Frantic Brearley Finger-Pointing Follows Spotty College Placements

The Brearley seniors knew not to get their hopes up. They’d heard too many times that the Ivy League needed Upper East Side girls like a fish needs a bicycle. But nothing could have prepared the Brearley School’s class of 2001 for the batch of thin envelopes that filled their mailboxes in April. Just two years ago, 16 girls in the class of 1999 were headed to the prep schooler’s “Big Three”: Harvard, Yale or Princeton. This year, just five seniors out of 42 will be making that trip. Two Brearley girls will be attending Harvard, two Yale and one Princeton. In 1999, twice that many–10 girls–went to Yale alone. It’s true that 1999 is regarded as a glorious aberration in the eyes of Brearley administrators, and that Brearley’s class of 2001 did as well as graduates from the city’s other top private girls’ schools. But in the eyes of many parents and students, 2001 has hardly proven to be the Year of the Brearley Beaver.

“We had some pretty big surprises,” said Brearley graduate Hannah Lifson, who will be attending Wesleyan College. “It was definitely different.”

Several Brearley families do not hesitate to lay blame on the school’s college adviser, Elenor Reid, a warm, soft-spoken woman who arrived at Brearley’s East 83rd Street building in August 1999, after establishing a solid reputation at the Hotchkiss School and Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut. They claim that Ms. Reid developed only cursory relationships with the students and was too passive on their behalf. Ms. Reid says she advocated strongly for this class and last year’s, working hard behind the scenes. “There are always disappointments, but a number of kids both years have gotten into the most selective colleges in the country,” she said.

After the thin envelopes arrived, about a half-dozen parents called a member of the Brearley board of trustees. Some of them had heard rumors that Brearley hadn’t done as well this year as its all-female competitors–the Chapin School, the Spence School and Nightingale. According to Priscilla Winn Barlow, Brearley’s head of school, the board member had “heard some rumblings, and he came and found the facts, and found that the rumblings were not correct.” But parents were also asking about Ms. Reid, prompting the board member to speak with at least one student at length about her experience with the adviser.

John Savarese, president of Brearley’s board of trustees, said, “We learned that some parents and their girls were unhappy with the process. We heard the concerns and asked Dr. Winn Barlow and Elenor Reid to address whatever legitimate concerns there may be.

“There was a lot of misinformation and rumor circulating around,” Mr. Savarese continued. “An impression one could form listening to some people who spoke to the board member was that this class did not do well in getting people into name-brand schools. That’s not true.

“We as a board encouraged Elenor Reid and Dr. Winn Barlow to spend more time with girls and parents to make sure people feel supported,” he said. “I told Ms. Reid that I thought it sounded like there might be some kernel of concern here it might be proper to address with better communication.”

But some parents are not willing to let Brearley off the hook–not surprising given that the cost of tuition and fees at the 117-year-old school is $20,210.

“The prevailing sentiment was that Ms. Reid was out to lunch,” said JoAnna Chapin, mother of Brearley graduate Anika Chapin, who will be attending Vassar College in the fall.

“She is a very restrained person, not personally suited for a dog-eat-dog world,” said another mother of a Brearley graduate. “You have to do a dog-and-pony show to get someone’s attention, and she’s not a dog-and-pony person. With my daughter, she missed the mark. She didn’t get into any of her first-choice schools. I’ve been deeply frustrated with her.”

Other parents disagree. “It’s nice to point fingers because you didn’t get what you wanted and paid for it,” said Mark Kleinberg, Ms. Lifson’s stepfather. “If you go to Brearley, the expectation is that you will get into the school of your choice. But that world doesn’t exist anymore.”

“I told people to give her a chance, just because she might have a slightly different personality than others,” said David Tunick, who thinks Ms. Reid did a great job and whose daughter, Liz Tunick, will be attending Dartmouth. “I think she’s wonderful. She has a very pleasing approach and a very friendly personality.”

Mrs. Winn Barlow said that Ms. Reid is the victim of unrealistic expectations born of the class of 1999′s stellar success.

“It’s very difficult to come in, because the memory of people is about one year,” said Mrs. Winn Barlow. “Parents look at one year and say ‘Oops!’ if it doesn’t turn out that way.”

According to Mrs. Winn Barlow, if one excludes 1999, the school’s college-admissions results have not changed in any meaningful way since Ms. Reid took over. Nineteen percent of the students who graduated from Brearley between 1994 and 1998 attended a Big Three school. For 2000 and 2001 combined, that number dipped to 14 percent.

And Ms. Reid has formidable supporters. “I worked with Elenor at Miss Porter’s,” said Roger Banks, a senior admissions officer at Harvard. “She was terrific–careful, sensitive to nuance, prudent and thoroughly knowledgeable.”

Several seniors knocked Brearley, accusing the academically rigorous school of not encouraging extracurriculars and of being too self-satisfied as an institution to grapple with the modern realities of college admissions.

“We don’t have that ‘remarkable’ tinge,” said one class of 2001 graduate. “We might have great grades in school, but we don’t go tutor in Harlem. We don’t have the time to make ourselves special and individual; we’re blueprint good students . We’re sort of vanilla. And Ms. Reid couldn’t push our individual strengths, because she didn’t know what they were.”

Mrs. Winn Barlow, who has been head of school for four years, has been credited with trying to loosen up Brearley and expand its curricular offerings at the upper levels. She told The Observer that she is “more relaxed” than her predecessors. But some parents were irked because, they said, Brearley kept them at a distance. “The school was urging parents to let girls be in charge of the process,” said a Brearley mother. “It almost implied that families were somewhat irrelevant.”

