Royce Hall (Photo credit: wmnoe)
Tuesday night, our daughter asked us what we thought of a particular college she wanted to apply to — because if she wanted letters of recommendations from one of her teachers, she had to get the request in the following day.
Remember, Tuesday was the FIRST DAY of school.
I know the online Common Application went live on August 1, but I did not think it had to be submitted until at least November — and that’s the approximate deadline for early decision. and we’re not able to commit to any private university without some kind of financial package and that can’t be determined until after the FAFSA has been submitted as soon as possible after January 1, which means we have to get our taxes done super early this year, although they will accept an estimate, which is good because I won’t have final numbers until we receive our W-9′s and 1099′s at the end of the month.
This is going to be a stressful year. An exciting one — but agonizing, too.
I was on the phone last night with a friend who has already been through this with one child and is now doing it again with another. She’s only a little bit less stressed than I am, and I don’t know if I should be comforted by that or frightened.
We’ve contacted one of the consultants who were featured at the essay writing boot camp the school held last month. My daughter insists she doesn’t need it. I keep telling her it isn’t for her as much as it is for us. The onslaught of marketing to her by universities, the number of options, the extreme expense of attending college in 2013 (even at our public universities) , the promise of grants and scholarships at private institutions, the expectation by the universities that we should refinance our home to pay their tuition (does that even make sense at my age?), and on and on…
…makes me want to crawl under a rock and wait for it all to be over. Which is not the way to tackle the most important decision we’ll ever make as a family.
Matt DAMON (acteur) (Photo credit: startinghere71)
Dear Matt Damon:
It has come to my attention that you and your family are moving to Los Angeles. As a lifelong Angeleno (with Massachusetts roots), I want to welcome you to our complicated city. Our diversity, energy and culture are equal to what you’re used to in New York — you just have to look a little harder and travel a little longer to find it.
Rest assured that LA residents are used to seeing celebrities in our midst, especially in the sort of neighborhood in which you are likely to settle. Locals understand the etiquette: pretend to ignore the famous face, no matter how excited you are to see it. The only problem with this is that it sometimes takes a few moments to realize that the guy you see in the supermarket looks familiar only because you saw him on TV — but I am certain this is also the case in the community you’ve been living in up until now. I’m pretty certain you’ll find that the baristas at your new Malibu or Beverly Hills Starbucks will be just as friendly and normal as the ones in New York.
The one thing I would like to clear up is your misconception about public schools here. I cannot deny that the Los Angeles Unified School District is a dysfunctional behemoth, subject to the worst kind of publicity in the nation, and that the quality of the 800-some schools in the district varies wildly (with those in low-income communities tending to fare far worse). I am hopeful that new funding approved by voters in the last election will help solve some of the inequities.
Believe me, had I enjoyed the kind of income that would have allowed it, I probably would have sent my own child to an excellent private school, as you have decided to do. But now that my daughter is entering her senior year at public high school, I am really glad I wasn’t able to go that route. Because I think it would have been a mistake.
You see, your reasoning — that the public schools in Los Angeles could not offer the same progressive education you enjoyed growing up — is false.
Balboa Gifted Magnet is one of the highest ranked schools in the entire state of California. It is known throughout the city for its high standards and challenging curriculum — and it is LAUSD. Holmes Middle School has been designated a California Distinguished School for its academic achievement and programs that emphasize both technology and humanities — and it is LAUSD. And the experience my daughter has had at Cleveland Humanities Magnet is akin to what you’d expect from a major university (in fact, most Cleveland graduates report that college is a lot easier). Again, a high achieving school within LAUSD.
And those are just three schools in the San Fernando Valley. There are dozens of other campuses throughout the city, with academically enriched curricula and unique learning programs from performing arts, to environmental science to aerospace science. Oh yes, and lots of math and technology.
I wish you could join us on our morning carpool, Matt, and listen to these kids talk about their classes and their wonderful teachers. They are thoroughly engaged as they learn and apply concepts of history and social justice to the world around them. It warms my heart — and I bet it would warm yours, too.
It’s true that her teachers are not all Ph.Ds, as is the case at the tony Marlborough School where some of our friends send their daughters. My daughter was not required to learn Latin (and with resources so low, Spanish was the only language even offered my daughter in middle school) and her elementary school science lab was far from state-of-the-art. But she and her friends have thrived and have the SAT scores to prove it. And she’s going to get so much more day-to-day use from knowing Spanish than she ever would with Latin, although that would be a helpful language for pursuits like solving crossword puzzles.
