The Elite of the Elite: 2011 Private School Power Players

Looking to get your kid enrolled in one of the top private schools in the country? Here are the people you need to target.

  • For most Americans, Thanksgiving is a time of pleasure and company, tables heaping with food and surrounded by families and friends. But for a select few, this time of year brings on a feeling of envy and dread: You only get one chance to provide your children with entrée into elite society—and we’re not talking about dark meat. That’s right, frenzied mothers and fathers throughout Manhattan are working around the clock to finish their kids’ applications to top private schools. This is not child’s play.

    According to Forbes‘ 2010 assessment, five of the nation’s top 10 prep schools are located in New York City. Cultivating the nation’s next crop of Ivy Leaguers, bankers, lawyers, and Senators, these institutions are calling all Tiger Moms and Proud Papas to invest in the future of their little ones.

    Let’s not forget about the boarding school set. Even after suffering through the initial application process in kindergarten, some masochistic parents feel the need to do it all over again in the eighth grade. Every autumn, city kids are shipped off to quaint New England towns with solid names like Andover, Exeter, Groton and Deerfield.

    And then there’s the price tag. With boarding school tuition rivaling the nation’s best colleges, and private day schools in New York costing over $30,000 per year (several closer to $40,000), parents are keen to know as much about their children’s schools as they knew about their first spouses. Probably more.

    At every school, there are certain people every parent should know. The head of school is a good place to start. Namedropping the headmaster in your interview is mandatory if your child has any chance of being accepted.  But oftentimes there are other bigwigs operating behind the scenes. Be it the admissions director, the head of college counseling or the president of the board, these schools are rife with movers and shakers who, ultimately, will have a palpable effect on your child’s future.

    Here is Observer‘s list of the top two dozen people you need to know as the private school application season comes to a close.

    GRADES: K-12
    LOCATION:Upper East Side

    Who:Priscilla M. Winn Barlow
    What: Interim head, Brearley
    Salary: The previous headmaster made $445,421 the year she left.
    Lowdown: Earlier this summer, the headmistress of this uber-exclusive all-girls school stepped down after eight years. When Stephanie J. Hull announced her unexpected departure, “The Brearley School’s trustees moved quickly…to contain any damage,” according to an article in The New York Times. They selected Priscilla M. Winn Barlow who had previously held the post from 1997-2003, when she retired.

  • Who: Winifred M. Mabley
    What:Director of Admissions, Lower School, Brearley
    Lowdown: As director of lower school admissions, Ms. Mabley must have a particularly discerning eye. She must assess developmental growth by four-year-olds’ self portraits, make sure the youngsters sit for standardized tests and court the New York’s socially prominent families to the school. All the while, she is imagining these toddlers as teenagers, applying to college and becoming part of Brearley’s loyal alumni base, which can count Caroline Kennedy and Kyra Sedgwick among its members. But what of Ms. Mabley? The admissions officer (or someone with her same name and middle initial) wrote a letter to the editor of The Times in response to an 2001 article explaining the economic slump’s positive effect on middle class families in New York. “Let the bad times roll and the recession boom! Let New York City real estate agents and owners quake in their boots! With any luck, the bad times will last longer than the dot-coms, and my husband and I will have a crack at raising our children in what remains, in good times and in bad, one of the greatest cities in the world,” she wrote. Wonder what all the well-heeled Real Estate families at Brearley think of her philosophy.

    GRADES: K-12
    APPLICATION DEADLINE: Lower school: December 1st; Middle and Upper schools: December 15
    LOCATION: Upper East Side

    Who:Patricia Hayot
    What: The Head of Chapin
    Salary: $302,257 (in 2009)
    Lowdown: Dr. Patricia Hayot became the head of Chapin in 2003, following stints at the Columbus School for Girls and the International School in Paris before that. Chapin, founded in 1901, has long been a fixture in the world of elite girls’ schools. With graduates including Jackie O., Vera Wang and Queen Noor, Chapin attracts the crème de la crème of New York Society girls. The Observer is not exactly sure how the admissions board let Samantha Ronson past the doors, but the DJ did indeed attend Chapin in her earlier days, pre-DUI(s) and fling with Lindsay Lohan, of course.

