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Choosing the right private school for your kids.

Kim Baker of Oak Park, Ill., drives her three children 40 miles a day to private school. She's happy to do it. Until three years ago, Kim, 37, and her husband Jeff, 40, both lawyers, were satisfied with their local public school. That was before their oldest son, Brendan, entered third grade and became less enthused about learning.

"It was clear to me," says Kim, "that Brendan wasn't getting the kind of education I envisioned for my child." Nonetheless, the public school teachers said he was doing just fine.

"I got the feeling [from people at the public school] that if you have a nonwhite child who is doing O.K., you should be happy," says Kim, an African-American in a biracial marriage. "In other words, the attitude is 'what more could you ask?'" All Kim and her husband were asking was for their children to "work as close to their ability as possible."

The Bakers consulted an educational psychologist, who confirmed the family's concerns: If Brendan remained unchallenged, he would shut down and lose interest in learning altogether. As children grow, their needs change, and perhaps their school should, too. With the help of the psychologist, the Bakers found the Avery Coonley School, an independent school where it was clear Brendan would be more challenged. The Bakers are not alone: More and more African-American parents have concluded that the nation's public schools are failing to meet their children's needs.

Whether they live in cities or suburbs, are upper-, middle- or lower-income, more and more black parents are pursuing private school options. The most recent statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau put minority enrollement in private schools (grades K-12) at 21.7% of the 4.6 million private school students in the United States. Well over half of those minority students are African-American and Hispanic. Some reasons for this growing trend:

* Parents want to escape the crime and mediocre education of some public schools.

* They seek an enriched curriculum for their high-achieving youngsters.

* They want smaller classes and individualized attention for their specialneeds children.

* They demand a rigorous education to increase their children's chances of getting into a good college.

In the Bakers' case, Kim immediately knew that Avery Coonley was the right place. In science class, youngsters were charting scientific observations, not passively coloring mimeographed papers as they did in public school. In history, children studying ancient Greece wore authentic-looking garb and delivered orations.

"It was very clear that this was a better choice for Brendan," says Jeff, a corporate litigation attorney. Eventually, the Bakers enrolled all three of their children at Avery Coonley.

Regardless of the motivation, private school is a positive step for many, and the timing couldn't be better, says Randolph Carter, director of diversity and multicultural services for the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). For one thing, private schools are eager to enroll African-American students, he says.

Even though the number of black children is increasing in independent schools and is already above 8% of total enrollment in parochial schools, educators recognize that this isn't enough. As Carter explains it, diversity has come to be appreciated as one of America's defining traits. Consequently, private schools want to add children of color to their ranks.

Many private schools are actively recruiting and in some cases offer financial assistance, which makes for a more positive environment for African-American parents seeking options.

Applying to private school isn't simple, however. There are a lot of choices, and the application process is an involved one.


As the Bakers discovered, you must do your homework. First, know your child and understand his or her developmental needs. Second, find the school that best matches your child's needs. Then, consider how much you can afford to pay.

To help identify your child's needs, ask how much pressure your child can take, and what is his or her motivational level and achievement potential, says Teri Solochek, Ph.D., an educational consultant with Irwin, Lehrhoff and Associates in Los Angeles.

Think about your child's learning style. You'll want a school that teaches to your child's strengths, says Jacqueline Y. Pelzer, executive director of Early Steps, a New York-based organization created to increase racial diversity in independent schools by assisting families of color with children entering kindergarten and first grade.

Once you've gone through the process of determining your child's needs, you can look at possible schools. Obviously, they should be certified. Also, check out the student-teacher ratio, the curriculum and the educational activities--hands-on or lecture-style--that the school offers.

What about the way children are grouped in class? Is it by ability, by age, or are there mixed groups? Does the school's perspective serve your child's needs? What activities does the school offer? What sports? Where do students go after they graduate?

