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12 Cookson and Persell - A MERICA'S ELITE BOflRDING...

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Unformatted text preview: A MERICA'S ELITE BOflRDING SCHOOLS Peter W; gookson, J1“. Caroline Hodges Persell Basic Boa/c5, Ina, Publishers New YOf/C THE ‘WORLD OF BOARDING SCHOOLS and equipment that rival many small colleges. The Jansen Noyes Science Building at the Lawrenceville School, for example, has modern facilities for physics, biology, and chemistry. The first floor of the building contains ”five large classrooms, two combined classroom~laboratories, physics and biology laboratories, biology preparation room, and lecture room. On the second floor are five laboratories for physics and chemistry, stock rooms, three classrooms, faculty workshop and laboratory, science library, and planetarium" (Lawrena’vz'lir Experience 1982—83, 18). The Helen C. Boyden Science Center at Deerfield Academy houses New England’s second largest planetarium and 12,000 square feet of open laboratory space. The Best of All Possible Worlds in preserving the past while adapting to the future, many boarding schools seem idyllic, almost magical, communities which can easily seduce outsid- ers as being the best of all possible worlds. No one knows exactly how aesthetics affects consciousness, but it is reasonable to suppose that the shared experiences of coming of age within the walls of a cloistered elite school must have some impact on its students. In one sense the beauty of prep school campuses is an exterior validation of the student’s sense that “Yes, I am special,” or perhaps even, ”Yes, I am beautiful." A girl wrote that what she liked best about boarding school was "the design of the school; it’s a beautiful place to work. I don’t think I would have the same attitude if it was built and designed differently.” A headmaster articulated his belief that architecture affects a student’s psy- che when he reported that a student said, ”This school requires quality in what I do, because I have leaded glass windows in my bedroom,” The facilities of the elite schools also make learning easier than in many public schools, where facilities can be limited, or inadequate. Surrounded by so much educational opportunity, the prep school scholar has the opportunity to create an individualized educational experience, although opportunities are often left unexplored. As total institutions in aesthetic surroundings, many boarding schools seem almost like island paradises within the larger educational system. 48 The Chosen Ones OR the vast majority of public high—school students, admission school is a straightforward process. Students either attend the school their community or, if they have special talents or needs, they may l admitted to a specialized public school Where admission is based on open stated criteria. Private schools, including boarding schools, are rarely den ocratic from the standpoint of admission. Like private corporations, com try clubs, and cooperative real estate holdings, private schools have tl right to choose whom they will or will not admit. And while it is the stated policy not to discriminate on the basis of race or religion, the soci traditions of the schools have meant that their student bodies have tendt to be homogeneous in terms of family background, religion, and race. Acceptance into an elite boarding school is in itself a form of ritual, tl first step in the prep rite of passage. There was a time when a parent simpi rang up the head or dropped by the school and a deal was struck, but l: and large those days are gone. Today, applicants and their families mu find their way through a maze of forms, letters of recommendation, trar scripts, school Visits, and interviews. Tenacity is essential to mastering tl ritual of acceptance because for the majority of students entrance into tl status seminary is not easy, nor is it meant to be. The schools have certai standards to uphold, and often those standards have less to do with abilit or willingness than background and style. [Tradition weighs heavily in tl' 4 THE WORLD (3F BOARDING SCHOOLS admissions process and parvenus are at somewhat of a disadvantage in the scramble for acceptance, as they may have yet to learn the subtlety of the prep code, or worse, may not know that such a code exists. The schools must strike a balance between their ideal class and the class that can be formed from the applicant pool; generally the more elite the school the more carefully the class can be crafted. Tuition at the elite schools is very high and many heads feel obligated to ”sell" their schools as good economic and social investments for families. A headmaster at a select 16 school calculated that it cost a family approximately $45 a day to send their child to his school. Where else, he maintained, could you get three meals a day, outstanding facilities, and the best possible education for such a small amount? Part of the appeal of boarding schools for many parents and