Thousands of parents trying to get their children into private schools are now busy mailing thank-you cards to admissions offices and biting their nails while waiting for word back.
However, for a small number of parents who prevailed through this gantlet in the past, this time of year brings another kind of notice — that their child is on thin ice — as an even more painful process begins: the “counseling out” of students who are not succeeding.
Not discussed on schools’ tours or in their glossy pamphlets, counseling out is nonetheless a matter of practice at many private schools. Unlike the public school system, private schools are not obligated, and often not set up, to handle children having trouble keeping up.
“There are some kids that we’re not going to renew,” said Pamela Clarke, the head of the Trevor Day School in Manhattan, “either because they can’t do the work and we’re not serving them, or generally, that might be combined with behavior issues we can’t win.”
“That means he or she needs a different school,” Clarke said.
Schools do not publicize how many students they remove this way, but the number is generally a small portion of the enrollment. However, some Web sites for parents have offered the suspicion that schools remove lagging students to protect another statistic that schools do publicize: their students’ admissions rates to top colleges. Frank Leana, an independent college counselor on the Upper East Side, said that view was wrong.
“They’re trying to justify their own kids, or their friend’s kids, who have been counseled out,” he said.
Parents and students who have been counseled out — or kicked out, as some more bluntly put it — describe the experience as one of the more trying of their lives. They found themselves thrust into a world previously unknown to them, of intensive tutoring, special consultants and in some cases even more expensive niche schools.
When Sandra Klihr’s son William started to slip at the Collegiate School, the standard-bearer of all-boys education on the Upper West Side, the school plied him with extra help. However, the fast-paced classes nonetheless became frustrating and demoralizing. He was removed in the fourth grade.
“The school just sat down with us and said: ‘You know, he seems really miserable, and we feel like we’d already given him one-on-one,’” Klihr said.
He ended up at the Summit School in Queens and is now in high school, getting good grades at the Smith School on the Upper West Side, two of a small number of alternative schools that cater to children with learning or emotional troubles who have not succeeded at other schools.
To keep their children in the schools, some parents pile on tutors or turn to intensive programs like the one at Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes, whose five-week, four-hours-a-day afterschool reading course costs US$11,500.
Parents “know that the child is struggling,” said Jennifer Egan, the director of the Lindamood-Bell center in New York City, but do all they can to stay in their chosen schools. “It feels like a defeat to some people.”
Although sometimes effective, the litany of tutors can overwhelm an already stressed child.
“There’s a point where it’s destructive,” said Carla Howard Horowitz, an educational evaluator, who helps guide students in this betwixt state.
By the time she is called in, Horowitz said, schools have often already made up their minds about the student.
Jesse Statman won a high school math award while in eighth grade at Bay Ridge Preparatory School in Brooklyn. However, in other subjects he lagged behind. To keep him focused, he needed an aide beside him in class. He also had trouble getting along with his classmates.
Eventually, the school suggested that Jesse leave, said his father, Mark, who resisted at first.
Parents “don’t always see what’s best; we see what looks like it would be best,” Statman said. “I can tell people that my kid’s in an Ivy League school, or goes to Andover, or goes to Choate — that doesn’t always translate into a good experience for the kid.”
Jesse pinballed around several programs for students who have troubles in school before landing at Smith. His father said he was doing much better there and had been accepted at Eugene Lang College, part of the New School, where Statman is a professor.
Filling a role that reform or military schools used to perform, alternative schools like Smith, which has about 35 students in grades 7 through 12, tend to take a more nurturing approach. Some of these schools provide an educational rehab of sorts: The Stephen Gaynor School on the Upper West Side and the Windward School in White Plains specialize in getting students back into mainstream schools after a few years — sometimes the same schools they left.
However, with their high staff-to-student ratios, they are not cheap: Windward’s annual tuition is US$43,000, about US$10,000 more than at most Manhattan private schools. Smith’s upper-school tuition ranges from US$29,000 to US$41,500, depending on the grade and the extent of extra help.
Before making a student leave, a school may try to fix the areas in which the child is slipping, with, for example, an in-house reading specialist or by recommending tutors. When parents receive the blow that their child is being removed, Clarke said of the Trevor School, it should not be a surprise.
“It’s something that surely we’ve talked about for at least two years,” she said.
However, the experience can still leave a bad taste, even for students who eventually land on their feet.
Bennett Allen, now 28, said he was asked to leave the Dalton School a month before the end of eighth grade for disciplinary problems like buying and sharing cigarettes and for falling behind in some classes.
“I was very young, and I was testing the limits,” Allen said.
At the Beacon School, the public school he ended up in, teachers took him more firmly under their wing, he said, and helped him channel his rambunctiousness.
“Dalton was kind of like that parent who rather than play with their kid and encourage and grow their curiosity, brings it to the doctor and gets them Adderall instead,” he said.
Dalton, asked about its counseling-out practices, said only: “Together with families, Dalton works to serve the students’ best interests, so they may thrive and be successful.”
Allen said that he was better off having transferred to a school that met his needs, albeit in a less prestigious setting.
“It was the biggest favor they ever did for me,” he said of Dalton’s move.
He went on to Columbia University and is now an investigator for the US Labor Department.
He said he bears no grudges toward the school. Well, maybe one.
“I still get their letters asking for donations,” he said. “I’m not giving them a cent.”
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