Two Abandoned “A-List” Private School Tours (re-post)

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Originally published August 8, 2010. 

When we were looking at kindergarten for my daughter, I think we toured about 10 schools.

There were two school tours that I’ll mention in this post because (1) they are extremely coveted schools with big reputations (and, we found, egos to match) and (2) my husband and I abandoned both tours mid-stream in order to maintain our sanity.

School #1

The first school is a near-impossible-to-get-into K-12 school, not exactly close to our house. With traffic, it’s about an hour drive. Our tour was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. I scheduled my nanny to come at 6 a.m. to make sure we could leave the house on time.

On the way to the tour, my husband and I had an argument. Traffic was horrible, there was road construction and a detour. My husband had already decided this wasn’t going to be a drive we could do. I wanted to continue on to the school and complete the tour. We were totally stressed and snapping at each other. He was driving, tailgating the car ahead. He knows this makes me carsick.

We arrived at the school and were greeted by the admissions director, an ice queen. She had us and the other group of parents stand outside the admissions office while she told us about the school. It went on for an eternity. The ice queen droned on. Bored out of my mind, my eyes wandered. Parents were dropping off their kids for school. A very showy drop-off scene. We waited for a few late arrivals than preceded to start the tour. The actress Maria Bello, wearing Hudson Jeans, was on the tour, along with her ex-husband. My husband was on the verge of being an “ex” as well, as he made small talk with Ms. Bello, striving to find some commonality in their Philadelphia roots. When he made reference to her cheerleader scene in “A History of Violence,” I ushered him away for a sharp elbowed reminder of why we were there.

The building of this school is quite nice. It’s big and relatively new. The walls are adorned with the art of famous LA artists. Although this art was probably donated, the artists on display sell their work for hundreds of thousands of dollars per painting.

We went into the kindergarten classroom, where they were doing show and tell. Show and tell? In my mind, that’s an old-fashioned, dated waste of time. This was a hip, modern school. The teacher had a kid up at the front of the class with his item to show. It was some sort of small animal, as I remember. Another little girl was sobbing hysterically, since school had just stared a few weeks earlier. It was hard to focus with her crying and they finally had her leave the room with a teacher. Not impressive. It definitely didn’t live up to the hype.

Then, it was time to go to the math class. The teachers talked about the math program, which seemed fine, if not a bit fuzzy. They also seemed quite proud of the fact that a girl in the class had broken her arm on a recent overnight field trip. I’d pay more than $20,000 to have my kid break an arm on a field trip?

This school is big on community service and really touted its various programs to help the community. Parents on the tour seemed very impressed by this. To me the programs seemed outdated and stale. There’s a lot more innovative stuff happening in LA schools, but it wasn’t there. The programs appeared to be at least a decade old. Parents were complimenting the admissions director at every opportunity. I was sure Maria Bello liked the school the most of everyone. She keep oohing and nodding with approval at everything.

To me, the school seemed chilly, it lacked warmth. Perfect buildings, gorgeous artwork, no energy, way too quiet for a lower school.

After the community service portion of the tour, my husband and I gave each other “the look” which means “let’s go”. The tour wasn’t finished, but we knew this wasn’t the school for us. We left. In some ways, it feels good to cross a school off your list. On the other hand, that leaves one less option.

School #2

Plastic surgery. Designer logos. Super-high heels. Haughty attitudes. The Real Housewives of New York? Nope. A private elementary school tour in Los Angeles.

The second tour we abandoned is yet another super-difficult school to get into. I was curious to see this school since it is one of the most sought after private elementary schools in LA. This is partly because of the celebrities who have kids at the school and partly because of the parents at the school, many of whose heads are swelled to the point of bursting with self-importance. Of all the schools, this school suffers (or benefits) from the most rumors about how many kids will be accepted, how many siblings, etc. Parents can spend hours talking about whether this school will admit one or two new kids in a given admissions cycle. We toured it at the suggestion of our preschool director.

We arrived and were told we’d be on a tour with two other families. There were lots of other tours taking place at the same time. This school has a low-key exterior and location that belies its interior pretentiousness.

The mom who was our tour guide was very unfriendly, had a plastic surgeon husband (who had clearly worked on her face, and my husband speculated a little too loudly, her rejuvenation) and knew very little about what was actually happening in the classrooms. She was jittery and unfocused. I wanted to switch tour guides. Her focus was to look around to see who else was on the other tours. Head to toe in designer clothes, she had zero interest in my family. None. She never made eye contact. Nor did she have any interest in our companion family on the tour. They were not wealthy enough, it was obvious, even though the husband mentioned he was a lawyer.

