By SHELLY GARCIA
As the new school year begins, students at Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City will be trying to choose between field hockey and water polo.
At Campbell Hall, a K-12 private school in North Hollywood, there is a new technology building where students can create multimedia presentations for their term papers. And Oakwood School in North Hollywood, will be offering music, dance and athletic programs in a new center built just for those activities.
While Los Angeles Unified School District struggles to provide the most basic services to students, independents offer an intensified academic curriculum aimed at preparing students for college along with more frills in the areas of sports, art and drama.
So how do private schools do it?
The stark contrast between the public and private sector is not just a function of different operating budgets, although many private schools spend three or four times more per student than do their public-school counterparts.
When it comes down to it, private schools have a lot more freedom. They don’t have to kowtow to big bureaucracies, they have more control over their finances and, unlike the public schools, they don’t have to accept kids who don’t want to be there or don’t fit in academically or socially.
“(Public schools) are everything to everybody,” said Alice Fleming, director of admissions at Campbell Hall. “They have to provide all these lunches, salt-free, fat-free, kosher, peanut-free, and all this stuff just gets thrown away. So a lot of their money gets allotted to all these supporting programs rather than the education.”
Nor do independents have to serve a diverse population of students with a variety of special educational needs ranging from English as a second language to special education programs for those with learning disabilities.
“More than the amount (of money), the problem in public schools is too many purposes,” said David D. Marsh, Robert A. Naslund chairman in curriculum and instruction at the University of Southern California. “Many schools spend more money on football helmets than they do on academic programs.”
Nearly 8,800 students are enrolled at 17 independent schools in the San Fernando Valley, more than one-third of the independent-school student body in the Los Angeles area, according to a listing of members of the California Association of Independent Schools. Most enter in kindergarten and continue on through 12th grade, although some schools offer only elementary or high school programs.
Tuition, ranging from about $11,000 to $15,000 per year, pays for most of the school’s operating costs, which can range from $8 million to $25 million. Another 10 percent to 15 percent of the total budget comes from fund-raising activities such as annual dinner-dances, golf tournaments and fairs.
That translates to about $12,000 to $16,500 spent per student, versus an average of $4,000 per student at public schools.
Many independents have seen their revenues from fund-raising and endowments increase dramatically over the past five years, allowing the schools to embark on major capital improvement programs.
By their very nature, private schools have fewer special interests to serve. Those students accepted into the school must meet certain entry requirements that assure they are able and willing to participate in the programs provided.
As a result, they can offer more in terms of academic preparation. Harvard-Westlake, for example, offers courses in 31 advanced-placement subject areas. In just happens the school leads the nation in producing National Merit Scholars.
“By controlling who their constituency is, they’re dealing with a less complex environment,” said Elliot Mininberg, interim associate dean at the Cal State Northridge College of Education. “LAUSD is a public servant and they take everyone, and the private schools do not, and by selecting who you take you’re able to deal more richly in (various subject) areas.”
Unlike the tax dollars and grants that support the LAUSD, which come with strict guidelines as to how the money can be spent, decisions about spending at the independents are made by the school’s management in conjunction with its board of trustees.
“I can hire and fire at will, which a public-school principal cannot do,” said Thomas C. Hudnut, headmaster and chief executive of Harvard-Westlake School. “I can empower our faculty to determine their own curriculum, which is rare in a public school. We can enforce academic and disciplinary standards that are not possible in a public school.”
Paul Horovitz, head of the private Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, agreed.
“I think independent schools have the luxury of their independence,” said Horovitz. “We’re accountable ultimately to our school community and our board of trustees. We’re not having to bear the burdens of all the political and social issues that the public schools have had to wrestle with over the years, so I think we can focus on our programs.”
Unlike public schools, which must cater to a variety of different, and often contradictory, special interests, independents can throw their resources behind a singular goal: preparing students for entry into the nation’s best colleges.
“We have some alumni members and some professional members, but for the most part, the board is made up of current parents,” said Sue Slotnick, director of admissions at Oakwood School. “Their children are right here, so they really have their finger on the pulse of the needs of the school. Because they’re parents, they really do understand right there in the trenches what’s important for the school.”
There are some public schools that have been able to provide intensive academic training. North Hollywood High School, for example, is widely recognized for its track record in providing advanced-placement courses.
But by and large, public schools, with their unionized teachers and labyrinthine bureaucracies, must be responsive to so many factions that academic performance often becomes secondary.
“A lot of parents assume that non-public schools are good and public schools are bad, which is rubbish,” said Hudnut. “There’s nothing magical about a place being non-public. It’s just that we are able to exert a degree of quality control that is not possible in public schools.”
In contrast to public schools, parents of independent-school students are inculcated into the goals and objectives of the school from the moment they inquire about admissions. The independents hold interviews and group discussions, and those parents who may not share the school’s particular educational or child development philosophies are discreetly directed elsewhere.
“We’re trying to inform them and educate them as to what we’re about, and we try to get a sense of whether they’re buying into what we’re about,” said Horovitz.