Sure, Westchester’s got some of the best public schools in the country. But that doesn’t mean they’re the best for your child.
Sure, Westchester’s got some of the best public schools in the country. But that doesn’t mean they’re the best for your child.
By Maria Bennett
Photography by John O’Donnell
You’ve heard the stories—practically suburban legends by now—about all the kids from Scarsdale High or Chappaqua’s Greeley or Bronxville High with perfect SAT scores. And then there was last summer’s Newsweek cover story which listed an impressive 15 Westchester schools in the top 100 secondary schools in the country. Isn’t that the reason you shelled out a king’s ransom for that ranch you weren’t really crazy about—so that your child could have the benefit of getting an
education by Westchester’s renowned public school system?
But maybe your kid is miserable, and you’re unhappy too. If your young one’s having trouble navigating the waters of public school—if in fact he seems to be treading water, or worse, drowning—one of the county’s many private schools might suit him better. And thanks to financial aid and scholarship funding programs, many local private schools are affordable. So, since one size does not fit all, read on to learn more about finding the perfect educational fit for your unique child.
Size Does Matter
Typically, private schools have smaller class sizes than public schools. The average class size in Westchester public high schools is 21.5, but there’s a wide range—from a low of 16 students per class at Fox Lane High in Bedford and Pleasantville High to a high of 28 in four of the five Yonkers public high schools. The Karafin School, a private school in Mt. Kisco, boasts a student-teacher ratio of 6 to 1. And the Soundview Preparatory School, also in Mt. Kisco, has a student-teacher ratio of 4 to 1(!).
Now, if you were raised in the old days when 40 kids per class was the norm, you might be wondering, “What’s the big deal about class size?” Consider this: It’s enough of an issue that New York City’s United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has gotten Mayor Michael Bloomberg to approve a referendum to limit maximum class size
in 2004. (The Clearinghouse on Educational Management found that classes reduced to below 20 students generally show increased academic achievement. Twenty-one states currently have launched class-size reduction initiatives.) Student achievement aside, just think of that poor English teacher (yours truly) with 35 budding Shakespeares in each class and only one set of eyes to peruse those twice weekly 500-word essays.
Carol Gill, an educational consultant based in Dobbs Ferry, believes the numbers issue is not limited to classroom advantage but becomes even more pronounced in the case of kids looking for help with college. “Most guidance counselors in Westchester County are great in both the public and private schools,” Gill says, “but the sheer number of students involved in the college applications process in each public high school can be daunting. Private school counselors can do more follow-up work on an individual student’s application, and they can advocate more for the student.”
It only makes sense that, if there’s one counselor for 50 kids versus one for 500, the counselor dealing with 50 can do more for each student than the one with 500, especially at that tough 11th-grade college search time. However, since many private schools don’t require their students to take the New York State Regents exams, some parents worry that the absence of that test score will reflect negatively with college admissions personnel. Gill believes just the opposite. “Oh, that’s a big plus!” she says. “There have been problems with some of the Regents tests over the past two years, especially in math and science. I’ve
seen students who’ve done well academically in a course yet fared poorly on
By now, you may have decided that your delightful little square peg might not fit into the round hole that is public education. Here’s where it gets interesting. Let’s begin with the independent private schools that are considered by many to be among the top college prep institutions. How do they compare? How do they differ?
Westchester is home to a number of college-prep private schools (or independent schools, as they prefer to be called). Depending upon with whom you speak, each has its particular strengths or niche. Parents praise the small classes at Harvey, the breadth of offerings in the performing arts programs at Masters, the academic rigor of Rye Country Day School and the Hackley School.
But one common denominator mentioned by all the parents we spoke with was the personal attention they felt their kids received from the administration and, most notably, the teachers in the private schools. According to a 1999 study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, private school teachers generally are happier and more satisfied with their jobs than public school teachers. The primary reason, according to the study: private school teachers sense the parents’ support both in and out of class. There is an abundance of evidence that the more parents are involved in their child’s academic life, the better a child does in school. Clearly, one of the critical components for academic success is home involvement—and that holds true no matter what kind of education Junior is receiving—public or private.
