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‘90s FAMILY : Private Schools: An Oasis in Education?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The proctor studied the clock on the classroom wall at Brentwood School and announced: “Ready . . . you may begin.” In unison, the anxious test takers folded back their exam booklets and, for the next three hours, worked on an array of math and language problems.

But this isn’t the SAT and these aren’t high-schoolers. They’re mostly 11-year-olds, some of the estimated 17,000 preteens nationwide who are sharpening their pencils and wits this winter for the Independent School Entrance Examination, required for application to many secular private secondary schools.

The exam, introduced in 1989 to help standardize admissions, is part of the increasingly competitive application process that also includes interviews, essays and teacher recommendations.

“It’s worse than college,” said one Westside mother whose sixth-grader recently took the exam (and who, like many parents interviewed for this story, requested anonymity). “At least at the college level, you have the entire country to apply to and you know that you are going to go somewhere. I’ve told my daughter that this has nothing to do with who she is, but with the times and the city we live in.”

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Officials cite a number of factors for the heightened interest in private secondary schools, including safety concerns and the continuing budget crisis at public schools. Myth or reality, private schools have come to symbolize an oasis in the desert of Los Angeles’ struggling public education system. But for a rarefied slice of the Southern California pre-adolescent set, reaching this oasis can be an agonizing ordeal--one that their middle-class compadres won’t experience for six more years when they apply to college.

In the battle for coveted private school spaces, parents are fighting to give their kids any edge--including scores on the entrance exam, which can be taken just once.

This competitive climate has been a boon for outside tutors. In after-school classes and private tutoring sessions ranging from $45 to $100 an hour, students take practice tests and bone up on their reading comprehension and math and verbal skills.

Over the last two years, Guy Strickland said he has seen enrollment in his eight-week, $295 review course grow by 40% in the San Fernando Valley, the Westside and Hancock Park.

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Anna Rubin, director of Renaissance Kids, a Brentwood enrichment school, taught a review course for the first time this fall--at the request of parents. “The children all know how to multiply and divide,” Rubin said. “What they need are thinking skills--how to use what they have learned. Whether they review at home with their parents or take a course somewhere, it doesn’t hurt to show them how to be better test takers.”

One Westside father estimates that he will spend $1,200 to have his sixth-grader prepped for this month’s exam. He believes that the extra effort and expense is necessary so that his daughter, a public school honors student, will not be at a disadvantage to private school students. Each night, she spends 30 minutes--on top of her regular homework--poring over practice vocabulary and math problems.

“Here’s this 11-year-old kid feeling the same pressure I felt when I was 17,” the father said.

Along with parents, many child-development experts worry about the effects that such intense competition can have on preteens.

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“Some kids externalize pressure by acting out and misbehaving while others try terribly hard to internalize pressure,” said educational psychologist Jane M. Healy, author of “Your Child’s Growing Mind” (Doubleday, 1994). “Many of these children are model students who burn themselves out by the time they get to college.”

Stress also has an impact on how kids learn. “A tragic consequence of surrounding the experience of learning with such competition is that you are going to get a bunch of kids who are only going to perform under external pressure,” Healy said. “Every time we add an intellectually invalid exercise, like test preparation, we are taking that same time away from developmentally appropriate activities.”

Pressure also rubs off on children from well-meaning parents. Many parents believe that it’s their heads on the chopping block; that they are being accepted or rejected when admissions decisions are mailed out in late March. Some parents agonize about how they can afford private school tuition. Still others worry about making the right decisions for their children.

Officials at the Educational Records Bureau, the nonprofit organization that administers the ISEE, emphasize that the test is just one barometer in the evaluation process.

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“As an organization, we want the ISEE to be used as one piece of the full picture of a child’s performance, which also includes the transcript, interview and application essay,” said Nancy Bloom, director of the ISEE program.

Still, the pressure on young people concerns some private school administrators, who find themselves having to turn away many highly qualified students for no reason other than lack of space.

“The heartache, disappointment and frustration is so hard on parents who feel that they don’t have a choice,” said Luana Castellano, director of admissions at Polytechnic School in Pasadena. “But it’s sad when parents put a child in a judgmental situation. Not one parent in the world should ever let an institution validate their child. The children are all wonderful.”

This fall, Myra Kriwanek set out for an informational meeting on private school admissions for her sixth-grade son. But when the Westchester mother reached the meeting site, she discovered a mob scene.

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“This meeting was the only opportunity for people to get information, but the numbers were so overwhelming and I could feel the competition,” Kriwanek said. “There’s a sale mentality, and I didn’t want to get caught up in the frenzy.”

Having survived the process with her daughter, now a ninth-grader in private school, Kriwanek is aware of the risks of throwing children into such a competitive arena.

“Everyone gets to play softball and soccer, but this is really the first time they’ve tasted rejection,” she said. “There are problems with living in the fast lane. You have to protect them from the very high expectations until they are ready. Some kids burn out, reject it all and turn to drugs and alcohol. If the children can handle the process and can really take advantage of the opportunities around them, it can be an enriching experience.”

Experts agree that when it comes to assessing various educational options, parents need to take a proactive approach and do their homework.

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“Don’t rely on secondhand information and hearsay,” said Raymond R. Michaud Jr., headmaster of the John Thomas Dye School, a private elementary school in Bel Air. “Find out firsthand what the schools are all about and which are appropriate given your child’s strengths and interests.”


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