Making the Grade

After sending four children to private high schools, Patti Doyle of Pepper Pike is used to shopping for a good education. She's hit the open-house circuit with her children, quizzing administrators and teachers, sizing up curriculums, trying to find the right fit for her sons and daughters.

Doyle's eldest daughter went to her alma mater, Beaumont School in Cleveland Heights. Her younger daughter figured she'd go to Beaumont, too — until she and Doyle visited Gilmour Academy in Gates Mills and fell in love with it. She's a junior at Gilmour now.

"I think we're blessed in Cleveland that we have so many good schools to choose from," Doyle says. "I think everybody puts a whole lot more effort into [the search] now than they used to. Looking at high school is like looking at colleges."

For complete coverage of Northeast Ohio's private schools, plus a look at five private-school graduates who have hit it big, pick up the September issue of Cleveland Magazine.
With dozens of private schools in the Cleveland area, competition is fierce. The days when schools made admissions decisions informally, filling classrooms with the sons and daughters of alumni, are gone. Today, savvy parents and students shop and compare, while professional admissions staffers armed with slick brochures try to attract them to their schools. The application process is more sophisticated, too, a taxing regimen of standardized tests, essays and multiple recommendations from former teachers.

"Parents repeat back to me all the time: 'Boy, this has changed from when I was a kid,' " says Devin Schlickman, dean of admissions at Gilmour. "It's much more involved and cutthroat. [Parents say,] 'My daughter's a sophomore in college now. We didn't have to go through this six years ago.' "

The odds of getting into a given school vary widely. Padua Franciscan High School in Parma, for instance, accepts about 300 out of 350 applicants to its freshman class, while selective Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights saw 56 kids apply for about 20 spots in its incoming ninth-grade class.

But don't feel daunted. Many families find Northeast Ohio a buyer's market, with several schools vying to attract bright kids.

"[It's] a very competitive situation, with more independent schools than you have in [other] metro areas our size," Schlickman notes. "Every school is looking for the student who's bringing the most into their environment. ... The more a student's profile offers, the more a family is in the driver's seat."

So how should you choose the right place for your child? Start looking early, advise officials at Cleveland-area schools. Spend a lot of time at your top choices, getting a real feel for them. And give your son or daughter a say in the final decision.

Seventh grade is a good time for students and parents to start looking for a high school, say most admissions directors. Some families make their decisions in a two-month shopping blitz in the fall of eighth grade, but schools don't recommend that.

"This is a decision that's going to impact [your child] for a long time," points out Maria Mueller, admissions director at St. Joseph Academy in Cleveland. The longer a family gives itself to decide, the more chance it has to get to know its top school choices. If you're looking really far ahead, St. Joseph even offers a visitation day for fifth- and sixth-graders. (Mueller has even heard from parents of third- and fourth-graders, but that's "a little on the early side," she says politely.)

Visits to a school traditionally start with open houses, where administrators, sometimes with the help of teachers and students, pitch their school to prospective families. Later come one-on-one appointments with school officials. Students often size up a school by spending a day "shadowing" a current student and sitting in on classes.

Sorting through all the sales pitches may become complicated. "One of the things I'm going to start encouraging families to do," says Maureen Regan, admissions director of Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls, "is creating a little spreadsheet that considers many different facets of schools, obviously starting with academics: where the [graduates] are going to college, how much scholarship money they get, ... facilities, the extracurriculars, the average number of years of teaching experience in the faculty; do they have master's degrees?"

Besides sorting through the stats, parents should also think about their child's needs and interests.

"[Parents] ask a lot of questions they think they're supposed to ask: college placement, how many students go on to Ivy League schools, your average SAT score, how many National Merit finalists," says Schlickman. Instead, he suggests, parents should first ask themselves about their sons and daughters: their strengths and weaknesses, gaps in their education they need to fill, the subjects and careers that interest them.

Of course, you also have to worry about whether your child will get into the school and whether you can afford its tuition. (See sidebars on pages 100 and 102 for our advice on both.)

Being honest with school officials up front is the best way to find the right place for your child, Schlickman says: "If you exaggerate a strength or leave out a known weakness, it might potentially set up a situation where it's a bad fit."

