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Public vs. Private: How to Choose the Right School for Your Child

Public or private school? If you think about how much time your child spends at school, you might become very overwhelmed trying to pick the right one. Our area experts help you consider what's most important—for your family.
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Going on a tour? Print out a helpful list of questions to ask to help you make the most informed decision about your child’s education.
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• Get 10 tips for a successful parent-teacher conference

Our area experts help you consider what's most important when picking a school for your child.

Your stomach's in knots; it's the first day of school and you may be even more nervous than your kids. Will they make friends? Are they going to be a good student? Will they miss me? But, even before they step inside their first classroom, there is that daunting process of sorting, interviewing, and touring schools to find the "perfect fit," a particularly challenging task in New York City where the education system is more complex and competitive than most.

"I think for a long time, parents felt like they couldn't send their kids to public schools in New York City," says Robin Aronow, founder of School Search NYC, who helps families in Manhattan navigate public and private schools. "Now, parents believe in public schools. There are wonderful public schools in the area, so much so that some can't even get into their zoned schools."

Although the amount of information and number of schools to vet are enormous, having options is a good thing. Each child is unique, so it's fitting that they are taught in diverse ways—there's public, private, progressive, traditional, gifted and talented, even specialized schools heavily focusing on certain subjects.

Whether applying for public or private preschool, pre-K, elementary, middle, or high school, experts and parents who have been through the process say that a successful educational path is as much dependent upon the school as it is on parent involvement and overall happiness of the child and family.

Basics of Enrolling

Before contemplating whether a public or private school is the right place for your child, there are certain questions to ask and goals for kids and family to consider.

"It's helpful to know what you're hoping for," says Joyce Szuflita, founder of NYC School Help, an expert on helping families navigate private or public schools in Brooklyn. "You don't know the path until you know the destination."

That ultimate destination, according to Dr. Paul Lowe, CEO of Private Schools Admissions Advisors, is to "get into a great college and enjoy the academic journey," a challenging prediction to make if your kids are at the beginning of their educational careers. This is why Dr. Lowe strongly advises parents to, "seriously observe their child because no one else will understand [him] better than you do. Parents need to be the advocates. They should be deeply involved in their kids' education."

In the eyes of Stephen Watters, headmaster at The Green Vale Academy, an independent nursery-to-9th-grade school in Old Brookville, and the recently elected board of trustees president of the New York State Association of Independent Schools, parents should trust the environment they have to leave their children in.

"[Parents] should be clear that the mission of the school is in fact happening so that they can have that belief in the system," Watters says. "For example, Green Vale is known for its academic excellence and joyful environment. Schools should challenge and inspire children to be their best. The foundation of academic skills is essential for a lifetime of learning."

Additionally, when it comes to selecting schools for children entering nursery school, among the most important aspects are location, price, and schedule, says Szuflita, a mother of twin girls who attend public schools in Brooklyn.

Proximity to Home

"If the world's greatest school is miles away, and there's a pretty good school across the street," Szuflita says, "I would take the pretty good school across the street. The hassle in the morning, the difficulties, the misery that that can make your life is not a good way to start your child on his or her educational path."

Still, there are hundreds of older students who commute several hours every day between home and school. With older students, parents and the student should practice the commute even before enrolling in the school to see if it is bearable-for the next 180 or so days, for the next several years.

Financial Realities

When it comes to price, Szuflita says it's common to lose sight of the big picture. Rather, "think of the family as a whole."

"You can find worthy programs for your child that are affordable," she says. "If the tuition at your school is going to put your family in jeopardy, it is not worth it. You should try to find something else because there are lovely programs at all levels."

Being open-minded about different neighborhoods that were not initially on your radar is key. Eric Grannis, father of three children who attend public schools in New York City, developed School Fisher, a website that pairs high-quality public elementary schools with affordable real estate, showing that quality schools can be found in all neighborhoods, not just the priciest areas.

Using a combination of state standardized test scores and demographics, School Fisher gives letter grades to schools different from progress reports by the New York Department of Education. "The data on the [Department of Education] progress reports are helpful," Grannis say, "but they are not as transparent."

For example, the overall grade on the Department of Education's progress report may be inflated by extra points given to schools that educate students of lower socioeconomic status and who may be non-native English speakers. As a result, Grannis explains, a certain school in Manhattan may have an A, even though 50 percent of its students read at grade level.

Independent schools offer financial aid programs in an effort to make the education provided in these schools available to children and families who may not be able to afford it.

"At Green Vale, we want to make this school an option for students and families," Watters says. "From a philosophical point of view, we want to have an environment here that allows children and families to appreciate differences-economic differences, families' backgrounds, cultural background. It is preparation for the ever-changing world."

A Balancing Act

About applying to nursery schools, "you're looking for an environment for your whole family," says Gina Malin, director of school advisory services at the nonprofit Parents League, which assists families in finding independent schools from nursery to high school in New York City. "It's a second home. It's your child's first step outside of home, so it's important you feel the most comfortable and feel that you'll be the most happy as a family."

