2011 Private School Guide

Why Choose a Private School?

From small student-teacher ratios to a sense of community, private schools offer a host of benefits.

Marin County’s public schools are among the best in the state. But that doesn’t mean they’re immune to state budget cuts, and with property tax revenues dipping for the first time in decades, additional budget trimming is likely. As a result, private school admissions officers are reporting a flood of applicants from families currently in the public school system. Still, most parents need to think long and hard about whether the benefits of sending their kids to a private school outweigh the costs. To help you make this all-important decision, experts share six reasons why they believe private schools give a child an advantage.

1 Low Student-Teacher Ratio When classes are small, students get more focused attention. “On average, the independent schools have a student-teacher ratio of about 15 to 1,” says Peter Esty, interim head of The Marin School in Sausalito. “You can grow that number to around 18 without losing the sense of intimacy — beyond that you’re not going to get enough individualized instruction.”

Julie Elam, head of school for Marin Primary & Middle School (MPMS), concurs: “Small classes allow the teachers to have a better sense of who your child is and his or her specific strengths and weaknesses.”

2 A Sense of Community For parents, a school’s educational philosophy is often the decisive factor in choosing a program. The families may have different political, religious or social views, but they share a common bond in their big-picture approach to academic success. This fellowship creates camaraderie. “Our families go out of their way to support one another,” says MPMS’s Elam. She illustrates this point by recalling the groundswell of support that materialized after a teacher revealed she had cancer. “It was incredible to watch how the parents — and I mean all the parents, not just the ones who have kids in her classroom — rallied to help out with preparing meals and whatever else they could do to help.”

And, of course, because private schools tend to have fewer classrooms than large public institutions, it’s easier for families to get to know one another. “We are a very small school,” says Nick Broad, director of admissions for the Marin Waldorf School. “Everybody knows everybody, and this builds strong connections.”

3 Team Sports Experts have long lauded the benefits of playing team sports, not merely because it ensures kids get ample exercise, but because it exposes children to a range of challenges and helps them develop a cooperative mind-set. Unfortunately, in public schools there are often more willing players than slots on the team, so if your child isn’t a natural athlete, she may get cut from the squad without ever getting the opportunity to hone her skills. Private schools, on the other hand, have smaller populations to manage, and that means higher participation rates in athletics. “We never cut players from our teams,” says Amy Pearson, admissions director for the Marin campus of Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Rafael. “At our school any child can play any sport regardless of ability.”

4 Flexible Curriculum Private school advocates also note that they are advantaged in their ability to tailor curriculum to particular interests of any given class. In the public school, teachers must adhere to a state-sanctioned curriculum. To confirm those expectations are met, standardized tests are given each year. Should that testing indicate teachers aren’t adequately covering the mandated material, the school can lose funding. “We have no timeline on when a student needs to master specific material. If students show a real interest in a certain subject, the teacher can take the opportunity to delve deeper,” says MPMS’s Elam. This freedom also allows teachers to take an interdisciplinary approach to learning. “When our third-graders study Africa, we cover certain material in science and social studies but will go further and explore the topic through art and drama as well.”

5 Exposure to the Arts and Foreign Language When budgets get slashed, public schools are forced to eliminate all but the essential core curriculum. In many cases, that means art and music programs are compromised. Ditto for foreign language programs. Currently, only a handful of Marin school districts offer full-year foreign language programs to students prior to high school. Conversely, most private schools introduce foreign language curriculum during the elementary years. “Foreign language is an integral part of our program,” says Pearson. “And it’s not just about the language. The goal is to help these kids become culturally literate so they really can become citizens of the world.”
6College Prep For college-bound students, finding an institution that suits their personality and then securing a spot at said university is the ultimate objective. By attending a private school, they may actually have a leg up on their public school competition. Statistically speaking, students at private schools score higher on college prep tests than their public school counterparts. According to the National Association of  Independent Schools (which represents more than 1,700 schools), in 2009–10 students at its affiliate schools averaged 590 points in the critical reading section of the SAT, 603 points in the mathematics section, and 593 in the writing section. Marin County public school averages were 561 for critical reading, 568 for mathematics and 566 for writing. (These numbers are from the 2008–2009 school year, as 2009–10 numbers were not available as of press time.)

Likewise, because college guidance counselors at private schools have fewer students to counsel, it stands to reasons that they’re better equipped to assist students in their quest to find a program that fits both their goals and temperament. “At a public school, the college counselor is juggling the needs of 200 students,” says The Marin School’s Esty. “At an independent school, he or she deals with a fraction of that amount and can therefore devote more time to considering each individual’s unique set of circumstances.”