Parents shouldn't rule out expensive schools right away, advises Mary Anne Beiting, principal at Archbishop Hoban High School in Akron. "I think they need to not be afraid of the price tags they see. Many schools have financial aid available based on need. If the student is bright, [he or she could attract] many scholarships." For instance, the independent Hawken School gives more than $1 million a year in financial aid, says head of school Jim Berkman.

Once you and your child have narrowed down your choices, visit your favorite schools — more than once, if necessary.

"I've almost been haunted by parents having a hard time making a choice," says Richard Hawley, headmaster of University School in Hunting Valley. "But I love that. That's a good sign they value what's going to happen. They care so much that they're willing to be those kinds of pests."

While visiting, pay attention to aspects of the school that are harder to quantify.

"How does it feel when you visit?" asks Sarah Liotta Johnston, director of admissions for Hathaway Brown. "Does it feel like an inviting place? Does it feel like an environment where your child is going to be successful?"

Ask yourself similar questions about those in charge of the school, advises Marshall Murdough, director of enrollment for Western Reserve Academy in Hudson. "[Parents] need to feel like they can identify with those people they're talking to, the administration or faculty." Talk to a teacher or coach in your child's favorite subject or sport, he suggests. "If they want to continue on that path, you'd better be sure the tools are there."

Even more important than your opinions of a school are your child's. Admissions directors say it's vital for prospective students to spend a day shadowing a current student.

"They will have a gut feeling whether they can picture themselves in this environment for four years," says Regan.

Parents are giving children more say in where they go to high school than in past generations, officials note. Students need to be comfortable at a school, but sometimes, parents need to inject some long-term thinking.

"I've seen instances where I believe a child has made a decision on a school because their best friend, or two of their best friends, are going to be at a school," says Schlickman. "Sometimes, it takes a parent to say, 'I know you've been friends with this person for a few years, but you will make friends at your new school and, in fact, School X has programs much more suited to your needs and your interests, and might get you better prepared for college.'

"Having said that, I don't think it's ever good for a parent to put a child in a school that they absolutely don't want to go to."

Once you've shopped around, how should you and your child make a final choice? Most parents turn to private education for two reasons, says University School's Hawley. One is size and scale. "Your child is known, whether a fast starter or slow learner," he notes. "That's what all the expense is, in the scale; there are so few students per adults." Be sure to ask about average classroom size. Catholic schools usually beat public schools on that score, but the smallest classes are often found at the most selective independent schools — with a high price tag.

The second popular feature of private schools is their careful attention to college placement, says Hawley. Many private schools boast of placement rates at or near 100 percent. Hawley observes that a private school can have one counselor for every 30 students, compared to ratios of one to 250 or one to 700 in a public high school. Private-school counselors "can really write wonderful letters" recommending a student, Hawley adds. "You can call up Yale University again and again, reminding them what a great kid they are."

Consider asking schools how they help students get into college. Magnificat High School in Rocky River, for example, requires that students take a guidance class with a counselor once a week and signs sophomores up for the PSAT as practice for taking the test as juniors.

Asking which colleges are most popular among the school's graduates may help you glimpse your child's future. Lake Ridge Academy in North Ridgeville, for instance, sees about a quarter of its grads go on to the Ivy League. Many Catholic-school grads go on to Catholic liberal-arts colleges, although Ohio universities are becoming more popular; Miami University beat out John Carroll University in attracting the most graduates from Cleveland's St. Ignatius High School this year.

If you're weighing the benefits of single-sex vs. coed education, you'll find proponents of boys' and girls' schools especially eager to talk up their approach.

"Boys, it's increasingly well known, have a different development schedule than girls," says Hawley. In high school, for instance, boys show ambition in verbal pursuits, but tend to be sloppy, he says. "Boys are on a different tempo. If you know what that is, [you] can teach to it."

"Your daytime hours are there to be educated," says Laura Fogarty, parent of two daughters at all-female Hathaway Brown. "You're not worried, going out the door, if you have makeup on, how you're dressed. ... You don't have any reason not to take on a challenge. You're not up against a boy for leadership roles. You don't feel like, 'Maybe I won't win, so I won't even attempt it.' ... You're not out to impress. You can be yourself."

Coed school officials argue that mixed classes prepare kids better for the future. "I think it's real life," says Becky Mercer, director of admission and marketing at Lake Ridge Academy. "Whether you're male or female, you're ... going to be competing, working with and studying with ... the opposite sex. It's a good way for boys to know that girls can be strong leaders, can be as bright and as capable — and vice versa."