If Junior’s interested in the classics, he’s got several private schools to choose from, including Rye Country Day School (RCDS), where intensive instruction focuses on grammar, vocabulary and texts by Cicero, Horace, Herodotus and Sophocles. There’s serious competition to get in, however; only about 30 percent of applicants at RCDS are accepted. (Personal interviews, essays and standard verbal and math tests such as the ISEE [Independent School Entrance Exam] and the SSAT [Secondary School Admission Test] are often required to apply to a private school.) “We’re rigorous and nurturing,” says RCDS Headmaster Scott Nelson, “and there’s an advantage to hand-selecting our kids. Our grade-level deans keep an eye on everyone’s progress, and we’ve got a learning specialist who supports students with learning differences.”
Parent Barbara Steffensen of Rye gives a thumbs-up to RCDS’s approach: “The academic rigor is not for everyone, but each time I get a report card, I just am amazed at the teachers’ comments; they really know my kids. And they go the extra mile if you need them to. I’ve never had a teacher say, ‘I’m not available.’”
Multicultural Intellectual Challenge
You can tell a lot about a school by its summer reading list, and if it’s a multicultural, intellectual challenge you’d like to offer your child, then head to The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry (tuition $30,400 for boarders, $21,900 non-boarding upper school day students; over $2 million in financial aid available, based on need; 30 percent acceptance rate). In fact, just take some time and read what’s on the list yourself (which I plan to do this semester): Vladimir Nabokov, Jack Kerouac, V.S. Naipaul, Virginia Woolf, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Isabel Allende, François Voltaire, Maya Angelou, and my own personal faves, T.C. Boyle and J.M. Coetzee. David Stettler, co-director of admissions and financial aid, says that the list is indicative of the school’s approach to its educational philosophy. “Masters is about one word: engagement,” he says. “Each school has a philosophy, and ours is to help a child develop his or her own voice and independence as a student. Faculty and students actively share ideas about what they read here.”
Sounds fine, but what if Junior is one of those kids who likes to sit in the back of the class and keep quiet? Masters has what it maintains is the perfect solution: the Harkness table. Many moons ago, a certain Mr. Harkness donated a few oval tables to Phillips Exeter Academy, the swanky private school in Exeter, NH. And the school put them to use. The concept behind them is that with an oval table instead of customary individual desks, a student is more likely to be engaged simply because he or she can’t easily hide and the teacher isn’t the center of attention but just a participant around that table. The tradition was picked up and implemented at Masters, encouraging individual student’s participation, says Christie Maria, assistant director of admissions and a Masters’ alum. “When we conduct student tours for applicants, the Harkness table is really a draw,” she reports. “And the seminar-style class it creates is so helpful that the kids love it. They won’t come in without doing their homework.”
As part of Masters’ commitment to diversity, it also offers ESL (English as Second Language) classes; Masters students come from 13 states and 14 nations. “Our school should look like the world,” Stettler says.
A Passion for Success
Walter Johnson, headmaster of the 285-acre Hackley School in Tarrytown, couldn’t agree more about the value of having a diverse student body. “We’ve begun an outreach program involving the Latino community,” he says. That population is increasing, so we try to address its needs. Twenty-two percent of our students are children of color, and 100 percent of our financial aid is based on need.
He continues: “I’ve worked at Trinity School in Manhattan and other places, but Hackley kids are the most impressive because of their commitment. When I was in high school, I thought that 40 minutes of homework was hard work; our kids put in two to three hours a night.”
Hackley and Masters are also served by REACH Prep, a non-profit organization which recruits lower income third- and fourth-graders for an academic program that helps them transition to one of 20 area private schools. (REACH stands for Responsibility, Excellence, Achievement, Character and Honor.) If you think Junior’s too young for Leo Tolstoy, then listen to Linda Vasu, REACH Prep’s dynamic executive director: “Our summer institute for skills building includes critical thinking and, as a part of this, we offer a class called ‘Think Like a Philosopher.’ Students ask questions like, ‘What is human nature?’ ‘How do we know?’ and ‘What is epistemology?’ Boy, they really loved that word!”
