More knock at the doors of private schools

Richard Funke has a lot of faith in his town's public schools. Four of his six children, after all, have attended New Trier, the Winnetka, Ill., high school with a national reputation for academic excellence.

But when it came time for his son Shockey to go, Mr. Funke and his wife, Margot, balked. Though they had both attended public schools and assumed they'd send their children through the public system, "We just didn't think it was right for Shockey," he says. "He's not a big-school kid."

Shockey is now a sophomore at nearby Lake Forest Academy, which has some 300 students, compared with New Trier's 3,600. He plays soccer, tennis, and hockey - which would have been unlikely at highly competitive New Trier - and gets the classroom discussion he loves.

It's a story that's increasingly common. Across America, applications to private schools are up - in some cases, by eyecatching percentages.

Parents and school officials cite everything from a desire for small size and individualized attention to the booming economy and increasingly competitive college admissions of the past decade. Also, as many private schools work to shed a blue-blood image, a broader range of families are considering the option - even if it means a parent taking on a second or third job.

"The No. 1 consideration by far is [parents'] assessment of the performance of public schools and their assessment of whether private school is better," says Terry Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., who has done extensive research on private education. "They're concerned with getting a high-quality education and what that can gain them."

While overall private-school enrollment - about 10 percent of kids in school - hasn't changed much, it's getting tougher for those kids to get in. Ten years ago, 61 percent of applicants were accepted at independent schools, according to the National Association of Independent Schools. In 1998-99, just 50 percent of those who applied got in.

At individual schools, that number is often much lower. Massachusetts' prestigious Milton Academy, for instance, accepted about 1 in 9 students who applied for ninth grade - about the likelihood a high school senior has of getting into Harvard.

To Peter Relic, president of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), that highlights the need for more educational options. It also suggests, he says, "an increasing concern that American families have with public schools. That's not healthy."

Why the choice?

That dissatisfaction with public schools pops up often when parents explain going the private-school route. Frequently, it's not that the local public school is bad - just big. "The typical story a parent tells is, 'I went in to see my child's teacher, and I know from the interview ... that the teacher really doesn't know my child very well,'" says Jay Sadlon, assistant head at Derby Academy in Hingham, Mass.

Parents of kids who might get lost in the shuffle are often those who seek out smaller schools. "New Trier is great when you're the best at something, or have a kid who's extremely well motivated," or with special needs, Mr. Funke says. For kids who don't fit those profiles, a huge school may mean they never get to shine.

For others, graduation exams - designed to boost accountability in public schools - are, ironically, the driving force. Brian Walker, an admissions officer at the Cambridge School of Weston in Massachusetts, attributes much of an 80 percent jump in applications last year to the MCAS, a controversial test that all students now must pass to graduate.

"Some parents feel the tests aren't fair," he says, "and others feel they're stressing things parents feel aren't that important." The MCAS grades pure academics, he says, and may shift a school's focus, dismaying parents who want children to have time for drama, music, or dance.

Social changes may also be afoot. For one thing, many schools are working hard to shed an image of social elitism. That means more diversity, more financial aid, and less emphasis on admitting alumni's children.

Mr. Sadlon of Derby Academy sees the influence of women's shifting roles as well. "For years, moms have taken more of a leadership role in kids' education, especially at the elementary level," he says. "Now those kids have moms in the professions. I think those moms are responsible for becoming more familiar with other options."

The pressured side

But even as parents look to independent schools for greater opportunity, the high-pressure environment chronicled in such classics as "Catcher in the Rye" still exists at many institutions.

"The dark side [of elite private schools] is that there is a real culture of almost constant preparation for admission to one of about 20 or 25 American universities which have that brittle commodity the French call cache," says Josiah Bunting, president of the Virginia Military Institute and former head of the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. "The response of students, particularly kids who don't test well, frequently creates cruel casualties."

General Bunting recalls meeting the head of a prominent prep school recently, who, when asked how things were going, responded by ticking off the number of students accepted to big-name universities.

"Although [the private schools] preach service, compassion, honor, they're little businesses, and they're very eager to retain their competitive standing relative to X, Y, or Z," he says.

That's one reason Mr. Relic of the NAIS considers the mania for ranking a threat. "The absurdity of saying which school is No. 1 ... is contrary to the mission of the independent school," he says.

Still, there's a sense that much is at stake. "Parents are doing everything they can... to get [kids] into a good college," says Dr. Moe. "Going to a private school can provide an advantage.... People are panicked. Just getting into the University of California is getting to be a problem."

That increases the feeling that students can't afford to lose ground to a poor year - and why, according to Sadlon, a slower economy may not translate into fewer applications. "People say things like: "We've tried public schools, we're public school supporters, but my child only has one fifth-grade year and it's not working,'" he says.

To get in, kids cast a wide net, and some repeat a year

Commonwealth School, in Boston's Back Bay area, got four or five applications for every available slot this year. The Cambridge School of Weston saw an 80 percent increase in applications last year. And getting into some of New York's prestigious prep schools can be tougher than getting accepted to an Ivy League university.

"It's like being in a seller's market," says Bill Wharton, headmaster of Commonwealth. In many instances, he says, that's meant turning away kids he'd like to have.

For students, the competitive private-school admissions process can mean filling out a thick sheaf of application instead of just two or three. Nate Merrill, who will graduate this year from Derby Academy in Hingham, Mass., visited numerous schools this past winter and completed six applications. He was admitted to two schools and will attend Tabor Academy in Marion, Mass., as a 10th-grade boarding student.

In some cases, the process can even mean repeating a grade. At Derby, which ends in ninth grade, Nate says a number of students were willing to repeat a year in hopes of getting into a first choice. Milton Academy in Massachusetts, like numerous other schools, notes that some of its incoming students repeat freshman year. And students who target private school later often repeat junior year in order to get in.

Stacey Middlebrook, from Bedford, N.H., experienced tough competition in her applications. Of 1,000 high-school age kids in Bedford, her mother says, about a quarter go to private schools - and options in the area are limited. After being waitlisted, Stacey finally got into Derryfield Academy in nearby Manchester, where she'll repeat seventh grade - in part, because she is young for her grade.

Private schools acknowledge that the pressure this competition breeds isn't necessarily healthy - but they also claim the worst of it stems from the parents. "With some parents, there's that air of desperation," says Brian Walker, an admissions director at the Cambridge School of Weston. "They feel they have to sell their kids."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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