The Private School Paradox

A look at the local independent schools for which parents shell out college-equivalent tuition- and why.



The Private School Paradox

 

In an area that’s home to some of the finest public schools in the nation, why do an increasing number of Westchester parents opt instead for private schools?

 

By David Nayor

 

Here’s a riddle. Every year thousands of young parents abandon the Big City to move to the ‘burbs to educate their school-age children. And not just any suburb either: we’re talking Westchester, with the some of the best public schools in the country (and with the stratospheric property taxes that pay for them). Yet sometime after they settle in, these affluent, highly educated parents decide, despite the availability of perfectly—even, in some cases, outstanding—public schools, to incur the considerable expense of sending their child to private school.

 

How come?

 

Take Peggy and Russell DaSilva, for example. When the couple moved from Manhattan to Scarsdale in 1991, they were attracted by the town’s top-notch public schools. “We wanted a town with an excellent public school system,” she explains. While two of their three kids transited the local schools without a hitch, their oldest daughter, Ellen, then 10, had a harder time. Although a high-achieving student, Ellen, her mother says, felt out of the social mainstream in the public school by fifth grade. “I didn’t want her to be isolated,” DaSilva says of her decision to send her daughter to Horace Mann in the Bronx four years ago. Now in her junior year at the renowned private school, Ellen, her mother reports, has found a group of like-minded friends and is happier than ever. “It was absolutely the right decision for her,” DaSilva says.

 

Melissa Scheer, on the other hand, made the decision to go the private school route so that her three childen would receive more personal attention than she believed they would have in the public schools. “I chose Ripppowam-Cisqua because of its reputation as having an excellent early childhood program,” the Bedford resident explains.

 

And Michael Nott of Yonkers says he wanted an alternative to the usual public school teaching style when he decided to send his 10-year-old son and 15-year old daughter to Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale while they were in elementary grades. “The image that comes to my mind about traditional education is a teacher at the front of

the room lecturing,” he explains. At Fieldston, there’s more opportunities for ‘hands-on’ learning which “inspires kids who are book learners to delve further, and motivates kids who are not book learners to know more.”

 

Okay, so our riddle isn’t exactly fair—because clearly there is no single answer. There are, it seems, almost as many different reasons local parents opt for private schooling as there are kids. Interviews with private school parents reveal all the reasons you’d expect: higher academic standards, more flexible curriculum, better odds of getting into an elite college or university, smaller classes and consequently more personal attention. “Parents want their kids to be in a place where they’re not anonymous,” says Frederick Calder, the executive director of the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS), which represents about 170 independent private nursery, elementary, and secondary schools across the state. “It’s virtually impossible to be anonymous at an independent school.”

 

And there’s at least one reason you wouldn’t expect: greater student diversity (yes, diversity! Ironic, we know). Of course, some parents have long preferred private education for personal reasons. Some Catholic and Jewish families favor parochial schools so their children can be educated within their religious tenets. Others, those with children grappling with learning disabilities or emotional problems, may opt for private schools that specialize in helping such kids. And for some parents, it all boils down to the cachet that accrues from enrolling in a selective private school.

 

Whatever the reason, anecdotal evidence suggests that Westchester parents are increasingly choosing to send their kids to private schools. David Stettler, the director of admissions and financial aid at The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, a private school that serves 500 students from grades 5 to 12, says that applications for admissions to the ninth grade (a traditional point at which many kids make the switch to private school) jumped 15 percent over last year. Overall, the school received 700 applications for 140 openings. Nine years ago, it received only 300 applications for the same number of openings. (Stettler partially attributes some of the big jump in applications to the school’s going co-ed in 1996, which doubled the applicant pool.)

 

Rye Country Day School (RCDS), the largest private school in the county with more than 800 students, is also swamped with applications. It recently posted an “all time record for applications for Fall 2005,” says Greg Schneider, the school’s director of admissions and financial aid. To date, the school has received more than 660 applications for approximately 135 openings in grades K-12. “Over the last ten years, we’ve seen our applicant pool grow by almost 100 percent,” Schneider says.

 

Meanwhile, at the all-boy Brunswick School in Greenwich, CT, applications for admission to the third and fourth grades have increased so much in recent years that the school actually discourages parents from applying for those grades. “We ask them to wait and apply for a different grade when there are more openings,” says Jeff Harris, the director of admissions and financial aid. While this year’s tally is still incomplete, overall, Brunswick received about 600 applications for just over 100 openings last year.