Consider how a school is organized: Is it very structured, or does it have few rules? You'll want to be sure that, as a parent, you're content with the school's philosophy, says Judith Berry Griffin, president of A Better Chance, based in Boston. "It's very difficult for children to be the only child of color in a class," Griffin points out. "That isn't to say that many don't [handle the situation]--and do it well--but it is an important factor to look at."

Among the things you'll want to know: How many students of color are currently attending the school? Do students come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds? Are there faculty members of color? Are there African-Americans on the policy-making boards at the school?

It's very important, she says, to find out if there have been any racial incidents. If there have, find out how the school handled the situation. Did the head of the school become personally involved? What were the discussions and actions that occurred as a result of the incident? Ask school administrators if they've seen any differences in how students relate to each other since the incident. Ask other parents as well.

Griffin suggests you ask other specific questions. For example, what's the school's attitude about standardized testing? It's problematic if a child succeeds only if he scores above a certain level. Generally, standardized tests don't serve African-American children well at all, she says, especially when they come from less well-to-do homes. So, be sure there are a variety of ways for the school to evaluate your child's progress. This will be particularly important when it comes time for your child to go to college. The school you choose should be willing to write a college reference that points out that while your child may not have a high test score, he or she has performed well in school and is capable of continuing in a highly selective college, says Griffin.


It's important to be open to different types of schools. Coretta DeWitt, 46, and her husband, Theodore, 50, of Canton, Ohio, discovered that boarding school could be a viable option for their son Teddy. For grades 1-8, Teddy attended the Canton Country Day School, a small, private elementary school that allowed him to advance at his own fast pace. By the time Teddy reached eighth grade, Coretta, a human resource assistant, and Theodore, an instrument technician for a petroleum refinery, considered trying a boarding school. The family decided on Phillips Academy, a boarding school in Andover, Mass.

For the middle-income DeWitts, who were paying steep fees for day school, an extra bonus was the scholarship that Teddy received. Equally important, though, the academically demanding school is also committed to having a diverse student population. Unlike Teddy's elementary school, which had few minority students, at Andover (as it's called) 8% of the student body is African-American, 5% is Hispanic, 13% is Asian-American and 9% is from abroad. In addition, the school has a strong commitment to multicultural education.


Nancy Brown, 41, and her husband Roosevelt, 45, were overwhelmed by the process when they considered private school for their 14-year-old daughter, Nicole. She was in sixth grade at the time and was soon to graduate from an experimental, state-of-the-art elementary school in Los Angeles.

The couple, both products of public education, wanted Nicole to continue with the same caliber of learning. "I was worried if I put her back into our neighborhood school, she wouldn't be challenged," says Roosevelt, president of a food distribution company. "And I had concerns about drugs and safety," he adds.

His wife, a nurse and psychotherapist, echoed his uneasiness. "I felt I was doing something wrong by abandoning the public schools," Nancy says, "but I had great concerns about [Nicole] getting what she needed." In addition, the Browns wanted a school that offered a multicultural environment, and Nicole, who is a professional actress, also needed a performing arts curriculum.

They soon found help. During an information night at Nicole's elementary school, the Browns met Manasa Hekymara, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Independent School Alliance for Minority Affairs. The Alliance is an agency of 29 independent elementary and secondary schools that help families of color with the private school admission process.

"I think a lot of [minority] families don't consider private school an option," says Hekymara. "Particularly when you look at what tuitions cost, many families think the schools are out of their reach." That's not the case in Los Angeles, where Alliance member schools gave out more than $10 million in financial aid in 1993.

Working with Hekymara, the Browns brainstormed about the best schools for Nicole; she guided the couple through the application process and then followed up to be sure the school applications were complete and all deadlines were met.

Agencies like the Alliance are the best places for African-American parents to start. Like a private educational consultant, they can help you navigate your way through the private school maze.

Start your search by calling agencies like the National Association of Independent Schools and the National Catholic Educational Association, which can give you a lot of information. Next, you may want to contact organizations like A Better Chance, which help academically adept children of color gain access to some of the nation's best independent day and boarding schools. (See "Parents' Helpers" sidebar.)

