How best to educate our children is one of the most important decisions we as parents can make. The choice of secondary school – public, private or independent – can have a major impact on how our children thrive, grow, and prepare for success in college and the rest of their lives.
Before I go further, here are a few basic distinctions between these types of schools. Whereas public schools are funded by tax dollars and governed by state and local school boards, private schools are not publicly funded and can be run by a religious organization, a for-profit or non-profit organization, or some other non-governmental entity. Charter schools are public schools that are running in some way separate from comprehensive schools within their districts. Independent schools are private, and they are governed by a board of trustees that is independent of any other entities. Independent schools are funded by tuition, augmented by charitable donations, and they are non-profit organizations.
I have worked at public and independent schools, including large, suburban, public high schools in areas with similar demographics to San Diego’s coastal North County. In fact, I taught English and coached basketball and baseball in three different public high schools before I committed myself to independent schools. Why did I make that commitment for my career? Because after having attended an independent school and taught in high quality public schools, I knew I could serve my students better in independent education.
I believe in independent schools because the quality of their academic programs is consistently strong, and the commitment of their teachers is inspiring. I have witnessed that independent schools give unparalleled opportunities to young people – opportunities for critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, self-expression, co-curricular growth, and meaningful relationships with adults. These experiences provide foundational skills and shape habits that make indelible marks on our students’ lives.
To break down some of the benefits of an independent school education, consider the following characteristics. I’ve used Pacific Ridge School to illustrate some examples, but each independent school will embody these in its own way:
1) Mission-driven education: Mission statements help families understand a school’s values, discern differences among schools and choose one that is the right fit for their child. Pacific Ridge’s founders developed a mission statement they believe reflects a solid, forward-looking 21st-Century education. Like many independent schools, our mission statement influences everything we do.
2) Independent Curriculum: Independent schools’ curricula are not determined by school boards or state and local government agencies. As such, teachers have the freedom to dive deeply and creatively into subject matter and are not restricted by mandates to teach to standardized testing. And, that curriculum can be mission-driven at a school level.
3) High academic standards: As an independent, college preparatory school, we are committed to our academic program, and we provide a strong, early foundation as well as a wide range of electives and advanced courses. Pacific Ridge’s seminar, or Harkness*, teaching method nurtures intellectual curiosity, promotes a sharing of differing perspectives and ensures that students are actively engaged in their learning. Alumni report being more than prepared for college academics.
4) Small classes: Many independent schools offer smaller classes than their public school counterparts. Averaging 15 students per class at Pacific Ridge enables our teachers to truly know their students and ensure they are providing the challenge and support each needs. Small classes also mean that all students will have the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to each and every class.
5) Excellent teachers: Independent school teachers are passionate professionals. At Pacific Ridge, they also act as academic advisors, service learning and club advisors, coaches and global trip leaders, building multi-faceted mentor relationships with students, supporting and encouraging them to reach their full potential.
6) Robust co-curricular programming: Independent schools generally have rich extra-curricular programs, as essential, real-world learning takes place outside the classroom. Many programs considered extra-curricular at other schools (and scheduled as such – outside of school hours), are considered co-curriculars at Pacific Ridge. Service Learning, clubs, athletics and global travel are built into the school day, week and year so that all students can benefit from them and maintain life balance. Active participation in co-curriculars helps students become well-rounded, considerate and connected to the world.
7) Supportive, inclusive community: At Pacific Ridge, like many independent schools, students are known and valued for who they are, and are given many opportunities to develop their authentic self. The diversity of curricular and co-curricular programming gives all students the opportunity to shine and share their passions with others. At our Harkness tables and throughout our campus, each person and each voice matters.
8) Personalized College Guidance: Starting in 9th grade, our students gain exposure to our College Guidance Office and in 10th grade each family begins meeting with our counselors. Students explore and nurture their interests throughout high school, enabling them to take a proactive, informed role in the college search and application process. Our college counselors get to know students well, and support them and their families through each step of the process.
Every year, we hear from alumni that they are surprised how many of their peers in college are not comfortable talking with their professors, asking questions in class, or advocating for themselves. Why? Because our students’ college classmates, more often than not, attended schools where they did not have the opportunity to develop the skills and habits our students, and students at many other independent schools, do.
In fact, these skills and habits were profiled recently in a National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and Gallup research study
that found, amongst other findings, that “NAIS graduates progress through college more consistently – and are more likely to seek out key undergraduate opportunities associated with positive long-term outcomes – than public and non-NAIS private schools.”
Yes, I have a bias in favor of independent school education. I went to an independent school, I taught in public schools, and I chose to return to independent school education. However, each family is different and each child has unique qualities and needs. When considering what is the best choice for your child, I encourage you to do your research, talk with friends and acquaintances whose children attend the schools you are considering and contact the schools themselves for opportunities to learn more. With careful consideration, the right decision for your family will become clear.