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Two years ago: finding schools in LA

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Moving to LA

This time two years ago was quite a significant milestone moment for us as it was a rude awakening that this LA “thing” might actually happen.

Cut back two years and six weeks ago Mr H got a call from an old boss with four questions:

  1. How’s the family?
  2. Do you still hate your job?
  3. Would you consider moving to LA?
  4. How quickly can you get here?

Then I got the call from Mr H:

“I’m about to rock your world,” he said. “F called,” he started. We were down at our beach house on the South Coast of NSW getting ready for a long weekend with friends. We’d prepared the menu, bought the grog and I was out in the car with a friend heading to the Bottlo to get a couple of extra bottles of champagne—just in case as we hate to run out.

“Oh my god,” I interrupted. “Is he in town? Coming to town? It’s OK, he can have the spare room…” as I proceeded to play musical beds and musical rooms so we could fit in an extra person…

“…And I’ve got seafood which he loves so it’ll be all good.”

“He wants to know if you would move to LA,” he said once I’d done with my ranting.

“What? Sorry? Huh? LA? I hate LA. Remember? Been there done that never coming back?”

“I knew you’d say that.”

It’s true Mr H and I went to LA with my best friend and her boyfriend when we were all of 19 or 20. LA didn’t really do it for us and I had absolutely no desire to go back. So why would I want to live there?

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.”

By this time my girlfriend, sitting in the car next to me is wondering what on earth is going on. I looked at her and shook my head.

Digesting the concept

It was a crazy weekend of utter shock that some 36 hours ago we just got that call to move to Hollywood and Mr H had gone back up to Sydney to attend a video call to get briefed on the job. The job was to run the post-production division of a multinational company. He would be based in Hollywood and he’d have to work with all the studios and production houses. To say the weekend was a daze with endless workshopping, dreaming, reality checking and more workshopping was an understatement. And let’s just say there was a LOT of champagne (and wine) drunk as we all tried to come to terms with the prospect of moving to LA. Those extra bottles came in handy—we didn’t run out.

We too’d and fro’d with the pros and the cons but first practically had to come into play.

Schools in LA

We thought we’d be very systematic about the possible move: pinpoint work (Hollywood), find a decent school not too far away then find somewhere to live.  Sounds easy enough.

Contrary to how it looks on Beverly Hills 90210 and the OC the LA public school system is in shambles—especially as you get to Middle and High School. There are a few good school districts in South Pasadena, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and the Bay areas but they either require a long commute to Hollywood for Mr H or require me to sell my body to pay the rent in Santa Monica or Beverly Hills. Then you have to be in the right zone for the “better” school in that area.  (Read: it’s not as straight forward as let’s rent a house in Santa Monica and we can go to Lincoln Middle School.  Thankfully we didn’t find that out the hard way.) The public school system in LA is not easy to navigate—and when you have finding a house in the zone is like playing the lotto.

So as I was coming to terms with the fact that US high schools aren’t like they are on TV and my kids weren’t going to have a Breakfast Club/Sixteen Candles/Ferris Bueller/90210 high school experience moving to LA started to look a little bleak.  Both kids are thriving at great schools in Sydney and education is so important to my family (my dad drilled that into me from a young age) that we’re not going to a below-standard school just because Hollywood is knocking on our door.

(Now I wonder if they’ll get the chance to have a College experience like Pitch Perfect?)

I emailed a few people and the resounding response was private school. There go my dreams to be rid of private school fees and enjoy my life. Plus, America being America, private schools aren’t subsidised so we got a rude shock to see not only weren’t we saving any money but it would cost us more money than it does in Sydney.

I knew the prospect of a Hollywood lifestyle was too good to be true.

But I ploughed ahead and started researching websites to see what schools we liked and what we didn’t. We rated them and I started the arduous task of ringing admissions directors. It was now May 2013 and applications closed in late December 2012 and offers were made earlier in the year. There’s a shortage of places at LA private schools—because the public ones are in such a state—so all of a sudden our dream of moving to Hollywood was shattered.  No school=no move.

Because of the time difference I would set the alarm for 4:00am Sydney time (which was 11am the day before in LA) and start making calls. It’s pretty hard to pitch your family and your kids to an Admissions Director with a full enrolment at that time in the morning.

Some were helpful, others felt for me, others didn’t care.

I got traction at two schools. A great start. The next hurdle was sitting the ISEE test. What on god’s earth is that? Well it’s a standardised test (Independent School Entrance Exam) that most of the private schools use to test would-be students.

Can’t we just skip that bit? How do we do it in Sydney?  My  kids are doing well in school, here are copies of standardised tests they’ve completed here…

Well as matter of fact there is a location that administers the test in Sydney.  It was a pain in the backside booking two appointments at the same time because the system would only allow one student at a time (I guess what are the chances of two kids wanted to sit an entrance exam for private school in the US in Sydney?). There was no one to talk to either at the location or at the head office (another alarm set for 2am this time to try to reach someone in the New York office). Nothing about this stage was even remotely easy.

So Mr H took the day off work, we all went in hoping they’d say that both kids could sit the test together—no luck—so I sat with one while Mr H took the other home then came back again to swap kids while I waited the entire day given it was a ruling that the parent or guardian had to stay with the child the whole time. And the ID rules were so stringent it was as stressful as anything formal here in the US. One thing wrong and you have to reschedule—and pay for it all over again as there’s a cancellation fee involved don’t you know? A day I’ll never get back. An experience I’d rather not have to relive. But I was so proud of my kids, they did it.

It wasn’t until we got to LA that we heard that kids are tutored for this exam and some take it a few times until they get the score they want to give them a better chance to get into their school of choice.

This was my first glimpse into the privatised world that America is—there is a company making money for a service (which comes at a fee) for everything.

Playing the waiting game

With two schools secured (with no promises even now there’s room for one or both of them) and another interview secured at a school for my daughter it was time to look into public schools.

Public schools have open days where you can come and check them out. I was still in Australia for these so via our relocation agent we put calls into Santa Monica and Beverly Hills both of whom said they were so overworked they didn’t have time for private tours. Tell me that didn’t put me right off.  And they’re supposed to be the good ones.

 

Such an emotional rollercoaster that whole “will we move; won’t we move”, “can we move; can’t we move” thing.  At least when there’s little or no choice like “normal” expat assignments you know the city is geared up for you. Shanghai, for example, has plenty of expat housing (not all good by the way), a number of international schools and the company you’re moving with has some degree of leverage because they’re responsible for not just your school fees but a number of others.

What I remember most about this time was how applying for schools was anything but straight forward. Simply having a place was not a guarantee of entry. You had to pass the test but you just don’t know what that (or those) tests are.

It’s a bit like a Seinfeld episode:

“Great, so you’ve got room for both my kids?”

“We have the flexibility to admit your kids but first you have to apply.”

“So is it worth my applying if there’s no room?”

“We have room but you have to apply.”

“Oh so there’s room for both my kids so if I apply, based on what you’ve seen and what I’ve told you then there’s a good chance we’re in.”

“Go ahead and complete the application and proceed with the tests, we’ll have a better idea of what our enrolments will look like once you’ve done those and we’ve interviewed you.”

Wowsers … I hope passing school isn’t as hard as getting in.

Nonetheless we hopped on a plane bound for LA not sure what to expect when we got there.

xx It Started in LA xx

Next week … looking for somewhere to live

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