Admit One

October 01, 2001 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
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

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP