I ran into my friend Jenny at Eddie’s the other day, and she was ecstatic. Out of the five private school kindergarten programs her daughter applied to, she received two acceptances. Choosing between Bryn Mawr and Calvert schools, however, was easy. “I’m sending her to Bryn Mawr,” Jenny said. “Calvert only goes up to grade 8 and I’ll be damned if I’m going to go through this all over again!”
“This,” of course, is the sturm und drang of the independent private school application process.
Long gone are the days when only “the predictable clientele” sent their pink-and-green-clad offspring to Mom or Dad’s alma mater, where there was room for all. Last year Park School had at least three times as many applicants as there were kindergarten spots. Because the applicant pool was so strong, the school expanded class size from 18 to 20 students. But that still left some disappointed families.
Over at Garrison Forest, an extra section of kindergarten was added two years ago to accommodate 15 more children, because “we were turning away so many wonderful applicants,” says admissions director Randie Benedict. But the school will not be able to grow again, she says, and there are still at least twice as many applicants as openings.
The ever-growing demand for private school admittance is due mainly to the perception that Baltimore-area public schools aren’t doing the job. But there may be another reason as well. Independent private schools (this does not include parochial schools) “educate less than 2 percent of the school-age population,” according to Tad Jacks, associate head for admissions at Friends School. Yet their grads comprise half the classes at the very top colleges.
Here’s anecdotal evidence of how this plays out locally: My own two children graduated from Friends School within the last five years and both went on to Yale. My son, Reid, now a senior at Yale, entered in 1999 along with 18 other freshmen from the greater Baltimore area. Sixteen were from prep schools (five Gilman, two Friends, two McDonogh, etc.); exactly three from public schools (two Pikesville High, one Carver). My daughter’s entering class two years earlier had an almost identical private-to-public school ratio.
While private schools no longer cater exclusively to the privileged class, tuition costs are higher than ever. But somehow, concerned parents are coming up with the cash.
“There’s no doubt, the people who look at us for kindergarten or first grade have decided that education is among their highest priorities,” says Jacks. And their philosophy of life is: ‘We’re willing to pay for it.’”
And pay they do. Friends’ yearly tuition runs $13,225 for kindergarten to $15,175 for upper school. On top of the cost, of course, the spawn of these willing parents have to make the grade. At each school, children undergo testing, interviews and take part in group activities. To be admitted, “they must have crossed specific developmental milestones,” says Jacks. “Parents and teachers may see things in children in different ways,” he says. “Like ‘How do they approach a play group?’ There are specific tests for pre-K and K that have been developed by our teachers along with standardized testing.”
“Their developmental age must match their chronological age,” adds Megan Ford, an admissions coordinator at the Park School. She says Park applicants take the half-hour Gesell Readiness Assessment to measure development and maturity, and spend two hours in a small group observation period.
Ford says the competition for entrance is so great, parents “can’t put all their eggs in one basket. But in the process, they’re shopping around more, visiting many schools, and doing a better job of finding the best fit for their child.”
Jacks insists: “It’s not quite as competitive to get into these schools as the other parents will have you think. The question may be more, ‘Will my child have to go to her fourth choice?’ than ‘Can she get into a private school at all?’” Nevertheless, he admits, “Of the 70 to 85 applications for first grade, we’ll enroll eight to 19.”
So, what happens to the rest?
Admissions people make it a policy to discuss the reasons behind the school’s decision with parents (but you have to ask), and to provide counsel on what to do next.
“I’ll gladly meet with parents to go over concerns, what we saw in our evaluation of the child,” Benedict says. “We should be just as available to the parents of rejected children as of the accepted children.” She thinks that if these families don’t meet with her, they’re making a mistake. “Maybe there’s a learning problem that can be addressed at another school,” she says. “If a family just gives up and sends the child to public school, I don’t think they’ve learned anything in the process. Parents may choose to disregard what we say, but it’s very important to build that relationship.”
“As difficult as those meetings can be,” says Ford, “the parents, deep down, aren’t often surprised. They know their child.”
Free-lancer Merrill Witty writes for many regional magazines.