"Our mission is to increase the number of well-educated minority people who are capable of achieving roles of leadership in American society," says Griffin. "We try to see to it that students who are capable and motivated and courageous get those opportunities."

A Better Chance counsels families of color regardless of their financial position, although the group's focus is to identify and assist children who might not otherwise be able to afford private school. Its 176 member schools award more than $12 million in scholarships annually to A Better Chance children.


Another factor in choosing a private school is to look for a match with your family's values. Royal Alley-Barnes, 46, knew that she and her husband, Curtis R. Barnes Jr., 50, wanted a school with a strong religious and moral influence. "We have standards in our home that we want replicated in a school where you learn about choice and consequences," says Alley-Barnes, a financial administrator.

The couple also wanted a school with a strong multicultural bent, which is why they chose St. Therese, a Catholic school in Seattle where approximately 70% of the children are African-American. At St. Therese, the values component is also strong. For example, the school teaches specific values weekly through its Vision and Values program.

The children are divided into "family" groups, from kindergarten through eighth grade. For instance, one of the values taught is preventing violence. The children work on ways to avoid violence by communicating well, and being honest and respectful. A counselor visits each class weekly, where they work on intervention, mediation and conflict resolution skills.

The school also encourages self-esteem by displaying multiethnic icons and images. "The children aren't looking at icons of another ethnicity," explains principal Eileen Gray, an African-American who says she grew up surrounded by Caucasian images. Plus, the school has a pilot program that looks at history from an Afrocentric viewpoint. "When I was in school, I had the feeling that African-American history didn't begin until slavery," Gray says. "We teach the children that these ethnic groups had a society, a culture, a value before they appeared in America."

This is precisely the kind of thinking behind other Afrocentric schools. "Children are begging to know who they are," says Jackie Turnage, founder and director of the Storman-Stufflin School in St. Louis. "Up until 14, a child needs to have a strong background in their heritage before they go out into the world," she says.

Turnage opened Storman-Stufflin in 1981 because, as a high-school teacher, she was appalled by the lack of options for black children in the public schools. She strives for a strong academic base taught by a multiethnic staff. The curriculum weaves African-American culture throughout. It starts with the ABCs. A is for Africa, not apple. It continues in math and science, where children learn about Benjamin Banneker (who wrote a world almanac) at the same time they learn about Benjamin Franklin.

It's not just Afrocentric schools that stress diversity. Bobby Edwards, senior associate dean of admissions and director of people of color recruitment for Phillips Academy, believes that a good school in a multicultural setting will prepare children for the world they'll face in the future. "It's understanding that the world is everchanging," he says, "and that if we are truly in the mission of preparing kids for the next step and beyond, we have a responsibility to begin that process here."

Ultimately, though, it falls to parents like the Bakers to determine the precise kind of education that best fits their child. It's a job that requires

thought, planning, sacrifice and hard work--in fact, it's a lot like going to school.


Remember that the admissions process usually begins in September and runs through February. Acceptances are usually mailed in the early spring. Submit your applications early. That way if there are any glitches, you have time. This is especially true for financial aid requests.

Find out about admissions exams. Carefully consider the dates: How will they mesh with your child's other activities? Consider giving your child a review course for the entrance exam. Experts have mixed feelings about this. Weigh the stress that your child will experience from a prep course against the testing experience gained.

Ask for the names of parents whose children go to the school. Prepare a list of questions for these parents, and write down the answers so you can review them later.

Prepare file folders for each school you send applications to. Put deadlines and orientation dates in your main calendar--and on the front of each folder. Create a tickler file, and follow up as diligently as you would with business or professional contacts.

Visit the school when it is in session. See if you can visualize your child in that setting. Look for a child who reminds you of your own. How is he or she relating?