“We want to support the kids in the strongest way possible, and that’s helping them to make decisions for themselves rather than being told how to make them,” said Ms. Reid. “We hope the girls will learn to take responsibility for themselves: where to put something on a form, or how to choose one college or another. They’re coming up on leaving high school and going off to college and being able to make some choices for themselves.”

‘We Were All Weirded Out’

Ms. Reid may suffer somewhat by comparison with her immediate predecessor, Joan Gardiner, whom Mrs. Winn Barlow said “may have been a bit tougher” with the students. And prior to Ms. Gardiner, Brearley’s college adviser between 1975 and 1993 was a woman named Frances Taliaferro, who acquired legendary status. But the job was easier when colleges accepted a greater percentage of applicants.

“It’s hard for me to buy into the claim that any single individual would be at fault,” said Harvard’s Mr. Banks. “Those were halcyon days when Franny Taliaferro was director of college counseling. Back then, the acceptance rate at Harvard College was more like 15 percent instead of 10.”

Most of those class of 2001 graduates contacted by The Observer who got into their first-choice schools said that they hadn’t been looking for extensive guidance from Ms. Reid.

“The people who were going to get in, got in. But the people who needed to be sold, because they were ‘interesting,’ got shortchanged,” said one student, who put herself in the former category. “She was really bad at handling the people without the really great SAT’s, tons of extracurriculars and straight A’s. That mid-range was a black hole.”

At one point, some students floated the idea for an end-of-the-year skit about Ms. Reid–which never materialized–in which she would be portrayed as a pregnant woman about to give birth. When the doctor told her to “push,” she would respond, “That’s not my job.”

“Her not pushing was sort of a running joke,” said Anika Chapin. “Some of these people needed someone on the phone explaining things, and Ms. Reid wasn’t willing to do that.”

“So many times I’d ask her, ‘So what do you think of this as a likely school?’” said Hannah Lifson. “And she’d say, ‘Well, have you looked at their Web site?’ I mean, I can do that, but then why have a college counselor?

“I never felt she understood me that well,” Ms. Lifson added. “She never offered her help for more than a quick chat in the office. I got more direct college help from my English teacher than Ms. Reid.”

“Anyone who feels they need more time just needs to let me know,” said Ms. Reid. “If they had taken the initiative with me, I would have welcomed it.”

Scarlet Kim, who will be attending Yale, said that she didn’t have trouble getting Ms. Reid’s attention, but added, “When major decisions came in, she wasn’t always around. And when you get news that you’re not happy with, you want some advice. She made some people feel she wasn’t there for them.”

“We were all weirded out because she wasn’t always around, because teachers always are,” said Jenny Solomon, who will head to Duke in the fall. Ms. Solomon added, however, that despite limited contact, Ms. Reid’s written recommendation of her was an accurate portrayal. “My recommendation was so on-target and so beyond what I had expected,” she said. “We all thought she wasn’t going to be able to do that.

“It’s easy to blame the college adviser when you don’t get in,” she said. “She wrote great letters and tried her hardest.”

The Brearley B

Some of the graduates accused Brearley of being a bit too comfortable, relying too much on its gilded history and $67.6 million endowment.

“There’s a lingering stodginess about the college process,” said Ana Nersessian, who will be attending Yale. “There’s a sense we can rest on our laurels. They say a B at Brearley is an A anywhere else, but if you’re a college admissions officer, a B is a B.”

Brearley advises its students to apply to just six schools and assures its seniors that colleges recognize its rigorous standards. Brearley does not offer advanced-placement courses, claiming that its regular class offerings are more than sufficient. And it does not require students to submit their college essays to the adviser for her review because, according to Mrs. Winn Barlow, the school’s English curriculum adequately prepares its students to write an essay on their own. Ms. Reid said she was happy to look at those essays which students chose to submit to her, and that she saw a “significant” portion of this year’s essays.

Ms. Reid said that colleges appreciate Brearley’s way of doing things. “Colleges understand that the number of schools Brearley girls apply to is reasonable, so the seriousness of each application has a little more credibility,” she said. “There’s a kind of respect generated from colleges …. And when the colleges know every essay has been screened by a college adviser, they look at them differently.”

Mr. Banks, however, said that Harvard’s admissions department does not tilt in favor of an applicant who limits the number of colleges she applies to, and that essays which have been looked over first by a college adviser are not regarded as inferior.

“Circumscribing the number of applications a student can use, or maintaining a hands-off policy with respect to the college essay, doesn’t suggest a tip factor,” said Mr. Banks. “The seriousness with which a school is taken isn’t affected by whether their students apply to six schools or 20.”

As for Brearley B’s being seen by colleges as other schools’ A’s, Mr. Banks said, “You don’t want to penalize schools for being sensitive to the grade-inflation issue, but there are students who do get A’s in spite of the rigor. We can live with Brearley B’s up to a point, but afterwards the reality of the competition sinks in.”

Only in the peculiar world of New York City private schools, of course, could Brearley’s class of 2001 be seen as anything less than incredibly gifted and fortunate. Rather than asking whether Brearley and the other independent schools prepare students for admission to the Ivy League, a better question might be whether they prepare them for life beyond a rarefied ZIP code.

“The homogeny starts long before Brearley,” said Rajae Merzoug, who will be attending Harvard in September. “I know kids who never left the Upper East Side until they were 15.” But she added that Brearley did not help break the mold. “We were too busy doing our homework to really develop as people,” she said.