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Friday, November 17, 2000

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
First- and second-graders in Michele Duff's class at
Epiphany School diligently work on a project.

The private school mystique

Parents, take a deep breath.
Choosing a private school for
your child - and getting in -
doesn't have to provoke anxiety

A look at the admissions process
Tips on how to choose a private school
Web sites offer guidance

By Christine Donnelly

Lots of young children are reticent when first meeting grown-ups. But Iolani School Admissions Director Patricia N. Liu recalls one boy who went beyond the typical shyness.

His parents had brought him to the selective Honolulu school to be evaluated for admission to kindergarten, but "he was just rushing through everything, asking 'Am I finished? Can I go?' " Liu recalled.

"Finally the interviewer asked 'What's wrong? Why are you in such a hurry?' ... It was that his parents had told him they would take him to McDonald's as soon as he was finished. So he wanted to be done right now!"

The anecdote is timely with the private school admissions process in high gear in Hawaii. Open houses, tours and interviews are under way and application deadlines are looming at many schools, or already past at others.

It can be a stressful time, especially for kids trying to get into schools that have more applicants than spaces. But admissions directors say there are many steps families can take to reduce the anxiety.

Foremost among their advice: Remember that no single school is right for every child. Getting accepted to a certain school is no guarantee of success in life, just as getting rejected does not mean failure.

"Sometimes, it's purely a numbers thing, (the child) was perfectly capable but the school just didn't have enough spots," said Robert Witt, executive director of the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools. "On the other hand, some very good schools can accommodate nearly all who apply."

There are 32,500 students enrolled in 124 private schools statewide, or about 15 percent of all the school-age children in Hawaii. Tuition ranges from about $2,000 a year to more than $12,000. (By contrast, 256 public schools enroll more than 185,000 students in grades kindergarten through 12 statewide.)

"There are so many choices. Start (narrowing the field) by deciding what's most important for your child," said Ella Browning, admissions director of Epiphany School in Kaimuki, which has about 150 students in grades kindergarten through six.

"Know your own comfort with various issues, religion, homework, class size," said Browning, also chairwoman of the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools' admissions directors committee.

Be realistic about your child's chances of getting in to a particular school by asking how many kids apply for each vacancy, whether the school gives special consideration to certain applicants (such as children of alumni or school employees and siblings of current students) and how many non-priority applicants tend to get in each year.

"From the admissions director's point of view, there are no unimportant questions. Call us, don't rely on word of mouth," said Curtis Hagen, admissions director of Punahou School, which accepts about one of every four students who apply.

The school has about 3,700 students in kindergarten through grade 12.

Of the 150 kindergarten students admitted each year, about 70 are priority acceptances, he said.

While it may sometimes feel like the school is doing all the choosing, families should "remember the process goes both ways. The idea is to get a picture of the whole child and whether the school will be able to meet his needs," said Kathy Lee, director of admissions for the upper grades at Hawaii Baptist Academy. The school has two campuses with about 1,050 students in grades kindergarten through 12.

"There are so many great kids who are motivated, who enjoy learning, who are excited about school," said Liu of Iolani, which has 1,785 students in grades kindergarten through 12 and accepts one out of about every six applicants.

"We see so many kids that we would like to take."

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Making good use of new technology, first- and
second-graders at the privately run Epiphany School
work on a project using the PowerPoint presentation
program on the computer.

Social skills,
preparation help
determine results

By Christine Donnelly

The admissions process varies by school, but here is a general idea of what to expect:

For kindergarten: If the child will meet the age cut-off, parents fill out an application providing basic information and have pre-school teachers submit reference reports directly to the school. At the school (on separate days), there's usually a one-on-one evaluation of the child, without the parent present, plus a group activity that lets the evaluator see the child interacting with other kids.

The questions on the teacher reference reports give a sense of what most schools are looking for at this age: Children who follow directions and exhibit self-control, who can work independently but also get along well with others, and most of all, who are enthusiastic about learning. Some schools gauge aptitude at this age, others consider primarily social and physical readiness.

Commonly mentioned benchmarks are whether the child has an appropriate vocabulary, can recall the main idea of a simple story and grasps basic concepts of letters, numbers, shapes and colors.

Every admission director interviewed strongly discouraged "cramming" at this age, saying a nurturing home or preschool is the best preparation for kindergarten. The No. 1 piece of advice: Read aloud to your child.

"I hate to hear of 3 year-olds off at tutors. Read to the child, talk about the stories, turn off the TV. That's still the best," said Curtis Hagen, director of admissions for Punahou School.

For admission to junior high and high school: There's a lot more for a school to judge a child on by this age, and the child is sure to have more opinions on what kind of school he or she would like to attend.

