Leaving the City for the Schools, and Regretting It (NYT article )
Leaving the City for the Schools, and Regretting It
By WINNIE HU
Published: November 13, 2006
Mimi and Gol Ophir left behind their Riverside Drive apartment with views of the Hudson a decade ago to move to the Westchester suburbs, reluctantly trading comfort and convenience for what they believed would be better public schools for their growing family.
Only the suburban bargain the Ophirs thought they were getting turned out to be no bargain at all. They chose the Yorktown school system, a relatively well-off district whose students consistently outscore their peers on state tests. But the Ophirs came to view the schools as uninspiring and unresponsive, and now they pay $51,000 a year for their children, 11-year-old Dylan and 9-year-old Sabrina, to attend the private Hackley School here — on top of $23,000 annually in property taxes.
“That’s the whole point of moving to Westchester: you pay the high taxes, but you get the good schools,” Mrs. Ophir, 43, a full-time mother who formerly worked as a lawyer, said with anger and frustration. “That’s the tradeoff, I thought.”
Like the Ophirs, many New Yorkers with the means to do so flee the city when they have children, seeing the suburbs as a way to stay committed to public education without compromising their standards for safety and academics.
Yet a small but growing number of such parents are abandoning even some of the top-performing public schools in the region. In school districts like Scarsdale, N.Y., and Montclair, N.J., where high test scores and college admission rates have built national reputations and propelled real estate prices upward, these demanding families say they were disappointed by classes that were too crowded, bare-bones arts and sports programs, and an emphasis on standardized testing rather than creative teaching.
Some are private school graduates themselves who, try as they might, feel guilty giving their offspring anything less. Others were spoiled by their children’s experiences in private school in preschool or the early grades before leaving the city. Still others simply found that public school programs in suburbia did not live up to their promise.
So they forsake city living to wind up shouldering the double burden of high taxes and tuition bills. Or they end up moving back to Manhattan or commuting with children in tow to the city’s private schools.
“It was not part of our plan at all, and I’m not sure how sustainable it is,” said Tracy Fauver, of Bedford, N.Y., whose three children attend the Rippowam Cisqua School in the town; tuition there runs from $17,500 to more than $26,000 per student. She said her husband’s Ford Focus had become something of a joke parked alongside his co-workers’ Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs, as the family has forgone fancy cars and vacations to afford the tuition.
Headmasters and admissions officers at more than a dozen prestigious private schools in the region — including Rye Country Day in Westchester, the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and the Westminster School in Simsbury, Conn. — say they have seen steady increases in applications in recent years. Private-school placement consultants in New York City and Westchester track similar trends: one such company, Manhattan Private School Advisors, now counts 325 suburban families among its clients, more than three times as many as three years ago, while another, Abacus Guide Educational Consulting, gets five calls a week from Westchester families, compared to one a week two years ago.
“In the past, it used to be calls from some less desirable school districts in Westchester,” said Emily Glickman, the founder of Abacus Guide. “Now it is places with crème de la crème school districts like Bronxville, Larchmont, Mamaroneck, Pelham.”
According to a survey by the National Association of Independent Schools, applications at a random sample of 14 private schools in the New York suburbs were up to an average of 334 per school in 2005, from 250 a decade earlier, an increase of 34 percent; nationally, there was no such change among the more than 900 schools surveyed. At the 55 area schools submitting data in both years, enrollment jumped 16.4 percent.
“There’s no question that there is greater interest: more people are calling and asking questions and coming to open houses,” said John R. Johnson, headmaster of the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, which draws a large number of its students from Westchester and New Jersey.
To be sure, many suburban families are satisfied with their public schools. Several school superintendents and teachers in Westchester and northern New Jersey said that relatively few of their students were leaving; rather, enrollment has increased in recent years, they said. (Census data show that the number of school-age children in area suburbs has grown 14 percent over the past decade.)
In Chappaqua, N.Y., for instance, Superintendent David Fleishman said the 10 students who typically transfer to private schools from his district each year were offset by an equal number of private-school students transferring in. “I think people are generally quite satisfied with the level of education and the learning environment we provide here,” he said.
But at the Parents League of New York, which represents families whose children attend private schools, a popular forum titled “To Stay or Go?” enlists speakers who debunk the notion of a suburban utopia by emphasizing the high property taxes outside the city and highlighting some public schools’ large class sizes and limited curriculums.
Even families who carefully research the suburban public schools can find themselves disappointed once classes start.