Now, I totally understand how someone as wealthy and famous as you would worry about your kids’ safety. That alone is a good reason to place them at Oakwood or Harvard-Westlake or Crossroads, with all the other rich kids.
But that’s the problem, Matt. Rich kids who go to private schools only ever get to meet other rich kids in private schools. Yes, there may be a few scholarship students in their classes, but there’s an awful lot of pressure on those kids to try to fit in, so they may not learn a lot from them. You may be able to counter with extracurricular activities like gymnastics or soccer — but your children may never fully understand how privileged they are. And I fully believe that one of the reasons so many wealthy people in this country care little about their fellow citizens is that they live in their own private enclaves and never get to know anyone but other wealthy people living in enclaves. I think it’s hugely detrimental to all Americans that we have so little interaction across the economic spectrum. That isn’t how it was back when I went to school, and I bet that isn’t how you remember your school experience, either.
By isolating yourself and your family, you do not get to experience L.A.’s most dynamic resource: Our diversity. But maybe that’s just the way it has to be for the families of A-list actors. It’s a scary world out there. In a way, I feel sorry for you.
Anyway, I am looking forward to having the Damons join our merry band of citizens in Los Angeles, and I actually do support your decision. If you have not yet selected your family’s schools, I’d like to recommend this resource created by one of my MomsLA colleagues: Beyond the Brochure. Christina Simon will guide you through the ins and outs of the private school scene here.
Just don’t tell people you’re doing it because the public schools aren’t adequate.
On Tuesday, I had to get my flu-ridden self out of bed and take my daughter to school.
No, the Fall semester hasn’t started THIS early (she still has another two weeks, but the summer still feels like it’s been too short). But as this will be her senior year, there are additional events and activities on her agenda. She’s been talking about next year’s prom for months, since her class raised enough money to secure fabulous space at our beautiful Museum of Natural History. And next week, she will sit for her senior portrait — so I really do have to get off my butt and make her an appointment for a haircut. And maybe a blow dry just before the photo shoot.
Today – August 1 – is when the college common application goes live for students entering next Fall. It’s show-time, folks. All the years of education, testing and prep have all culminated to this, and it’s scary as hell (at least, for ME). For my daughter and her friends, the scariest part is having to write the various personal statement essays that will accompany those college apps. So the wonderful teachers who coordinate her magnet put together an all-day essay writing boot camp to jump start the process, featuring a couple of established private coaches — and we parents were invited to sit in on the morning presentation.
As usual, we ran late — so the school library we entered was already filled with students and their parents. Fortunately, there were empty seats near Megan’s best friend and her mother, who greeted me with the confession that she isn’t ready for this.
Boy, can I relate. “I almost wish she was flunking out so I could keep her home a little longer,” I joked.
A dad at the table looked at me incredulously. “You want your kid to fail?” he asked.
“No, of course not,” I sputtered. No one is prouder of my beautiful, smart, high achieving daughter than I (except maybe her father). But the other mom got it.
“It must be a lot harder for you with an only child,” she said. “At least I still have two more at home.”
I nodded. It is REALLY hard to acknowledge that the best, longest job I’ve ever held is ending. Not “ending,” exactly, as I will always be her mother. But my role is changing, and I feel so very lost (which I suppose is what yesterday’s post was really about). Couple the sadness I am feeling over that with the anxiety I’m experiencing over where she will go to college and how we are going to pay for it… and I think it’s understandable that I’m kind of a wreck right now.
The presentation began with Audrey Kahane, who helps families hone in on the colleges and universities that are the best fit for their students. She talked a bit about why it is so much more competitive now than when we were young.
“If you got into UCLA or Berkeley 30 years ago, chances are you would not be able to do so today,” she said. The reasons:
- That same common college application that makes it so easy to apply to ten or even 20 colleges at once is one of the reasons: universities now have many more applicants to choose from, so their acceptance rates are smaller.
- On top of that, having a low acceptance rate makes them look good to the people who are doing the college rankings, so the colleges themselves are under pressure to keep those rates low
- This is one of the reasons why today’s universities recruit new students so aggressively; some even targeting kids right after they’ve taken the PSAT.
