by BARBARA CORREA, Staff Writer | LA Daily News
Instead, he hired a consultant to help him navigate the confusing maze that has become education in
"What's a charter school? What's a magnet school? What's the difference? It's overwhelming," said Thompson, who works for a talent agency. "I'm a busy guy, and I don't have a lot of time to do research. It seems like there are so many options that you don't even know where to start."
The varied and confusing education options have opened an entire business for educational consultants.
For a couple of hundred dollars, professional school finders will help parents lacking either time, money, or both, to sort through
For a couple of thousand, they will hold your hand through the entire process, from cradle to classroom.
Some consultants focus on preschools, and some target private schools only. Clearly, parents are clamoring for the service; at least three local companies promising to simplify school choice have cropped up in the past year or so.
"We saw that there was a big need for this," said Jamie Nissenbaum, a teacher at
She said the main cause for feverish school hunting is that the general decline of the region's public school system has created a situation in which there aren't enough quality schools to meet demand. That has pressured private school admissions and given rise to the charter system - and the need for consultants to help sort it all out.
"Families are willing to not vacation for a year or two to do private schools ... or move to
Critics of the nascent industry say most of the people starting the companies are part of a passing trend.
"There are a number of people doing this who found it easy to get into," said Paul Vaughn, an educational planner in Van Nuys with a master's degree in psychology who has been practicing for 27 years.
"A lot of consultants in
Focus on the student
Vaughn said his approach is different and his practice is aimed at ensuring a positive educational experience for a particular student. The new consultants tend to have teaching backgrounds, and they are selling themselves more as practical guides to the
L.A. School Mates charges from $250 for a one-hour consultation up to $3,500 for the full treatment, which includes home visits and arranged meetings at the schools. The company also wants to sell group consultations, "almost like a spa party, but an educational consulting party at $100 per person," Nissenbaum said.
Because of the cost, the consultants have tended to cluster in the wealthier areas of
Arthur Thompson, the divorced father in
"You're paying all this tuition, plus the $100 to $200 it costs to apply to these schools, so $500 for five or six years of happiness is well worth it."
The consultant whom Thompson hired, a
"Not getting in to the school of your choice is not the end of the world. This decision is not going to make or break your child."
That sounds good on paper, but the reality is that in hyper-ambitious and affluent areas of
"It's a service that you wouldn't use in smaller places, but it's very relevant for the competitiveness in this city," said Mary Kumble, a client of L.A. School Mates. "In the same way you would go to a specialist for a myriad of other things, they are the specialist for this."
"I haven't looked at too many of the charter schools because there aren't any really close to me," she said. "As far as public schools, never say never."
Indeed, getting kids into prestigious private schools such as Harvard-Westlake, John Thomas Dye or the Center for Early Education in
"A lot of people feel guilty about abandoning the public school system. ... We're in this panic of, `public schools are failing,"' Kim Hamer said.
Mania over schools
Still, she said her first advice for new clients is to go and visit the public schools in their area. "We all think we know what a good school looks like, but we can't articulate it."
Opting to go public doesn't exactly simplify the process. With charters, magnets, lotteries and permits,
The handbook, "Westside Guide to Public Elementary Schools: Navigating Magnets, Charters, Permits & More," is a nuts-and-bolts guide to public school options. It grew out of Anton's observation that parents were filled with questions but had no good source to answer them all.
One thing she has learned from her experience is that parents have very different ideas about what makes a school desirable.
"I have people renting into a neighborhood so they can get into Westwood Charter. They'll rent a business office address to get into a neighborhood.
"And then other people live there and say, I would never send my kid to this school."'
Anton's own daughter will start this fall at Walgrove Elementary, an LAUSD school in Mar
"It's open-court with an influence of Reggio and co-constructivism," meaning the school is a mix of traditional curriculum and several more progressive educational philosophies.
Whatever its philosophy, the point is that public school quality soars when parents get deeply involved, and vice versa. Anton said she would love to see Angelenos return to their neighborhood public schools. Of course, that might put the educational consultants out of business, a prospect that doesn't seem likely any time soon.
"So much can change when parents get involved and local businesses get involved ...," she said. "That's what I would love to see happen."