Private Schools

Private schools are both elective and selective. They are elective in that all students must choose to attend, but they are selective in that only those who can afford to pay are able to attend. Often the elective process narrows student candidates to those who have a particular affinity for an institution, religious denomination, community, or future goal.

As such, many private school students have at least some shared interest. The student body is also made up of children whose families have the awareness and wherewithal to provide for a private school experience. Thus, they can be perceived as being economically advantaged.

That is not necessarily the case, however; many private schools are dependent upon student recruitment and have a variety of programs to assist families. Private-school administrators often encourage families to inquire even if they don't believe the school is affordable. There is often financial aid or other assistance available for motivated families.

Some private schools are highly creative in their development of curriculum while others utilize curriculum developed for the general market, or "third-party" curriculum. Teacher credentials vary widely as they are not bound by state standards. Essentially, private schools are more beholden to the marketplace, not external standards.

In this sense, it is important to investigate the voluntary accountability oversight schools submit themselves to. Look for accrediting bodies and regional organizations such as the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, or private accrediting bodies such as the Association of Christian Schools International. These associations require member schools to meet minimum standards in terms of academic achievement, testing, teacher credentials, curriculum, and facilities.

One of the main advantages of private schools is their freedom to include religious instruction as part of their elective and required curriculum. Many private schools have behavioral standards to which students must ascribe. Others require a statement of faith or other sign of allegiance to a particular set of beliefs. Many private Christian schools place a special emphasis on community service, mission trips, and calling from God, and even have as a goal to raise up future Christian leaders. Even so, it is important to remember that enrolling children in a private school is no substitute for parent involvement and diligence.

The term "private school" may conjure images of expensive, high-class, college preparatory boarding schools, and such institutions do exist. Most private schools in the United States, however, are small, modest operations with limited facilities. While there are secular private schools, the overwhelming majority are affiliated with religious institutions. Some private schools are part of a large, well-organized structure such as Catholic or Lutheran schools; others are small, independent operations tied only to a local church. Typically, schools associated with denominational structures (for example, Catholic schools) are more predictable than independent schools, whose curriculum, accreditation, and academic oversight may vary widely.

Private schools are governed by their own set of rules. These rules may be established by a local board or may be imposed from the national organization or denomination. It is sometimes difficult to tell which set of operational rules — national or local — hold the advantage. On one hand, local control means nimble response to the community need; on the other hand, association with strong national organizations ensures that the school is meeting standards set for it by the national body.

Things to Look for in Private Schools

  1. Associations and accreditations. Unless the administration is exceptionally skilled, it is usually important for a private school to have applied for and been accepted into a governing set of standards and achieved some sort of accreditation. That is the seal of approval that says the school meets certain standards of financial accountability, academic rigor, rules of ethics, and so on.
  2. Curriculum. Some schools employ teachers who are trained and skilled educators. They are able to create and deploy effective curriculum and tie that curriculum to state or governing association standards. Other schools simply adopt a curriculum created by third-party curriculum providers and implement them in their system.
  3. Academic accountability. Public schools are required to use standardized tests to demonstrate student competence in core subjects. Many private schools choose to use the same tests in order to compare their program to public schools, while others select an independent testing norm that measures student achievement but is difficult to compare to state standards. Still others choose to not use standardized tests at all. When evaluating a school that does not use standardized tests, get data on SAT or ACT scores and compare them with surrounding public schools. College placement statistics are also good indicators of academic suitability.
  4. Denomination or religious affiliation. You'll want to ensure that the religious viewpoint of the school is consistent with your personal beliefs.

Pros of Private Schools

  • Participation is by choice. Parents should have a high degree of commitment to the school and this factor significantly contributes to creating a good academic and social environment.
  • Private schools can legally provide religious instruction.
  • Private schools aren't dependent on the state for money, and therefore may have better control over their long-term budgeting process than charter or magnet schools.
  • Private schools have to compete with free public schools. Ideally, their accountability to parents should be high.
  • Private schools may tend to attract like-minded families, making social interaction with others easier.

Cons of Private Schools

  • Private schools require parents to pay tuition for their children to attend.
  • Teachers may not be required to have state certification.
  • Because private schools charge tuition and therefore may not be an option for lower-income families, the student population may not be as diverse as in a public-school setting.
  • There is not accountability to state standards unless it is self-imposed.
  • Often there is no bus service.
  • Sports, music and other special-interest activities may not be offered.
  • Sometimes there is a long waiting period to get your child enrolled.

Adapted from Handbook on Choosing Your Child's Education, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers. Copyright © 2007, Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

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