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AT COLUMBIA'S GRADE SCHOOL, A BLOT ON A BOLD EXPERIMENT
Columbia Grade School

When Columbia University opened a private elementary school on 110th Street and Broadway in the fall of 2003, it was touted as the embodiment of an almost utopian vision: five floors of gleaming high-tech classrooms presided over by gifted, well-paid teachers serving a student body composed equally of children of Columbia employees and children from the Morningside Heights community.

But just one year after angering the community by admitting four children outside of the lottery that had been set up to choose local youngsters, Columbia has infuriated members of its own faculty by turning away dozens of children whose parents had been led to believe that their acceptance was assured.

More than 60 children applied for the 30 kindergarten slots earmarked for Columbia offspring, and as a result dozens of families have become losers in a game of musical chairs they hadn't realized they were playing.

In an effort to help remedy the situation, Alan Brinkley, the university's provost, announced last week that a few more faculty children would be admitted to the School at Columbia University, as it is known. He also said that a faculty task force had been created to address admissions policy. But considerable bitterness lingers over what several Columbia professors described as the university's "breach of trust."

"It's certainly a mess," Mr. Brinkley acknowledged in an interview. "I think this year is the worst because the notice came late and people weren't prepared. Some people will continue to feel betrayed, I'm sure, but I'm hoping we'll create a reasonable process for dealing with this situation."

As a result of the latest wave of distress surrounding the admissions procedures, the School at Columbia, which was initially conceived as a powerful tool to help the university recruit and keep top-flight professors, may risk repelling the very people it was intended to attract.

"If we were accepted now, I would not choose to go," said Veronica J. Hinton, an assistant professor of neuropsychology at Columbia's Health Sciences Campus, whose son, Alex, was placed on the waiting list in November. "It's been handled so poorly, and now there's so much ill will that I wouldn't want my child in that environment."

Ms. Hinton, who considers herself "as happy an employee as you can find," was delighted five years ago when Columbia announced plans to build an elementary school three blocks from her home.

In a May 2000 letter that sent ripples of excitement throughout the university, Jonathan R. Cole, who was then the provost, wrote that "admission to the School for children would be 'as of right,' except in those rare cases where the School is unable to meet the special needs of a particular child. This would eliminate the time, anxiety and uncertainty associated with application to either the best public or independent schools in the City." In addition, children of Columbia employees would pay only half the regular tuition, which this year topped $23,000.

"When they were in the process of trying to get the school up and running, they had asked a lot of parents of babies if they would come to community board meetings and advocate for the school," recalled Ms. Hinton, who was a single mother at the time. "So I dragged Alex to all of these meetings, because I just thought it was going to be so positive."

Even after being approached about a position at the National Institutes of Health and marrying a man who lived in Washington, near the N.I.H., Ms. Hinton chose to remain at Columbia, in part because she believed that her son was assured of a high-quality, subsidized education.

But on Nov. 15, Ms. Hinton was stunned to receive a letter sent to the university community by Mr. Brinkley, announcing that the school was oversubscribed and that admission for Columbia children would now be determined by lottery, with preference given to faculty and a ceiling on how many could be admitted from any one division of the university. The next week, Alex was placed on the waiting list, along with dozens of other Columbia children.

"It was the day before Thanksgiving, and at that point, it was too late to apply to the top public schools in the city," Ms. Hinton recalled. "So now I'm in this crazy scramble to get applications." And without the tuition benefit she had been counting on, she added, "there's no way I can afford private school."

Another group denied admission for the first time were siblings of students already enrolled at the school.

"We were absolutely blindsided," said Stephan Mayer, an associate professor of clinical neurology whose wife also teaches in the medical school and whose son, Philip, was attending the school when his daughter, Catherine, was wait-listed. "I have a kid going into kindergarten, and we've been told for three years she can go. It was devastating."

In the interview, Mr. Brinkley acknowledged that he should have acted much earlier to make it clear to Columbia parents that there was no guarantee that their children would be accepted by the school. But he noted that in late September, after realizing the school might have a numbers problem, he sent a letter to the Columbia community stating that "it is certainly possible that in any given year, in any given grade level, there will also not be room for all the children of faculty who apply."

"In everyone's defense, no one anticipated the level of demand," Mr. Brinkley said. "We don't have accurate information about how many children the faculty and staff have because they only show up on our records if they're on Columbia health insurance, and a lot of them aren't." He added that, to his knowledge, the university had never surveyed the faculty to determine how many children might apply.

By late October, when the magnitude of the problem became clear, the provost began developing the new admissions policy, announced mid-November, in consultation with the university senate.

But last month, after receiving a blizzard of correspondence from angry faculty members, the provost appointed the admissions task force and agreed to admit members of two groups that had been left on the outside by his November policy: siblings of children already attending the school and children of teachers at the school.

The eight-member task force met for the first time on Jan. 28. Mr. Brinkley is not immediately revealing the identity of the task force members to protect them from the inevitable complaints from parents.

Though mollifying everyone will not be easy, at least one member on the task force, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in deference to the provost's desire that the group's members not be publicly identified, is confident that the committee is up to the challenge of devising an inventive solution.

"Brinkley and those guys and Roxie Smith, the associate provost, they drag their feet; they should have responded earlier," the task force member said. "But the good news is that they have a task force now full of independent spirits, people who are capable of bold ideas."

Correction: February 27, 2005, Sunday:

An article in the Neighborhood Report pages on Feb. 6 about the private elementary school operated by Columbia University referred incorrectly to the university's attempts to predict the demand for places in the school. The university indeed conducted studies to estimate the number of faculty children who were likely to apply.





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