Determine the school's commitment to enhancing and incorporating a multicultural perspective into the curriculum. Decide if you want an Afrocentric point of view. Are minority people brought into class discussions and threaded throughout as examples? Does the school include literature by African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians?

Think about the most effective way to present a full picture of your child to the admissions committee. This should include letters of recommendation from people who may know your child in ways other than from academics or sports; it may include a portfolio of creative work or an unsolicited statement by your child regarding his or her feelings and expectations about the school.

Think about positive, legitimate ways to help your child stand out from the crowd. For example, it helps to have a phone call to the private school's admissions director from an administrator or teacher at your child's current school before or immediately after the child's interview.

Don't worry about the interview. Educational counselors say that children need not be prepped for them. Instead, encourage your child to be himself. You might help by identifying some topics that school officials might want to talk about, or you can suggest questions that your child can ask. Help alleviate your child's stress by viewing the process less emotionally yourself.

Have a backup plan. Know where your child will go if she doesn't get accepted to your first or second choice schools.


Mention private school, and we all break out in math anxiety. No question, private schools are expensive. Tuitions range from $2,000 for some parochial schools to $20,000 for some boarding schools. But many educators want their schools to be racially balanced and are committed to helping as many minority families as possible. This means many schools realize that for them to be accessible, financial aid has to be a possibility.

Remember, though, you'll be paying more than tuition. Expenses include books, field trips, lab fees. If you do qualify for financial aid, the school will often pay for many or all of those expenses.

However, the first thing to know is that financial assistance for elementary and secondary schools differs from college. For one thing, you need to go directly through the institution that accepts your son or daughter. For another, scholarships and loans are based strictly on financial need, not merit. Partial tuition reductions are fairly frequent, and some schools offer lowinterest loan programs with affiliated funding organizations. Typically, the admissions and financial aid offers come to you at the same time.

Schools vary in the amount of financial aid they can offer. For example, Patrick Bassett, president of the Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS) says that in his 175-member schools (which cover 15 states), 22% of the students are on scholarship.

Middle-income parents will probably feel the most severe financial pinch. "I tell middleincome parents who are looking to have the strongest education possible for their children and can't qualify for aid, that children of color graduating from these schools are actively recruited by colleges," says Manasa Hekymara of the Independent School Alliance for Minority Affairs. Youngsters from private schools will often get their pick of colleges, where financial assistance is usually part of the deal, she points out, so that while you may pay more now, your child's college costs will likely be a lot less. "Sometimes parents are thinking so much about saving for college that they believe they can't afford to pay for private school now," she says. "I tell them if they invest now, the child will have more options later."


A Better Chance Inc., 419 Boylston St., Boston, MA 02116; 617-421-0950. Or call the New York City office at 212-456-1920.

This placement agency's goal is to provide academically talented children of color access to some of the nation's best independent day and boarding schools.

Early Steps, 540 East 76th St., New York, NY 10021; 212-288-9684.

Created to increase racial diversity in independent schools by assisting families of children entering kindergarten and first grade.

Independent School Alliance for Minority Affairs, 1545 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 711, Los Angeles, CA 90017; 213-484-2411.

This agency of 29 independent elementary and secondary schools reaches out to families of color to help them with the process of private school admission.

National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), 1620 L St. N.W., Washington, DC 20036; 202-973-9700.

NAIS has a toll-free hot line for families of color seeking information. Individual phone consultations and materials about individual schools, summer programs and financial aid are available at 800-343-9138.

Prep for Prep, 163 W. 91st St., New York, NY 10024; 212-769-4310.

This group identifies and prepares capable minority youngsters to succed at academically demanding private schools.

Toussaint Institute Fund, 98 Fort Green Place, Brooklyn, NY 11217; 718-875-5469.

The institute has an annual school expo, and provides scholarships for black boys who are not doing well in public schools. It also publishes a directory of historically black independent schools.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
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Author:Solomon, Charlene Marmer
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Oct 1, 1994
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