students is that they have a choice among a number of different types of schools. The power of choice may indeed be one of the hallmarks of upper—class and highwstatus life—styles. To hand tailor a child’s education by selecting an appropriate school may be worth considerably more than $45 a day for many parents—4t may be considered essential for the proper transmission of status. Boarding Schools and the Educational Marketplace Students have been enrolling in boarding schools since before the Ameri- can Revolution. As early as 1742, when the Countess Benigna von Zinzen— dorf founded the Moravian Seminary for Girls and the Moravian Prepara— tory School for Boys in Pennsylvania, a small fraction of American families saw the value of sending their children away to school. The New England academies, such as Andover (1778), Exeter (1781), Deerfield (1797), and Milton (1798) educated the sons of some of the new nation's most illustri— ous families. Andover enrolled Washingtons, Lees, Quincy’s, and Lowells; Paul Revere designed the school seal and John Hancock signed the school’s Act of Incorporation. The connection between the academies and elite colleges was established early,- between 1768 and 1790, one-quarter of Harvard’s students were alumni of the Governor Dummer Academy in Massachusetts, which was founded in 1763 (Handbook of Private Schools, 1980). Until the latter part of the nineteenth century, the boys boarded with local families rather than at the schools themselves. The academy tradition 50 7716 Chosen Ones spread south and westward and by 1850 there were more than 6, incorporated and unincorporated academies (McLachlan 1970, 35). Earl the nineteenth century, a number of academies for girls were establisl usually called female seminaries. They were less academically demanc than the boys’ academies, as girls were expected to be little more t' decorous appendages to men, and did not go on to higher education. Err Willard pioneered the idea that women should have equivalent educati when she opened the doors of the Troy Female Seminary in 1821 (now Emma Willard School). Most other female seminaries opened during period did not advocate women’s intellectual equality as strongly as Err Willard. When Miss Porter’s was founded in 1843, the curriculum emp sized the traditional nineteenth century female virtues of good breed and gentleness. The first true New England boarding school was the Roundhill Sch founded in 1823 by Joseph Green Cogswell and George Bancroft. Harv provided two—thirds of the mortgage money necessary to buy the scho site. Cogswell and Bancroft embraced aspects of the Enlightment sucl the belief in education and reason, but still clung to many traditic Puritan beliefs. They tried to keep their school operating, but for finan reasons it closed in 1834. And while a handful of boarding schools ope: and closed in the period after Roundhill, it was not until 1856 that the i of founding a great boarding school in New England was rekindled v the establishment of St. Paul’s in New Hampshire. From the founding of St. Paul's until the end of the century, sixty— elite boarding schools were established in the United States, and by 16 73 percent of all secondary school students were enrolled in prii schools, including boarding schools (Kraushaar 1972, 13). However, in decade following this private school boom, expansion of the public hi school system reduced the number of students in private schools to percent, and by the beginning of the twentieth century only 10 percen the high-school agelpopulation was enrolled in private schools, of wl less than one percent were in the elite boarding schools. The prep schools operated as exclusive clubs—Catholics, blacks, . Jews need not apply. From the 1880s onward the schools developed tl reputation for snobbishness, and that they were is undeniable. lrnmig tion had created among the WASPs a fear of ethnic ”contaminatic Thus, it was during the decades of massive immigration—from 188C 1909, in the 19205, and again in the 19605—that most of these schools in established (see figure 3—1), although other issues undoubtedly were 01: ating during the 19605. Commenting on the earlier eras, James McLach has written: I THE WORLD OF BOARDING SCHOOLS L it would hardly be surprising that a 1903 survey of family boarding schools would state quite bluntly that they were being founded in part because of parents" feelings that “in certain localities the companions of the boy in all but the higher grades of day school are, from their nationality, objectionable per- sonal habits, or what not, undesirable.” (McLachlan 1970, 214) l8207l979 9 T m Number of Schools 35 g Bl’ ——--——— Total Number of g ' Immigrants 30 Q E ‘” s '8 — 25 E w 3 Q- LE 3 ~120 % 2 .2 E — 15 3% E is e 10 E: E .2 _5 h .x \f” 0:14 L l L I I I t J" I L I a t L_ ; (3 lEZO lBBO ”401850 1860 1870 3880 two 1900 19“} 1920 l930 l940 7950 1960 1970 —29 ~39 .49 6‘} 769 .79 739 ~99 -09 >19 729 ,39 ~49 759 <69 ~79 FIGURE 3—1 Immigration lo {71! United States by Darwin