Tuesday, October 23, 2012

It’s not a new debate: public vs. private school

It’s not a new debate: public vs. private school

I never imagined that I would be considering private school for my daughter but living in an area with no shortage of choices, I found myself curious about our educational options. Interestingly, I had also been in contact with several private school parents whose enthusiasm for their respective schools was incredibly convincing. Thus, my husband and I have begun the task of touring, reviewing and debating our school choices.

First, let it be understood that there is nothing wrong with our neighborhood public school. As a public school educator, I am especially devoted to the idea that we all contribute to successful public schools by remaining loyal to them and involved in them. In fact, my neighbors speak very positively of their experiences there and on a tour; we found the teachers and administrators to be pleasant, motivated and knowledgeable about the issues that are most important to us: ability grouping, otherwise known as tracking, budget cuts that impact the arts, classroom management, innovative use of technology and promoting math and science. However, for us, the debate is a bit more complicated as my husband attended a prestigious prep school, and frankly, I wish I had such opportunity when I was a kid.

So, here we are. Our first private school open house was at a local and highly-acclaimed prep school. The tuition is in the $30,000 a year range, but the school boasts significant financial aid opportunities, which we would need in order for Sarah to attend. In the back of my mind, of course, is an awareness of the ridiculousness of spending so much money on kindergarten and on the end result of a private school education costing almost as much as Harvard. At the same time, I liked the beautiful campus, the small classes and the nurturing, academic environment.

Our second open house was of a religious-affiliated, private, day school whose tuition runs significantly lower than others in the area. It was yet another beautiful campus and also boasted small classes and individualized education. This particular school, however, had a different feel. It was warm and energetic, although less prestigious than the school we’d toured the week before. Is that why it felt different?

Of course, different tuition ranges attract different clientele. The more expensive school appeared to attract a more diverse population  in both the student body represented at the open house and in the other families on tour. Ultimately, neither school could hold a candle to the diverse population our urban neighborhood school provided, but in the age of testing and political pressure, diversity comes with a fair share of challenges. Diverse schools must bring all students to a performance standard within a specific amount of time in order to avoid being pegged an “F” school or “in need of improvement” according to No Child Left Behind. If a neighborhood school is already rated, chances are they’ve suffered reductions in funding for important programs like counseling, special education and support for English Language Learners – the very groups that are ‘bringing down’ the test scores. This ‘catch-22’ is further complicated, as we all saw in the recent Waiting for Superman, by the quality of teachers in a particular school who are supported by a powerful teacher’s union and protected by a flawed tenure system.

What does all this mean for us – incoming kindergarten parents? We want to make a choice that represented the least amount of politically-motivated decision-making and the most student-centered decision-making. Ironically, we only see what the schools show us on special days. Thus, we need to explore all of our options and be as knowledgeable about what we think good education looks like. After all, we can only see what each of the schools shows us. So, we will continue on in this debate as a family. All I know is we’re immensely lucky to have any choices at all . . . more to come on this topic, for sure!


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