  • Who: Linden Havemeyer Wise
    What: Chair of the Board, Chapin
    Lowdown: Behind every good private school is an impressive board of trustees. The case is particularly true at Chapin, where in 2009 Linden Havemeyer Wise was unanimously elected chairman of the board. A graduate of Chapin herself, Ms. Havemeyer has served as a lawyer for the Met—where it so happens her family has donated several pieces to the storied museum. Ms. Wise gives an interview in Danny Danziger’s book Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “My father’s family was a prominent New York family of some means.” Her great-grandfather was a sugar baron, controlling some 98% of the sugar refining in America, by her own account.

    GRADES: K-12
    TUITION: $37,500
    LOCATION: Upper West Side

    Who: Lee Levison
    What: Headmaster

    Lowdown: “From Kindergarten to 12th grade, the curiosity, energy, and passion of our boys radiates throughout the school,” Mr. Levison says in his welcome letter on the school’s website. He has been holding down the fort at the Upper West Side institution since 2006. Collegiate, which was founded in 1628, has seen the likes of like JFK Jr., David Duchovny and Sam Sifton pass through its hallowed halls. And with board members like Edgar Bronfman Jr. and Alice Tisch, Collegiate is a breeding ground for New York’s powerful young bucks.

  • Who: Ali Bhanji
    What: Director of College Guidance, Collegiate
    Lowdown: Mr. Bhanhji was hired in 2010 following a period of significant turnover in the Collegiate college counseling department. Over the past five years, the office has seen at least four different directors. The turbulence is doubtless unsettling for Collegiate parents who expect their children to get into the best schools. During that period, precisely 22 Collegiate boys have shipped off to Yale, another 20 to Princeton, and 19 to Harvard—so what's all the complaining for! Still, can Mr. Bhanji do better? According to Forbes, 31% of students from the exclusive school head to an Ivy, MIT or Stanford after graduating from the exclusive prep school .

    GRADES: K-12
    LOCATION: Upper East Side

    Who: Ellen Stein
    Position: Head of School
    Salary: $528,118
    Lowdown: Having graduated Dalton in 1965, Ms. Stein knows the ropes. “Guided by the Dalton Plan, the School well prepares students to “go forth unafraid” not only as academically strong graduates, but also as informed, intuitive, and responsible social citizens,” her welcome letter on the Dalton website states. Ms. Stein drew the ire of students and free press advocates alike when in 2009 she permitted Justice Anthony Kennedy to pre-read (and edit) an article about a speech he gave at the school that was to be featured in the The Daltonian. “I think fact checking is a good thing,” she told The Times in a piece written about the incident.

  • Who:Elisabeth Krents
    What:Director of admissions, Dalton
    Lowdown: A Dalton girl herself (from the great class of 1968) Elisabeth “Babby” Krents currently serves as the gatekeeper to the Upper East Side school. With alumni like Anderson Cooper, Claire Danes and Chevy Chase, Ms. Krents has a tough job, tasked with handpicking the next set of Daltonians. Ms. Krents is credited with diversifying the school, transforming it from a known WASP hive to a liberal loving bastion of diversity—hello, Sean Lennon! According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, “Nearly half of the incoming kindergarten class will be students of color” at Dalton this year. We didn’t realize that ‘students of color’ was the appropriate term, but kudos to Ms. Krents. The year before she joined the admissions department, “the kindergarten class was 6 percent diverse.” We think that means 94 percent rich and white.

    GRADES: K-12
    YEARLY TUITION:$37,275
    LOCATION: Riverdale

    Who: Thomas M. Kelly
    What: Head of Horace Mann
    Salary: $414,403

    The Lowdown: Thomas Kelly took the helm at this elite co-ed prep school in 2005. Not everyone is a fan, however. A comment on a New York Times article describing the firing of a Horace Mann teacher who wrote a book about rich private school kids (admittedly a topic a little close to home) claims that “As a parent of a Horace Mann student, I can tell you that under the reign of Tom Kelly, there is no freedom of speech. He and his administrators are arrogant and use their power in an abusive manner both towards students and parents.”