And Individual Attention
Ron Romanowicz, director of admissions at The Harvey School in Katonah, thinks parent-teacher involvement is crucial to a child’s academic success, noting: “Our small class size gets everyone’s attention, but the real value of Harvey comes from each teacher’s individual attention to a student.”
Parent Lauren Brooks of Greenwich, CT, agrees. “Since our son applied to Harvey this year, we’ve been made to feel wanted and special,” she says. “They truly seem to value each child, and each faculty member we met could not have been nicer or more welcoming.” Adds Alexia Jurschak of Katonah, “We made the decision to take my son out of the public school system and put him in Harvey a year ago. It was the best decision we ever made for my son and our family. It’s a wonderful all-around environment in terms of academics, socialization and athletics—kids can learn how to get down to business without being overwhelmed.”
Founded in 1916 as an all-boys school, the gorgeous 100-acre campus is now co-educational and offers a five-day boarding program, so tri-state area kids can go home on weekends. Harvey
prides itself on offering a structured environment where students learn in small-classes (approximately seven students to one teacher). It offers 10 Advanced Placement college-level courses, as well as classes in art, drama, music and creative writing. Other course offerings include digital photography and figure skating, which is available as an elective.
Sports also figure prominently at Harvey, with hockey being extremely popular. Stephen Masiello, a 1996 graduate of the school, credits Harvey with his success as an assistant basketball coach at Manhattan College in Riverdale. “Harvey let me explore sports as well as academic subjects and its discipline prepared me for college life,” he says. “My coaches at Harvey helped me the most, giving me the chance to learn from my mistakes and giving me the push to be successful in the future.”
A Different Approach
If Junior has wanderlust, then Thornton-Donovan School (160 students from 40 nations; student-teacher ratio of 10:1) may be the place for him. Courses at the New Rochelle school are interdisciplinary and taught around themes: last year’s theme, “Islands in the Sun,” focused on marine biology and included a trip to Key West as well as an exploration of the writing of one of the Key’s most famous inhabitants, Ernest Hemingway. “Our school is known for experiential learning,” says Headmaster Douglas Fleming. “You’ll find different grade levels mixed in one class.” Plus he asks rhetorically, “Why do you have to wait until you’re 32 years old to travel? We incorporate it as part of the international understanding we’d like our
students to have that’s the basis of our program.”
A Focus on Religion And Ethics
There are independent private schools, and then there are religiously-affiliated private schools. If you’re looking for a high school that places a focus on Baptist Christian ethics, you might consider taking a look at the Hudson View Christian Academy in Yonkers where Principal Mark Benedict emphasizes, “Christianity is not just a part-time obligation. “Benedict says that students at the school “make a contract to abide by our rules.” And part of that contract involves working hard. “We have high academic standards,” he says, noting that 100 percent of the Academy’s graduates go on to college.
Gray pants and skirts are uniform issue, and girls beware, Benedict says: “If the skirt is too short, one of our teachers will take the girl aside and have a little talk.”
As a former uniform-wearer and skirt-hiker, I was comforted to know that not all religious schools require less-than-chic duds. Mary Coates, director of communications and public relations for the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Greenwich (680 students from 63 zip codes), assures: “Our uniforms are classic! Plaid skirts and white blouses look great!”
As most of us know, teenage girls are painfully aware of such things, but Coates is quick to add that private single-sex education focuses on much more than image. “I went to a good, upper-class public school,” she says, “but I would have gotten a jumpstart in self-knowledge and awareness, as well as sound judgment, if I had gone to a private school like this. Girls here shake your hand, look you in the eye, and aren’t afraid to speak. They feel empowered, and their faith is part of this, as well as their belief in community and helping others. That’s bigger than religion.”
Ann Sullivan, who heads the School of the Holy Child in Rye (16 students per class; 210 students enrolled in the high school) and herself a Good Counsel grad, echoes the need for attention to character-building in teen girls. “If we can get her at 12,” she says “we can teach a girl to feel powerful. And sports can teach life lessons, too.” Which is why, she says, the school puts a strong emphasis on athletics. “Eighty percent of our girls are on sport teams.” Sullivan reports. She goes on to emphasize the advantages of Holy Child’s small size. “In a large high school, you can always hang out with people like you in small groups, but here you have to mix with everyone, and that’s better. And we have no prom queen!”
