There are more than 33,000 private schools across the country, educating 5 million – or roughly 10 percent – of all U.S. students. Yet despite those numbers, many parents don’t even consider private school for their child. Why not? Concerns over affordability, diversity and a perceived culture of exclusivity often top the list. But advocates stress that much has changed in the last 20 years and private schools often lead the way when it comes to innovative education, creating community and welcoming all.
Here are five things you may not know about private schools:
1) Private schools are often more affordable than you think.
The price tag of a private education is one of the most common reasons families don’t consider independent schools. What you may not know is that a majority of private schools offer need-based financial aid. How? Private schools often have endowments and active alumni fundraising groups, giving them the flexibility to budget money for this purpose.
For example, last school year, The Summit Country Day School, near Hyde Park, awarded more than $3.8 million in need-based tuition assistance, merit and endowed scholarships to 36 percent of its student body. St. Xavier High School, in Finneytown, awarded $4.1 million in tuition assistance to about 40 percent of its students.
The process of applying for financial aid at private schools is a lot like applying for aid at the college level:
- Families of students who’ve been accepted at a particular school (or at several schools) fill out a form online through an independent company outlining their income, assets, expenses and any extenuating circumstances.
- The program provides them with a dollar figure of what their family should be able to contribute.
- The school uses that number to budget available financial aid and offer a financial aid package.
“We always encourage families to talk to the school’s financial aid person early in the process,” says Myra McGovern, Vice President of Media for the National Association of Independent Schools, a nonprofit membership organization for more than 1,500 U.S. private schools. “Find out how much the school actually costs, ask about financial aid options and deadlines. Chances are, you’ll find out that there is a way your child can attend.”
NAIS offers information for families about financial aid on its parent-focused website at http://parents.nais.org/afford/paying-for-school/
2) There are private schools for every age/need/faith/interest/ability.
Think all private schools are the same? Think again. From Montessori and Waldorf schools, to Catholic and Jesuit schools, military schools and those that serve gifted students and kids with learning differences, independent schools cover nearly all facets of the educational spectrum.
“Private schools are freer to experiment with different pedagogies and approaches to education than public schools,” says Joe McTighe, Executive Director of the Council for American Private Education, a coalition that represents more than 80 percent of U.S. private school enrollment. “As a parent, you can figure out what kind of environment is best for your child, whether that’s a creative community or one that provides more structure, and then you can find a school that provides exactly that.”
Private schools also vary in location (urban, suburban or rural), by size and by the age range that they serve. School search websites like PrivateSchoolReview.com and GreatSchools.org allow you to narrow down schools by location, size, focus and age range.
3) Private schools strive to be diverse.
Forget the outdated stereotype of private schools filled exclusively with wealthy, white kids. These days, private schools pride themselves on creating student bodies that reflect a range of diversity, including students of different races and ethnicities, those with varying socioeconomic backgrounds and those who practice different faiths.
“Our students represent 75 different ZIP codes and 33 different home school districts in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, and we have children of families from 25 different countries,” says Kelley Schiess, Assistant Head of School at The Summit Country Day School. “We also have a diversity in faiths and perspectives, and because religion is part of the curriculum, we’re exposing children to world religions and Christian service.”
Check the National Center for Education Statistics (https://nces.ed.gov/) or school search sites like GreatSchools.org to find school diversity information.
4) Athletics and extracurricular activities are often required.
Activities like joining a sports team, taking part in the school play or participating in a club are often mandatory at private schools. At smaller schools, they might need everyone to participate to be able to have a full team, while other schools make sports a portion of the school day. It’s part of a larger mission to educate the whole child, advocates say.
“It’s often something that’s more philosophical than simply playing sports,” McGovern, with NAIS, says. “It’s about fostering community, encouraging teamwork and understanding being active and leading a healthy lifestyle is an important part of becoming a successful adult.”
At McNicholas High School in Mt. Washington, Director of Admissions Christina Mullis says that students aren’t required to take part in sports or clubs (although 90 percent of students do) but they are required to complete 40 service hours during their high school tenure. “It is very important for our culture and our community for our kids to get involved,” she says. “Service is at the core of our mission, and it’s important that students know that you don’t have to go to a foreign country or build a house to be of service.”
Most independent schools outline their sports, extracurricular and service requirements online.
5) Private schools can be set up in different ways.
Not all private schools are organized in the same fashion. The vast majority are nonprofit institutions that operate as tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations, while others may fall under the umbrella of a church or diocese that is tax-exempt. There are also for-profit schools, which are not tax-exempt.
What does this mean for parents? You’ll want to know how your child’s prospective school is organized so you can understand how it’s governed. Independent schools typically have boards of directors that they are accountable to, while some private schools are run by a single person with no other checks and balances in place. Most schools will spell out their leadership and governing structure online.
The lesson here is that it would be a mistake to dismiss private schools in your area before you learn more about them. You may just find they’re more affordable, diverse and better suited to your child’s personality and learning style than you ever considered.