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Admission to private schools is a stress test

Times Staff Writer

At the private Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth, the admissions committee faced a dilemma over a weak candidate for first grade: the child’s current school wasn’t known for its academic preparation and she could barely read. But an older sister applying for a fourth-grade spot was a good candidate for admittance.

Rather than reject the first-grader outright, the committee decided to put her on the waiting list, threading a needle that would allow the school to enroll the stronger older sibling and keep a prospective family happy.

And so it went for an hour and a half in a scenario repeated at independent and parochial schools across Southern California as educators determined who will be included in classes in the fall. Admissions letters went out this month -- fat envelopes signaling acceptance, thin ones indicating rejections or wait lists. Most families apply to several schools and for most, decisions had to be made by Friday. Sierra Canyon applicants have until April 6.

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The admissions process is part science, part art and a lot instinct, with such variables as transcripts, teacher recommendations, test scores, writing samples, interviews and essays.

But admissions decisions are also strategic. Private schools define their character and personality through their student body but they must also balance the needs of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, sports and artistic programs, family ties and influential donors.

If parents feel as though they’ve been through the wringer -- many began in late summer by hiring tutors to prepare students for entrance exams and open houses -- their perception may have some basis in fact.

Because of a variety of factors -- including an abundant population of school-age children, dissatisfaction with public schools, and relatively few schools considered top notch -- getting into a private school in Los Angeles is far more competitive than for the country as a whole. In 2006, just 37% of applicants to private schools were accepted, compared with 52% of applicants nationwide, according to a sample of member schools conducted by the National Assn. of Independent Schools.

The dynamic can produce the implausible. One parent of a 4-year-old gave an admissions director a resume of the toddler’s achievements -- under organizational skills: “Enjoys cooking with Mom to prepare salads and make cookies.” Another parent placed a call to an Ivy League college admissions officer seeking the right feeder schools in which to enroll a toddler to ease the path to Harvard or Yale.

To say this is a pressure-packed time for schools and families would be an understatement. Wendy Mogel, a Los Angeles-based author and clinical psychologist, recalled one mother whose son was not admitted to any school to which they had applied. She told Mogel her devastation was worse than when her father had died.

“Getting into private schools is much worse than getting into college because there are probably 20 perfect matches for a college kid and they don’t have to stay within 35 miles of their home,” Mogel said. “There is not enough choice in private schools. Admissions is like global warming for private schools and admissions people feel more despairing about the situation than about the planet.”

In the conference room at Sierra Canyon, set in a bucolic enclave of the San Fernando Valley, head of school Jim Skrumbis laid out the game plan for the 10 committee members whose daunting task was to consider 71 applications for 38 elementary school spaces.

“We have to anticipate and take in more students than we have spaces, understanding our yield will be about 80%,” said Skrumbis, referring to the percentage of admitted students estimated to enroll. “It would also behoove us to save a few spots so that we’re not shutting the door on high-caliber students who might come in late.”

Sierra Canyon is a nationally recognized school that opened in 1978 as a for-profit elementary campus, founded by Howard Wang and Stephen “Mick” Horwitz. Middle school was added in the late 1980s and ninth grade in 2005. The upper and lower schools joined together in 2006 as a nonprofit, with an expansion to 11th grade planned for this fall. Sierra Canyon is building a $35-million state-of-the-art upper school campus, with the main academic building scheduled to open in March 2008.

The school’s admissions decisions are critical to establishing its character and reputation while it is in the midst of a growth spurt, Skrumbis said. Set in northwest Valley horse country, the school has a mission to attract a diverse student body. The school reserved six spaces for students in a program called Rising Star, which is a collaboration with the Boys & Girls Club to attract a broader socioeconomic and ethnic mix.

But diversity also includes the drama coach’s desire for artistic-minded players for student productions and the athletic director’s wishes to fill positions on the varsity football team.

“When schools do it right, they’re looking to strike a balance,” said Skrumbis, who was hired as head of the school in 2004 and led the admissions committee meeting for the first time this year. “If we had not had as much socioeconomic diversity in the school as a whole, for example, you would have seen me pushing for more kids on the bubble.”

In fact, the candidate pool for most grades was fairly strong this year, said lower-school director Ann Gillinger, who led the recent discussion of applicants from grades one to five. Skrumbis reminded his colleagues that decisions should not be based on financial need.

Allotment of financial aid is a separate process, decided once a student is admitted. Annual tuition at Sierra Canyon this fall ranges from $16,500 for elementary school to about $23,000 for grades nine and up.

Most members of the admissions panel have already reviewed applications by the time the committee meets. As a result, discussion is tinged with familiarity.

The panel is impressed by the high entrance exam scores of a sixth-grade applicant but troubled by a record of behavioral problems that would likely require a special-needs study plan. He is rejected.

“We wouldn’t help him very much and only add to his anxiety,” Gillinger said. “He would be better somewhere where there is special training to deal with that.”

One fourth-grade applicant received an unenthusiastic recommendation from her current school. The committee notes that she probably needs tutoring because her standardized test scores are low. But she has attended Sierra Canyon’s highly regarded day camp and the panel is impressed with the family’s overall profile, including an older brother playing first-string football at a local powerhouse university. Many on the committee think she’s a better fit for third grade, and director of institutional advancement Steve Burnett says he’ll see if the family would consider that.

Indeed, several students are recommended for a grade below the one for which they applied, reflecting the academic rigor of Sierra Canyon and mid-year birthdates that can put younger children in classes with older and potentially more mature classmates. It’s all part of the balancing game, said trustee Wang, who sat in on the committee.

“It’s about confidence, self-esteem, security and owning that school experience, and in some cases it makes a difference to adjust that grade,” Wang said. “One hundred percent of parents who have struggled with this have thanked us for that decision.”

A fifth-grade candidate appears strong but also has a record at his current school of being late for classes. He is recommended for admittance -- and required to take the school bus to ensure he arrives on time.

The panel spends an equal amount of time discussing the strengths of a third-grade applicant as it does the boy’s mother, who is described by his current school in less than glowing terms. The student is accepted but it reinforces the reality that with their admissions decisions, schools welcome not just students but their parents, siblings, grandparents and other relations into the fold.

All schools are looking for the perfect fit.

“We’re looking at how does family culture and school culture mesh and are they going to be supportive,” said Gennifer Yoshimaru, director of institutional advancement at Crossroads School in Santa Monica. “It involves a whole conversation with a family around who they are as parents, how they structure their household, what are the discipline and boundaries at home. If it’s a ‘tight ship’ kind of model, very discipline-based, incentive-based, it may not always be compatible with the system at Crossroads that may be more open-ended.”

Michelle and Todd Caranto applied to Sierra Canyon for their three children and said the process was grueling.

“I didn’t realize how intensive it was going to be for us as parents,” she said. “We had to write a long report about why we wanted to go to the school. I felt like I was being interviewed and wondered: ‘Will they like me?’ It’s kind of intimidating because you’re being looked at under the microscope.”

In the end, son Jake, 13, was accepted into ninth grade. The family has also applied for daughters Ginger, 10, and Haley Mae, 4.

“I could see it being emotionally hard if they weren’t accepted,” she said. “But it was a good, positive experience for them....It let them know that what they do and how hard they work will make a difference in their lives.”

carla.rivera@latimes.com


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