 

Certainly, one of the most com-mon reasons for choosing the private school route is the belief that it will somehow bestow upon one’s offspring a substantial leg up gaining admission to one of the country’s elite colleges or universities. Lawrence Crimmins, the associate director of admissions at Hackley in Tarrytown, a 107-year-old private school with almost 800 students, sees evidence of that sort of thinking all the time. He calls it “Bumper Sticker Envy.” “It’s an incredibly sore subject with me. A parent may ask, ‘So, how many of your kids go on to Harvard?’ Right away I know what he’s really thinking.”

 

That is, Can you do the same for my kid?

 

There’s no denying that the top-rank of local private schools—Brunswick, Fieldston, Hackley, Masters, RCDS—offer excellent academic instruction. And while everyone agrees by now that SAT scores are not the be-all and end-all of educational excellence, it’s worth noting that the average combined SAT score at RCDS last year was 1328 and at Hackley it was 1374 (neither Fieldston nor Brunswick nor Horace Mann would release their comparable SAT score). By comparison, Edgemont High School, the best public high school in the county (and among the top 20 public high schools in the country, according to Newsweek), the average combined SAT was 1253. Money can’t buy love, but in the case of Hackley students, it appears to buy an additional 121 SAT points.

 

Then too, these same private college prep schools are almost as hard to get into as the colleges and universities they steer students toward. Brunswick, for example, admits only one out of five applicants; Masters takes only one out of four, RCDS accepts less than one of three (see chart, page 76).

 

In our ultra-competitive, must-get-ahead society, you can’t really fault overachieving parents who believe that the best way to win admission to a selective, prestigious college is to attend a selective, prestigious private school, though most Westchester parents are too polite (or maybe just too P.C.) to admit so. “We’re not the type of parents who send their kid to a private school just to get a leg up,” sniffs one parent of a Brunswick student, who insisted on anonymity. “Our only concern was what’s in the best interest of our son.”

 

“Occasionally, there are parents who are very outcome-oriented,” admits Harris. “I encourage them to think more about the educational process than the outcome. That’s not the spirit we want when they approach us.”

 

Yet private school administrators want to have it both ways, preaching about education for its own sake, while highlighting all the top colleges their grads get into. The Brunswick School’s website boasts that 90 percent of its 2004 graduating class went on to colleges considered “most or highly competitive.” Hackley goes a step further, and proudly lists the colleges and universities that have enrolled the largest number of its grads over the last four years (including Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Princeton, Tufts, Penn, and Yale).

 

College admissions officers, on the other hand, insist their decisions are based on many more factors than simply whether a student attended a particularly prestigious school. “We look at kids from a lot of great private schools,” says James Bock, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, one of the country’s premier small liberal arts colleges. “Some we accept; others we reject.” Yet, considering that 28 percent of Swarthmore’s current freshman class hails from private schools, having a diploma from a tony private school couldn’t hurt your chance of getting in either; that compares to 35 percent at Harvard, 31 percent at Dartmouth, 23 percent at Cornell, and 46 percent at Yale.

 

All of the local private high schools in our survey reported that 100 percent of their graduates went on to attend college. Then again, these numbers also reflect the fact that families who elect to spring for private school are those most likely to take education seriously and place a high value upon a university diploma. By comparison, at Westchester’s top 10 public high schools, some 95 to 100 percent of grads went on to college last year, depending upon the particular school, according to Westchester Magazine’s public high school survey published in March.

 

Because they operate without local, state or federal funds and the accompanying academic restrictions, private schools are freer to choose, develop and formulate their own distinctive curricula and classroom teaching styles. (It’s no coincidence either that state and national associations for private schools refer to their members as independent schools.)

 

Private schools’ freedom to set their own educational agenda is especially significant today, when public schools are required to adhere to an increasing number of federal mandates, such as President George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” and its attendant emphasis upon standardized testing. Private schools, on the other hand, are exempt from these requirements. “There’s a lot of state mandated testing in fourth and eighth grades,” says Eileen Lambert, the head of the Rippowam-Cisqa School in Bedford. “Public school teachers have to devote most of their time preparing kids for these exams. This is not a consideration for us. Our hands are not tied bureaucratically.”

 

Plus, private schools have the advantage—thanks to private funds—of being able to offer what most experts say affects student’s classroom performance most: class size. Simply put, the smaller the class, the better; fewer students per class permit teachers to provide more individual, personalized instruction. At Hackley, for example, the average class size is 13 to 15 students, versus 17 to 20 in some of the county’s best public school systems, and up to 30 per class in some less affluent districts. Hackley teachers also teach only four classes per day, against as many as six or seven in the public school world. The lighter work load allows private schools to attract top-notch teaching talent, even though private school teachers’ pay and benefits somewhat lag behind those of their public school counterparts.

 

“I can’t speak for all independent schools, but I believe some teachers choose Hackley over public schools because our smaller class size and workload allows them to get to know their students better,” says Hackley headmaster Walter Johnson. “They all work on developing curriculum.”

