Families & the Community

Consultants Steer Parents Through Maze of School Choice

By Arianna Prothero — February 03, 2015 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 7 min read
Laura Barr, left, founder and owner of e.Merging Educational Consulting in Denver, advises Liz and Justin Wasserman on the school choices available for their 4-year-old daughter. Ms. Barr’s services are popular with middle-income parents in the high-choice city.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Corrected: An earlier version of this story misidentified Maia Cucchiara. She is a sociologist.

The rapid expansion of charter schools and other public school options is fueling growth in another industry: education consulting.

Education consultants, once used primarily by families to help them select and get into elite private schools, are now being hired by parents in New York City, Denver, and Washington to help them navigate a plethora of public school options.

Although business is booming for a few savvy entrepreneurs who have gotten a foothold in the public-education-consultant market early, others worry that consultants are a symptom of a system that’s perhaps getting too complicated for parents, and could potentially put low-income families who can’t afford such services at a competitive disadvantage.

“I think middle-income families who wouldn’t have paid for education consulting [before] are now because of the complexity of the options,” said Elizabeth Perelstein, the founder of a White Plains, N.Y.-based consulting firm, School Choice International. “No parent wants their child to be at a disadvantage.”

To be successful, education consultants have to be in the know: They research curricula, visit schools, track achievement-related data, and are wired into local parent networks. They help families identify schools that match their children’s needs and demystify application and enrollment processes that can differ vastly from what has been the norm in the education system for decades.

Traditionally, education consultants have focused on matching families to private schools or universities. In some cases, they work with companies relocating to a new city, while still others work exclusively with families of students with special needs.

But as choices have grown in the public school sector, so has business for education consultants like Laura Barr. A former teacher, she started a company called e.Merging Educational Consulting in Denver in 2007.

“As the choices get more specific and defined by philosophy, parents have gotten curious, excited, and overwhelmed,” said Ms. Barr. With such a variety of options ranging from International Baccalaureate schools to language-immersion charters “a lot of parents want to know, is that going to be OK for my child?”

She helps parents sort through, and research, regular district school options as well.

Ms. Barr theorizes that the rising demand she’s seen for consultants to help find a public school also has to do with the economy: Middle-income families still recovering from the Great Recession that perhaps could have once afforded private schooling no longer can, she said.

Parent Profile

The type of client who hires a consultant to find a public school might conjure images of overly ambitious parents—sometimes popularly referred to as a “tiger mom” or a helicopter parent—but Ms. Barr said her clients aren’t necessarily “overachievers.”

In many cases, they’re just confused.

“Being new to the process, we didn’t know how to even start our search,” said Lori Leopold, a Denver doctor and mother of a 5-year-old boy who will enter kindergarten in the fall. He’s the couple’s only child, so Ms. Leopold and her husband have no prior experience in selecting schools in an all-choice environment like Denver’s.

Laura Barr, right, founder and owner of e.Merging Educational Consulting, tours The Logan School for Creative Learning last week with Becky Godec, the enrollment management director for the private school in Denver. Ms. Barr’s consulting services are increasingly in demand from parents who are unfamiliar with Denver’s expanding public school choice options.

Ms. Leopold said she would have felt more confident if picking an elementary school was like selecting a university, where one weighs factors such as academics, faculty, and prestige.

But Ms. Leopold said she and her husband had no idea how to evaluate a kindergarten classroom.

“When we started going into kindergartens, they were talking about being nice to each other and being good to the Earth … totally different ballgame.”

The Leopolds hired Ms. Barr, who observed their son in his preschool classroom, gave him a series of personality and learning-style tests, and had the family fill out a detailed questionnaire on what they valued in an education.

“When you have all that information, and then with [Ms. Barr’s] vast knowledge of the Denver school system, she’s able to direct you to a much smaller pool of schools,” Ms. Leopold said.

The Leopolds have boiled their list down to two private schools and five public schools. To get into one of the public options on their list, they’ll be entering into Denver’s citywide lottery system for most public schools—regular and charter.

Denver is an early adopter of a relatively recent innovation called a universal or common-enrollment system.

Such systems create a single process with one application and one set of deadlines to apply for most district, charter, and magnet schools in a given city. An algorithm is used to match students to schools.

The Leopolds are similar to many of the clients who seek out E.V. Downey’s help in the District of Columbia. Originally an administrator at a private school, Ms. Downey got into the education consulting business about three years ago, expecting to help parents seeking a private education for their children. But, she soon saw ample demand for her services in the public school arena. Most of Ms. Downey’s clients are families in which both parents work and they’re enrolling their first child in the school system. They aren’t necessarily affluent.

“I would say almost always middle-of-the-road, middle class,” Ms. Downey said of her typical clients. “A lot of them express to me that they are committed to living in the city, want diverse schools for their kids, but can’t afford private schools.”