Pam/laid to Number 0/ Bile Schauis Founded, by IDCCRIZE, 1820—1979 SOURCE: Adapted from a chart prepared by the U. S. Bureau of Census and from data in Tim Handling} pf Prism 5410015 (Boston: Mass, Porter Sargent, 198]). After World War I, there was a little more geographic and religious expansion. Midwestern schools, such as Cranbrook in 1926, were estab- lished and Catholics started a prestigious school in 1926 with the founding of Portsmouth Priory in Rhode Island. Yet prep schools remained extraor- dinarily conservative in their social outlook and non~establishment fami- lies rarely sent their children away to school. This changed with the founding of the Putney School in 1935. Progres- sive and Rousseauian, Putney paved the way for many of the alternative schools that sprang up in the 1960s. Nonreligious and distinctly liberal, Putney made a point of not being socially exclusive. It was during the period of Putney's founding that non—elite educators began to advocate closer relations between faculty and students, and because education was a preparation for life, selfvreliance was seen as a virtue. The tiny Midland school in California, founded in 1932, is an example of how non—establish- ment parents and educators were already beginning to rebel against the size and bureaucracy of the US. public school system. 5.2 The Chosen Ones After World War II, enrollment patterns remained fairly stead3 boarding schools as the number of schools expanded slowly, but in 19605 the storm broke. Students simply refused to accept the discip that many schools tried to impose and either left or did not enroll in first place. This was partly possible because in the post—Sputnik per public: education was undergoing a rapid and positive transformatior Prodded in part by practicalities, boys schools discovered the virtue coeducation in the late 1960s. By admitting girls, boys schools could complish a number of organizational goals simultaneously. The SChl became more attractive to boys, as well as girls, and acquired a much lai pool from which to draw qualified students. it followed that with spread of coeducation, girls school applications declined. While there have been changes in the boarding school marketplace, motivations of upper-class families have remained relatively constant. them an elite school is part of their children’s preparation for life. So Ostrander, who studied upper—class women, was told by one woman, " husband wanted to repeat his educational history . . . and that of his c father." Another noted, llIt’s helpful when you move to a new city want to get invited into the local social club.” An upper-class mot commented on the social as well as educational advantages of exclus schools: “You don’t go to private school just for your education. You there to be separated from ordinary people.” Another said, ”I don’t w my children to be exposed to the things that go on in public schools, dr and vandalism" (Ostrander 1984, 84—85). Part of the elite tradition is the continuity a family establishes by so. ing several generations to a single school. Fifty~four percent of our sarr of 2,475 students have at least one relative who attended a boarding sch (the figure for Episcopal schools is as high as 73 percent). Among the percent, 53 percent have one or more relatives who attended the as school. But to fill their beds, even the most selective prep schools have hac compete for the children of parvenu families by adopting a number public relations strategies. Virtually every school, for instance, has extensive kit of materials, including lavishly printed brochures generou illustrated with photographs of the students already enrolled, and list school activities, faculty, and curriculum. These brochures are considc bly more expensive and extensive than those of boarding schools in E1 land. in England some schools have begun to hire public relations firms do brochures ”like the American schools do,” according to one Eng] head, though many still have a simple descriptive page or two. In the parlance of the marketplace, certain schools may become ”h THE ‘WORLD OF BOARDlNG SCHOOLS or ”cold.” A hot school is usually one that was once socially prestigious, fell on hard times, and is now on the rebound. Schools often become hot after the arrival of a new head. The boarding school world is small, and gossip, for good or for ill, travels fast and reputations can ride on the most casual of parents’ cocktail chatter. As the rumor mill tends to be slightly behind reality, schools on their way down have a short grace period before their reputations tumble and schools on their way up must wait a few years for their reputations to spread. The select 16 and other very elite schools, of course, can weather these highs and lows without much effort, but for schools whose market position is less predictable, the grapevine of parental opinion can be critical. Getting In: Raw Material and Prep Poise When heads appoint teachers to various positions within a school, there is room for a certain