Acing the SSAT

For students hoping to attend a private high school, good grades aren’t always enough to secure a slot. Most independent Bay Area high schools require applicants to take a test called the SSAT. (Yep, it’s like the SAT, but it’s given to eighth-graders to gauge scholastic aptitude.) So if you’re thinking of enrolling your child in a private high school, the following pointers may help boost your child’s overall score.

• Make sure your child is well acquainted with the testing format. The exam is composed of five timed sections. The test covers math, reading comprehension, vocabulary and verbal reasoning. There’s also an essay section. Each segment begins with a set of specific directions. Knowing what to do in each section ahead of time will save precious minutes and reduce test day anxiety.

• The bulk of this exam is multiple choice. If your child can eliminate half the options and then make an educated guess, encourage him or her to go for it. However, you’ll want to caution against making wild guesses because as with the SAT, there’s a quarter point penalty for every wrong answer.

• Practice, practice, practice. If you’ve got a self-motivated learner, you can purchase an SSAT workbook, which includes several mock exams. The testing company makes one, as do several other publishers, including Barron’s, Kaplan and the Princeton Review. You can even sign up for an online study course, but if your child needs a little hand-holding, hiring a tutor or signing him up for a test-prep workshop is your best bet. Here in Marin, there’s a course taught jointly by Linda Pniak, a learning specialist at Marin Country Day, and Howard Rachelson, a math teacher at Marin Academy in San Rafael. It’s offered twice during the summer and once in the fall. (The next session begins October 2.) Both teachers also offer one-to-one tutoring as well as small group sessions. For more information, email [email protected].

• On exam day, arrive early so your child has plenty of time to get settled. Also, it’s a good idea to bring a snack. The test takes about three hours to complete, and students are given rest breaks. Recharging with a nutritious snack will keep the brain sharp. 

• If at first your child doesn’t succeed he or she can try, try and try again. The test is offered eight times a year, and there’s no limit on how many times a child can take it. The scores are not averaged; a school receives only the top score, although the file will note that the test was taken multiple times.

How to Afford a Private School

The options are expanding for families of all income levels.

If, in the wake of the current recession, the family income has taken a hit, the idea of springing for a private school education may seem unrealistic. But before you throw in the towel, keep in mind that nearly all of Marin’s private schools offer scholarship money. In fact, most schools are actively working to shed their reputations as elitist institutions catering exclusively to the rich.

“About nine years ago, we made a commitment to change the perception that our school is out of reach to families of moderate incomes,” says Ann Borden, director of communications and indexed tuition for Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera. “We believe economic diversity enriches the educational environment.”

Peter Esty, interim head of The Marin School in Sausalito, shares Borden’s views: “As educators, I think it’s irresponsible to not seek out socioeconomic diversity in our student body.”

This shift in philosophy means that families on all rungs of the economic ladder are now encouraged to apply, essentially allowing families to pay a tuition amount that fits their particular set of economic circumstances. “Last year we had families that paid as little as $500 up to the full amount, which is $26,715,” says Borden.

How much money is available for scholarships varies from school to school and changes from year to year, but roughly one-quarter of Marin’s private school students are paying less than the full tuition. The particulars of which families are eligible and how much tuition is covered, however, are part of a complicated equation. To ensure that the earmarking of funds is done in a manner that’s systematic and fair, many schools try to keep the admissions process separate from the aid process. Marin Country Day, as well as many other Bay Area schools, channels all request for financial aid through an organization called School & Student Services (SSS), a nonprofit group dedicated to helping private schools assess applications for tuition assistance. The service then uses a software program to crunch the numbers and come up with a recommended tuition price. “We find that the number that comes back is usually just about right for what the family can afford,” says Borden.

Few schools offer full-ride scholarships. However, if the reduced tuition price still feels a bit steep, most schools will allow you to pay tuition in multiple installments. There are even a few companies, including one called Your Tuition Solutions, that will give you an educational loan with terms similar to what you’d expect for an undergraduate or graduate school loan. Unfortunately, due to turmoil in the financial markets, many providers of K–12 loans have temporarily suspended lending. That said, it’s at least worth considering the possibility of tapping into college funds you’ve set aside to foot the bill, since grants, scholarships and loans are much easier to come by at the university level.

Making the Switch

Three moms discuss their reasons for leaving the public school system and how it turned out for their kids.

