Public vs. Private school in NYC

Interview with Patty Ziplow

Patty Ziplow, for at least 6 months, was an important part of our family. She is an educational consultant specializing in the private school system here in NYC. Liam will be going to Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in the fall. We entered this process knowing nothing. We met Patty at a “meet and greet” at Liam’s Pre-K school. She completely educated us about the topic. She “held our hands” through the maze of the private school application and interview process – which is like a job by itself.

This is unique problem facing those living in NYC. The first decision was private vs. public school – a mine field of issues than one must take on. One has to reconcile the pluses and minuses of public school education in NYC. There is a ton of literature online to educate yourself on the public school system. The private school choice in not for the meek of heart. It is a rigorous, expensive process. Patty lessens the blow but she is a paid consultant as well. Ultimately, we felt that private school, and for that matter CGPS, was right for Liam and our family regardless of cost. 

The key is deciding what is right for your family. We heard this constantly for 6 months. It is a mysterious decision that is hard to grapple with early; but, it definitely gains clarity as you move through the process. Also, it is important to get started in this process early. We did not! Thank god for Patty who got us organized quickly. When you are thinking about Pre-K, start thinking about Kindergarten as well. This is a must.

On a personal note, we will be indebted to Patty for the rest of our lives. She helped our family through a trying time. I hope you enjoy and learn from this interview.