Ms. Downey charges around $200 for a basic, two-hour consultation on public schools—it’s $250 if a parent also wants to extend the session by half an hour and discuss private school options. To walk parents through the entire process, including multiple meetings and being on call to answer questions, the price can climb as high as $1,750.

Ms. Downey also holds group lecture sessions which cost $35 for a parent attending on his or her own, and $55 for couples.

At a recent lecture session were the Schinders, a pair of Washington architects and parents to a 3-year-old boy who will enter the District of Columbia’s prekindergarten program in the fall.

“I’m looking for schools that offer languages, I’m from Argentina, and I want my son to get Spanish at school,” said Ileana Schinder, who is expecting the couple’s second child in March. "[Ms. Downey] gave us very pointed information about schools that are totally under the radar.”

Although both Ms. Schinder and Ms. Leopold, the Denver parent, generally believe school choice has improved public schooling in their respective cities, both admit that this brave new world has its drawbacks and complications.

“Everybody says that they want choice, but with choice comes more responsibility,” said Maia Cucchiara, a sociologist and an associate professor of urban education at Temple University in Philadelphia. “And a responsibility for a quality education is shifted in a choice context from the school district to the parent.”

Affordability a Barrier

With that responsibility comes growing anxiety to choose the right path, said Ms. Cucchiara, and many parents feel that a poor decision could have serious implications for their children.

Under those circumstances, Ms. Cucchiara said she’s not surprised more are turning to outside experts for guidance.

Of course, many families living in high-choice cities do not have the means to hire a consultant.

“We’ve gotten a huge number of inquiries from low-income families—they find us on the Internet,” said Ms. Perelstein. “We get a lot of inquiries from families who want help but can’t pay for the service.”

As part of her job, Ms. Perelstein has attended town hall meetings in New York City neighborhoods where charter schools are on the rise, and she said she’s seen firsthand some of the frustration families feel over the impossibility of navigating all their options.

“I think there are unintended consequences of well-intentioned programs,” she said. “I’ve lived long enough to know that choices aren’t always choices.”
Ms. Perelstein founded her company 17 years ago in London and has watched the education consulting landscape evolve over that time. Originally, School Choice International served families and corporations relocating abroad, before expanding into consulting work on private schools, special education, and universities.

Now, about 15 to 20 percent of School Choice International’s business comes from families looking for consultations on public schools.

And for her part, Laura Barr, the Denver-based consultant, doesn’t see business slowing down anytime soon.

“I’m busy,” she said while riding in a cab in New York City. A company hired Ms. Barr to come and talk to a group of employees who are relocating to Denver.

“I think it’s going to be a growing profession,” she said, “especially in cities.”

Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as Demand for Choice Consultants Grows

Events

School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
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.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Creating Confident Readers: Why Differentiated Instruction is Equitable Instruction
Join us as we break down how differentiated instruction can advance your school’s literacy and equity goals.
Content provided by Lexia Learning
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.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning

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

Families & the Community Q&A How These District Leaders Turned Family Engagement on Its Head
Two Leaders to Learn From share insights on what family and community engagement entails.
7 min read
Families & the Community Video ‘A Welcoming Place’: Family Engagement Strategies for Schools (Video)
Schools that enlist parents as partners see positive results. Here's how to do it.
1 min read
Families & the Community Bring Back In-Person Field Trips. Here's Why
School field trips took a hit due to the pandemic and are still recovering. Educators and experts explain why they should come back.
4 min read
Students from Piney Branch Elementary School in Bristow, Va. arrive at Elizabeth Furnace Recreational Area in the George Washington National Forest in Fort Valley, Va. on Tuesday, April 23, 2024 for an outdoor education field trip. During the field trip, students will release brook trout that they’ve grown from eggs in their classroom into Passage Creek and participate in other outdoor educational activities.
Students from Piney Branch Elementary School in Bristow, Va., arrive at Elizabeth Furnace Recreational Area in the George Washington National Forest in Fort Valley, Va., on April 23, 2024, for an outdoor education field trip.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
Families & the Community 5 Ways to Get Parents More Involved in Schools
Schools don't need an influx of money and resources to have effective family engagement, experts say.
9 min read
Various school representatives and parent liaisons attend a family and community engagement think tank discussion at Lowery Conference Center on March 13, 2024 in Denver. One of the goals of the meeting was to discuss how schools can better integrate new students and families into the district. Denver Public Schools has six community hubs across the district that have serviced 3,000 new students since October 2023. Each community hub has different resources for families and students catering to what the community needs.
School representatives and parent liaisons attend a family and community engagement think tank discussion at Lowery Conference Center on March 13, 2024 in Denver. One of the goals of the meeting was to discuss how schools can better integrate new students and families into the district.
Rebecca Slezak For Education Week