• U.S.

Education: How to Pick a Private School

5 minute read
Kenneth M. Pierce

Matching parents, pupils and pedagogues—for a fee Paul Kingsolver, 15, was falling behind his tenth-grade class at Denver’s Mullen High School, an expensive ($1,650 a year) Roman Catholic boys’ school. His worried parents took him to Educational Counselor Elizabeth Carroll, a reading and speech specialist at an agency called the Academic Resources Center. “We found out,” says Paul’s father, “that he had missed a lot of the basics in grade school.” Carroll recommended that he switch temporarily to Denver’s Academic Prep School, which specializes in remedial work. “Now Paul likes school,” says his father. “There’s been a real change in his personality. I give the credit to Mrs. Carroll’s help in changing schools.”

Similar testimonials fill the files of a growing band of ex-pedagogues, school admissions officers, psychologists and social workers who call themselves educational counselors. For a fee that ranges between $250 and $600 a pupil, finders act as matchmakers, trying to bring together pupils and private schools that seem right for each other. “I’m like the handicapper at a race track,” cracks Boston Counselor Robert Parsons. “I’m trying to get kids into a race they can win.”

The finders visit dozens of private schools a year. Boarding schools specializing in laggard students are much in demand. Says Beverly Hills Counselor Harriett Bay: “Rarely does a parent come in with a terrific little kid seeking a terrific school. Most come in a moment of crisis.”

Counselors also see many pupils whose parents are considering private school for the first time, often because of dissatisfaction with public school. In the past decade the student-age population has diminished, bringing with it an 11% decline in public school enrollment. But at the same time the number of students in the 880 schools that belong to the National Association of Independent Schools has increased by 23%—to roughly 300,000.

To learn about the pupils, counselors interview them apart from parents. They often give achievement and psychological tests as well. After several visits, counselors suggest four or five schools that might be helpful. A small, not-too-competitive school for a middling athlete, for example. And for that bane of parents and teachers alike, the high-IQ underachiever, a school with strong discipline and a challenging academic program. The counselors often telephone a school, describe the student and ask whether he or she sounds desirable enough to justify formal application. “We try to be a strainer,” says Parsons, adding: “Year after year, schools have to see and interview dozens of youngsters trooping through their campuses, who will never get in. We can alleviate a lot of heartache. Parents, instead of traveling to a dozen schools, ten of which are not what they need, now deal with a reputable finder.”

Some parents hope that the finders will use their connections to win a favorable decision from admissions officers.

Both schools and finders say this is not done. Besides, says Atlanta Counselor Jean Hague, a former administrator at the American School of Paris, “we don’t have the power to influence the schools.” Explains George Conway, admissions director at the prestigious Woodberry Forest School near Orange, Va.: “I’ve never had a counselor push anybody on me. A misrepresented youngster probably would not do well here, and that wouldn’t help the counselor’s reputation.” Some admissions officers say they do give weight to a recommendation from a counselor they know well and whose judgment has proved accurate in the past.

To ensure impartiality, members of the Independent Educational Counselors Association, a finders’ professional organization formed in 1976, pledge to refuse any fees or payment from schools they recommend. It was not always so: in the 1930s, when private schools were less crowded than they are today, payments of 10% of tuition to finders were standard.

Top finders can gross up to $100,000 a year, and the number of finders in the I.E.C.A. has increased from 15 in 1976 to about 60 this year. Not everyone is happy with their work, however. One Chicago headmaster contemptuously refers to counselors as charlatans who play on the anxiety of parents. Julia Whitcombe, a Los Angeles mother of two, took her daughter to a counselor. Says she: “He did his testing, took the money and came up with nothing.” At Lake Forest Academy in Illinois, Admissions Coordinator Jacqueline Leinbach suggests that parents can save the fee by going to the library, consulting directories of private schools and making their own matches.

For parents who hope to get their children into a traditional prep school like Lake Forest, that may be good advice. But in the past decade private schools have grown bewilderingly diverse. The 1980 Porter Sargent Handbook of Private Schools lists 1,800. Counselors provide a helping hand through the pedagogical thicket, especially to the increasing number of parents who are uneasily exploring for the first time the once snobbish world of prep schools.

Private schools are no longer the province of the rich. More divorces, the emergence of the middle-class one-parent household and the increase in two-income families have helped create a whole new crop of parents ready to make almost any sacrifice (boarding schools cost between $5,000 and $8,000 a year) to give their children a chance at what appears to be an inflation-proof possession, a good education. —By Kenneth M. Pierce. Reported by Joseph Pilcher/Los Angeles and Marc Levinson/Atlanta, with other U.S. bureaus

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