Waiting, hoping for aid

For days after the admission letter arrived, Lorelei Oliver was unable to look at her son Kamal without crying.

After earning A’s and testing among the top of his elementary school class, Kamal had been admitted to the 7th grade at Campbell Hall, a prestigious private campus in North Hollywood, only to learn there was a catch. The school was unable to offer financial assistance because of the unprecedented demand spurred by the economic downturn.

Oliver, a business services representative at AT&T;, can’t afford the school’s $26,000 tuition. With Kamal on a wait list at other private campuses -- and time and options running out -- the family is in limbo.

Prep schools are also in a predicament, seeking to balance the needs of loyal families who have fallen on hard times and new, deserving students such as Kamal.

Economic pressures have changed the way some schools admit students: Families who are able to pay are often given preference.


“We did allocate 3% of our budget to new families, but that was nowhere near enough to make admissions ‘need-blind,’ ” Campbell Hall Headmaster the Rev. Julian P. Bull wrote in an e-mail. “As a consequence, we have indeed admitted more full-pay students than in most years.”

Some schools are using wait lists for qualified students for whom financial aid is unavailable. Admitting qualified, financially needy students without providing tuition assistance is a contentious issue.

“It’s like dangling a carrot, a dangerous thing to do,” said Keith Sarkisian, a Brentwood School admissions director. “Even if they can scrape up money for one year, what are they going to do for the next grade?”

Brentwood took the unprecedented step of boosting financial aid by $300,000 midyear, mostly to help current families pay tuition, which will be $28,500 for middle and high school students next year. The school also is keeping a summer wait list in case of last-minute withdrawals.

Many private school educators said families are taking longer to commit to enrolling their children because of uncertain finances, and schools are responding by extending deadlines for admission decisions."This is a year where every school is living through a version of Sophie’s Choice,” said Jim McManus, executive director of the California Assn. of Independent Schools. “It’s an unsolvable dilemma and schools are managing in the best ways they can.”

The New York-based nonprofit group A Better Chance, which helps to place academically qualified students of color in college prep schools nationwide, said its families are feeling the repercussions. Many of its recruits are low- and middle-income, and the majority come from single-parent households.

In Southern California, 70 of the group’s students received acceptance letters this year compared with 105 last year. Just 45 have signed contracts indicating that they will enroll; 79 did so last year.

“Families have gotten acceptance letters but no financial aid or are on wait lists,” said Chantal N. Stevens, national director of the group’s college preparatory school program. “A lot more families are appealing financial aid decisions. . . . We’re encouraging them to reapply and hoping that the money piece falls into place.”

Oliver and her son applied to several private campuses through A Better Chance. Kamal, 12, was admitted to Campbell Hall and placed on waiting lists at Brentwood and the Chadwick School in Palos Verdes. He and his sister Infiniti, 8, are top students at Inglewood’s K. Anthony School, a private second- through sixth-grade campus with a reputation for placing its mostly minority graduates in the city’s top prep schools. Their mother pays about $760 per month in tuition with a sibling discount.

She is spending countless hours online searching for a safe, academically focused school. She’s been offered only waiting lists, including at a local Christian school and a well-regarded charter.

“It’s beginning to be depressing,” she said. The public campus closest to their home is Henry Clay Middle School. She has spoken to officials there about putting Kamal in accelerated classes but is fearful of what she has heard about violence and fighting on campus. She doesn’t want her son to be picked on because his shoelaces are the wrong color or because he does his homework.

Kamal was looking forward to a new environment at a campus where he could “expand” his mind, but is philosophical about what might come next. During the application process, he spent a half day at both Chadwick and Brentwood.

“The teachers were so nice and they were saying interesting things that I had never even heard yet,” he said. “Something’s going to work out eventually.”

Oliver tries to keep her son’s spirits up, but she is worried.

“I never thought I’d have to go through this with a decent child,” she says, only partly joking. “Maybe with a child who was into trouble, but I never thought I’d have a hard time finding a school for a smart, decent child.”