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Issue date: March 22, 2000

GUEST OPINION: An inside look at private school admissions GUEST OPINION: An inside look at private school admissions (March 22, 2000)

By Elizabeth Ann Ditz

I read Kim Glenn's letter published in the Almanac March with great dismay.

She wrote about her perceptions of the admissions process for private secondary schools. In it she wrote, "... envelopes ... are opened to reveal who is best. Just the notion that another group of people, most unknown to us on a personal basis, are passing judgment as to who is the best is astonishing to me ... Our fragile self-esteem, parents as well as children, rests in the mailbox ... my child or yours will or will not get into the school of their choice, based on an evaluation by people who may not share any of your perceptions or values. But whatever you may value about your child -- that special sparkle, great athletic prowess, stellar test scores or a kind and gentle nature -- may not have value for the school to which they have applied."

Ms. Glenn seems to think that admissions committees for private schools are faceless, sadistic individuals who like nothing more than the chance to humiliate and reject children.

She also thinks that a school's failure to admit a child means that the school finds no value in that child's special qualities.

Ms. Glenn's attitudes are a perversion of the admissions process. I have had the privilege of serving on the board of a private secondary school in the East Bay. I know from personal experience that the admissions committees of private schools agonize over every decision, and would far prefer to admit every qualified applicant. But reality -- in the form of classroom space, the number of teachers, and the school's individual program needs -- prevents that course of action.

So how does the admission process work in reality?

Let us take the hypothetical examples of School Wonderful and School Splendid, both located right here 1n the Almanac's circulation area. Both are co-ed and high-school only. School Wonderful has a very strong arts and drama program. School Splendid is stronger in science and athletics. They both admit 40 to their freshman classes.

Now, most schools like to keep a relatively even balance between boys and girls -- the school runs better if the genders in each grade are roughly even. So there is room for about 20 boys and 20 girls in each class.

Let us say that the applicant pool for School Wonderful, for whatever reason, is particularly light on girls this year -- let's say only 30 girls applied and 60 boys. Are the 20 girls who are admitted "better" than the 40 boys who were not? No. The girls are just the beneficiaries of the statistical swings that exist in any population pool.

Here is another example: the admissions committee at School Splendid arrived at the point in the process where they can admit only one more girl. The committee has a choice between two equally qualified girls. One is strong in athletics, the other strong in science. Whichever way the committee decides, is the the girl admitted "better" than the girl who was not admitted? Not in the school's eyes, I assure you.

Or another: Sammy Sibling already has two older brothers at School Wonderful. Most private schools have a "legacy" policy, in which siblings are awarded special consideration in the admissions process. Sammy is a good enough student, but his classmate Albert Astounding is brilliant. Sammy gets into School Wonderful, and Albert does not. Does that mean Sammy is "better" than Albert?

Or another: Rita Resounding would be an asset to any school, but her family's finances are such that she needs a substantial scholarship. School Wonderful has a small financial aid budget, and prefers to spread it over a large number of students. School Splendid has a large financial aid budget and prefers to concentrate it on relatively fewer students. Rita is not admitted to School Wonderful and is admitted to School Splendid. Does that mean that School Wonderful thought that Rita was a less valuable person than School Splendid did? No.

Let's move to a real life example. Your child is in 5th grade and is applying to middle school. The program at the Girls' Middle School would fit your child to a T ... only your child is a boy. Does that mean that your child isn't "good enough" to go to Girls' Middle School? No, he is just the wrong gender.

The point is, any admissions committee's decision is not about the relative value of any particular child, it's about the intersection of the applicant pool and the school's programs and resources.

Parents who view the admissions process as if the process determines their child's value, like Ms. Glenn, are failing in their parental responsibilities. A parent's job is to empathize with the children's feelings, not identify with them. A parent's job is to stay clear about their children's identity and value, which cannot be determined by some outside agency, such as a school, but by the relationship between the child and the parent.

Ms. Ditz is a resident of Woodside. 


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