margin of error. If a young English teacher turns out to be a magnificent educator, but a mediocre third~string soccer coach, the foundations of the school are not rocked. But when a head appoints an admissions director, he or she is entrusting the future of the school to that individual, because the admissions director is the school’s most important gatekeeper. Aside from those students that are admitted on the basis of what the British call ”headmaster’s choice,” all incoming students must, ultimately, measure up to the standards set by the admissions office. Loy— alty, discretion, and judgment are the essential qualities of an admissions officer, and a certain amount of sophistication, good looks, and humor do not hurt. The admissions director must have an acute awareness of the school’s needs, as well as the expectations of parents. Parents expect the elite schools to look elite. Most schools have spacious admissions offices where the emphasis is on understatement and tradi- tional tastes. The antique clock and furniture, along with the original oil paintings and Persian rugs, create an aura of exclusiveness. Some schools wear their status openly by displaying the portraits or busts of their more illustrious alumni. In general, one would hesitate to raise one's voice in the admissions offices of the most elite schools. Admissions officers and admissions committees are adept at creating student bodies that are tailored specifically for their schools. Certain basic qualities are required of each class admitted; they must he demographically distributed according to the school’s admissions goals, ambitious, and rea- 54 771;: Chosen Ones sonably athletic. Schools vary widely on the number of scholarship s dents they will accept and on the emphasis placed on prior acadci ability. Every class must have musicians, artists, athletes, and thinker they are to be successful. A school filled with ”brains” stands the risk of driving away the l brainy but wealthier families. A school that is entirely "prepped out” n find its reputation among college admissions officers slipping. Too m2 ”jocks” make teachers unhappy, too few jocks make students and alur unhappy. Moreover, the picture is complicated by the search for diversi Girls at coed schools must be as strong academically and socially as ho otherwise they cannot hold their own. It is generally believed that prep school students are highly qualified. the more selective schools, students must take the Secondary School A}: tude Test (SSAT). Unlike colleges, however, the prep schools do not u formly publish the range and average scores of entering students on th‘ tests. Although entering freshmen in some select 16 schools, such as G: ton and Exeter, have high median SSAT scores, other elite schools ad] a number of students whose scores fall below the average} Student graz and recommendations are also required for admission, although how i schools evaluate these measures is not known, underscoring the priv nature of these institutions. It is not by chance that most prep school students have shiny, we combed hair, are trim, healthy, and at least reasonably attractive. "1 social psychiatrist Robert Coles contrasts the attention to appearance a self of privileged children with that of other children: With none of the other American children I have worked with have l he; such a continuous and strong emphasis put on the ”self.” In fact, other child] rarely if ever think about themselves in the way children of wellwto~do and r parents do—with insistence, regularity, and, not least, out of a learned sense obligation. These privileged ones are children who live in homes with ma mirrors. They have mirrors in their rooms, large mirrors in adjoining bathroor 'l/Vhen they were three or four they were taught to use them; taught to wash th faces, brush their teeth, comb their hair. Personal appearance matters a becomes a central objective for such children. (Coles 1977, 380) Part of the screening process is to weed out those who will not fit Discovering what ”fitting in” actually meant to admissions officers Vt difficult, however, because they were guarded in how much informati 1. The median score nationally on the SSAT is 309 and a score of 348 places a student the 99th percentile. The median score for Croton and Exeter is 325.5 (lndrpmcz’mr’ Schools. Handbook 1982). THE WORLD OF BOARDING SFHOOLS they would reveal. After all, merit is only part of the criteria for admission; other intangibles, such as family wealth and social standing, also count for a great deal. Thus the admissions process remains relatively secretive, although even the most casual observation of the students who go to the most elite schools leads one to believe that the presentation of the self plays an important role in how students are selected for admission. Part of the prep presentation of self is the public display of confidence and control—poise. The first step on the road to “being somebody" is to ...
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