Cathy's World: Hollywood schools

By CATHERINE SEIPP  |  Nov. 27, 2002 at 11:14 AM
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LOS ANGELES, Nov. 27 (UPI) -- Like everyone else, I read about Jack Grubman's embarrassing private school maneuvering earlier this month with the requisite smug sense of superiority.

Unfortunately, my schadenfreude at the former Salomon Smith Barney telecom analyst's downfall was tempered by the embarrassing fact that I myself was lured into the private school shuffle a couple of years ago.

Yes, I tried (and, thank God, failed, but not without a certain amount of humiliation) to get my daughter into a prestigious girls' middle-school here in Los Angeles. But more about that in a minute.

The Grubman affair has hit a nerve among anyone who's witnessed the desperate angling of privileged parents to get their offspring into high-status schools.

Government investigators are currently deciding whether a $1 million philanthropic donation by Salomon's parent Citigroup was used to gain Grubman's twins admission to the 92nd Street Y preschool on New York's Upper East Side.

Here in Hollywood, the process is just as torturous, not to mention irrational.

A screenwriter who lives in the Hollywood Hills, at least a 45-minute drive from the posh Circle of Children preschool in Santa Monica, once told me that he was doing a script for a producer on the condition that the producer get the writer's 2-year-old son into the school.

But wouldn't the distance be rather inconvenient?

"Well, it's like whatever you can't have, you want," the screenwriter shrugged. "Also, I had a falling out with another producer who was going to get us into Center for Early Education. So I thought I'd better have a backup."

For those not familiar with these schools, Circle of Children -- nicknamed Circle of Rich Kids -- is where the children of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep and Steven Spielberg learned their ABCs. Not so long ago it was regarded as just a nice, convenient neighborhood school. "Unfortunately," sighed one father, "the director became such a climber."

The Center for Early Education -- nicknamed the Center for Early Materialism -- in West Hollywood is heavy with entertainment industry atmosphere. Murals of Disney characters (courtesy of Disney chief and Center parent Michael Eisner) decorate the walls.

A one-way mirror for observing the children -- the school was founded by Jungian psychoanalysts -- is in keeping with the show biz set's therapy-as-a-way-of-life philosophy.

And, just like in Hollywood, aspirants are advised right off they probably won't make it.

"We are accepting fewer and fewer new families," the application warned. "Not every family that submits an application will be interviewed." (But the application fee will be cashed.)

School brochures constantly emphasize the "diversity" of the student body -- but there are limits on how much diversity Hollywood parents can really handle.

UCLA's private University Elementary School -- UES--, for instance, is so sought after that parents have sued when their children didn't get in. Because it's the laboratory school of the university's education department, UES tries to approximate the ethnic composition of the Los Angeles Unified School District in its classrooms.

I asked one mother, a film director, why she therefore didn't just send her child to a real L.A. public school and save the several thousands of dollars of tuition?

"Very funny," she snorted.

The accepted status quo at these tony private schools is that celebrities come first. Still, a decent ratio of non-celebrities to celebrities has to be maintained, because someone has to do the actual volunteer work that's the backbone of every school.

Not that civilians are always reliable. "You know what? I just can't sit through the meetings," one mother told me. "There was one that was a 2-hour conversation about napkins."

The thought of your child associating with celebrities' children may be heady, but in truth it's not always a satisfying experience.

One mother told me how a few years ago, Daryl Strawberry's daughter not only didn't show up for a special trick-or-treat Halloween playdate with a Buckley classmate (Buckley is in L.A.'s pricey West Side), but her parents never even called to cancel or explain.

Another mother said she was faintly repulsed when one of her son's friends, at a Center for Early Education fair, didn't want to get a hamburger until Jack Nicholson began manning the hamburger booth.

Even those in the entertainment industry sometimes tire of the Hollywood aspect of their child's school. All Saints' School, a preschool run by All Saints' Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills, has twice-a-year father's Saturdays, during which fathers can presumably bond by sharing the masculine view on spitting up and such.

"But I know these guys did NOT like being with other dads in the business," one former All Saints' mother recalled. "Like, if there's two directors and a producer and a writer in the room -- it's awkward!"

Then there comes a point where the insularity of these privileged playgrounds becomes uncomfortably clear.

One former Circle of Children father, a writer, told me he still remembers the words of an agent when the writer said he planned to send his son to the local public elementary school.

The agent was appalled. "Do you really want your son going to school with the gardener's children?" he asked.

Anyway, back to my own brief private school misadventure. Two years ago, I was making more money than I am now and was briefly deluded that my daughter, then 11, should go to Marlborough, an elite girls school in the Hancock Park area of Los Angeles.

Although Hancock Park is a lovely, leafy, old-money neighborhood, its (relative) proximity to downtown can make it seem rather gritty to the Hollywood set, who often stay safely insulated on the West Side.

The screenwriter mom who gave us a parents' tour chatted approvingly about how her daughter was now exposed to "the real world," thanks to Marlborough.

"Her first week here she left her wallet on top of her backpack in the hall and it was stolen!" our guide said happily. "She'd certainly never had anything stolen at her previous school."

Hmm, I thought, where's she going with this?

"Marlborough has such a wonderful, diverse group of scholarship girls," the mom explained. "So that was certainly a life lesson for my daughter!"

"You know," she added, "a lot of our girls have never even seen an apartment before -- they think everyone lives in houses. This school expands their world."

Maybe, I whispered sotto voce to my ex-husband, he could offer tours of his place as a field trip.

Our guide then mentioned that the Marlborough middle-school program requires a class in sex-ed. "And it's just wonderful! They talk about anal sex, oral sex, ANY kind of sex!"

I suggested that perhaps this didn't really seem like an academic sort of class.

"But if you don't want to talk to them about sex, this is just a great opportunity!" the Marlborough mom said cheerfully.

For some reason, I still wanted my daughter to go to Marlborough even after all that. But she wasn't even waitlisted, and -- caught up in a dizzy delusion of social-climbing, private-school fantasy -- I was heartbroken.

My daughter, though, didn't care, although she was curious to read the rejection letter.

"Huh," she said, tossing it aside after doing so. "Well, screw them."

I wish I could say that my own attitude had been half as practical. But that's the thing about trying to get into these exclusive private schools. If you weren't nuts at the beginning of the process, you will be by the end.

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