Meet a Dad, Paul Baly, is a career-long educator, and part of the Gowan Group, an innovative Independent School consulting firm comprised of of former school leaders–people who have taught classes, coached teams, advised students and parents and as such know young people.
Paul shares with us why he became an independent school consultant, why you may consider getting one, and also what has changed in the admissions process in recent years.
Scroll down to learn more about Paul, his love of the lower Hudson Valley area, and why it’s just about the best place one could choose to live, and everything you need to start thinking about for independent school admissions.
Can you please tell us a bit about yourself personally? Names/ages of kids, etc.?
I’m a Dad to three great kids – a 17 year old boy and two girls aged 13 and 11. I try to play a hands-on role in their lives, coaching their teams and attending their performances. Now that I no longer commute to the City, I love the opportunity to drive them to and from school and send them off for a good day.. At this point, they are all incredibly busy and social, so much of the quality time has shifted to car rides (the ATM and Uber driver motif rings true!!). I’m also an avid runner and run lots of half-marathons around the area and run the NYC Marathon every 2-3 years or so.
Where do you live and what do you love about your neighborhood?
I live in a rivertown, and I think that this lower Hudson Valley area is just about the best place one could choose to live. We really get the best of all worlds here with great natural beauty, punctuated on either side by the River and the Sound. There’s tons of activity for an outdoor enthusiast like me, yet there’s a metropolitan vibe with so many unique restaurants and bars and cultural opportunities, and it’s so quick and easy to get in and out of the city if you are searching for more. The people reflect the same dynamism. There are so many smart and interesting people with exciting careers, yet we’ve all chosen to live outside the City. I find people to be so down to earth and focussed on their family and kids. It all makes for a great existence where there is always something interesting to experience and great people connect with.
Please tell us about Gowan Placement?
The Gowan Group is an Independent School consulting firm based in Fairfield County but with consultants nation-wide. Chris Pryor is a Westport resident, former Head of School and the founder and president of the company. Gowan is comprised of a group of former Independent School Heads and leaders. Up until this year, Gowan primarily consulted with and supported private/independent schools and Boards with their enrollment management, strategic planning, executive search, and professional development. Throughout the years, however, families called asking for guidance and support in the private and boarding school admissions processes. This year, we launched Gowan Placement. There are four Placement Partners who work directly with families, helping them navigate the kindergarten through twelfth grade private and boarding school admissions’ process. One interesting aspect about Gowan is that it’s the namesake of an iconic Independent School teacher named Don Gowan. He was a teacher at Kent School in Connecticut that changed many students’ lives for the better. He stood for integrity and believed that each student had the ability to achieve more than they ever believed by being true to themselves and finding that thing inside them that helped them shine. He helped instill this fire in students by developing trusting relationships with them and helping them find the best within themselves.
How did you get involved with Gowan Placement? What is your professional background?
I’ve worked in private schools all over the east coast for my entire career. I was an English teacher and was the head coach of a lacrosse team early in my career. I’ve been a middle school Division Head/Principal for the past 15 – most recently at Columbia Grammar and Prep School in the Upper West Side. I love the energy in schools. They are such dynamic places, but as a principal, I was pulled in a lot of different directions, and there was a lot of distance between the kids and families and me.
Ironically, Gowan’s founder Chris and I went to the same small college in Virginia, and we both played lacrosse there. While we never overlapped, we have a handful of common friends, so he and I hit it off immediately. I had worked in several K-8 schools in my career, and one of my favorite parts of my work was seeing how kids blossomed and matured through the secondary school admissions process, so placement is an ideal fit for me. I also work as a consultant with the Gowan Placement, so I’m able to still engage with the strategic aspect of school work while working more closely with students and families, helping them connect with the best sides of themselves and gain admission to the school that represents the best fit for them.
How do you know if you need to hire an independent school consultant?
Anyone who is serious about getting into a private school should seek expert advice and counsel. New York City, Westchester, and Connecticut are home to some of the most storied and sought after schools in the country, and New England has the most and the best Boarding Schools in the world. This means that competition for spots in these schools is extremely competitive with a multi-faceted, multi-step, intense process. The process is also somewhat opaque, and there are more qualified candidates than open positions at most schools. It’s critical that families position their children ideally in order to capture the attention of the admissions’ teams. There is so much less information and fewer resources exist for the private school admissions process than for college or grad school. For instance, schools don’t publicize the average standardized test scores or profile of accepted students or the percentage of applications that are accepted. Families want their 11-15 year old children to shine their best through the application, essay, and interview process, and often at 4-5 schools. We help demystify the process for families and coach students to feel confident and prepared to be their best.
