Private Lower Schools Face Deluge of Determined Applicants

By Cindy Currence — March 21, 1984 7 min read

The number of parents who want to enroll their children in private preschool programs and elementary schools has increased so dramatically during the last several years, according to independent-school educators, that the demand is creating problems for school administrators, parents, and children.

“Anybody who’s got his eyes open is noticing it,” says Robert Smith, executive director of the Council for American Private Education. “Parents are increasingly anxious to get their children into the pipeline for a good academic education.”

Young, upwardly mobile parents of the Baby-Boom generation increasingly are turning to private schools to educate their children--parents ''who have never lost a race in their lives,” Mr. Smith said.

According to statistics from the National Association of Independent Schools, enrollments in the association’s member schools’ lower grades are up “significantly,” says Anne Rosenfeld, a spokesman for nais

Between 1975 and 1982, enrollments in nais elementary schools increased by about 20 percent, she said, adding that the largest increases have been in preschools and the lower elementary-school grades.

But since private schools typically aim to limit their enrollments, a clearer indication of the increasing demand is in the number of applications schools are receiving for their limited number of positions, private-school educators say. And administrators across the country report that they are feeling a crunch.

“We’re seeing the real pressure at the nursery and kindergarten level,” says James E. Van Amburg, director of the University of Chicago Laboratory School, a 92-year-old private day school for children of the university’s staff and the surrounding community. During the last three years, Mr. Van Amburg estimates, applications for places in the school’s kindergarten have increased by about 60 percent. In response, the school has added two new kindergarten sections.

“It’s just terrible,” says Nancy W. Simon, head of the San Francisco Day School, “We could fill six wonderful, wonderful kindergarten classes and we only have two.”

The school, which offers a “strong academic program” to students in grades K-4, received more than 140 applications for 60 available seats before it even began operation in 1981, according to Ms. Simon. She attributes the success of the school to the “tremendous need” for alternatives to public-school education at the preschool and elementary-school levels in the city. Until the San Francisco Day School opened, the only alternatives for parents “were some laid-back, vegetarian-type schools,” Ms. Simon says.

Admissions Dilemma

Just dealing with the paperwork involved in processing the numbers of applicants is a problem for schools, administrators say, although they add that their greatest concern is deciding who gets admitted.

Brian R. Walsh, head of the Buckley School in New York City, is struggling with the admission problems created by the rising number of preschool applicants. “They’re 4-and-a-half-year-old babies,” he says, ''and I want to take them all.”

But because most private schools have limited enrollments, “taking them all” is impossible, and in some schools, that means strict admissions standards--for 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds.

At the Glen Urquhart School in Beverly Farms, Mass., after officials conduct a preliminary interview with the parents, they require the child who is applying to visit the school and sit in on a class. “The child is there with some of our own kindergarten children so we can get a good look at it,” said Harry J. Groblewski, the school’s headmaster.

During the visit, the children are given tasks to test their motor development, hand-eye coordination, language and listening skills, attention span, and levels of frustration tolerance.

The school also looks at the child’s3pre-kindergarten record, Mr. Groblewski says. “Most of them already have had some form of nursery school.”

‘Educated Guesswork’

Other administrators rely less heavily on testing. According to Allan Shedlin Jr., former principal of the Midtown Ethical Culture School in New York City, a lot of admissions decisions simply are made on the basis of “educated guesswork,” particularly in choosing preschool candidates who are not obviously at the “very high or very low end of the spectrum.”

“It’s my feeling that [tests] are an indication of a child’s ability to do well in a particular setting,” he says, “but testing doesn’t tell you a lot about a 4-year-old child.” Preschools and elementary schools also are at a disadvantage because they do not have a “backlog” of information about the child’s past school performance, notes Mr. Shedlin.

At the Midtown Ethical Culture School, administrators often make decisions about admissions based on the particular needs of the school, Mr. Shedlin adds, such as balancing the number of boys and girls.

Other schools get around the admission issue by taking students on a “first-come, first-served” basis.

“We do no selection,” says Eleanor Siegl, director of The Little School in Bellevue, Wash. Ms. Siegl explains that the first-come, first-served admissions policy was instituted in order to avoid traumatizing children at such an early age. “Acceptance and rejection are very close to a child’s heart and our concern is that they feel good about themselves,” she says.

Some Schools Expanding

Some schools deal with the selec6tion problem by expanding to keep up with the demand.

Applications for places in the kindergarten at the Oakridge School in Fort Worth, Tex., have tripled during the last three years, said Andy J. Broadus, headmaster of the school, and so has the size of the kindergarten enrollment.

In order to meet the demand for places, the school has added desks, teachers, and books, and is in the process of building a new school, Mr. Broadus said.

Mr. Broadus said he has had little trouble finding qualified teachers for the school because they are attracted by the same academic excellence that is attracting parents.

Because Fort Worth has a growing economy, Mr. Broadus said he expects the demand for private elementary schools and preschools to continue at high levels, and that new schools will start springing up in the area. “I think we can depend on good old private enterprise to jump into this sooner or later,” he said.

School Businesses

In some areas, private enterprise already has jumped in. Richard N. Rosett, a former dean of the University of Chicago Business School, is working to develop a nationwide network of elementary and secondary schools funded by private investment capital.

Mr. Rosett said the network is a direct response to a market demand for first-class, high-quality elementary education. The schools will use a “mastery” learning approach and focus on developing students’ basic skills, Mr. Rosett said. He added that the schools “are not aimed at the elite, but at average students.”

Tuition at the schools, two of which will open in Chicago this fall,will range from $2,500 to $3,500, depending on the cost of real estate in different areas, Mr. Rosett said.

Disenchanted Parents

Mr. Rosett and other private-school educators primarily attribute the increasing demand for positions in the lower grades at private schools to parents’ disenchantment with the public-school system and their attraction to the individualized instruction and strong academic program offered by many private institutions.

“Some parents are still hurting from their own public-school experience,” says Ms. Siegl. She is critical of the “predetermined curriculum” of the public school that does not take into account the wide variations in students’ abilities. Parents who tour The Little School, Ms. Siegl says, often comment, “If only I could have gone to a school like this.”

Mr. Van Amburg of the University of Chicago Laboratory School thinks parents also are beginning to see education as a form of inheritance. “The one lasting thing they can give their children is the best education they can afford,” he says.

New Family Needs

The demand for preschool programs is also being affected by the increasing numbers of single-parent families and families in which both parents are working, according to Mr. Smith at the Council for American Private Education.

Rather than simply placing children in day-care centers, Mr. Smith notes, more parents are opting for a program that includes strong academics.

Parents also are concerned about getting their children on the “Ivy League” track, according to Mr. Shedlin, the father of children who have attended private elementary schools.

“There is unbelievable pressure on parents, who feel they need to get their children into the right preschool--so they can get them into the right elementary school, so they can get them into the right secondary school, so they can get them into the right college,” Mr. Shedlin says. “And the reality is that they are probably right.”

But some experts, like David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child and a professor of child study at Tufts University, say that the idea of an “Ivy League” track is simply a matter of too much parental anxiety.

“There really is no evidence to support the belief that somehow [parents] are going to ensure their child’s success by getting him into a good nursery school,” Mr. Elkind says.

Ms. Simon says the number of parents anxious to push their children into academics at an early age is “frightening.”

“Once childhood is gone, you can never retrieve it,” she says. She tells parents “to give your child a childhood and let him play. Don’t worry about the cognitive learning skills until they’re ready for it.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 1984 edition of Education Week as Private Lower Schools Face Deluge of Determined Applicants