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Exclusive Prep Schools Feel an Enrollment Crunch, Step Up Recruiting

July 03, 1988|LEE MITGANG | Associated Press

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. — Perhaps the least of the challenges facing the private school that proclaims itself "the pearl of the Midwest" is explaining to parents why it's worth the $12,000 annual tuition.

The 300-acre campus of Cranbrook Kingswood School outside Detroit has the requisite prep-school luxuries: a hockey arena, bowling alleys, indoor and outdoor tennis courts where players' strokes are videotaped, and an old-time swimming hole called Lake Jonah, so named because it's shaped like a whale.

For its 800 students, each day is an aesthetic feast--from the tapestries and art deco light fixtures down to the very doorknobs and lunchroom chairs. These, and practically everything else, were designed or influenced by famous Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, who lived and taught here from 1925 to his death in 1950.

But just as the virtues of top private schools like this aren't only skin-deep, neither are the problems.

With the school-age population declining and prep school tuitions sometimes rivaling Ivy League colleges, officials worry about future enrollments and cast their recruiting nets from coast to coast.

Enrollment Up 9.7%

The nation's approximately 1,700 independent private schools, those not receiving tax or church funds, enroll about 600,000 students, up 9.7% over the last decade.

But the number of students taking private school admissions tests dropped by 14% in the last two years, according to the National Assn. of Independent Schools.

A few years ago, Cranbrook Kingswood could almost fill its classes with students just from Michigan and surrounding Midwestern states. Now the school recruits from as far away as southern Florida and California.

"If we didn't do that kind of thing we wouldn't be in good shape in five years because of the demographics. The best schools are out there all the time," said admissions director Bruce Kridler, whose travel budget has risen from $500 to $15,000 in recent years, and who now makes routine visits to 35 cities in 17 states.

Like other prep schools, Cranbrook Kingswood has constantly fought a perception of elitism. The formerly all-white, predominantly Episcopalian school is now 25% Jewish and 25% "persons of color" including Indians, Asian-Americans and blacks, a change due largely to aggressive minority student recruiting and a $15.8-million endowment that helps make sizable scholarships possible.

Cranbrook Kingswood is the most expensive boarding school in Michigan, and among the most expensive in the Midwest. But it is a bargain compared with the priciest Eastern schools.

Leland Academy in Franklin, Mass., is the nation's most expensive private college preparatory school, charging $18,500 for a year's tuition, fees, room and board. Cranbrook Kingswood, at $12,000, ranks 44th.

Another stubborn problem is finding minority teachers. Of 90 upper-school faculty members, four are black, one is Hispanic, one is Asian-American.

But such challenges seem remote at 8 a.m. as English teacher Peter Fayroian poured the coffee in his carpeted classroom for a dozen students, about half the size of most public school classes.

Classic Literature

He kicked off a discussion on the religious and moral implications of Herman Hesse's classic "Siddhartha": "Should we prepare to come to the presence of the holy on a motorcycle?" he asked. "What should be the relationship between technology and the holy?"

In Russ Conner's biology lab, nine juniors toil on a typically complex question: At what wavelengths does chlorophyll in plants absorb the most light?

"They use a college text," Conner said. "And I don't give them a whole lot of answers."

"Academically I've never seen anything like it," said Jerry Rubino from nearby Sterling Heights, Mich., whose daughter Lisa is an 11th-grade day student. "Public school kids might come home at 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon, but my daughter typically isn't home until 6 or 7 at night, and then she buries herself in the books."

It's a school rule that the 270 boarding students must be in their rooms studying every evening Sunday through Thursday.

Upon graduation, each student's name is hand-carved into the oak walls of Alumni Court. Those names include such luminaries as Sen. Alan K. Simpson (D-Wyo.); Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers; poet Brad Leithauser; and New Republic editor Michael Kinsley.

Nonetheless, schools that tout themselves as training grounds for future leaders in an increasingly diverse world simply can't ignore the issues of race and ethnicity any longer, said school president and acting director Lillian Bauder.

But private schools remain overwhelmingly white, according to the National Assn. of Independent Schools' statistics. In 1986-87, independent school enrollments were 4.7% black, 1.8% Hispanic, 4.7% Asian-American and 0.1% Native American.

"I recruit in Cabrini Green," said Kridler, referring to an all-black Chicago housing project, "and I go to Mexican-American neighborhoods.

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