Looking At The School From The Inside
Unless you’ve been living in a cave somewhere, you already know the basics when it comes to assessing a private elementary school for your child. You’ve already balanced your educational belief system (progressive or traditional, etc) with what your child needs (and they don’t always match up). You’ve eliminated schools that would require a daily helicopter ride to attend. So far, so good.
There is, however, another side to choosing a school. Your child is the major attendee, of course, but you will end up attending the school as well. All private elementary schools demand a certain amount of volunteerism and annual giving. And sometimes, it’s really hard to get a grip on what the parent body (and subsequent pressures) really is at a particular school.
So you’re going to have to dig. Try talking to current parents of the school and subtly getting the scoop. For instance, every school has big fundraisers every year, but some are much more low key than others. You might prefer a daytime fair to a nighttime black tie event, for instance. But you won’t know that unless you inquire about the nature of these events. If the school holds events at exclusive country clubs, where the price to join is $100K, you can be fairly certain that parents at the school have memberships at the club and do their socializing there. That’s great for those who have memberships at the club, but what about those who don’t?
Another good indication is the type of silent auction items that are in demand at a school. All private schools have these silent auctions (and guess who supplies the goods? YOU!!!). But while at one school the hottest item that went for the highest price might be some great Laker tickets, another school might offer a pricey dinner party catered by a family’s private chef, at their mansion. Or, to ratchet up the bidding, how about a trip on a family’s private plane to a lavish vacation home, fully staffed (also owned by the same family)? These are status symbols that garner big payoffs for the school. What’s important to you, and fits with your value system? Remember, you’re going to have to put up with this production every year, so you might as well be able to tolerate it.
How about teacher and staff gifts? This has been a longstanding issue at many a private school, since elaborate gifts (think the latest Gucci bag kind of gifts) are often given out quite liberally by wealthy parents. This could be seen as some sort of bribe. Some schools have a very strict policy regarding gifts (Mirman is one of these), and simply doesn’t allow expensive gifts to rain down upon the teachers. Other schools have similar policies, but the parents blow them off and distribute the largesse anyway. Try to get a parent to answer these questions honestly, because it will save you aggravation later. (See piece below about Holiday Gift Giving)
In previous posts, we’ve squawked on about the cars in the carpool line. Are they window tinted Escalades or a bunch of Priuses? Yes, it seems so shallow and judgmental, but if you aren’t a luxury car driving parent, a parking lot full of Range Rovers and Porches might not really mesh with your priorities. You know that totally obnoxious car ad involving the boy embarrassed by his parents’ car? Do you want your kid to start making those snotty noises at you?
And speaking of snotty noises, you should try to find out what the celebrity quotient is at the school. Now, there’s nothing wrong with celebrities. L.A. is full of them, and they help keep our economy afloat (when they’re not collecting swag, that is, but I digress). I went to Crossroads a million years ago, and I benefited greatly. For instance, when we did a Sergio Leone unit in English Communications, James Woods came in to talk to the class about “Once Upon a Time in America.” Ditto for Martin Sheen during our Conrad Heart of Darkness and Coppola “Apocalypse Now” section. It was incredible.
What wasn’t incredible, though, was being at a school heavily dominated by industry types when I didn’t come from an industry family. So, if you are in the industry, you’ll probably have no issue sending your child to a more “Hollywood” school. But, if you aren’t involved in entertainment, it might seem much less appealing.
Finally, all you moms applying to schools out there, please check out the current mothers at the school. Although I’m a firm believer that there’s a place for everyone in the universe, shared aesthetics and values are important. If you’re a crunchy mom, you might not enjoy a school full of moms wearing 3-carat diamonds and pumped with enough Botox to kill a small village. Just saying.
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.
3 thoughts to “Guest Blogger Jenny: Every School Tells A Story——-Part 2”
Will there be a Part 3? Information is hard to find about some schools unless you have friends there. Even knowing the questions to ask is confusing. I will be dismayed if we end up at a school like some you've described. A few private planes won't bother me, but if that's the main mode of travel, I'd be uncomfortable.
"Industry types" don't always fit the stereotypical model that some people cast them in. A perfect example would be some of the parents at Mirman that happen to be in the "industry". Yes, they are there, but some people would never know it unless they are friends, have heard about them, or become preoccupied with trying to find out "who's who". Unfortunately, it appears from what I am reading that some people are focusing on the wrong things when it comes to choosing or giving advice on what to look for in schools. There are some very down to earth, exceptionally intelligent, 3 carat (or more!) ring wearing, fancy dressing, luxury SUV driving, entertainment industry parents (even at Mirman) that just happen to put their children's education first, without worrying about a few insecure people who are judging a school on the personal preferences of some of the parents. As a Mirman parent, I have witnessed on a regular basis how everyone is accepted, from the "regular car drivers" to the "luxury car and SUV drivers" (classifying people in this manner is silly, especially when discussing schools). At Mirman, it has always been about providing an exceptional education to the children that are fortunate to attend the school. To keep commenting on lifestyles and material items sounds like a bunch of personal hang ups and misinformed judgements, and we focus on more important things than that at Mirman.
Dear Anonymous Mirman mom: There's no need to take offense at Jenny's post. As you may have noticed, she writes with humor and tries to make sense of the private school world for those parents who have not yet entered it. Of course, not all "industry types" fit certain stereotypes. My husband spent years in the "industry" and he definitely doesn't fit the stereotype. If you've read any of Jenny's other pieces, she is thrilled with Mirman, it's low-key vibe and the fact that her daughter is thriving there. Oh, and my ring is a lot bigger than 3 carats and I drive a luxury SUV and Jenny's a good friend of mine. She doesn't have personal hangups and misinformed judgements. She does, however, have opinions about what she sees around her.