents is the hiring of teachers in private schools: What are their qualifications?  How are they hired? How can parents know they are the best teachers out there?
Private schools hire their teachers based on their own criteria and standards. Each school has its own process and expectations. Since private schools are not bound by any state licensing laws, it is up to them to determine whether an teacher applicant is qualified for the job and whether the candidate is a good fit for the school.
Just like finding the right match for your child and your family in a school, the school seeks to find the right match in its teachers. The two main areas for consideration are teaching qualifications and ability to fit with the culture of the school. The analogy to a student’s readiness to learn and his fit with the style and culture of the school is appropriate.
Qualifications vary from school to school and grade to grade, and it is perfectly appropriate to ask the school to describe their teacher qualification standards as part your information gathering as you search for the right school. In the elementary years, there is generally more emphasis on teacher training and methodology. In the upper grades there is more focus on content (does the teacher know the subject being taught). Generally speaking, private schools require at least a B.A. degree and many are increasingly seeking teachers with M.A. degrees. At the high school level you will find a smattering of PhDs among the faculty in most good schools.
The other academic, as well as social qualification, relates to years of teaching experience. It is interesting to find out what the average years of experience is of the faculty at the schools you are visiting. It is also interesting to know the age span of the teachers. It is probably a good idea for a school to have a moderately high average number of years of teaching experience and a pretty broad age range among the faculty. This profile offers stability, while it also brings in new ideas that come with younger teachers.
Getting a sense of the cultural side of things is a little more ephemeral. You can ask an administrator what qualities they are looking for when hiring new faculty and see what they say. They will undoubtedly start with their standard qualifications and then talk about experience. From there they should say something about personal traits that they feel best suit their particular style of school. An example might be that they look for well-prepared and experienced faculty who love their subject, or who have a gift for relating to their students. How they answer these questions should give you some idea about the nature of the faculty as a group.
My last school had a structural component that helped to ensure that our teachers became both academically and culturally acclimated. We had “assistant teacher” positions in our first four grades (PK-2). At least in these classes it was possible to have a teacher develop experience under the tutelage of an experienced lead teacher. Sometimes these teachers became lead teachers in other grades if there was an opening, and sometimes they graduated to lead teacher in the class where they had been an assistant.  Of course, these assistant positions were less well paid and often part time, and they did not attract highly experienced teachers who wanted their own classroom. These highly qualified candidates also came along when opening occurred and were vetted extensively by both administrators and teachers alike. The biggest advantage of the assistant scenario was that teachers were able to become very familiar with the school’s curriculum before having to take complete responsibility for delivering it to a group of students. The biggest difficulty in this structure was that we had a very stable faculty and there was not always room for a teacher to move up when ready.
Qualifications, qualities, experience, fit – these are the questions you will want to explore as you learn about a school. Most private schools have their “legendary teachers”, their “problematic teachers”, and their “unknowns “or “newbies”. Talking with current parents will give you some idea of this. But it is important to remember that one size does not fit all. The kindergarten teacher who is a savior to both child and parent alike for one family can be a thorn in the side for another. It gets back to knowing your child, getting to know the school’s standards and style, and recognizing that your student, and you, will have a variety of experiences as the years pass by. Some will be treasured and hopefully few will be just endured.

Anne Simon is co-author of “Beyond The Brochure.” She is the former head of Wildwood School and former dean of the Crossroads Middle School. 

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Guest Blogger Jenny: Apply To The Schools YOU Like

Private elementary school searches in Los Angeles always seem to lead to the same few schools being touted as “the best.” So, inevitably you, the proud parent of some innocent pre-schooler (usually) who’s still building faulty block architecture and trying not to pee her pants, feel pressure to apply to those “best” schools, or look like a loser.

Don’t lie about it. You sometimes hang out with parents who seem to know the scoop on the private school scene, and they have some tough and shill standards to holler at you during cocktail parties. Stuff about the best “progressive” education (I’m still unclear as to what that actually means), the most innovative classroom organization, and (the dirty little LA private school secret) the incredible business connections you could foster with other well heeled parents.

Goodness knows the schools we’re talking about are excellent. All are feeder schools to the top middle and upper schools in the city. All have high ERB scores, and scores of educational goodies. Most are a bit artsy, although underneath that cuddly, slightly 1970’s exterior lurks a ruthless competitive drive. But here’s the problem: you can apply, but the odds of getting in aren’t in your favor.

Take The Center For Early Education (CEE), for instance. CEE is probably the top of the top tier of private elementary schools. Designed by psychologists and other educational experts, CEE is the utmost in “progressive” education (as stated above: not entirely sure what that means), and it’s one cozy and cloistered environment. CEE kids go on to schools like Harvard-Westlake, Marlborough, and Brentwood.

And by all means, you should apply! Why not? But here’s a little statistic for you: your child has more likelihood of getting into Harvard for college than getting into CEE for kindergarten. It’s true.

I’m not writing this to bum you out, but to clue you in on the private school reality. If all you do is apply to the totally top tier, super competitive, ultra progressive (see my other parenthetical statements above) LA schools, you might not get into any of them. Schools like CEE, Brentwood, Oakwood, Crossroads, John Thomas Dye (not progressive, but just as impossible to gain entrance to), Carlthorp and The Willows are a total crap shoot. Your child might get in, either through exceptional performance (could happen with sufficient bladder control that day; skip that extra apple juice box), some connection you happen to have (mazel tov), or sheer amazingly good luck.

This is why it’s important to look at other schools, schools which may be excellent and perfect for your child, but aren’t in that ultra top tier. Kids from mildly religious schools like St. James and St. Brendan’s in Hancock Park still have impressive matriculation stats and offer an excellent education, often for a far lower tuition.  Another example of a great school with limited buzz is our friend Virginia’s take on Children’s Community Schoola slightly less well known school that sounds really wonderful. Check those schools out. And then apply to combination of the heavy hitter long shots and the so called underdog schools which might turn out to be the greatest educational experience your child ever has.

Finally, ignore those cocktail party braying donkeys. Private elementary school is not, ultimately, a status symbol. It shouldn’t be a place for the parents to get ahead in business, it’s a place for children to learn how to function in the world. Your child is the one attending the school; you’ve been done with school for a long, long time. Sip your martini, nod politely, and let all the nonsense roll right off you.

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,

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Anne Simon, "Beyond The Brochure" Co-Author Makes It Official: She’s Retired!

Anne Simon, my step-mom and Beyond The Brochure co-author steps down as head of school. She’s retired! Congratulations, Anne on more than 30 years as an educator, mom, grandmother, step-mom, foster mom, mentor and more! Now Anne will be able to spend more time in L.A. seeing my family and helping parents navigate the private elementary school admissions process.
We love you! Christina and Porcha