 

Teachers who have taught in both private and public schools agree that the smaller class size and greater curricular freedom makes it easier for them to tailor their instructional style to particular students. “Also, because of the selectivity of the independent schools, you can choose students who best fit the environment of the school,” says George Levine, who now teaches math at Fieldston following a career teaching in New Rochelle, Mount Pleasant and Tarrytown public schools.

 

Some Westchester parents said they were attracted by private schools’ tradition of community service. “Our motto is, ‘Not for self, but for service,’” says RCDS  Headmaster Scott Nelson. “We want the kids to appreciate what they have and to give back.”

 

At Ethical Culture Fieldston, for example, kindergarten students participate in community service projects; beginning in second grade they are required to take ethics classes. One recent project had sixth graders writing and illustrating books in Spanish for children in the Dominican Republic who were awaiting open-heart surgery.

 

Michelle Coppola says that private schools’ emphasis upon imparting ethics was a crucial factor in her decision to send her three children, ages 10, 9, and 5, to Hackley. “Being a good person is just as important as being a smart person,” the Irvington resident explains.

 

Not so long ago, the phrase “private school” was redolent of the world of privilege, educational bastions that were reserved for society’s elite. No more. Surprising as it sounds, today some of Westchester’s best-known private schools reflect considerably more racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity than their public school counterparts.

 

“We draw kids from 44 different zip codes, including the Bronx,” says RCDS’s Nelson. “We want our school to reflect the diversity of our society.” Some 18 percent of the students at Rye Country Day are racial minority members. That figure is roughly matched at Hackley, where 21 percent of the students are minorities; overall the school draws from 94 towns in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. At Masters, the student body is even more diverse: some 30 percent of students are either minorities or from foreign countries. “We take multiculturalism very seriously,” says Stettler. “Ten years ago a lot of minority students and their families felt like guests at private schools. Now, everyone feels like Masters is their school.”

 

Overall, slightly more than 21 percent of the 71,000 students who currently attend NYSAIS-affiliated schools are minorities, according to the association.

 

For many Westchester parents, that greater diversity is one of private schools’ biggest advantages. “Wealthier communities are often more homogeneous,” says Nott. “We like the fact that our children have a broader range or experience.”

 

Peggy DaSilva feels the same. “Horace Mann’s student body is more reflective of the diversity that I experienced growing up [in New Jersey],” she explains. “My daughter at Horace Mann is exposed to a lot more diversity than my other children who attend Scarsdale schools.”

 

There’s a large dose of irony underlying this situation. Many of these same parents no doubt originally fled the big city for Westchester because they were attracted by its affluent, relatively homogenous character; now they’re paying big tuition bills so their children can learn what it’s like to rub shoulders with other kids from different backgrounds. They could accomplish some of the same objectives by simply moving to Mount Vernon or New Rochelle.

 

But it makes a certain amount of sense that local private schools are more ethnically, racially and economically diverse than their public counter parts, says Calder of the NYSAIS. “We create the compositions of our schools, it’s not based on housing patterns,” he explains. “We can always get our schools to reflect the makeup of society to a much greater extent than public schools.”

 

Whatever their reasons for doing so, once local parents have signed on for private school they face the daunting task of paying for it. And with local private school tuitions ranging from $19,500 to $26,800 at the high-school level, it is

a huge financial commitment, nearly equivalent to a year of college. “Unquestionably, the cost of tuition is the biggest hurdle,” admits Lambert of Rippowam-Cisqua. “I don’t want to downplay it.”

 

Consequently, most local private schools have some sort of financial assistance program in place to help ease the tuition bite. Hackley, for example, disburses $2.4 million in tuition assistance annually; some 15 percent of the school’s students receive some financial help (the comparable figure is 12 percent at RCDS  and 30 percent at Masters). Nor is financial assistance necessarily limited to families of modest incomes, but it is computed based upon each family’s specific economic circumstances. “With the cost of living in this area, a gross income of $200,000 isn’t necessarily a lot of money if you have three kids, two of whom are in college,” notes Johnson.

 

Before you contemplate breaking your piggybank (or more likely, taking out a second- or third-mortgage on your home) to pay for some prestigious private school, remember this: regardless of what secondary school they attend, it guarantees nothing when their time to apply to college finally rolls around. “It honestly doesn’t matter to us whether a kid goes to a public or private school,” Swarthmore’s Brock emphasizes. “However, if you have the means to go to a private school, you’d better do pretty well there.” Ultimately, it’s up to kids to make the best of their school years, whether public or private.

 

David Nayor attended Montessori kindergarten and the now-defunct Hudson Community School in Croton for one year. The experience left an indelible impression.

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