It’s now the start of a new private school admissions season, which means a flurry of activity around our offices as families start exploring school options and preparing their children for entrance exams. Parents ask me all the time why they should consider private school; why not just stick with public school?
Private school may appeal to parents for a number of reasons: class size, curriculum, class offerings, development of social skills and values, school grounds, teacher quality, parent involvement, and student body. If you attended private school yourself, it may be a no-brainer. But if you attended public school and will have to make serious financial sacrifices to swing a private school tuition, it requires a bit more contemplation. What really sets a private school apart from public school? What would make the hefty tuition and application process truly worth it?
As parents, we can’t underestimate the importance of the overall quality of our children’s schooling experience. School is where our children will spend MOST of their childhood waking hours. That means that unless you opt for homeschooling, your child’s teachers and classmates will realistically play a bigger role in shaping the individual he or she becomes than his or her family. The learning opportunities and nurturing our children receive at school for their intellectual, social, and emotional development will greatly influence the opportunities they accesses throughout their lives. This is no trivial decision!
Of course any parent would want their child’s school to be warm and inviting. But the question of where to send your child to school goes much deeper than a pretty campus with shiny classrooms and well-manicured playgrounds. The most crucial factors I see in selecting a school are: class size, teacher and administrator accountability, and school day structure.
Class size: not one size fits all
Let me start with class size. I have run a learning center that provides one-on-one instruction for over a decade now, because I am a firm believer in the value of personal attention in education. When I started my career as a teacher in a public school with 20+ children in my classroom, I experienced firsthand the difficulty of addressing individual needs in a classroom. Frustrated by these challenges, I offered individualized instruction before school, at lunchtime, and after school for my students. I was amazed at the progress my students made – not only in academics, but in their confidence and social skills, too. Giving these students the opportunity to connect with me on a one-on-one basis and receive even just 20-30 minutes of personal attention for their specific learning needs made them more engaged in learning and more successful in the classroom.
No matter the demographics of your neighborhood school, the truth is inescapable that class size makes a great difference on a child’s learning experience. Public schools may have 20:1 student to teacher ratio in a small class and up to a 40:1 or more in a larger class setting. The bigger the class size, the less time for student participation, interaction with teachers, and attention to individual interests and needs. This all affects the level of support for critical thinking skills, development of character, and social skills, which we know are a crucial foundation for success in any future society.
Not all teachers are created equally.
When I think of what had the greatest impact on my personal growth through my school years, I think of the incredible teachers I was fortunate to have. From preschool through college, my teachers brought the world to my classrooms, made literature and history come alive, and fostered meaningful relationships with me that developed my confidence and knowledge of my individual strengths. And yet, the one year in third grade where my teacher quit after Halloween and left us with a series of substitute teachers set me behind in math all the way through middle school; and the chemistry teacher who just mailed it in in tenth grade, left me feeling like a failure and completely disinterested in the sciences. There is no disputing the impact a teacher can have on the students he or she spends a school year leading.
Teaching in a public school, I saw teachers who were super organized, devoted to their students, and driven to create engaging learning experiences for their students. However, I also witnessed teachers who were comfortably tenured, completely demotivated, and in all honesty quite disdainful of children. The teacher tenure system in the public schools means that teachers – who in my mind have one of the greatest responsibilities of all professionals – lack the accountability of other professionals when it comes to job performance. Tenured teachers can sit in their classrooms and be completely neglectful of their students with little to no repercussions. On the flip side, the emphasis on tenure in public schools means that the younger and more motivated teachers are the first to be “pink slipped” or threatened with losing their jobs.
What stands out as an invaluable difference in private schools is the ability to hand select teachers and hold them accountable to a high standard of performance expectations. Could you bear to have your child stuck with an uninspired tenured public school teacher for a whole school year? The loss of learning and personal development opportunities over the course of a school year is something I do not wish for any child. Our children should enjoy learning with teachers who love what they do and share their passion with their students, and school officials should be immediately responsive to any situation in which a teacher is not performing at this standard. While this is not the reality in public schools, it is the implicit promise a private school provides.
Reading, Writing, Arithmetic…what about Art, Music, Technology, and PE?!
A private school campus does not have to be the pinnacle of contemporary architecture to optimize learning for students. I care more about what happens during the school day and what a class schedule includes than what the exterior of the campus buildings look like. I want to see an education program that is enriched with exploration of the arts, technology, and physical education. Learning through movement, touch, music, and interaction with nature is ideal for any child. Class schedules that allow for less than an hour of playtime outdoors for students during the school day seem to me to be counter to a child’s ideal learning environment.
As children learn and grow, they should know that there is more to life than just reading, writing, and math. While these skills are fundamental to success in our civilized world, more and more, we are seeing a civilization that relies on creative thinking. Not to mention, we need individuals who value self-care and know how to express themselves in harmless, productive ways. I am not alone in viewing art, music, movement, and use of technology as just as important for our children’s futures as reading, writing, and mathematics (see Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk on Changing Education Paradigms for more on this topic!).
While private school is not the only place to find personal attention; passionate, skillful teachers; and a rich and diverse school day experience, our public school system does not guarantee these rights to our children. No matter the school choice you make for your child, consider that you do have a choice in his or her education. Ensure that your child’s school is enriching and celebrates the unique individual that he or she is.
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About the Author:
Megan Trezza, M.Ed., is the CEO and founder of La Jolla LearningWorks, where she helps families explore school options and prepare their children for private school admissions. Connect with her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/LaJollaLearningWorks, or via email at megan@LJLearningWorks.com.