Most parents know there are decisions ahead about college and sometimes even high school. But choices surrounding public versus private elementary schools catch many unaware.
Evaluating a private elementary school involves an array of factors beyond cost, including the campus setting, diversity, educational philosophy, transportation, dress code, and a child's learning style and personality.
Education experts say the best approach for parents is to take it one step at a time and do the homework required to understand all of the options.
"You're making an investment for a number of years. You want to make sure you are happy and that you find the best fit for both your child and your family," says Pamela Tedeschi, a certified educational planner who owns Tedeschi Educational Consulting in Maryland.
What to Expect at Private Elementary Schools
Deciding between public and private school can be as much about individual preferences as it is about geography or other factors, Tedeschi says.
"Some counties have incredible services, such as those for the gifted, the arts or learning disabilities, so parents will need to compare what they might get at a private school," she says.
Private schools often have smaller class sizes, which offer students more individualized instruction, and special programs such as foreign language immersion or a robust theater or music department.
"Each is mission-driven and unique," says Myra McGovern, vice president of media at the National Association of Independent Schools, often called NAIS, the country's largest association of independent schools. "Families can find a school that meets their own philosophy."
Private schools offer many different educational philosophies, from religious education to Montessori and Waldorf schools, each of which has a different approach to teaching and learning.
For example, Jerry Mintz, founder of the Alternative Education Resource Organization, which helps parents learn about educational alternatives, is involved in democratic schools, which allow children to vote on how their schools are run.
One example that he cites is New York City's Pono, which bills itself as an independent, democratic, urban, outdoor educational program. At Pono, the students go on more than 70 trips a year to destinations in and around the city.
"The people in our network believe children are true natural learners," Mintz says. "If you believe that, you don't force them to learn things that don't interest them."
Start With a Checklist
When evaluating private elementary schools, it's smart to assemble a comprehensive checklist before determining major priorities, Tedeschi says.
She focuses on people first, looking at teacher qualifications, teacher longevity and professional development. She also looks at the curriculum to see whether it meets a child's needs, plays to their strengths and challenges them. Physical considerations such as location, campus style, athletic facilities and art rooms come next, along with commonly tracked metrics such as class size and student-teacher ratio.
Parents, she says, are also increasingly inquiring about how schools address:
-- Diversity among the student body and staff.
-- Community service programs.
-- Classroom behavior management.
-- Well-being programs to address anxiety.
-- Rules around the use of technology during the school day.
In the age of COVID-19, Tedeschi also encourages parents to ask about pandemic policies on vaccination, face masks, social distancing and other protocols. "No one is sure how long COVID will stay with us, so parents will want to ask these types of questions," she says.
One Family's Journey to Private School
Crannough Jones, a single parent in Potomac, Maryland, turned to private school for her 11-year-old daughter when their public school district went virtual. A product of private school education herself, Jones found her local public schools "exceptional," but wanted to ensure her daughter had in-classroom experience.
"I did not want my daughter to lose another year" to pandemic-related uncertainties, Jones wrote in an email. "My daughter is super independent, but she needs mommy to help with homework sometimes. As a working single parent, that became challenging at times. She rocked virtual schooling for their first three quarters, but then began to lose interest. She started missing assignments. She would do them and not submit them. I knew it was time for a change."
To determine the best fit, Jones researched and visited schools within reasonable commuting distance, analyzed their curricula and student outcomes and applied to several. This fall, her daughter will attend a private school.
"Parents who are contemplating this decision for whatever reason should do themselves a favor and research the available offerings ... and just apply," Jones says. "If they do not get a favorable response from one for whatever reason, they could get a favorable result from another."
Jones is certainly not the only one to investigate options. In Los Angeles, LA Tutors 123, which offers tutoring, test preparation and admissions consulting, has seen an uptick in clients applying to private schools, says Senior Program Manager Eric Kim.
"They were faster to return to an in-person option and were able to meet safety precautions like social distancing with more ease due to larger classrooms and smaller teacher-student ratios," Kim wrote in an email.
"Many children who attended public school ended up working with private tutors to supplement their schooling," he says. "With this in mind, families found that private schools may actually be a better investment if they are already spending their time and resources on supplemental tutoring."
Cost: The Biggest Differentiator
For those evaluating private schools, cost is often a major factor. The average annual tuition for K-12 nationwide is $12,350 as of August this year, according to EducationData.org. However, private school costs can vary dramatically by location, the amount of aid available and many other factors.
The average annual elementary school tuition nationwide is $8,700 and the average Catholic elementary school tuition is $4,800. Of course, tuition costs can get much higher. In Connecticut, which has the highest average private school costs in the nation, the average elementary school tuition is $14,350 a year.
What tuition covers varies by school and education experts say it is important to ask for details. The price tag may or may not include items such as classroom materials, meals and participation in sports or other programs.
"If cost is an issue, ask about financial aid," McGovern says. "Many schools offer financial aid for families and the families may not think they qualify. You never know unless you ask."
Exploring Private Elementary Schools
For parents who want to take a look at what is available around the country, here's a sample of well-known private elementary schools:
-- Basis Independent Silicon Valley in Sunnyvale, California, serves children in transitional kindergarten through 12th grade. A STEM-focused school, it describes itself as a place "where math classes are the epicenter of student collaboration."
-- The Brearley School is a girls K-12 school located in New York City. With about 760 students, it has a 6-to-1 ratio of students to teachers.
-- Germantown Friends School is a Quaker school in Philadelphia serving about 1,070 students from preschool through 12th grade. The 193 faculty members average 15 years of teaching experience each, and 27 faculty and staff are alumni.
-- Horace Mann School has an 18-acre campus in the Bronx, New York, and a smaller Manhattan campus. It has almost 1,800 students in nursery school through 12th grade. The school owns the John Dorr Nature Laboratory, a 320-acre facility in Bethlehem, Connecticut.
-- The Lexington School, in Lexington, Kentucky, teaches about 600 students in preschool through eighth grade. Roughly 16 after-school programs are offered each semester, from a chess club to a Chinese language class.
-- Maret School offers K-12 education to 650 students on a single campus in Washington, D.C. It is more than 100 years old.
-- The New School in Fayetteville, Arkansas, sits on 26 acres that include a Tinkering Studio and Innovation Center. It has about 400 K-12 students.
-- Polytechnic School in Pasadena, California, serves about 870 K-12 students. The performing arts program featured 20 student performances in the 2019-20 school year, with almost half in elementary grades.
-- St. Mark's School of Texas is a Christian school for boys in Dallas serving first through 12th grades. Among its 127 full-time teachers, half are women and 30% have taught at St. Mark's for more than two decades.
-- The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools in Chicago serve more than 2,000 students in nursery school through high school. The school is part of the University of Chicago and benefits directly from its faculty and resources.
Searching for a school? Explore our K-12 directory.