I can attest to that: we used MY email address on Megan’s PSAT and SAT tests, so all the recruiting emails come to me — and we’ve been receiving dozens a week for the last three years. Some of the colleges reaching out to her are really well known; but the majority are schools I had never heard of. Most are private with tuitions of $40,000 a year or more. There is no way we can send her to one of those without MAJOR financial assistance, and I am not talking about loans. I am terrified of seeing her start her life with a college loan that’s equal to a mortgage.
“Everyone wants to go to USC, UCLA, Berkeley and Stanford, but the acceptance rates are extremely low,” Kahane said. “Be sure your list includes some great schools that are more accessible.”
But how? How do we sift through all those colleges? How do we find the ones who will love her enough to offer her the scholarships she would need to be able to afford this?
She has a list of colleges she wants to apply to, and most of them are the ones that are hardest to get in. I’ve told her she also needs to apply to at least one CalState (including the one that’s only a few miles from home — which actually offers the kind of program she is interested in). Living at home and commuting a couple of miles away is NOT her college dream, and it’s not mine either — but everything changed after the economy imploded and that is what we know we can afford. Even if she only went there for two years and transferred, it would make a huge difference in the cost.
Kahane talked about what colleges and universities are looking for:
1. They want to see applicants who demonstrate intellectual curiosity
2. They want to see students who have had some impact in their schools and/or communities, which makes them attractive as someone who would have an impact in college or even the world. Yale said they were looking for the next Einstein or world leader. (Well, it’s a good thing we’re not interested in applying to Yale.)
There are three steps to getting a good match with a college, Kahane said:
1. Know yourself
2. Know the colleges
3. Present your best self in the applications
Create a balanced list of likely schools, 50-50 dream schools and accessible schools (she doesn’t like to use the term “safety school”).
Once you find the schools that you like, you have to show them you like them. This does not apply to the Stanfords and Berkeleys on your list, but schools that are less selective do need to know that you really are interested.
The biggest way to demonstrate interest is to apply for early decision, but since that is binding, you should only do that if you are absolutely certain you will go if accepted. This is not a good route for someone who needs to compare financial aid packages between universities.
You could also apply for early action, which doesn’t require a commitment so this could be a good thing. However, this is not a good idea if you need an extra semester to up your GPA.
Some colleges actually track how long you spend on their websites. (Ha! This might explain some of those emails we continue to receive from schools that caught my fancy — but offer nothing my daughter is interested in.)
As Kahane spoke about the goals of the college essay, I realized that her advice could easily apply to blogging. I imagined hearing her advice at one of the BlogHer writing labs I wanted to attend but somehow could not find the space in my schedule to do so:
The goal of your essay is not to impress, but to create a bond with the reader (who may be reading hundreds of essays a day). Find a story that reveals something about you that admissions officers can’t tell from other parts of the applications. The most effective essays may focus on a moment that made students see their world differently.
Show that you are an intelligent person who thinks about things. And most of all, make sure it has personality, is concise and easy to read. It should have a conversational voice.
And remember: the first draft does not need to be perfect. Get it out and then rewrite it until it shines. (I wish I did this more with my blog, but I am such a slow writer that all I ever do is post first drafts here — which may be why everything I do is so flat lately, compared with my posts during the gymnastics years, when I spent my afternoons sitting in a gym with nothing else to do.)
That’s a lot, but the second speaker — Julie Ferber Frank — had even more to say. I am not going to even attempt to paraphrase her advice here, because the handouts she brought are online at her website, AdventureEssays.com. I left the parent part of the boot camp feeling both reassured — and more anxious than ever. I thanked my daughter’s teachers for putting the event together, and thanked the lecturers for sharing their knowledge with us all, and left my daughter and her friends, who were spending the rest of the afternoon beginning the first drafts of their essays.
On the way home, I told my daughter I thought we should hire one of the consultants to help us with her college search. This is a big concession for me, because I tend to think of private education consultants as unnecessary ventures, designed just to make me insecure enough to part with what little money I have. My kid has done very well without going through the private coaching and tutoring so many of my friends’ kids have endured. Could she have done better? Maybe. Would I have signed her up for extracurricular tutoring if she was not the kind of student she is? I’m sure I would. But so far, we have not needed it and it feels funny to be considering that now.
