MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We turn now from college education to independent education, AKA private schools. The Washington area has dozens and dozens of private schools. But in a highly educated region such as ours, supply doesn't always equal demand. In fact it falls a bit behind. So the process of applying to these schools can be a stressful experience. Both for families and for the admissions officers who decide who gets in. Jonathan Wilson talked with a few of these gate keepers at these institutions about how the process looks from their point of view.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
A lot has changed at The Potomac School in McLean, Va. since I graduated in 1998, new buildings, new sports fields and a bigger student body. Yes, I'm an alum. And yes, that's probably one of the reasons Charlotte Nelsen, the school's director of admissions agreed to give me just a little insight into exactly what it's like to decide which children are Potomac material.
MS. CHARLOTTE NELSEN
We have a mission, and our mission is to be gender-balanced, our mission is to be geographically diverse as a school, to be ethnically and racially diverse, and to be socio-economically diverse. So those kind of guidelines really help you, direct you towards the students you're going to assemble as one class.
Nelsen is one of the things that hasn't changed since my time at the school. She's been in her position for 23 years. And she says though a clear mission statement helps keep her and her team on task, one part of her job never gets easier.
Probably the hardest part of the job is disappointing people. There are many more people who are interested in a lot of our independent schools than we have room for them, from year to year. So it's hard to disappoint people.
Annie Farquhar is Nelsen's counterpart at Maret, a K-12 independent school with an idyllic campus in Northwest Washington, not far from the National Cathedral. Farquhar's been at Maret for 24 years and she and Nelsen know each other well. Both say the supportive atmosphere among admissions departments at the area's competing schools is one of their favorite aspects of working in independent education here.
MS. ANNIE FARQUHAR
There's certainly a cone of silence during the time we're making our decisions, but we support one another and talk with one another throughout the year and help one another.
But what exactly goes on when all the admissions departments St. Albans, Sidwell, Maret and Potomac, and the other elite private schools in the area retreat to their respective corners in January and February and start making actual decisions? It turns out that the cone of silence extends pretty far. Many schools simply refused to discuss the inner workings of their admissions process with me. Maret and Potomac at least use strikingly similar systems -- admissions committees made up of faculty members and different committees for specific age groups. Nelsen says anxious parents should remember that these committees aren't simply looking for nits to pick with a child's personality or academic record.
I mean, everybody's kind of rooting for the kids. They're really not looking for why they don't want a child. It's an admission committee, it's not a deny committee. It's a committee looking to take people.
Farquhar says her job is to present an accurate picture of each child to the faculty members who'll make the final decisions.
We'll advocate for every kid and tell them what we think they'll bring to the table but again, defer and work with the faculty. So it's -- at the end of it all you feel really great about the class you've formed and the kids that we are able to accept.
But the road to those final decisions isn't always without some bumps. Nelsen says it's not unusual for committee members to have strong and opposing positions on a particular student. Are there debates between admission committee members about, you know, I love this student, I love this student. Does that happen?
It does. It does. People can get pretty emotional. And there are -- I love it because there's a variety to the people in the room. And some people have an eye towards the academic promise and potential of a student. Others have an eye towards their citizenship and the kind of heart and addition they're going to make as a person in the grade.
Decision letters are sent out at the start of March. And the top schools in the area synchronize the timing of these letters to make it easier for parents applying to several schools. But for Nelsen and Farquhar, relationships with families that are not accepted often continue beyond the weekend when the letters are sent out. Both consider it part of their jobs to help families find the right school for their children, even if it isn't Potomac or Maret. Nelsen says that part of the process can be rewarding as well.
It feels like you're not just stopping shy of completing a relationship and a conversation. You don't want to cultivate people, show off your school and then just kind of have this verdict that comes down and not continue the conversation.
It's listening to what they think their child needs and what school fits them best, and then acting as a resource for them to help them find that particular school if it isn't Maret.
So the job of an admissions director at a selective private school is personal, painful, rewarding and challenging. And both of these women would probably be doing something else if it wasn't all of those things. Of course, it's probably even harder to be the parent of a child dearly wishing to make the right impression on a prospective school. But Nelsen has a mantra she tries to impart to each and every anxious parent that walks through her door.
Children are going to really be more resilient than parents think. And children are going to really flourish in a lot of settings and it isn't the end of the world that they won't be here for a particular grade in a particular year. And that's one of the things I like to help parents feel better about.
So parents of young children -- stop worrying. As if it were that easy. I'm Jonathan Wilson.
If you're the parent of a private school student, how was your experience with the admissions process? Send us an email. Our address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Time for a quick break, but when we get back, goodbye dodge ball, hello Pilates.
MS. HEATHER HOLLIDAY
If you're not able to compete on the level of everyone else, then you're not getting the same benefits from the class.
Physical education in D.C. gets a brand-new workout. That and more in a minute on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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