Is Private School Right For Your Kid?
Parents share the reasons they opted for an independent education for their children.
Is the grass greener at an independent school? Even the most committed public school parents occasionally wonder if a tuition-based education might be better for their children. There are barriers, of course—cost being the most obvious. But according to Carole Everett, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools (NJAIS), cost shouldn’t necessarily be a deal breaker since some schools are more financially generous than you might expect.
“There’s a fallacy that if you’re middle class, you [can’t] go to private school,” says Everett. “Economic diversity is prized, and many schools will come through.” Curious? Here are some reasons why an independent school may be worth considering.
She’ll Have a Shot at the Ivy League (Maybe)
“I think the number one reason people opt for private school is because of the culture of achievement [it promotes],” says Everett. “It’s cool to be smart. It’s cool to be talented.”
Independent schools typically offer enhanced resources to fewer students, which means more one-on-one time with guidance counselors. This allows counselors to better navigate an increasingly competitive college application process. Counselors have time to prep kids for interviews, review college essays, strategically select extracurricular activities and help students finesse the way they present themselves on paper and in person.
“They also have the relationships with college admissions people,” says Everett. Then there are the intangible benefits of attending a school with high achievers. “Those friendships that are made are so valuable. Those connections are connections that last a lifetime,” she says.
Your Child Has Special Needs—With a Caveat
“In many cases, public schools actually provide better services for special needs students,” says Lucy Pritzker, MS, an education and therapeutic consultant based in Westfield. Despite New Jersey’s excellent national reputation for educating special needs kids, “there are cases where public schools ‘fail’ their students, and a private school can provide a better environment,” Pritzker says. This is especially true with language-based disabilities requiring intense remediation programs and highly-skilled teaching methods.
Elizabeth Perez’s daughter, who struggles with dyslexia, was barely reading when she became a student at The Craig School in Morris County. Now, the rising eighth grader can do so fluently. “She may be a slow reader, but she can read,” says Perez. The school has impacted her emotionally, as well. “She’s become independent, a leader, very caring—all this has come out.”
For students on the autism spectrum, independent schools in many cases have a better handle (and more patience) for behaviors that seem oppositional or disobedient. “Many families I work with have found special needs private schools are better at understanding ASD behavior as communication rather than ‘acting out,’” says Pritzker.
The Two As: Attention and Amenities
It’s no secret that tuition, endowments and fundraising afford private schools the luxury of fostering the success of each student. “I was recently at a school where the faculty individually assigned homework that was meaningful for that given child,” says Everett. “You can do that with small classes and faculty that’s not overburdened.” The ability to offer one-on-one attention is a bonus for kids who don’t have obvious special needs but nevertheless struggle says Pritzker. “The individual attention a private school inherently provides can support a student with attention issues, anxiety and other ‘hidden’ special needs without making the student feel ‘different.’”
Of course, there are also well-funded amenities and after school activities. A gorgeous, groomed football field? A fully stocked library? Offering students chorus and drama, not to mention both a black box and fully equipped theater? Yes, many independent schools offer all that and still support state-of-the-art STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) and maker-spaces so children are prepared for the future.
You Believe in Single Sex Education
Co-ed schools don’t always bring out the best in every child. Once-fierce girls may stop speaking out in class. Quiet boys might feel compelled to become class clowns. Then there are the hormones. A single-sex education can be a welcome reprieve from pressure to conform to gender standards. “There are kids that really thrive in [single-sex] atmospheres,” says Everett. “For girls, it means leadership opportunities, and excelling in math and science without feeling like it’s not their realm. For boys, fewer distractions and the chance to focus on art without thinking they need to be athletes.”
A Faith-Based Education is Important to You
Religious schools have long had their fans, praising rigorous academics, traditional values and relative affordability compared to secular independent schools. Sandie Allen was looking for a full-day program for her 3-year-old when she found a fit at a faith-based independent school. “A religious education was not a preference. But I am very happy I made the decision to find one that aligned with my Christian values,” says Allen, whose 17-year-old is a thriving student athlete entering his final year at Marist High School, a Catholic school in Bayonne.
Having grown up in the church, Allen wanted a safe, worry-free environment for her child along with a great education. “I wanted him to be able to learn values, discipline and respect,” Allen says. “As a parent, my son’s educational institutions became a big part of my village. It was like an extension of home and church. He has excelled not only educationally, but also mentally, physically and most importantly, spiritually.”
You Want a More Holistic Learning Experience
Public school educators must quantify academic progress, and there’s a ton of trickle down pressure on administrators to work with teachers on standardized test prep, says Everett. “One of the worst things that’s happened to education is the scan-a-thon.” Independent schools have the freedom to create their own curriculums. “They can do things that are interesting, important and innovative.”
Case in point: Wowed by a family of Waldorf-educated children she met when her 14-year-old was young, Waldorf School of Princeton parent Trisha Merriam became enamored with Rudolf Steiner’s theory of learning. The philosophy calls for deferring the use of media and electronics in favor of multiple senses to learn.
“I saw that Waldorf’s approach was much better aligned to the way boys learn,” said Merriam. “My son’s eighth grade graduating class was brimming over with exactly the type of children I met in that family 10 years ago. They speak with authority and look you in the eye. They’re highly skilled scientists, engineers, musicians, writers, artists and dancers outside of school. They love each other, and have incredible love and empathy for people and the world they live in.”
Merriam goes on to say that despite the obstacles, private school has all been worth it. “As a single parent, [I] had to sacrifice a lot to make this private education possible, but each year I never had a second thought about re-enrolling him.”
Jennifer Kantor is a parenting and lifestyle writer. She lives in Maplewood with her husband and two kids.