  • Who:Canh Oxelson
    What:Director College Counseling, Horace Mann
    Lowdown: “Dear Friends, We are delighted to announce the appointment of Canh Eric Oxelson to the position of Director of College Counseling at Horrace Mann School,” a letter from Headmaster Kelly read. Mr. Oxelson accepted the position this summer, coming to Horace Mann from Harvard Westlake in Los Angeles. Little known fact, and one certainly not addressed in Mr. Kelly’s letter? Mr. Oxelson moonlighted as a Tiger Woods impersonator for several years, scoring interviews with major news stations and even standing in as Tiger for an AmEx commercial and a Tiger Woods Foundation commercial. “I did this to pay for graduate school. I want to do serious work in education. I've got a life," Mr. Oxelson told Sports Illustrated in 2001. And yet a decade hence, his LinkedIn page features as his personal website. He should probably stay away from the Meatpacking District for awhile.

  • Who:Lisa Grunwald Adler
    What: Vice president of the Board of trustees, Nightingale-Bamford
    Lowdown: Author Lisa Grunwald Adler serves as an officer of the board at the Nightingale-Bamford school. The daughter of Henry Grunwald, the revered Time managing editor and diplomat, Ms. Grunwald Adler is the sister of major Democratic media adviser Mandy Grunwald. Ms. Grunwald Adler is no stranger to the New York society scene. The fiction writer, who graduated from the school in 1977, helps to oversee her alma mater’s $75 million endowment, along with fellow board members Clarissa Bronfman (Edgar’s wife) and Shoshanna Lonstein Gruss (who dated Jerry Seinfeld while she was 17, still a student at Nightingale-Bamford).

    GRADES: K-12
    LOCATION: Upper East Side

    Who:Dorothy Hutcheson
    What: Head of Nightingale-Bamford
    Salary: $465,299
    Lowdown: Last summer, Ms. Hutcheson announced that she would be leaving her post as Headmistress of Nightingale-Bamford after a 20 year tenure. “I'm at the head of my game. I didn't want to leave when I was an old bat,” Ms. Hutcheson said in an interview with Crain's earlier this summer. Overseeing 560 girls from some of New York’s most well-to-do families is no easy task, and we imagine she’ll get a pretty hefty departure package after serving two decades at the helm of the school. She will be succeeded by the Nightingale-Bamford's current head of Upper School, Paul A. Burke.

  • Who: Bodie Brizendine
    What: Head of Spence
    Salary: $416,428

    Lowdown: The Headmistress of Spence, Ms. Brizendine oversees a gaggle of high society girls as they mature from kindergarten through 12th grade. Ms. Brizendine did the bi-coastal shuffle in 2007 when she left her position as head of the elite Bay Area high school Marin Academy in California and moved out to Spence. Many of the backdrop shots of the fictional “Constance Billard School” in Gossip Girl are in fact the façade of Spence’s idyllic Lower School building, the William Goadby Loew House. Making the highly coveted top 10 list of Forbes’ best prep schools, Ms. Brizendine has to uphold the sterling reputation of the girls school, maintain the $85 million endowment and satisfy what are sure to be uppity parents of Manhattan’s upper-crust who pay approximately $37,000 per year to ensure their daughters receive the best education money can buy.

  • Who:Susan Parker
    What: Director of Admissions and Financial Aid, Spence
    Lowdown: With Spence's alumnae including Gwyneth Paltrow, Jade Jagger and Hugette Clark, Ms. Parker has a difficult job. As the director of admissions, she must select future Spence girls from among New York’s most socially prominent families, ensuring a fresh crop of young ladies to carry on the school’s 119 year long tradition. With application information readily available in French, English, Spanish, French and Chinese, it seems that the girl’s school is working hard to attract an increasingly cosmopolitan crowd, perhaps even - gasp - families from below 60th Street.

