Is Private School for You?

Understanding Your Child’s Educational Options

Living in the greater Annapolis area, deciding where to educate your child can feel confusing and overwhelming. Your child has an array of classroom and school curriculum possibilities, from prekindergarten through high school to nurture his or her academic curiosities: public, parochial and private schools, homeschooling and alternative learning options. It is comforting that several educational options, unavailable just a few decades ago, now exist. With all of these options, however, comes the arduous task of choosing which school option is right for your child and your family.

While the various options address many personalities and learning styles, choosing the best educational environment can lead parents and children alike to the brink of frustration. Pressure to make the best educational decision to ensure your child’s exposure to a variety of academic, cultural and social experiences tends to compound the already lofty task of choosing a school. The fear of making the "wrong choice" or not offering a child the best possible education can be exacerbated by well-intending friends and relatives who happily offer their opinions on where and how your child should be educated.

Educating a child through the public school system is a widely popular and successful choice for many. As recipients of local, state and federal funding, public schools have significant resources as opposed to the privately funded revenue of parochial and private schools. While many parents automatically opt to send their children to public schools, considering all of the options might uncover an educational opportunity you or your child hadn’t considered.

It All Starts with a Word

As you contemplate where to educate your child, you are probably weighing factors such as availability of transportation, student-teacher ratios, extended curriculum options, after-school care, district policies and standardized testing results. While these factors obviously will weigh heavily in your decision-making process, they may not be high on your child’s list of reasons to attend a particular school.

"Talking with your child might reveal some strong reasons for choosing a private, alternative or parochial school," encourages Barbara Pietschman, a third grade teacher and mother of three. "Forcing a child to attend a school he or she adamantly is opposed to can be counterproductive."

Discuss your child’s expectations to help guide your thinking so that you come to a mutually rewarding conclusion. Perhaps your daughter is very compassionate and wants to participate in the monthly service projects that parochial schools offer. Maybe your son fears wearing a uniform or not making friends in the neighborhood if he doesn’t attend the local public school.

List your priorities along with your child’s priorities, fears and concerns to determine what each of you expect from a school, teacher and classroom. Before you and your child make a final decision, ask to take a tour of each potential school’s classrooms and building. Grant your child the freedom to ask the principal or teachers questions. Getting a good sense of a school before you make the decision to enroll helps ensure that everyone will be comfortable with the decision.

Faith-Based Education

Although popular a few decades ago, many parochial schools have seen a recent decline in enrollment. This decline translates into a few potential advantages as well as some disadvantages. Unlike the curriculum of many public schools, parochial schools do not limit their teaching to the median student’s ability. With lower enrollment numbers, parochial schools tend to offer smaller class sizes and curriculums tailored to each student’s strengths and abilities. The students focus on respect and consideration as much as they do on math and spelling and are encouraged to support and mentor each other.

Although extremely beneficial, this individualized attention and instruction does not come without a price. Smaller class sizes often translate into a tuition bill that averages approximately a few hundred dollars a month. Payment options, such as "fair ability," do allow families to pay based on their income or ability and ease some of the financial burden. Lower enrollment may also limit some extracurricular activities or sports.

Most parochial schools also include some aspect of religion in their daily or weekly curriculum. Whether beginning each day with a prayer or having religion classes, faith-based education offers a unique educational experience. Focusing on teaching the "total" student, faith-based educators expend just as much energy nurturing a child’s spirit and conscience as they do expanding his or her knowledge.

Another consideration for parochial (and occasionally private) schools is the strict dress code. Some feel that uniforms limit individuality by eliminating a child’s self-expression through clothing. Conversely, uniforms have also been credited with "leveling" the clothing field by removing the chance a child will select expensive clothes due to peer pressure.

Private Alternative

Montessori schools, home-based school curriculums and privately funded schools offer another set of unique educational circumstances. Similar to parochial schools in that these institutions usually tailor curriculums and levy tuitions that can sometimes be hefty, these options generally deviate from the typical teaching philosophies of public and parochial schools.

"My youngest son could not adjust to the structure of a traditional classroom," confides Karen Flannigan, a mother of three. When she opted to send her son, Xachery, to a school that incorporates an alternative and less structured environment for first grade, everyone noticed a vast improvement in his attitude and productivity. "I wish that his kindergarten teacher would have made us aware of some of these alternative options. It would have saved us a great deal of aggravation," she adds.

Allowing children to work at their own pace or make some of their own educational decisions, schools with alternative learning environments do not always follow a predetermined curriculum. From substituting class work for field trips and having gym class at a local ice rink, alternative education usually appeals to extremely independent, artistic and free-spirited children. The advantage of this type of environment is that a child learns time management skills and how to make decisions that directly affect his or her success. One possible disadvantage is that a child who struggles with disorganization (or is easily distracted) finds excelling in this type of learning environment difficult.

Independently funded private schools are another type of educational option. One major difference in these schools versus parochial or alternative schools is that privately funded independent institutions often offer both educational and residential opportunities for children. By giving students individualized attention, non-religious, independently funded schools provide an environment that places a high value on a stimulating intellectual life. Elementary, middle school and high school students at these schools develop self-esteem, responsibility, confidence, core values and self-discipline all while living on campus among their peers.

As you wade through the advantages and drawbacks to some of your child’s educational options and expectations, take heart in knowing that children are resilient and model your examples. If your child senses your anxiety and frustration, he or she may develop a fear or phobia about entering school. If you can approach your child’s education with patience, perseverance and an open mind, you’re certain to make a decision that best suits everyone’s needs.

By Gina Roberts-Grey

Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance family issues writer and has contributed to more than 150 publications worldwide.

Chesapeake Family serves parents and families in Annapolis, Anne Arundel, Howard, Calvert, Prince George's counites, Bowie and the Eastern Shore of Maryland.