A month of hard decisions Admissions: It's crunch time for many area independent and parochial schools. Applications are reaching record levels, far outnumbering the slots available next year.

February 27, 1997|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

At this time of year, Geordie Mitchell, admissions director at St. Paul's School, sees all too clearly the paradox of his job.

"We spend all fall trying to convince everyone to fall in love with us, and then in March we say, 'No, you can't come here,' " said Mitchell, who is in his fifth year at the Brooklandville school in Baltimore County. This week, he'll be saying "no" to many more middle and high school applicants than he'll be saying "yes" to.

Mitchell has company at virtually all of the Baltimore-area independent schools and at many parochial schools. Applications are reaching record levels, far outnumbering the seats available next fall.

The school-age baby boomlet and the persistent demand for private education, despite its high price, have made this a month of unusually hard choices for admissions directors. For Mitchell and his colleagues at area independent schools, this is crunch week -- the time to say "yes" to some, "we'd like to have you, but " to many, and "our school isn't for you" to others.

St. Paul's, for example, received more than 60 applications for next year's ninth grade, which will have only 10 to 12 openings after eighth-graders move up. At Bryn Mawr in Baltimore, applications are up 18.5 percent for all grades at the girls school, and up 49 percent for its sixth grade. And Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson had 228 applicants for 70 spaces in ninth grade.

Admissions directors "are all pleased, but they are all heartsick," said Sarah Donnelly, executive director of the Association of Independent Maryland Schools, which represents about 100 schools.

"The economy is good, and people's perceptions of public schools is not," she said, echoing reasons cited regionwide for the application boom at independent schools, which cost between $4,500 and $12,000 a year. "There isn't any school that isn't going to be basically full."

It's the same across the nation. "There's no question that things are better than ever. There's been a tremendous surge in applications," said Heather Hoerle, director of marketing for the National Association of Independent Schools.

Urban areas have the greatest number of applications, she said. But even at Gunston Day School in Centreville, John Carroll School in Bel Air and Key School in Annapolis, prospective students are plentiful.

"I both love and hate this time of year," said Elizabeth Speers, director of admissions and financial aid at Bryn Mawr. "There are some kids who are going to be asked to be on a wait list who have no business being on a wait list because they are qualified.

"My admissions committee has threatened to go on strike. They're saying, 'These are wonderful kids; we can't decide.' "

According to an informal agreement among themselves, local independent schools will send acceptance or rejection letters by tomorrow. Catholic secondary schools in the Archdiocese of Baltimore mailed theirs Feb. 14.

The increased competition brings a heightened anxiety -- and not just for students or, more likely, their parents.

Molly Hubbard, admissions director at Notre Dame, said that although the school has a waiting list, "it's the largest number we have ever denied. I take this home with me at night. I really feel for these students. Some of them have had this dream for four or five years, or longer."

The schools feel it, too. The additional applications not only generate more work, but also bring more lobbying by well-meaning parents, eager to size up their children's chances, and by alumni, coaches, clergy and family friends, enlisted to weigh in for a favorite student.

"We get a lot of letters and calls in support of a child" at St. Paul's, Mitchell said.

"There's as much demand as we have ever had," he added. "Five years ago, every acceptable child got in. If you were a good kid and you could do the work, you got in."

Such stiff competition demands that schools choose wisely, admitting students who are right for their schools. So, administrators' long hours stretch even further, as they review applicants' folders again and again and again.

At Bryn Mawr, for example, eight people read each applicant's file. At Notre Dame, each file is reviewed five times.

Each school has its strategy for choosing students, though all concede that it is a subjective process. Most schools look first for an academic match -- grades, test scores and teachers' references that indicate a student can be a success at a given school.

"I wish it was as easy as a formula," said Sharon Boston, admissions director at McDonogh School in Owings Mills.

McDonogh has another absolute: "We won't accept diversity on character. That's become more and more of a focus for us."

After that, the process gets murkier. It depends on a school's needs in terms of sports talent and artistic abilities, as well as the desired racial, gender and economic mix.

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