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Published in Print: October 1, 2001, as Admit One

Admit One

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A growing number of parents intent on sending their kids to private or parochial schools see tutors as the ticket in.

Last fall, Roger Weiner and his 12-year-old son spent several months visiting schools, interviewing with selection committees, and gathering teacher recommendations in a bid to get the boy into a private middle school in Washington, D.C., close to their home in Bethesda, Maryland. The then-6th grader would seem a shoo-in for such an institution—he had attended private school since kindergarten and is, by all accounts, a bright, artistic kid. Two years ago, he won a national writing contest and now is a published book author.

Still, the Weiners were worried that their son wouldn't get into any of the five schools to which he was applying. So they joined other parents to hire a tutor (cost: $400 each for 10 sessions) to help their kids prepare for the Secondary School Admission Test, a standardized exam that many private schools use in their admissions decisions. The youngster had already taken the test once, but his parents hoped he could improve his score. The odds simply scared them, explains Weiner: "Washington's full of well-to-do, overachieving, overbearing parents who put all their aspirations in their kids. It's getting ridiculously competitive."

The tutoring turned out to be a negative experience. According to Weiner, his son was "freaked out" by the amount of homework and wished the instructor had covered test-taking strategies, such as time management. After the sessions, the boy's score actually went down. In the end, two schools accepted him, including the prestigious Sidwell Friends School, Chelsea Clinton's alma mater, which he now attends. (The admissions office declined to comment on how the boy's SSAT score factored into his acceptance.) Yet Weiner can't say he wouldn't do it again. "Our public schools are very good, but private schools are better if you can afford them," he says.

And the Weiners are hardly alone. A growing number of parents, and kids too, are convinced that private school is their most viable option. While many worry about problems they see as specific to public schools, such as large classes and the risk of violence, others simply view private education as a ticket to success in later life. Either way, entrance-exam prep courses—once a rite of passage reserved for teenagers anxious to get into their dream colleges—have a role in a new American ritual: getting (or staying) out of the public school system.

The desperation to enroll in private schools is evident in the brisk business tutoring companies are doing with the younger set. "The SSAT has been pushed to the forefront," says Debbie Bergeron, executive director of TutorFind, a Manassas, Virginia-based company that manages hundreds of tutors across the country. "Two and a half years ago was the first time we got calls for that." Now, she says, TutorFind gets so many requests for help with the test that it's developing a specialized SSAT prep course. At Inspirica, a New York City company that places tutors across the country, requests for SSAT and Independent School Entrance Examination preparation have jumped tenfold in the past seven years. Last year, the Learning Enhancement Center in Quincy, Massachusetts, doubled its SSAT classes.

The majority of kids whose parents enroll them in prep courses are in private school already, say tutoring-company executives. The pressure's on because the number of kids vying for spots in private schools is higher than ever. The National Association of Independent Schools' numbers show that fewer than 50 percent of applicants were accepted to private schools in 1998, compared with 60 percent a decade earlier.

And competition to get into parochial schools is getting tougher, too. For example, nearly half of the country's Catholic schools have waiting lists, according to the National Catholic Education Association. Janet Muscato took her 13-year-old son, Danny, to Kathleen Fratus, tutor and owner of the Learning Enhancement Center, when he was getting ready to apply to parochial high schools. "Too many people now want their kids to be seen as perfect," she says. "I for one know my kids aren't. I seek help wherever I can." Though Danny wasn't keen on seeing a tutor, he immediately felt comfortable with Fratus, says Muscato. "She's the grandmotherly type." Besides math and verbal drills, Fratus worked on relaxation techniques and confidence in her $30-an-hour sessions. Fratus says Danny needed to be encouraged as much as tutored, and that support, Muscato says, helped her son do well enough on the SSAT to get accepted at his first-choice school.

Most tutors claim they teach more than just the tricks of taking standardized tests. "We're in the business of calming people down," says Lisa Jacobson, founder of Inspirica. "The test is secondary." And most kids do improve their scores after completing prep courses. This means that "once kids do test prep, the bar is set higher" for other students, notes TutorFind's Bergeron. So what happens to kids whose parents can't afford to send them for extra help? Tutoring companies—some of which charge more than $100 an hour for private lessons—tend to balk at the idea that they are promoting a gap between the haves and have-nots. Some provide assistance to low- income students: Inspirica, for example, pays all its tutors to do some pro bono work for less well-off students.

The Learning Enhancement Center's Fratus, a former public school teacher who describes her tutoring work as a "grassroots effort" to help the kids in her neighborhood succeed, sees the increase in the use of tutors as a positive trend. "When you tutor kids," she says, "you're dealing with a small group, and you can answer everything they have on their little minds. The children are so happy. It's nice to see them relaxed."

—Katharine Dunn

Vol. 13, Issue 2, Pages 9-10

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