The Public Face of Private Education

The Parents League’s Gina Malin, Lois Blumka, and Corinne Keller; photo by Aaron Adler

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in February 2013.

You’re a new mom in the city, and in the course of talking with other new parents at Mommy & Me classes and local parks, you’re starting to think that even now, while your child is a baby, you’d like a better grasp of the local nursery school admissions process. Having grown up somewhere else, where enrolling in nursery school was simply a matter of filling out a form, you’re a little confused as to why the admissions process in the city sounds so complicated and harried.

Or perhaps you’re a new mom who grew up here and have a clear picture of nursery admissions. But so much else has changed since you were a child, you’d like to find some reliable resources to help you discover anew the city’s many offerings for young children—and, by the way, you also wouldn’t mind an occasional seminar on common parenting and education issues.

Where to turn?

For many city parents, the first stop for advice on independent school admissions and much else is The Parents League of New York. Now entering its 100th year, the League has never been more active or impactful, helping thousands of families each year navigate independent school admissions and other aspects of family life in the city.

“I’m excited. I hate to use the word ’important‘ but it makes you feel that people are grateful we exist and that we have a continued purpose,” says Parents League President Lois Blumka, reflecting on the centennial anniversary. “We’ve seriously evolved from what we did a hundred years ago, and there are lots of people who are grateful for this collaboration of families and schools that provides a great benefit for New York City parents.”

As a partner to over 300 independent schools (i.e. private schools), including around 175 nursery and ongoing schools (K and up) in the city, plus day schools and boarding schools in other areas, The Parents League keeps up with the schools through visits and ongoing communications. In turn, it’s able to give parents timely andinformed guidance. As its name suggests, the non-profit and volunteered-based organization is run by parents, virtually all of whom have faced or are still facing the same issues that its member parents face. They are a very accomplished group, with lots of advanced degrees and impressive career credentials (including within school admissions), and they are deeply committed to the League’s core mission: to promote independent school education.

Presently, the League’s leaders include Blumka as well as Corinne Keller, the Director of Operations, and Gina Malin, the Director of School Advisory Services. The three have very different work and personal histories, but their involvement with the League follows a similar script: believing in the mission, starting out as basic volunteer, and eventually taking on a significant and demanding role.

“I think it’s the connection to the schools, and it’s also the personal touch,” says Malin, explaining the League’s appeal. “Yes, you can read a school’s mission statement on a website, but here you can actually talk to one of us—and we have a really intimate knowledge of the schools.”

Parent’s League Board member George Davison, who is also the Head of School at Grace Church School in the Village, goes a step further.

“There’s a lot of heard-it-at-the-park-bench stuff out there, and many parents are flying blind when it comes to school admissions and don’t know it,” he says. “The Parents League might be the only truly honest broker out there. Their only agenda is to help families find a school that is a good match for their kid, a school in which the kid can thrive. And they’re really good at it.”

The League has three main offerings that parent members can avail themselves of: advisory services, publications, and events.

Advisory Services is its cornerstone offering—and the League has clearly ramped up over the years to meet parental demand for guidance and good information. Malin herself is a former admissions officer at Brearley. Likewise, the dozen advisors on her team all have some background in education or admissions. They help a lot of families; in the course of last year, over 1,300 member families used the League’s Advisory Services. The majority focused on nursery admissions, but others on elementary school, middle and high school, boarding school, as well as on camps and special needs.

For parents applying to nursery school, The Parents League offers a soup-to-nuts workshop with a small group of other families. Then parents can follow up with phone calls to League advisors as they go through the process. Families applying to an ongoing school or a boarding school can have a one-on-one meeting with a Parents League advisor at the start, and then phone follow-ups. The League does not offer public school admissions counseling but they steer interested members to resources that can help.

On the admissions front, The League also sponsors three major school fairs over the course of the year, which are open to all parents and children, not just member families. These are great events for meeting school reps and gathering the schools’ promotional materials. In September, the League separately hosts an Independent Day School Fair and a Boarding School Fair, both of which are followed by forums on admissions policies. Last year it also hosted its first Kindergarten Fair in April.

“The reason we needed to break up [the Kindergarten Fair and the Independent Day School Fair] is because the family that’s looking at private kindergarten has different needs and concerns than the family that’s looking at private middle and high school,” says Keller. “Also, the children become much more proactive in determining their own education in middle and upper school, so a lot of kids come to those fairs.”

At the same time, the League also sponsors smaller events—workshops, lectures, etc.—throughout the year, covering parenting and education topics like writing readiness and parent-child separation. Last year, for the first time, it offered a very popular seminar on financial aid at independent schools. These smaller-scale events are only open to member families and are free.

Another helpful perk of Parents League membership is its publications, the stars of which are the Guide To Preschools, The Parents League Review (articles on parenting and education), and Let’s Play (activities for children under three). On its website, The League also has two popular and searchable guides: Summer In New York and Guide To New York, both of which have activities for children of all ages.

There are sundry other ways The Parents League helps member families, including the opportunity to stop by the office and peruse the bulletin board with postings for nanny, babysitter, and other services. Another secondary function, which is invaluable if you need it, is that The League sometimes acts as a kind of matchmaker or intermediary between parents looking for a spot for their child and an independent school with an opening to fill. This is mostly around the end of admissions season, in March and April, though it’s also quite common for The League to get calls at other times of year from families who, because of work, are moving to the city and need to find schooling for their children, often from abroad.

What does one pay for all these perks? A membership in The Parents League costs $160 for an academic year—or $320 for three years. Considering that tuition at some independent nursery schools is close to $25,000 and the tuition at many independent ongoing schools is close to $40,000, The Parents League is a modest investment in a child’s education. Most parents first join when their children are babies and toddlers, when the family is focused on nursery admissions.

The Parents League has always had a special role in the independent school universe, but it wasn’t always about admissions. Founded in 1913, its original mission was to oversee the private schools’ social calendar, planning social activities for the children in a way that a school’s parents association does now. It wasn’t until the ‘70s and ‘80s that The League got involved with sharing their knowledge of the schools with parents and helping them with the admissions process. Nowadays, League services are so in demand that it can no longer rely solely on volunteers, however qualified, and several key members of the team are, in fact, on salary.

With the city’s independent schools (nursery and ongoing) more in demand than ever, one can only expect The Parents League to continue thrive and grow as well. In fact, board member Davison feels that, for all the families the League does help, there are still many more who could use the service. And certainly The League’s leadership troika of Blumka, Keller, and Malin are keen on expanding their outreach as well.

“I don’t normally think in 100-year plans,” says Blumka, “but this being our centenary I’d have to say that our big push for the next 100 years is to continue serving our members and our member schools—and bringing this wonderful possibility of an independent school education to everyone who would like to investigate it.”

The Parents League is located at 115 East 82nd Street. For more information about their services and membership, call 212-737-7385, or visit parentsleague.org.

For a list of upcoming Parents League events, click here.

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