Besides the application and teacher and mentor references, most schools review previous school records (including grades, conduct reports and attendance), standardized test scores and an essay written by the applicant. Involvement in extracurricular and community activities is considered. Plus, there's the interview.

For the exam, most schools use the Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT), which means applicants pay the $70 testing fee once and have the results sent to several schools.

Admission directors strongly advise that students familiarize themselves with the format of the timed exam, which consists of an essay question and multiple-choice verbal, reading comprehension and math sections.

Parents can order a $20 booklet, "Preparing and Applying for Independent School Admissions and the SSAT," that includes practice tests, test-taking tips and even this rule of thumb on guessing: If you can eliminate two or more of the five possible answers, guess among the rest.

To prepare for the interview, parents might rehearse questions such as "what do you like most about school?" or "why do you want to attend this school?" -anything to get the child thinking and discussing their educational goals.

For any age: The night before, make sure the child gets a good night's sleep. The next morning, keep the anxiety level low, offer the usual breakfast and let the child wear comfortable, familiar clothes. Get to the school a few minutes early. Avoid pressuring or bribing the child to do well. For preschoolers, avoid the word test but also don't say the whole thing is a game.

The best bet, experienced evaluators say, is to play it straight: Tell your child that you want the school that's best for them, that they will be meeting new adults and children and they should listen carefully and do their best.

"Schools are really trying to get a picture of the whole child. They want the best fit between the child and the school," said Ruth Tschumy of the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools.

Pointers to help make
choosing a school easier

Some tips when choosing a private school:

Bullet Plan ahead. Some schools require applications nearly a year in advance. Remember that the selection process is a two-way street. Get to know the school. Visit the campus and read the school's Web site if it has one, as well as all printed material that comes with the application. Don't hesitate to ask questions.

Bullet Try to relax as you navigate the applications, tests and interviews. Younger kids, especially, take their behavior cues from their parents. If you're stressed out, they will be, too.

Bullet Find out how many openings the school has, how many kids apply for each vacancy, and whether the school operates a waiting list. Apply to more than one school. The application fees add up (generally $50 or more for each school), but the dreaded rejection letter carries less sting for kids who have several options.

Bullet If your child is not accepted, talk to the admissions director - either in person or over the phone - to find out why and to talk about alternatives.

Bullet Ask about financial aid up front. Some parents fear asking could hurt their child's chance of being admitted, but admissions directors say that is simply not true. Waiting means risking losing out on available grants and scholarships.

Bullet If you have an elementary school-age child and are considering private school for middle or high school, summer school in the intervening years is a good way to try out several campuses. Most private schools offer open enrollment in summer programs, rather than selective admissions.

Bullet Don't overlook your neighborhood public school. School-by-school data on everything from enrollment to test scores to staffing ratios can be found on the Internet at Careful scrutiny of individual schools, including campus visits, may confirm a decision to pay for private education, or convince parents that there are plenty of high-quality, free options available.


School should meet
parents' standards, too

When deciding whether a private school is right for their child, families must consider everything from the school's educational philosophy to how much it costs. Here are a few questions parents can ask to get started:

Bullet PHILOSOPHICAL: What is the school's mission and core emphasis? Does it have a religious affiliation? If so, what requirements go along with that? Is it coed or single-sex? What is the school size and average class size, as well as the student-teacher ratio? What are the minimum academic qualifications of the faculty? Is the school licensed and accredited?

Bullet CURRICULUM AND PROGRAMS: What core subjects are offered, including areas of special interest, such as foreign language, music, art or advanced-placement math and science classes? What is the average homework load at various grade levels? What kind of extracurricular activities are offered, such as sports, marching band or debate team? For secondary schools, what is the SSAT score range of students accepted? How many graduates go to college and where?

Bullet PRAGMATIC: What are the tuition and fees? Is there a payment plan? What percentage of students receive financial aid and what is the average dollar amount? How many students apply for every available opening? Does the school give preference to certain applicants (many favor children of alumni, school employees or siblings of current students)? Is student drop-off and pick-up convenient? Does the school offer before- and after-school activities? What about breakfast or lunch? What degree of parental involvement is required in such things as fund-raising, classroom volunteering, etc.? Does it do criminal history checks on employees? Does the campus seem safe and secure?

By Christine Donnelly,

 | | |

Internet information

The Internet provides a wealth of information about Hawaii's schools:

Bullet links to the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools, as well as individual schools' Web sites.
Bullet provides information about Hawaii's Roman Catholic schools.
Bullet lists information about Seventh-day Adventist schools statewide.
Bullet has information on all of Hawaii's public schools.
Bullet explains where, when and how to register for the Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT) required by most private middle schools and high schools.

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