After the tour, the head of school welcomed parents in the auditorium. This head of school is very impressive. Or so the head of school told everyone in the ten minutes that were allocated to us. However, we knew that wouldn’t be enough to make this school work for us. My husband and I saw a door marked “Emergency Exit”. Too bad, or we could have made our escape. Again, we gave each other “the look” We made a quick exit out the front and were gone.

I write about these two abandoned tours to say that even if everyone else likes a school, you may not. It’s better to bow out early than waste everyone’s time. I couldn’t get excited about either school. Parents all around me were practically hyper-ventilating they wanted a spot at both these schools so badly. These two schools were all theirs.

Our preschool director tried to get us to re-think this school. Tour it again. We have friends there and they love it. It simply wasn’t right for our family.

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How Not To Get Your Child Into A School? on Huffington Post

Traditional Schools: Uniforms reflect the school's culture


Here’s a very good article, How Not To Get Your Kid Into A School? by Jennifer Brozost and Vimmi Shroff, both educational consultants, on Huffington Post about mistakes parents make when applying to schools. If you’ve been on even one L.A. private school tour, you’ve seen the bad behavior they’re talking about.


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The Lowdown on L.A. Private Elementary School Tours by Alice

Photo: Flickr/Brad Flickinger
Photo: Flickr/Brad Flickinger

If it’s your first time through the private school gauntlet, the tours are everything. As a family you are trying to make a decision that could impact the next six to twelve years of your lives and no other form of reconnaissance replaces boots on the ground. Even if you’ve seen the brochures, or have driven by a particular school countless times and even if all your best friend’s kids go there and they’ve given all the inside scoop, it still doesn’t replace the tour.

For me the campus was never exactly what I pictured. No matter how eloquent my friends were, or how well photographed a campus was, really walking around it was irreplaceable. It’s seeing the kids and their enthusiasm or lack there of. It’s feeling the buzz in the air, the way and where they eat, where the backpacks get tossed, the lockers, the fields, the size of the campus, how it’s maintained. All of these little vignettes come together to paint a picture. For most of us, it’s a feeling we get, that out kid would be happy, or not, in any given school.

It’s also really the best time to get your questions out. The “evening” that many of the schools sponsor specifically for Q & A’s with kids often feels staged and overly prepared. As my friend Karen said about one evening in particular, “The kids felt like they’d been too coached. The headmaster at the time stood off to the side. If questions went in a direction he wasn’t comfortable with, he’d jump in and steer things in another direction. “

Particularly if you get lucky and get a student led tour, even if your student guide is extremely well prepared and rehearsed, you’re going to have a chance for real interaction and get a more candid insights into what your guide loves about his or her school. For that reason alone, I’m a fan of student led tours.

However, many tours of K-8 schools are done by admissions officers and that’s still a good opportunity not only to see the school and ask questions, but to see if it’s a personality match. Don’t panic if your child is a total dolt through whole tour. Admissions people have seen it all. For most kindergarten classes they are looking more at the family than the child (assuming the child is not an outlier).

There are some schools that are so exclusive it’s hard to get a tour. I tried to tour John Thomas Dye and Curtis for my son, but I waited until September to call and apparently I was too late!. If you don’t get on the tour/application list over the summer at those schools you’re out, and there’s no getting back in.

Also buyer beware. Most schools do a good job of touring and your little one may fall in love. My son fell in love with Oakwood on the tour, but I had an early sense Oakwood wasn’t in love with us and I was right. He didn’t get in, so don’t let a five-year old’s emotions play too big a role in your decision making and what eggs you are putting in what baskets. The family and school have to be a match and that really isn’t going to be determined by the tour. You will learn things. You may decide a school is or isn’t right, but a lot of other things have to line up between the tour and an acceptance letter.

Final note, one woman I know got pretty offended when she was being toured by an admissions director only to look around and see the Headmaster touring another family. Why them and not me she thought? The truth is there could be a million good reasons, including they are his relatives. Let it go and enjoy the tour. It really is about you. It’s about your chance to see the place and get the feel for it and then all the other posturing, planning, applying, interviewing, waiting and suffering can take place.

God Speed.


Mother of three, Alice attended east coast private schools as a child and has been in the private school world as a parent for nearly twenty years. Her kids attended Mirman for elementary, then Harvard-Westlake and Brentwood for high school, with one still to go. She is a writer working in film, TV and for various magazines such as Family Fun, Wondertime, Glamour and Brides.


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