- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2000

LOS ANGELES Winning a place in the best prep schools is always hard work, but it is seldom anything like the effort parents and children must make in Los Angeles.

As one father who failed to make the grade into a private prep school said: "I'd have more chance getting Hugh Hefner to have me as a bunny girl at the Playboy Mansion than getting my children into any of these schools."

Unless you are a little Spielberg, Hanks, Cruise or Beatty, or are friends with a big Spielberg, Hanks, Cruise or Beatty, it is nigh on impossible to get one of the coveted places at the five most prized schools. These are Curtis, the Buckley, Brentwood, John Thomas Dye School and the Center for Early Education.

Christopher Coen, 34, a film producer, and his wife, Caroline, moved to Los Angeles from London with their three children, Tatiana, 2, Max, 4, and Indiana, 5.

It transpired that moving to a new country and setting up a production company, Halcyon Films, was easy compared to getting the children into a decent school.

"To start with, we had them all in a place called the Little Red School," says Mrs. Coen. "It's what Californians like to call 'very developmental.' " This means the teachers are all peace and love, and children who are naughty are given a massage.

"The children benefited from it because it wasn't a threatening environment, but in the long run it wasn't suitable and we wanted to get them back into uniform."

So began the grueling, and often humiliating, job of applying to traditional schools. "First, we were advised to visit a consultant who specialized in private schools and would advise us on which ones would suit our children," says Mrs. Coen.

"So there we were. All nervous and new to the game, sitting on the couch and she asked with all sincerity: 'How was Indiana in the uterus? Was she very active in your womb?' " explains Mrs. Coen, still shocked. "And I thought, 'What … has that got to do with the school you're going to match her to?' "

"She matched us to five schools that just happened to be the top five in the area," says Mr. Coen. "I'm not sure if she works to commission."

These self-styled "school assessment psychologists" charge anything from $43 to $430. Then you must send $125 for each child to each school to register your interest in applying," Mr. Coen explains. This nonrefundable fee affords you the privilege of being in the "application pool."

Then the application forms arrived. "They are the longest forms I have ever seen," says Mr. Coen, "with hundreds of questions about our family background, state of our marriage, the situation at home, psychological background and what schools we went to in England."

At this stage, an interview is not even guaranteed. But after another month a number of parents make it through to the next stage: an open day.

"All the eager parents turn up in their best clothes to hear the headmaster as if they are going to a film premiere," says Mrs. Coen.

The Coens made it to stage three: the interviews. "Parents are interviewed on their own and then with the children," says Mr. Coen. "After this, all children aged 4 and above are interviewed on their own."

Although the Coens decided against it, most parents at this stage pay out more funds to hire another psychologist who spends hours with the child preparing them for the one-on-one interview.

"Indiana's interview still quite upsets me when thinking about it," he adds. "There were 10 of us with our children and the headmaster walked in and asked the children to come and look at his tie. All the well-trained little Americans ran up and draped themselves over him. Indiana just clung to me petrified."

Fees for the schools are about $6,500 a year per child. That's for a 5-year-old. "We have been told you have to pretty much double that in annual donations," Mr. Coen says.

The Coen family waited four months to hear how they had done. All five schools rejected them. "We felt very bitter afterwards because we didn't feel as if there was any support," says Mr. Coen.

"In hindsight, we have learned that there were certain things we needed to do," Mrs. Coen says. "First, you have to have a reference from the head of a studio, or you have to be prepared to show your bank balance and be sure it is big."

The Coens have not despaired and, starting this month, Indiana will attend the French Lycee in Los Angeles.

"It's no-nonsense," says Mr. Coen. "You are given a short interview to meet the headmistress and the first thing she says is: 'We do not expect donations.' "

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