What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in the past 5-10 years in the high school admissions process?
Just like colleges, schools are questioning the role of entrance tests with more and more schools who are test optional and even a small handful who won’t accept them at all. The pandemic obviously disrupted a great deal. City schools saw a decline in enrollment, and smaller and sometimes lesser known schools in the suburbs saw a boom. It was hard to predict who might be successful where.
One element of the process that is fun and exciting is the increase of students sending videos to complement their admissions files. Whereas performers and athletes formerly send in videos to enhance their files, more and more students are seeing success submitting videos of themselves engaged in their interests and passions. I recently heard about a student who was on the fence on paper at one of the most competitive boarding schools in the country, yet her video that highlighted her knitting hobby made the difference! These help humanize students and show schools that they are admitting a versatile, compelling person who will impact the school in and out of the classroom.
What do you find the most challenging and most rewarding parts of being an independent school consultant?
The most challenging is aligning expectations with what’s likely. It’s almost impossible to predict what will happen, and so many kids and parents become enamored with one school or one vision of success. It’s so important that they are process oriented and explore all of their options – not only the schools with the greatest name recognition. So, just like with my own children, I want to encourage people to follow their dreams, yet I also want to keep everyone grounded.
Everyone always finds and gets into the best school for them, so that’s the most rewarding part. After going through this intense process with children and families, students always land somewhere great, and I’ve been there with them throughout the process and get to share some of their joy and excitement about their futures.
Gowan Placement has a deep knowledge and expertise, if you could give someone applying one piece of advice, what would it be?
Be as open and process oriented as possible. Explore different sites and open houses, and really think deeply about your family values and where your child will thrive. And listen to and engage with your child along the way. Make sure that he or she has a significant voice in the process. It will help mature them, and it will help them really own their part of the process. I really believe that if done right, the admissions process itself is a profound educational experience itself, not just a means to an end.
Any favorite admission success stories you would like to share with us?
My favorite story was a student who entered the process with a one track mind. He wanted what he, and many, believed was the most competitive school, and he was very type-a. He and his family didn’t even want to look at another school. I convinced them to spread their net a bit wider, and at the very least, explore other schools in case he didn’t get into his first choice. They did so, and he was accepted to all four schools where he applied, but he chose to attend another school that he came across in his exploration because he thought the kids there were much more down to earth and he was able to play sports there. He also figured out that his first school was less appealing than he originally thought.
How do you balance work and being a parent?
It’s intense, of course, but I love it. I find the weeks during the school year to sometimes feel like 14-15 hour days, but I try to have certain traditions that are sacrosanct, and that allows for connection and fun that lightens the intensity. I like to do dinner at the table, big family breakfasts on the weekends, movie nights, and I love the community of other parents and friends to help out. Whether it’s carpooling or coming together on Friday for pizza with our kids, I’m lucky to have a great crew of moms and dads to share in the ups and downs of it all.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve gotten from another parent?
I was so used to being the one giving the advice to parents when I was a principal, and it’s one of those, “do as I say; not as I do” as advice is so much easier to give than to apply to real life. Someone recently told me that you don’t want your kids to peak in their adolescence. I love it. We have tried to make childhood so ideal, and it’s important to remember ourselves and to help our kids take the long game. They have these big wonderful lives to live beyond us.
What do you like to do to relax/have fun for yourself and as a family?
It almost always involves food! We love to go out and grab a meal together, especially on a random weeknight to have a little indulgence in the midst of our business. Like I said above, we have a great network of families, and we frequently get together to eat and watch games. When not with the kids, I really love to get into the explore the city and find a great restaurant or a performance to go see. We were deprived for a few years, so it’s great to be able to soak it all up now.
We love to support local businesses. What are your fave places when you are in the area to:
Grab coffee: Coffee Labs in Tarrytown
Workout: I love to run the trails up in Ward Pound Ridge and the Trail Mix Series is a great set of lower key trail races I like doing with a bunch of friends. Immortal Fitness in Pleasantville is an amazing gym concept.
Go on a date night: Hard to choose just one. I recently had a great experience at Goosefeathers in Tarrytown, but we keep going back to Farmer and the Fish in North Salem. Their scallop salad is incredible.
Go out for a guys night: I try to go to the Capitol Theater Port Chester as much as possible with friends, and we always go to Bar Taco beforehand.
Go out to dinner as a family: We love Picnik in Tarrytown – amazing bbq.
Get your hair done: There’s this great place in Nyack that does old fashioned shaves called DSZ Barbers. I go there once or twice a year, usually combined with a guys night.
Have fun as a family: We have had a lot of fun playing golf at Golf 18 in the Westchester Mall.