If your child has special learning needs, you may be able to find a private school where he or she can thrive. Lawrence School in Broadview Heights, originally a K-8 school, is adding a high school for "children with diagnosed and sometimes undiagnosed learning disabilities, many of them with accompanying attention deficit disorder, and average to above average intelligence," says dean of admission Douglas Hamilton.

Lawrence started a high school because alumni of the K-8 program kept telling school officials that they found it taxing to keep up with the mainstream in high school. "They spent so much time in study hall, tutoring and pull-out services, they were not able to be in athletics and music, while everyone else was having fun," says Hamilton. Lawrence is offering ninth- and 10th-grade classes this fall, building up to a full high-school program in 2004.

Some families already know, before they shop around, whether they prefer a religious or independent school. Those looking at both might compare schools' missions, community service and extracurriculars.

St. Ignatius, for instance, is geared toward developing "strong Catholic men," and its student body is 95 percent Catholic and almost entirely Christian, says Keith Laschinger, dean of admissions. Non-Catholic prospective families "need to learn what the school's mission is and feel comfortable with [it]."

Many Catholic schools require community service — and find that students often volunteer for more than what's required. Nearly all Archbishop Hoban students perform their community service in the city of Akron itself. This summer, eight Magnificat students and two teachers traveled to Ecuador to work in a leper colony.

Catholic schools are quick to brag about their academic credentials: St. Ignatius' strong Latin program, Magnificat's science curriculum. Eighty percent of the faculty at St. Edward High School in Lakewood hold advanced degrees; an endowment pays for faculty members' graduate studies.

And, the schools admit sheepishly, they attract many ambitious young athletes. "Unfortunately, what we're known for is probably different than what we'd like to be known for," says Laschinger of St. Ignatius, which has seen four recent grads play in the National Football League. St. Edward's wrestling and hockey teams won state championships last year; Walsh Jesuit teams have won 21 state championships in 34 years.

Their competitiveness breeds ferocious cross-town rivalries: between Magnificat and St. Joseph among girls, St. Ignatius and St. Edward among the boys. "I've never experienced a rivalry in any city as intense as it is here," says St. Edward principal Eugene Boyer, who moved to Cleveland in 1997.

Independent schools tread gingerly, respecting families' religious affiliations, when comparing themselves to religious schools. Gilmour Academy straddles the line: It offers a Catholic religious education in an independent-school structure.

Others, such as Hawken School in Gates Mills, take a secular approach to moral education. Teachers highlight moral issues in novels, says Berkman; in history class, they're encouraged to ask, "What are the moral decisions behind this historic event? Why did people make their decision this way?"

Some independent schools excel at certain sports, while others offer a more modest athletic approach. "Here, everyone can play, participate and get better," says Mercer of Lake Ridge. "Do you just want to sit in the stands and cheer for the state champion, or do you want to be on the field?"

More often, independent schools stress their elite academic reputations. Hathaway Brown, for instance, brags that a quarter of its students in a recent year were National Merit semifinalists — a sign of the school's selectivity as well as its success. The girls' school's crowning achievement, its independent research program, has given aspiring scientists apprenticeships at NASA and The Cleveland Clinic and led some of them to patent their own inventions and see their experiments installed on the International Space Station.

One classic option is a boarding school. Western Reserve Academy requires students to either live on its stately campus or in Hudson or a town that borders it. Ninety percent of the faculty lives on campus, and each dorm includes an adult house master and up to five other faculty residents.

Director of enrollment Marshall Murdough says Western Reserve is a good fit for "a student who wants a little more independence, wants to move away from home, away from family" or "a student who may tend to get lost in the shuffle of a large public school.

"[Students] develop their own independent study skills," he adds. "They learn to communicate with other people in a dorm [and get used to] living with other people, living with a roommate."

In other words, they're prepared for college. Other schools achieve that goal by granting students independence. Hawken, for instance, lets kids stroll the 320-acre Upper School campus during free periods. Some schools simply rely on tough academic standards to get kids ready for the next step.

Either way, private schools are all aiming for the result Berkman claims for Hawken: "Our kids always seem to report back that when they go off to college and university, if anything, it seems easier than what they were wrapping up in their high-school years."

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