I never needed to hire a consultant to help me get into college, but everything was so different 40 years ago. For one thing, our high school offered counselors who took the time to get to know each of us. My daughter’s high school has one counselor for every 800 or so students, and getting in to see one isn’t easy. When I applied to college, my parents told me I could go anywhere I wanted — as long as it was a public institution in Los Angeles. I applied and got in to both UCLA and CSUN, with just a 3.31 average. As Kahane said, I would not be even close to UCLA today.
My daughter was kind of appalled at the suggestion that we talk to an outside counselor as we begin this process. She feels she has it all under control — from her college list to the essay writing. I wish I had that same confidence.
I look back at my daughter’s young life and realize that I felt this same anxiety with every new phase of her education: from choosing a daycare I could trust with my newborn infant when I went back to work… to preschool, to kindergarten, to middle school and high school. I stayed up nights, worrying — was I doing the right thing for her? Would my decision help or hinder her development? Would she be safe? Would she make friends? Would she do as well academically in public school as the kids who could afford the area’s best private schools?
Each and every time, once we got there, my worries were laid to rest. She was in the exact right place at the exact right time for her. She’s done well and has grown up to be a capable, smart, independent young woman. Everything I want for her.
I tell myself I need to step back and let this process take its course. I need to stop worrying. Now is the time to focus on ME and what I will do next year when I no longer have a child to take care of. The thought of her leaving makes me tear up, even as I write this.
But of course, I won’t stop worrying — about either of us. Not yet. I’m not ready.
My daughter has all of Thanksgiving week off this year. She’s delighted that we got to start our holiday a few days early, but the extra school vacation days are not really a gift. They’re the result of the continuing barrage of budget cuts that we’ve had to endure since she started kindergarten.
That’s right: Year, after year, after year — for more than a DECADE — we’ve had to adjust for more and more and more cuts to the public school budget.
It has manifested in both visible losses, like teachers and teachers’ aides, and less visible ones, like shortened school years. But the cumulative effect has been devastating. Larger class sizes, fewer electives, and a huge reduction to essential services (i.e., school nurses, janitorial staff and security).
My daughter shares a counselor with 800 other students at her high school. She comes home from school busting to use the bathroom because she tells me only one is kept unlocked. If she has the misfortune to miss a day of school because of illness, it takes the attendance office several weeks to log her excuse because last year, most of the staff was laid off. Parents are asked to contribute everything from books to pens to bathroom tissue, because the District no longer has the money for sufficient supplies.
But the November elections brought beleaguered California parents some good news: We voted in a temporary tax increase which is going to stop the cuts and even bring some services BACK to the schools. This week’s extra vacation days are going to be added BACK to the end of the school year and there is hope that some laid-off personnel will be rehired.
But you know what they say: as one door closes, another opens. Or in the case of public education, it’s the other way around. That’s because with the election behind us, the President and Congress are grappling with the so-called “fiscal cliff” — and budget hawks who would rather cut vital services than raise taxes on the nation’s wealthiest 1%.
The threat of across-the-board Federal cuts threatens Title I funding for schools across the nation, to the tune of $6 billion.
This would mean vastly reduced funding for schools serving low-income students, English learners, special education and programs like Head Start. It would mean that just as California school administrators are thinking ahead to the vital business of educating our kids, they have to go back to the drawing board and make more cuts. And since for many of these programs, this would result in a Federal mandate with insufficient funding, school districts like LAUSD would have to make up the difference somehow… like maybe NOT give us back those instruction days, or rehire those desperately needed teachers and counselors.
Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing NEA Vice President Lily Eskelson for a special MOMocrats MOMochat podcast on Kids, Not Cuts. And I signed the organization’s pledge to “speak up for America’s kids by urging Congress to make the right choices to support public education and working families.”
Fiscal conservatives are always pointing out that the budget deficit is a terrible legacy to leave our children. I agree. The deficit needs to be tackled — but not at the expense of those same children. We need to increase our investment in their education for their future and the future of our nation. Please sign the pledge and let your representative know you believe in Kids, Not Cuts.
DISCLOSURE: My company, Engender Media Group, is working with the NEA on the #KidsNotCuts social media campaign.