  1. For the purposes of introduction to my audience, Patty please explain what you do and tell us a little about your background.
    Meg, thanks so much for the kind words and for the opportunity to share with your readers some information about the NYC Kindergarten admissions process.  About me…I am an independent educational consultant specializing K-12 admissions.  With over 20 years’ experience working in independent school education, serving as Director of Admissions as well as other top administrative roles, I have a unique perspective and understanding of the competitive application process and use this proficiency to find the best educational environment for my students. As Meg mentioned, this can be a very stressful time but with some basic information and planning (and, of course, my help), it is manageable.
  2. Why private school in NYC?
    Before I address this question, let me first explain the “technical” differences between a private school (also commonly referred to as an independent school) a public school and a charter school.  A private school is governed by an independent body (Board of Trustees) and receives its funding through tuition revenue (the amount each family is charged to attend the school).  These schools do not receive any public funding and therefore are not required to adhere to a specified public curriculum or state mandated testing. According to Webster’s Dictionary, a public school is “a free school paid for by taxes and run by a local government.”   In New York City, the NYC Department of Education is the body that oversees the public schools as well as the Kindergarten admissions process.  A charter school is a hybrid of a public and private school.  As defined by UNCommon Schools, a Charter School is “an independently run public school granted greater flexibility in its operations, in return for greater accountability for performance. The “charter” establishing each school is a performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, students served, performance goals, and methods of assessment.”OK, so why apply to a private school where families are charged tuition?  There are many reasons.  Typically, class sizes are much smaller, and students can receive more individualized attention.  Since there is no state mandated curriculum, teachers can create their own lesson plans, go into greater depth on topics, and move at a speed that is appropriate given the needs of the class. In addition, there tend to be more rigorous classes (more Advance Placement courses) and a wider variety of extracurricular activities.  Personally, I also believe that students are challenged and encouraged to think and write more critically and analytically.I highly recommend that families visit both public and private schools so that they can get a better sense of what is the right fit for their child (ren) and their family.
  3. What is the ISAAGNY?
    ISAAGNY is the acronym for the Independent School Admissions Association of Greater New York.  In response to the increased competition between private schools for admissions candidates, ISAGGNY was created to basically level the playing field. Most independent schools are members of ISAAGNY and comply with all ISAAGNY established admissions guidelines and practices such as application deadlines and notification dates.
  4. Can you explain, in general, the difference between a progressive style of education vs. the traditional style? How does a family choose between the two? 
    When looking at a potential school for your child(ren), one of the important criteria to consider is the pedagogical approach. This philosophy, along with the core values of the school, is often affirmed in the school’s mission statement. While the mission statement can be found on the school’s website, it is helpful to observe the school in action to really get a sense how the approach impacts the way students learn.The most common of these methodologies are progressive(inquiry-based) and traditional.  Please note that most schools are not completely one or another but use some combination of both. Conventionally. in a school that employs a more traditional method, teachers generally instruct from the front of the class with little class participation and students are responsible for learning the information presented. Students are assessed by tests.  It is a more passive type of education.  Conversely, in a progressive school, teachers, students and parents are all actively involved in the educational process. Students are encouraged to ask questions to fully understand the topic.  Teachers are readily approachable and often circulate through the class. Assessments are based on various measures including process and personal mastery.
  5. What is your advice on how to pick a group of schools to apply to? How does one become informed about the schools?
    The first step to compiling a list of schools is determining what factors are important to you: pedagogical approach, coed or single sex, secular or religious, campus or city school, location, size of student body, K-12 school or some other paradigm.  Once you have established your criteria, it’s time to research what schools fit your conditions. Organizations such as the Parents League of New York and NYSAIS (New York State Association of Independent Schools publish lists of schools on their websites and can be helpful in gathering information. Once you have a working list, it is critical that you take advantage of opportunities to visit the schools, either on a spring or fall tour or an Open House.  Registration is required for all of these and I advise that you contact the school as early as possible to secure a spot.  After each visit, you will want to record your observations and, if warranted, modify your list.
  6. Can you comment on the application process – when should the process start? Where on-line can one get started with the application process? Is there a common application form for all the schools?
    First and foremost, keep in mind that the purpose of the admissions process is to enroll families or whom the school is the right fit.  The admissions officers are looking for students and families who will enhance and contribute to their community (not necessarily financial) and who will benefit from and take advantage of all the opportunities the school provides. They are looking for a balance of talents, temperaments, gender, ethnicity, culture, etc.The most important piece of advice I can give all of you is to START EARLY to give your family time to make thoughtful decisions and find your ideal schools.  Optimally, the research process should start 18 months before your child will enroll (the spring before the application season.) This will allow you to participate in any spring tours.  The bulk of the work takes place in the fall and winter prior to enrollment. To begin, once a working list has been crafted, you should go onto the website for each school and complete an online inquiry form.  This will put your name in their database resulting in ongoing communication from the admissions office about the process (tour and open house dates, application deadline dates, etc.). The next step is to complete the application.  Many schools use a common application that is “housed” in central “hub. An example of this is Ravenna.  Parents only need to complete the biographical section of the application once and it will auto populate on all selected applications.  This system will also track progress (completed and missing application elements for each school.)  The admissions page for each school will direct applicants to the appropriate site.
    There are many pieces to the application and each is used by the admission office to make thoughtful decisions.  The application includes: the basic application (biographical information about child and family), the essay(s) or Parent Supplement(s), school reports and recommendations, and the parent interview and student observation (play sessions) or interview. These are all pieces of a puzzle that the admissions officers will use in determining the admissions decision.
  7. Can you give an overview of the interview process: Parent visit, parent interview and play group? 
    Once a family has completed the basic application, the school will contact the family to schedule an interview and tour.  Concurrently, families should start working on the essays as they require careful attention and more time than anticipated.  The parent statement is first opportunity to brag about your child, convey more about your family and impart how you are a good fit for their school and (very important) what the school will provide for your family.  The interview is another opportunity to share this information and your enthusiasm. It is important to rehearse what you are going to say and to prepare questions that indicate your interest in the School. The student observation is the chance for the school to gauge the academic, social and emotional level of your child and consider how he/she will fit with the other applicants.  Like the parent interview, it is helpful to inform your child about the play session prior to arrival.
  8. Do you believe that a private school education helps with getting into a desired college or university?
    As a former private school administrator and a parent of two grown children, one of whom attended private school and one who graduated from our local public school, I truly believe that private schools do a better job of preparing students for college and the college admissions process. That said, I will always come back to finding the right fit school for your child, private or public.
  9. Where do you fit into this process; what is the value of the consultant? My role as a consultant is to serve as your admissions Sherpa and personal concierge.  I help develop a thorough list of schools based on a specific set of criteria, work with families on completing the applications (especially the essays) prepare families for the interviews, make sure the students are ready for the student observation and answer any questions along the way.  I serve to demystify the process and alleviate much of the associated stress and anxiety.  Having been a part of the NYC metropolitan admissions community for decades, I know the schools and the role of the admissions process.  This experience informs how I advise and guide my clients.
  10. If a reader wants to learn more about the private school system, how can someone reach out to you?  I can be contacted at 917-626-2674 or and would be happy to talk to your readers.