But what about all-boys schools? Are they as rewarding for boys? You would think that not having teenage girls to gaze at during Advanced Placement math would be a considerable negative to a red-blooded high school senior, but listen to Shamus Bartnett of Iona Prep: “I came to Iona from public school and was surprised that it that wasn’t as big a change as I thought. I had to adjust to an all-boys environment, but it helped me focus on my work more. And it’s more than just going to class. You get involved with the community and realize that school is not just all about you.”
Iona Prep, a New Rochelle fixture whose famous alums include Tommy Mottola and Don McLean, recently won a Blue Ribbon Award for educational excellence from the U.S. Department of Education. Iona Prep, like many private schools, demands from its students community service. At Iona, community service hours are required every year on a sliding scale (25 for freshmen; 75 for seniors) ranging from working at a soup kitchen to helping out at Habitat for Humanity.
“We’re proud of the fact that not only do 100 percent of our students go on to college, but that Johnny goes to the soup kitchen each week as well as being the captain of the football team,” Baxter says. (Don’t worry: if Johnny just wants to have some good, clean fun at the end of a long day, he can join the school’s newly formed Paint Ball Club.)
Joe Miller, director of Alumni Relations at Fairfield College Preparatory School, the only Jesuit high school in Connecticut, feels the same way. “We hope to instill a strong commitment to social justice, as well as a lifelong commitment to learning in our kids, through work at the YMCA, community centers, and work with the handicapped.” Fairfield College Prep students go to Ecuador and Appalachia as part of a Global Mission project to study social ethics, and it’s all incorporated into a demanding academic curriculum, which offers drama, fine arts, and choral instruction and my own personal bête noire, Latin. “You’d be surprised,” declares Dr. Robert Perrotta, Fairfield’s principal. “Latin has become popular over the years!”
The newest entry to the religiously-affiliated high school list is The Solomon Schechter School of Westchester in Hartsdale, whose first 12th grade graduating class will don caps and gowns in 2005. It shares a special place with Masters and Hackley as part of the innovative “Physics First” program, which places physics, and not biology, first in the sequence of sciences high schoolers study. (According to Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman, physics is the root of all sciences and should be taught first.) It’s not the only novelty at the rapidly growing Schechter, however. A group of students recently produced a documentary film that made it to the Sundance Film Festival. “We’re the only Jewish high school that’s ever done this,” declares Joan Ashner, director of admissions. The Lion’s Roar, Schechter’s newspaper, has also won awards for its fine journalism. (Check out a recent article on underage drinking by Einat Kadar and Leora Kalikow on the school’s Web site—www.solomon-schechter.com).
The school’s mission is to prepare its students for literate, religiously commited lives, active participation in the Jewish community, as well as academic preparation for the rigors of university life. The link between family and school is central to the school’s success, says Ashner. “The task of our school is to get to know each family, and our students come from all over—Westchester, Riverdale and other parts of the Bronx, as well as Rockland, Orange, Bergen and Fairfield couties.”
What sold Schechter for parent Beth Nechamkin, though, was soccer. “Sports was the deal-breaker for us when we were considering schools for our kids,” she says. “Schechter has got great coaching.” And, she notes, “classes offer such individual attention to each student.”
Additionally, Schechter has a program called the Center for Academic Support, run by Scarsdale High School veteran Karen Brown, which gives prep in areas such as test taking and study skills, as well as strategies for writing. In an enterprise which can often go sour if not coordinated well, the Center is a study in synchrony: teachers share class assignments with Center staff, and students are evaluated by a school psychologist and Brown, as well as the classroom teacher.
“Schechter is more than just a place to prepare for college,” stresses Headmaster Dr. Elliot Spiegel. “We teach kids through a collegial approach to listen to others and develop their own point of view, not just at school but all the time.”
Maria Bennett is an assistant professor of English at the City University of New York, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Daily News, Journal News and the Utne Reader.