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Elite Schools Rethink Saving Seat for Little Sister

Here’s a back-to-school math problem: There are 62 kindergarten seats at the Trinity School this fall, and 756 children wanted them. What percentage made the cut?

The answer seems straightforward: 8.2 percent. But private-school admissions are hardly straightforward.

Trinity School in New York
Bloomberg | Getty Images
Trinity School in New York

Of those 62 spots at Trinity, one of New York’s most competitive schools, 33 were taken first by qualified siblings of Trinity students. An additional 11 went to children of alumni, who also get a leg up in the process, and one more belongs to the child of a staff member. That left 17 spaces for families with no ties to Trinity, giving those without connections a 2.4 percent shot at the prize.

Never has getting into Harvard — acceptance rate: 6.2 percent — seemed so easy.

Now, amid soaring demand and a weak economy, Trinity and other elite New York schools are beginning to change longstanding admissions practices as they try to balance often incongruous priorities, including institutional loyalty and a diverse student body.

Trinity, which is on the Upper West Side and took the rare step of sharing its admission figures, has relaxed its application deadline and enlarged its capacity for open houses in recent years. Ethical Culture Fieldston and Riverdale Country no longer do siblings the favor of early notification of admissions, according to those schools. The same is true at Horace Mann, according to preschool directors and one parent at the school (Horace Mann did not respond to repeated calls and e-mails). Some families fear that the insiders’ advantage they were counting on may soon disappear.

“With ever-growing numbers of siblings and legacies, admissions decisions have become more selective,” Ethical Culture says on its Web site, “in an effort to continue to provide access to families new to the school and who represent the school’s mission and goals.”

Gabriella Rowe, head of the Mandell School, a well-known preschool and kindergarten-through-eighth-grade program, said, “There’s not a school out there that doesn’t have a stricter admissions policy for siblings today than they did last year or the year before that.”

Broadly speaking, the schools want to take siblings and legacies, both because it makes life easier for families and because it deepens relationships, which many believe results in long-term generosity. But as schools look to bolster endowments amid the poor economy, some have begun to question that approach.

“The thing no one wants to talk about is development,” said one head of school, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “You get more money from five families than two families with five children.”

Diversity seems to be the biggest driver of the change. Over all, according to the National Association of Independent Schools, 29 percent of students at 31 private schools in New York City were minorities in the last school year, up from 20 percent a decade earlier (nationally, the latest figure is 25 percent, up from 17 percent).

Minority students make up half of Fieldston’s lower school now, officials said. Dalton’s 2011-12 kindergarten class is 47 percent minority, Trinity’s 45 percent.

One of the lucky 17 who got into Trinity’s kindergarten class with no previous connection to the school, and who helps make it diverse, is the daughter of Rajeev Bhaman, a portfolio manager, and Gala Rabhu, a management consultant. The low acceptance rate led the couple to apply to nine schools in a process Mr. Bhaman described as “my full-time job for four months” and “way more difficult than anything I’ve done academically in my life, including applying to university in America from India.”

“The problem with the process is the data is fuzzy and the people involved seem to want to keep it fuzzy,” he said. “The uncertainty leads to greater angst and leads to precisely the behavior you see in this city: insane behavior.”

The scary admissions math is not the only thing causing the shift. As every parent knows, siblings are rarely carbon copies, and what school officials try to say ever so delicately is that just because Sophia made the grade doesn’t mean Liam will too. Saying no to an applicant can save a lot of grief down the line if the child is unlikely to succeed.

“It’s easier than when they are there,” said Roxana Reid, director of Smart City Kids, a consulting company. “It’s taxing on teachers and creates resentment among the families that their second child is not being treated well.”

Robin Aronow, another admissions consultant, said schools often had more siblings and legacies than seats, “so they make sure to say ‘look elsewhere.’ ”

Stiff competition

Not all schools. Grace Church, a competitive school downtown, has studied the issue, and concluded that student performance improves when families feel institutional ownership — and that keeping siblings together increases that sense of ownership.

“The success of this school is based on the fact that it is a primary community for families,” said George Davison, who has run Grace for a quarter-century. “The question with siblings is ‘Why shouldn’t we take this child?’ not ‘Why should we?’ ”

Mr. Davison said his pre-K classes of 32 generally included 24 to 26 siblings. About 100 families compete for the remaining seats, putting its admissions rate on par with Harvard’s. (For kindergarten, Grace adds 16 spots, and gets about 250 applications: 6 percent again. Partly because of the intensifying demand, Grace is starting a high school next year.)

Administrators at several schools, along with consultants, said the sibling crunch had intensified in recent years both because families have gotten larger and because families are staying in the city longer. The increased demand has led schools to rethink not only sibling and legacy preferences, but everything about the application process.

At Trinity, open houses used to be in the lower-school library, where attendance was limited to about 80. Last year, officials used the upper school’s chapel, but still limited capacity to 300, for two events. This year, the director of admissions, Jennifer Levine, said she would let in everyone who showed up.

“You really are juggling and trying to balance the different contingencies,” Ms. Levine said. “It’s not easy.”

Trinity used to consider only the first 400 applications it received, because officials had time to conduct only that many interviews. The limit resulted in a race to get paperwork to the school’s door on West 91st Street the first day it would be accepted. Once the school started allowing online submissions, it became a who-can-cut-and-paste-fast-enough competition.

Mr. Bhaman recalled this vividly. The Trinity application was meant to be available online at midnight on Labor Day. At 11:45 p.m., a friend from his daughter’s preschool called to say it was up. “This is truly New York,” Mr. Bhaman said. “Not only do they not wait until midnight, but there are actually people who are online then.”

Now, Ms. Levine and her staff promise to consider all applications until they have selected 400 for interviews (free hint: most likely the end of October).

Echoing a sentiment heard across the city, Ms. Levine said her main goal was to “find students that will thrive and parents who will add breadth and depth to our community.”

About 60 of them. “I can’t create more spaces,” she said.

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