    GRADES: K-12
    TUITION: $36,870 (K-8), $37,680 (9-11), $38,180 (12)
    LOCATION: Upper West Side
    Who:John Allman
    What:Head of Trinity
    Salary: n/a
    Lowdown:With Trinity tuition costing an astounding $38,180 this school year, Mr. Allman is expected by parents to run a tight ship. Colson Whitehead, Oliver Stone, Lachlan Murdoch and Truman Capote all attended Trinity, and the 300-year-old school still attracts a preponderance of New York’s top families. Mr. Allman’s leadership was tested last year when an incensed parent, Seema Kalia, began circulating rumors about questionable teacher credentials and financial misconduct by Trinity’s board. Mr. Allman flexed his headmaster muscle: “If you are unwilling to meet with us, I cannot see how the school can continue its relationship with your family,” Mr. Allman wrote in an email quoted by The Daily Beast. The Kalia’s younger child was not accepted into the incoming Kindergarten class.

  • Who:Victor “Tory” Kiam III
    What: President of the Board, Trinity
    Lowdown: Victor “Tory” Kiam serves as head of the Trinity board. The president of RPI Corporation, a holding company with diverse operations, including the Lia Sophia jewelry company, his father was Victor Kiam, the New England Patriots owner whose famous line, “I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company” made Remington razors a household name. Overseeing a $40.4 million dollar endowment, Mr. Kiam has his work cut-out for him. But the board can breathe a sigh of relief: last year Forbes ranked Trinity the top Prep-school in America, noting that 41% of its students head to an Ivy League school, MIT or Stanford.

    TUITION:Day:$32,850; Boarding: $42,350
    BOARDING/DAY: Primarily boarding
    LOCATION: Andover, Mass.

    Who:Barbara Landis Chase
    What: Head of Philips Academy Andover
    Salary: $375,847
    Lowdown: Now starting her 18th year as head of Philip’s Academy, Andover (affectionately known as P.A), Ms. Chase announced that she would resign from her post at the beginning of next year. Asked by Northshore Magazine over the summer if students ever played pranks on her, Ms. Chase answered honestly. “I do know they call me 'Babs' when I am out of earshot. It is not a name I love or have ever been called, except by a few close friends who were teasing me, so I choose to think the nickname is in that spirit,” she responded.

  • Who:Oscar Tang, What: President of the Board, Andover Lowdown: A Chinese-born financier, Mr. Tang has done much for the 233-year old boarding school. He serves as the president of the board, he was a committee co-chair of the Bicentennial Campaign and worked with the Alumni Council. He also made a personal gift of $25 million to the school. His gift has helped Andover with their need-blind admissions policy. According to statements on the school’s website, when all tallied up, Mr. Tang’s gifts to Philip’s Andover Academy are more than $40 million.

    GRADES: 9-12
    TUITION: Day: $32,805; Boarding: $42,605
    BOARDING/DAY: Primarily Boarding
    LOCATION: Exeter, N.H.

    Who: Thomas Hassan
    What: Principal of Phillips Exeter Academy
    Salary: $224,371

    Lowdown: A graduate of Brown and Harvard, Mr. Hassan rules the roost at this top boarding school. The New Hampshire school was founded in 1781, and has churned out future movers and shakers since its inception, including Mark Zuckerberg, who transferred here his junior year. With an $850 million dollar endowment the school can pretty much do whatever it wants… including upholding the formal dress requirement for students. That’s right, you have to wear a tie to your 8am French class. Mr. Hassan’s wife Margaret was previously the majority leader in the New Hampshire state senate.

  • Who: Betsy Dolan, What: Director of College Counseling, Exeter Lowdown: “Keep in mind that the journey is as important as the destination and nowhere is that notion more appropriately applied than to the college process,” the Exeter college counseling website says. The journey, however, seems to land a disproportionate number of Exeter kids at Ivy League schools: 29% over the past three years, to be precise, including acceptances to lowly MIT and Stanford. As director of college counseling at Exeter, Ms. Dolan has to keep those acceptance rates high at top colleges. She comes prepared to battle for her students, however: according to her profile, Ms. Dolan once earned a spot on the United States Field Hockey Squad.

