Just thinking about private school (a.k.a. independent school) options can feel overwhelming especially in the DC area where there are so many to choose from. Various questions cross parents’ minds such as “Is it worth the cost? Will my child fit in? How different will this school be from public? Co-ed vs. single sex? And should religion play a part in my child’s daily routine? It’s easy to understand how the selection process can be daunting.
And to be honest, is all of this work worth it? The vast majority of parents with children currently in private schools would say that it is and for most students, I agree. Private schools can offer small class sizes, plenty of individualized attention, opportunities for leadership and involvement, and most importantly, a distinct learning environment. Private schools are particular about crafting a specific academic community and you will find that each school has its own individual culture.
Not Just One of Many
Perhaps the most important reason parents consider an alternative to public education is class size. With the exception of Catholic schools, private school class sizes in the 8-18 student range, with some going as low as 4 to 6 per class. In addition, it’s not just small class size that’s appealing, but also the fact that there are more faculty members such as counselors, learning specialists, and college placement advisors.
With small class sizes and a low student to teacher ratio, the faculty is able to build a strong rapport with each student and tailor instruction to maximize success on an individual level. Teachers have more time to develop personal relationships with their students, and, with fewer families to worry about, most administrators are up to date on each individual child. Students report that they feel like they’re part of a small, special community.
A Distinct Culture and Focus for Each Family
Just like each family, you will find that each school has its own set of values. For example, some schools highly value liberal, progressive education while others take a more conservative approach. If you drill down, you will find some schools that value arts education almost as much as academics. While one path at private school is highly rigorous and “all-in,” there are entire schools dedicated to helping students who need a lot of academic support along the way, like Commonwealth Academy in Alexandria. Many private schools have comprehensive programs committed to offering the right support structure for every kind of learner. From here, we see that private schools can offer everything from a rigorous college prep curriculum to a more relaxed, stress-free approach with a large safety net of academic support.
The variety of course and extracurricular offerings that the private school world can offer is significant. For instance, at The Barrie School in Silver Spring, students can start taking equestrian at the age of four. At Washington Waldorf in Bethesda, handiwork like blacksmithing, woodworking, and book binding are integrated into the high school curriculum. At Ad Fontes Academy in Centreville, you can have a hyper-traditional, “old school” Latin and Classics-based education. Some schools shun technology, while at Flint Hill in Oakton every student receives an iPad or laptop. Families can pursue an international baccalaureate education at French International or Washington International, or they can get a straight-forward, rigorous, nationally-recognized education at St. John’s or Gonzaga.
There are also non-traditional education models within the private school world. At Emerson Preparatory in DC, for example, there are no extracurriculars offered at all. Students are given college-level instruction during block periods and are free to pursue athletics, the arts, and even lunch on their own time. The arts-focused education at The New School is so different and groundbreaking, it could become the future of education. This doesn’t even include the wealth of learning differences schools, from The Lab School to Siena, which are specifically tailored to help students with all various learning needs.
A Broad Range of Options
In short, the private school world could not be more different when you look at all of the options available. Although schools are in the business of educating our youth, they are just as diverse as every individual family. From traditional Catholic schools like Holy Cross to schools that include gardening and farm work like Butler and Burgundy Farm, there is a fit for almost every student imaginable. As consumers, parents have the luxury of picking and choosing a school that aligns with their educational philosophy.
On the flip side, private schools also have the luxury of being able to choose which families are a part of its community. Families that are accepted generally value a strong education and are active in their children’s lives. When the parents and the school are on the same page, everything flows more smoothly and students receive the best education they can get. Since each school gets to handpick which families will be involved, you will generally find that students and parents are highly committed at a private school.
In a private school setting, with more teachers per student, it’s easier for faculty to assert that respect, hard work, and friendship are the norm. When a student looks around and sees his peers turning in homework and being trained to respect authority, he is more likely to do the same. Students are expected to concentrate on their studies, and when all of a student’s friends are doing it, it’s much more likely that he’ll see it as a worthy exercise. It’s not to say that all students are buckled down and highly focused; it’s more likely to be the case when parents are investing a serious amount of money each year for education.
A Big Fish in a Small Pond
To many parents, the lure of private schools goes far beyond academics. They see that their child has a greater opportunity to become a leader in a small environment. Whether it’s starting a club or diving deeper into an academic field, private schools have more freedom to adapt their curriculum and allow students to drive their own studies. These leadership opportunities help build a college resume for students starting early. In essence, it’s easier to be a “big fish in a small pond”. Opportunities for leadership skills can translate into confidence and real world executive and social experience.
There is often more flexibility with extracurriculars and athletics as well. With a smaller student pool, it’s easier to make a sports team and still compete at high level in independent and preparatory leagues. In addition to teams that require tryouts, most private schools also have “no-cut” sports so that everyone is given the chance to play. Students who would not make their local public school team can enjoy the experience of competitive high school sports. Many have the chance to excel when they wouldn’t make the cut in a pool of 2000 students. Private schools in general have less bureaucracy and red tape, which allows for a lot more adaptation and flexibility when it comes to both academics and extracurriculars.
Private School – Not For Every Student
Although private schools come with many advantages, they can also be costly. The bottom line is that although most every student can benefit from a more individualized classroom environment, there are overachievers who do perfectly well in any type of environment. Some thrive in large classrooms and high schools of 2,500 without skipping a beat.
As parents, we must ask ourselves if the cost (some independent schools carry hefty price tags of up to $30,000 per year) is worth it. They only way to know is to actually visit schools in the area to see what they can offer and to then weigh those factors against your child’s personality and your pocket book.