If you think your kid would thrive in private school but always brush it off as too expensive, put your hesitations aside. “There’s a fallacy that if you’re middle class, you [can’t] go to private school,” says Carole Everett, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools (NJAIS). “Economic diversity is prized, and many schools will come through.”
Finances aside, you may have other reservations about making the switch. Will it be enough to get her into a great college? Can the school accommodate her special needs? Is she mentally, emotionally and socially ready for the switch? Are the benefits worth the big transition? Read on to find out if it’s time to make a change.
YOU’RE TIRED OF THE TEST PREP MINDSET
Public school educators quantify academic success, so there’s a ton of trickle-down pressure on administrators to work with teachers on standardized test prep. Independent schools have the freedom to create their own curricula and adapt to suit their students.
One Essex County mom (who asked to remain anonymous) is a former NJ public school teacher and currently has her three oldest kids enrolled in private school. “There was a lack of time to do art, music, physical activity and creativity. Teachers spent more time focusing on new and different curriculum changes, battling administration and working on their rights [rather] than creatively collaborating on working towards the needs of the kids,” she says.
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 have fewer students, which means more one-on-one time with guidance counselors and help navigating 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 relationships with college admissions people,” says Everett.
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 aren’t] overburdened.” Of course, there are also well-funded amenities, like a top-notch football field, a fully-equipped theater for drama or a state-of-the-art STEAM and makerspace.
FAITH-BASED EDUCATION IS IMPORTANT TO YOU
Religious schools are known for rigorous academics, traditional values and relative affordability compared to secular independent schools. Many are also renowned for fiercely competitive sports programs, a fact that attracts athletes hoping to be recruited for college. Often single-sex, these schools focus on education without coed distractions, and a single-sex atmosphere can be a welcome reprieve from pressure to conform to gender standards.
“For girls, it means leadership opportunities and excelling in math and science without feeling like it’s not their realm,” says Everett. “For boys, fewer distractions and the chance to focus on art without thinking they need to be athletes.”
A DIFFERENT LEARNING STYLE IS A BETTER FIT
West Orange child psychologist and Maplewood parent of two Eric Schleifer, PhD, has seen many kids with good behavior and passing grades hide subtle issues with attention, anxiety, executive functioning, information processing and more— especially if they’re bright and have developed strategies to keep up. He’s even seen it in his own home.
While Schleifer’s second grade son thrives at his well-regarded neighborhood elementary, his thoughtful, deliberate daughter quietly struggled to keep up with the expected pace. “Because of resource constraints, the public school model is like a box. If the student’s learning style fits in the box, then they’re able to excel,” he says. Testing revealed no underlying learning issues, and any efforts to help made her somehow more miserable. “Parents are forced to look for support elsewhere, either through tutoring, [like] we did, or private school. We opted for private school, and I sincerely believe it changed my daughter’s life,” he says.
For the past two years, their now fifth grader has thrived at the progressive Far Brook School in Millburn. They love the school’s focus on depth over breadth of knowledge. The slow, multistep methods teachers there tend to use are perfectly paced for their daughter.
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 educational and therapeutic consultant based in Westfield. But 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. 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.
There are so many reasons to consider an independent education. Whether it’s a family tradition, robust offerings or a sense it’ll benefit your child, odds are the perfect fit is out there.
—Jennifer Kantor is a lifestyle and parenting writer. She lives in Maplewood with her two kids.