    GRADES: 8-12
    TUITION: Day:$38,420, Boarding: $49,810
    BOARDING/DAY: Primarily boarding
    LOCATION: Groton, Mass.

    Who: Richard Commons
    What:Headmaster Groton
    Salary: $314,421

    Lowdown: Richard Commons oversees the vast empire that is Groton. Groton’s reach expands far beyond the 400-acre campus, with a network of loyal and notable alumni including politicians (FDR attended prep school as did everybody’s favorite DA, Cy Vance), academics and entertainers (Sam Waterson attended, as well) and a $270 million endowment. Mr. Commons found himself at the center of a tricky and tragic debate last year when a student, who was expelled for circulating a homophobic cartoon, killed himself immediately after leaving the school. “I believe that PC [political correctness] led the headmaster of Groton to murder my son," the boys father told ABC news in a voicemail.

  • Who: Ian Gracey, What:Director of Admission, Groton Lowdown: With an acceptance rate of just 19%, Groton is one of the most selective schools in the country. Mr. Garcey questions pubescent 14 year olds about their life goals and aspirations, hoping to select the next crop Grots. A one-time filmmaker turned educator and ultimately admissions officer, Mr. Gracey now holds the keys to this elite boarding school. His uncomfortably self-depricating bio notes that, “Now middle-aged and preoccupied with a time-consuming job as Groton’s director of Admission, Mr. Gracey is content to watch movies rather than produce them.”

    GRADES: 9-12 and postgrad year
    TUITION: Day:$32,575; Boarding: $45,450
    LOCATION: Deerfield, Mass.

    Who:Margarita Curtis
    What: Head of School, Deerfield
    Salary: $313,168 Lowdown: Along with a host of other independent school headmasters and mistresses, Dr. Curtis was named the new head of school in 2006. “As the pace of change and the volume of new knowledge and information reach bewildering proportions, we at Deerfield Academy face the future confidently anchored in the strength of our founding values,” Ms. Curtis writes in her welcome letter on the school’s website. Hopefully the values aren’t quite as puritanical as when the school was founded in 1797. With an endowment of $306 million and diverse array of notable graduates including John McPhee, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Jeffrey Bewkes (the CEO and Chairman of the Board at Time Warner) and Matthew Fox, Ms. Curtis is responsible for overseeing the far-reaching Deerfield dominion.

  • Who: Philip Greer
    What: President of the Board of Trustees, Deerfield
    Lowdown: A staunch supporter of Deerfield, Mr. Greer went on the defensive in 2010 after a speaker at Deerfield supposedly made disparaging remarks about billionaire tea-party supporter David Koch, also a Deerfield grad. “Having known Mr. Koch for over 25 years, I can vouch for the intentions behind his generosity and support of Deerfield. David Koch loves our school,” Mr. Greer wrote in a letter to the school’s newspaper The Scroll. Mr. Koch was named a lifelong trustee of Deerfield in 2010.


  1. Mike says:

    Tom Kelly is the worst leader Horace Mann has ever had and poorly educated. Hearing him speak in public is painful!

  2. 1010 says:

    Dr.Tom Kelly is one of the smartest, insightful, visionary leaders Horace Mann school has ever had .He continues to reach out to parents,students and  faculty and challenges them to strive against bias and bigotry. His efforts to achieve excellence at Horace Mann school is
    evident in the way  he shows concern for the student body. His objective is to create an  intellectual climate that is both stimulating and harmonious for students to learn at. He’s very approachable and delights in seeing family members participate in  different scheduled activities throughout the school year..He never ceases to amaze me. No matter how inclement the weather is you will find Tom Kelly attending one of the many  Horace Mann school functions,smiling and talking with parents and students about their concerns.   
    Horace Mann is fortunate to have a man of  Dr. Kelly’s caliber to be headmaster of it’s school.