Best High Schools 2009: The Best Schools (For You and Your Kid)
SQUADRONS OF AP CLASSES, RESEARCH TRIPS TO Peru or Japan, plentiful art and music studios, natatoriums that would make Michael Phelps feel at home. These are the much-talked-about hallmarks of private schools, the kinds of things few public institutions can match. But while that Chinese immersion program is impressive, the siren call of a private school education has always been the access it provides to elite colleges. "In these schools, the process of getting into college begins right away," says Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez, whose new book, Best of the Best, is a study of the New England prep school experience. "That’s what they use to attract students in the first place."
When I was in high school, there was much talk about "feeder schools." Andover and Exeter were the routes to Harvard and Yale, St. Paul’s to Princeton, Deerfield to Dartmouth. But as universities put more and more emphasis on diversifying their student bodies, they’re no longer happy to accept a handful of bright kids from the country’s top private high schools. "Attending a private school increases your chances of getting into a good college but decreases your chances of getting into a really good college," says Gaztambide-Fernandez. "A lot of these students could have done very well in their local public schools, and maybe that would have put them in a better place to get into Harvard or Yale. In an elite school, they’re competing with many of the same types of students; it’s harder to stand out. There’s a chance going private might actually diminish your college chances." Discouraging news for parents working their way toward that $1 million education.
The scenario has ratcheted up the need for private schools to remind families what they can provide. "Independent schools are feeling a lot of pressure to justify their value," says Sudbury-based educational consultant Allison Matlack. "They haven’t had to prove their worth like this before." In a bid to reassure anxious parents, headmasters are mailing home more details on their school’s programs and offerings. One local school recently organized a class project designed to remind students what their families might be sacrificing for their superior education. Everywhere, outreach has been amped up as private schools "massage" their existing students, says one local mom. "They’re organizing events—holiday fairs, potluck suppers, guest speakers, Valentine’s Day breakfasts," she notes. "Of course, these are all marketing gimmicks, but they’re effective at building a community that makes people feel more invested."
Most of all, though, private schools are getting more vocal about their financial-aid opportunities. Across the region, requests for aid are up—15 percent at Milton, 20 percent for new students at Belmont Hill, and 25 percent for applicants to Buckingham Browne & Nichols. At Concord Academy, 25 percent of students will be receiving aid this year, up from 20 last year. To offset the cost, schools are engaged in aggressive fundraising and are making grateful use of scholarships provided by wealthy benefactors. The programs mirror the kind of scramble more commonly seen at the college level. "Our school has announced many times this year that it was increasing its financial-aid packages," says a mom with two children in a Newton
private school. "Sometimes people see a stigma in financial aid. They think, ‘I don’t want to be that person who applies.’ Our school has tried to take that stigma away this year; communication has been ramped up. The school has made financial aid a priority."
Hanging on to existing students may be the top concern, but private schools are also going further afield to find new kids, too. School fairs that were once pamphlet-distribution events are now seen as critical opportunities to capture a student’s allegiance. "I’ve been to fairs with more than 100 other schools," says Mike Brennan, Boston College High School admissions director. "This is a fierce market. The stakes are higher."
And it’s a job not left to merely the admissions office. Coaches are on the phone, hard-selling sports teams and facilities; algebra teachers are dialing future mathletes; and painting instructors are checking in with would-be Picassos. The plus side of any enrollment shakeout is that private schools still have seats to fill. With nary a hiccup in transferring her kids to a private school late in the academic cycle, one mom says, "This makes me think if you wanted to get into BBN, now is the time."
IF THE SECURITY BLANKET THAT ELITE PRIVATE schools have long provided appears a bit frayed today, that may not necessarily be a bad thing. Even as the economy has forced families to reevaluate their assumptions, it’s also helped show them they have options—great ones. "What this has done is really open up all the possibilities," says longtime educational planner Adam Goldberg. And for the first moment in decades, parents are beginning to actively explore what those possibilities look like.
It’s about time.
Already, our great private schools have recognized they can’t rest on their gilded crests in the hope that eager young things will barrel toward campus waving applications and tuition checks. And already, plenty of well-off parents with high expectations and a penchant for getting involved are joining their public school communities. A little competition for students—a little tussling over the idea of what makes a "good education"—is a good thing.
Maybe my future kids will be St. Mark’s kids. Or maybe they’ll step into public school classrooms. Either way, they’ll be aiming for the best, not merely making a stop on a predetermined path.
SASCHA DE GERSDORFF is executive editor of special projects for Boston.