Family 1: The Berks
“Some kids do great in public school,” says Terri Berk of Greenbrae, “but I think for kids who don’t fit inside a certain box, it can be tough to find your way.” Her daughter, Julia, attended the local public school from kindergarten until third grade. For whatever reason, Julia struggled to find her place in the public school system. “It was a very large campus, and she’d make friends in her classroom one year and then get split up from those kids the following year and have to start all over again,” says Terri. On top of that, she notes that there wasn’t enough supervision on the playground to properly facilitate conflict resolution. “I think they did the best they could, but when you have several hundred children on a playground you just can’t stay on top of things.” 

The decision to go private, however, wasn’t an easy one. “I wondered if it was really worth the money, or if Julia would even be any better off,” Terri recalls. It was a judgment call, because her daughter never said anything about hating school. “Yet I can’t even count the number of days when she’d come home from school in a terrible mood because of something that happened.” After much soul-searching, Terri bit the bullet and enrolled Julia at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Rafael beginning in fourth grade.

“The adjustment wasn’t altogether easy,” Terri recalls, “but the difference was that her teachers, the administrators and every other adult in her orbit did their best to help her get comfortable.” All that extra effort paid off. Julia, currently a seventh-grader, is thriving in her new school. “She’s found a group of friends that support her and have her back,” says her mom. And while there are still cliques and occasional cattiness (yes, girls will be girls), Terri is impressed with how well the school handles these conflicts. “I love that they have an advisory period once a week where kids are encouraged to say what’s on their minds and work out any differences they have with classmates.” 

Family 2: The Brophys
When Jane Brophy of Mill Valley and her family relocated from Milwaukee five years ago, Brophy enrolled her youngest son, Peter, in the local public school. From the beginning it wasn’t a good fit. “They just didn’t get him,” she recalls. “We knew he was smart, but he just wasn’t doing well in school.” The school couldn’t tell her why, so she had her son tested for a possible learning disability. The testing suggested that he did have a mild visual processing disorder. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t bad enough for him to qualify for an individualized education plan (IEP),” says Jane. (If a child does have an IEP, the school is legally bound to provide the student with accommodations and curriculum modifications that might improve his or her academic success.) “The best they could do was encourage me to talk to each of his teachers individually and ask for accommodations, such as giving him more time to take tests.” Unfortunately, she recalls, this was not consistently executed. “I found the whole process frustrating and adversarial,” she says. By her son’s sophomore year, Jane got fed up and began a search for an independent school that was willing to meet her child’s needs. They settled on The Marin School in Sausalito and couldn’t be happier. “They’ve made all the accommodations we asked for, and now he’s so much more motivated to learn,” says Jane. “Before, he would do his homework begrudgingly. Now he not only finds the classes interesting but also asked to be put in an honors English class, this in addition to an honors math class that his teacher recommended he take.”

Family 3: The Cohens
When the time came to register her eldest child for kindergarten, Stacey Cohen of Tiburon had no reservations about sending her daughter, Sophie, to the local school. “I went to public schools all the way through high school, so the idea of a private school wasn’t even a consideration,” Sophie’s mother recalls. But by the time Sophie reached the second grade, Stacey and her husband began to question that wisdom. “There were 24 kids in the classroom and just one teacher,” she says, “and because Sophie was neither the best student nor the worst student, we feared that she would just get lost in the shuffle.”

So the couple started shopping around for a program where the student-teacher ratio allowed for more individualized attention. “We chose Marin Primary because we appreciated their whole-child approach to learning,” says Cohen. “It’s our feeling that a child’s emotional well-being is just as important — if not more important — than academic success, and we love that they share this belief.” In fact, the school’s educational philosophy so impressed the Cohens that they decided to skip a trial run at the public school for their middle son, Jack, and enrolled him in Marin Primary’s kindergarten straight away. With a full year under their belt, the Cohens are more than pleased with their decision. “Sophie blossomed this past year,” says Stacey. “Her self-confidence has gone through the roof.” The same goes for her son Jack: “In preschool he was always kind of on the outside,” she recalls. “Now he’s completely in the mix, and that’s beautiful to see.”

Dawn Denberg

Dawn Margolis Denberg has worked as a professional journalist for 20 years. Her work has appeared in top publications, including Wired, Shape and Parenting. She has also written several books for children including, The Men in Black Agent’s Manual The Official Godzilla Movie Fact Book. And, most recently, an episodic audio series for Tales Untold.