teen girl confused with arrowsMany of the changes that take place during the teen years involve a search for independence. But one potential change can be a search for independents—as in “independent schools.” In fact, sometimes the change from a public school to an independent school setting can be just what your teen needs.

More than 1.3 million students attended private high schools in the United States in 2009–2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. About 280,000 were enrolled in independent (nonsectarian) institutions. Statistically, such students are in a safer academic setting, perform better on standardized tests, have a higher rate of college placement, and participate in more community service activities.

The move from public to private high school can produce great benefits for teens with different needs. Students who struggle academically or socially may find success in smaller classes with more individual help. For gifted students—intellectual, artistic, or athletic—who seek more focused instruction, a switch to an independent school can yield valuable opportunities with long-term gains for professional success.

Know Thy Student

For any student who is not thriving in public school, a switch to an independent school may be the answer. Let’s look at some of the questions, opportunities, and concerns a family may consider when weighing that decision. The National Association of Independent Schools also can help you define and refine your search criteria.

  • Why? What is your reason (or reasons) to consider such a switch? What’s lacking in your teen’s current academic experience? What opportunities does he seek? Answering these questions honestly will best prepare your family to make the right decision.
  • Whose decision will it be? Know what influence you expect your teen to have in the decision-making process. 
Respect your teen’s position. Know how you want to proceed if there is disagreement on this topic. One parent I spoke to (whose child successfully made such a switch), says, “Respect your child’s decision-making skills. Allow them to fail.” Great advice, but is your family ready to follow it?
  • When should you make a change? The most common transfer point is ninth grade, as teens transition from middle school to high school. But some private schools only offer admission at certain grade levels. Some begin at grade seven; some are equipped to handle junior- and senior-level transfers. When you examine possible schools, ask about their transfer policies and the number of new students who enter at the same grade as your teen.
A change may provide greater opportunity in terms of academic growth and college options.
  • Academic reputation. Most independent schools have stronger academic reputations than their public neighbors. A change may provide greater opportunity in terms of academic growth and collegiate options. Is your teen ready for a more demanding curriculum?
  • Opportunities to capitalize on a particular talent. Does your child have a talent that needs greater nurturing? Independent schools can offer a student the opportunity to grow as an artist or athlete.
  • The social network. This may be the most difficult part of such a decision. Would a change provide an opportunity for a fresh start? Or would it pull your teen from the security of her current support system?
  • Money. If a change of social circle isn’t the most difficult part of the decision-making process, this is. Go in with your eyes wide open. Know the full cost: tuition, as well as books, transportation, and other expenditures. Can you afford it? Is the expense justified in relation to the reasons for making the move?
  • Self-reliance. An independent school will provide opportunities to develop a sense of responsibility. Particularly in the case of boarding schools, your teen will get to make daily choices that won’t be available to public school peers until college (or later).
  • How will it look to colleges? Generally, academic success in an independent school setting will be a big plus in the college admission process. But do your homework. A smaller school may not offer the number of advanced placement courses a larger public school might. If you’re looking at transferring in junior or senior year of high school, ask the independent school staff how they ensure that your teen will receive meaningful college guidance and recommendation letters despite his relatively brief time at the school.

Switching from a public school to an independent school setting may not be for everyone. But if the decision is built upon careful thought and research, the move can be an incredibly rewarding experience, influencing your child now and throughout his life.

Michael Szarek has 24 years of experience as a college admissions officer, financial aid director, and independent college planner. He is director of New Jersey-based College Counseling for the Rest of Us, and the father of twin teenagers and a tween.

What are your thoughts on public vs. private school? Any advice for teens and families trying to decide?