Many families should be applying to preschool a year before their child will attend, so it's good to think ahead and really consider parents' future work schedule.

"Some families feel that they just want to dip their toe into preschool with a short week or short day," Szuflita says, "and some need coverage or feel that their children will benefit from the routine and bonding that a full schedule can provide. How to make childcare work as well as budget can be a serious factor in figuring out schedule."

Public vs. Private

"There are happy, beautifully educated students from both public and private schools," Szuflita says. But, to many parents who send their children to private schools, it is because they believe the money spent equals a better pay-off.

And there is, to some extent. "Things that are important to these parents are class sizes, teacher-to-student ratio, facilities, and have to do with the number of programs the schools can offer," Aronow says. "The fact that private schools want children to be well-rounded individuals, with art, music and athletics-those are things that will never be cut because of budgets. Also, many parents [of children who attend private schools] feel in public schools the curriculum is driven by testing as opposed to the other way around. And then there's prestige--the feeling that you're going to make connections later in life."

In general, independent schools have lower teacher to student ratio, smaller classes, and better-equipped facilities, such as science labs, art studios, and gyms.

But, now that more and more families with young children are staying in the city, these groups of parents are getting together and saying, "Let's go to the community schools together," says Aronow. With these parents putting their time, money, and energy into these zoned schools, they are able to bring more resources to the school.

Private School Admissions Advisors, a firm that helps families navigate the private school admissions process and placement primarily in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, has seen an increase in the number of parents pulling their kids from public suburban Connecticut schools. "Years ago, there were 17 students per high school class," Dr. Lowe says. "Now, there are 26. Particularly in lower Fairfield County, parents are showing an interest in private schools."

Dr. Lowe, who personally visits each school, won't recommend private schools to everyone. He encourages all parents to visit the schools while they are in session, before applying, so that they can see the engagement level of students and teachers, measure how involved they can be, ask about support mechanisms, such as options for extra help outside the classroom, and ultimately see if the school "feels right."

"You can have one family walk into one school and absolutely love it," Malin agrees. "Another family can walk into the same school and say, 'This is not right for us.' And in terms of 'What's better [between public and independent schools]?' In the end, it's what's best for you and your family."

Siblings Attending Different Schools

Former teacher at Bedford Middle School, a public school in Westport, CT, Mary Vickery sent two of her three children to a public high school with about 1,800 students, while her third and youngest child, Dorothy, attended Green Farms Academy, a private college preparatory day school in Fairfield County.  

"Dorothy started to see in 7th grade that she felt she wanted a smaller environment," Mary says. "She felt [the academy] was a good alternative [to public high school]. And from our point of view, the growth in her was tremendous and the confidence that we saw built was so great. If she was at [the public school], she was just going to be one of the pack. The academy had a way of making her feel like a star. Smaller [class size] is always going to be preferable if the child isn't going to be the totally self-directed type of kid."

At the same time Dorothy was entering the academy, her older sister was finishing up at the public high school--a school that was "right" for her because of her "big fish" personality, not to mention the nationally renowned arts program that matched up with her academic interests, Mary says. "If your child is one of the big fish in the pond, then keep them in the big pond, let them compete."

As a parent dedicated to her children's educational success, Mary served on both schools' PTAs. Unfortunately, this is not always an option for parents, and sending siblings to separate schools brings challenges, including scheduling conflicts.

Drawing from his own experiences as a father of three children (all of whom attended Ivy League colleges), Dr. Lowe recommends explaining the sacrifices to kids. "As a parent, it becomes a partnership in helping children. If there is communication with the child as to why you can't make it to a certain game or activity, they will understand-they really do. We always set aside time to have dinner together. That was very important in our household."

You're In. Now You Want to Transfer?

Your job as a parent involves guiding your children through difficult and disappointing times, and there will be disappointing times.

"You just can't engineer a perfect situation for your child," Szuflita says. "There are going to be bumps in the road. On occasion, letting your children experience failure is very important to their development. If we always provided a perfectly smooth and lovely path, once they get to adulthood, they will be completely unprepared for all that life has to offer."

Learning to handle these "bumps in the road" in school means active parent involvement. For many, if a student is struggling or not thriving in school, the first instinct is to pull the child out of the classroom and into a different school altogether.

However, families should exhaust all options within the existing school before making any big decisions, including having a face-to-face brainstorm session with the teacher, who should be approached as a partner in the solution. And then go up the ladder to the principal or director to see how the situation at-hand can be improved.

Breathing Easier

Rumors and horror stories may paint an unpleasant picture of the school application process. "Parents anticipate that they don't have any choice, and I know it's not easy," Szuflita says. "You need a relative tolerance for uncertainty. The variety of choice comes with anxiety, but you also get a tremendous amount of options."

And, as with any big decision, she says, "You can't make a good decision if you're operating on fear."


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