When Stephanie and Pierre Percy moved in 2004 to New Windsor, N.Y., in Orange County, the schools were a deciding factor. Mrs. Percy said she was told that the district provided buses for students in after-school programs, and would soon offer a full-day kindergarten. But by the time the family moved in, she said, the after-school buses had been eliminated amid budget cuts, and the plans to expand kindergarten hours had been scratched.
Because the Percys work in Manhattan — she as an executive assistant at Citigroup, he as an accountant — they ended up hiring taxis to take their teenage sons home from soccer practices. As Mrs. Percy puts it, she was “sold a bag of chips.”
They sent their daughter, also named Stephanie, to a private kindergarten near their home, then enrolled her in first grade at the Claremont Preparatory School in Lower Manhattan this fall. Now mother and daughter leave at 6:10 a.m. to take the first of two trains into Manhattan, and do not return until 7:15 p.m.
“If I could have utilized the school, I would have been able to save a little money, but who could?” Mrs. Percy said. “In retrospect, I would have picked another school district.”
Many parents said they were stunned at how poorly even some well-regarded public schools compared with private schools. They complained about what they considered rigid curriculums, excessive standardized testing and tight budgets that allow for few elective classes and limited foreign language choices. And they said the public schools, powerless to choose who fills the desks, often had less motivated students.
John Lent, 53, a Manhattan publisher who attended boarding school, said he could not deny his sons, Will and Charlie, the same opportunity. So even though Mr. Lent moved to Pelham, in Westchester, for the schools and served on the school board in the mid-1990s, his sons left a public system that he still believes is very good to finish at the Westminster School in Connecticut.
“It’s the benefits and resources above and beyond Pelham,” he said. “No matter how much you tax the property owners.”
Other parents found the teaching in their public schools unimaginative. Susan Drews, 49, who lives in Yorktown Heights, in Westchester, said that art in the first grade at her son’s public school, for instance, involved “half-baked projects” like gold-sprayed macaroni glued to paper plates. “People went through the motions, they could claim there was an art program, but I didn’t feel it was very rich,” she said.
In contrast, Mrs. Drews said that her son, Sam, now 12, had become a passionate learner at Rippowam Cisqua, where teachers have encouraged his curiosity through projects like building an arch and studying rocks and bones found nearby.
Other families say they were satisfied with the academics at their public schools, but concerned about the social environment.
Diane Morash, 42, said she switched her three teenage daughters to the Pingry School, in northern New Jersey, after the oldest, Katie, a straight-A student who was not into clothes or makeup, became excluded from social cliques at her public school. Mrs. Morash said that complaining to officials there did not help, but that at Pingry, the headmaster once summoned every fifth-grade girl to his office to say that malicious gossiping was not acceptable under the school’s honor code.
“That just wasn’t going to happen in the public school — it wasn’t a priority,” she said. “Whereas the private school nipped it in the bud because at Pingry, it’s not just the education, it’s the whole person they’re trying to develop.”
Private school was not part of the Ophirs’ plan when they moved to Cortlandt Manor, in the high-performing Yorktown Central School District, which spends $15,630 per student, compared to an average of $13,826 statewide. Last year, fourth graders in the district significantly outperformed their peers on state tests, with 96 percent passing in math and 86 percent in language arts.
Given the district’s reputation, Mrs. Ophir said, she was taken aback when Dylan, who learned the alphabet at an early age, had not progressed any further after a year in the public kindergarten. Mrs. Ophir said the teacher largely ignored him because he was ahead of the other students.
“He didn’t learn anything — I was a neurotic mess,” she said. “He was developing all sorts of bad habits. He thought school was playtime. He didn’t want to apply himself.”
Mrs. Ophir kept Dylan in the public schools, hoping things would improve. He attended a one-hour-a-week session for gifted and talented students, but Mrs. Ophir said she was unimpressed with the teacher.
Vincent S. Ziccolella, the interim superintendent of the Yorktown district, said he did not understand the parents’ complaints. “Most of the people here are very satisfied with the school system, and they support the schools,” he said, adding that he frequently received calls from parents praising the schools.
But eventually, Mrs. Ophir turned to Hackley, a school of 830 whose rambling Tudor- and Gothic-style buildings are likened by students to Hogwarts Academy in the “Harry Potter” books. Dylan spent two years on the waiting list before entering fourth grade in 2004.
When it came time for Sabrina to begin school, Mrs. Ophir recalled, her husband told her, “I can’t go through another year of kindergarten with you.” So Sabrina enrolled at Hackley from the start.
"racism is dead, it died when MLK walked on a bridge and freed the slaves. Now we have a socialist Kenyan president who is not an American and if anyone mentions race they are a reverse racist (while racism is dead, reverse racism is alive and well.) #whattheyteachyouatfox