Private schools are often associated, fairly or unfairly, with elitism, insularity, and privilege. Not to forget, they can be expensive. So who chooses them—and why? Can they provide the right environment to children of diverse backgrounds, allowing them to thrive? To seek answers, Khabar spoke with educators, administrators, parents, and students.
The blue polka dot head band barely restrains the gorgeous mop of curls framing Sophie Mathew’s face. The four-year-old is precocious—she rattles off what she’s heard on “NPAAH” (NPR) during her evening commute back home from daycare with her mom, Nancy, and her younger sister, Nikita. The Mathews live in a quiet, kid-friendly subdivision in Marietta, GA. The family relocated from a Buckhead condo— which had easy access to hip restaurants, bars, the night life—to Marietta a few years ago after Nikki came along. “Our move was in large part driven by what we thought we needed to do for our daughters,” the father Manu Mathew says. In about two years, Sophie Mathew will be old enough to start kindergarten. The Mathews, like many other parents in the greater Atlanta area, are now asking the question, “Public or private school?” About his four-year-old, Manu says, “It’s hard for me to understand what Sophie’s true interests are. How do I make important decisions about what’s best for her?” The Mathews have moved to a public school district that is generally regarded as ‘good.’ “I attended a private convent school in India and I often wonder if my children should also be given a similar choice in the United States,” Nancy Mathew says. “I suspect that private schools will instill better discipline, and I might want that for my kids.”
Asian American immigrants are often hailed as the “model minority”—a congratulatory moniker that comes arguably from their emphasis on high quality education. Large numbers of Indian-American families in well-performing school districts in the metro area are a testament to that. But, as Nancy Mathew asks, what about private schools?
The Westminster Schools. (Photo: Billy Howard)
Are they all the same?
Not all private schools are the same, of course. Public schools in the U.S. are supported by tax revenues generated by the state and municipalities, with assistance from the federal government. In general, private schools operate on revenues generated by tuition fees paid by the pupils. Public charter schools are governed by a charter that is awarded by an institutional authority such as a county or municipality. They have access to public funding but are exempted from some regulations as long as charter standards are held.
There’s great diversity in the private school system. Anshika Karamchandani is a Smyrna-based strategy consultant who has provided pro bono consulting services to private schools. She is also a mother of two young girls who currently attend St. Benedict’s. “There are religious or parochial schools and there are non-denominational schools,” she points out. It is worth noting that, nationwide in 2011-12, 10 percent of all students were in private schools. Of that, up to 40 percent were enrolled in Catholic schools, and the rest in other types of private schools (see the end of this story to learn more).
According to the Georgia Department of Education, there are over 140 charter schools in the state, with over 70 in the metro Atlanta area. A recent U.S. News school ranking had the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology, a public charter school, as the nation’s fourth best high school and the first in Georgia.
Anupama Shankar and her family.
Anupama Shankar, mother of twin girls who attend Globe Academy charter school, says, “A charter school is typically founded by a group of passionate folks, many being parents and educators, and people who go there actually choose to apply (though the final selection is by lottery). This normally results in a more invested parent body, and there is a core of parents that believe in the charter and make a difference. Most charters tend to do better than standard schools in rankings and it seems as though it’s a function of the independence granted to them in both administrative affairs and hiring of staff.” Shankar also sees definite advantages in smaller teacher-student ratios and a greater emphasis on music and the arts. But foes of the lottery system think it is needlessly capricious and unfair to deserving children who get left out.
Ann Angell of Northwoods Montessori.
Most schools following the Montessori method would also be classified as private schools. “It’s a method that puts the child in the director’s seat,” explains longtime educator Dr. Ann Angell, now retired from Northwoods Montessori School in Atlanta. “It depends a great deal on observing children at whatever developmental point they are and meeting their needs and aptitudes with materials, exercises, and lessons that are right for them. Dr. Montessori studied this extensively and concluded that these are the kinds of experiences that really give the intellect the most opportunity for growth. The teacher tries to give the students broad ideas and follow them in the way their interest develops instead of setting a curriculum that everyone should follow. There is a greater emphasis on telling good stories, laying out foundational material, and then trying to help them follow up on things that keenly interest them and sustain the zest for learning.”
Sita Saxena (name changed) put her daughter in a Montessori school through kindergarten. Given another opportunity, she says, she’d have kept her daughter in a Montessori school through sixth grade. Manju Premanand actively sought a Montessori school for her son. Noting that he was “very active and needed to be constantly moving around and exploring his immediate environment,” she adds, “The Montessori environment really worked well for us; it gave my son all the freedoms he needed.” She also thinks there are advan-tages to moving from a Montessori school to a public school—the child is more self-driven and curious to learn.
Culture, homogeneity, class, diversity…
America is a salad bowl to some and a melting pot to others. Whatever the culinary metaphor, shouldn’t schools be representative of the everyday world? Private schools often suffer from a perception (justified or otherwise) of being insular. Sireesha Ghanta, mother of three young children, argues that the choice of school (in their case, Globe Academy, a public charter school) was driven by the diversity in student population. “Our social events are all so desi, our friends are mostly desi, so we wanted diver-sity in the school environment,” she says.
The very idea of a private school for many is synonymous with privilege, status, and wealth. The word preppie is often bandied about. Bhavini Rajan, whose son and daughter attend a private school, notes, “I like the Walker School because it didn’t have that certain air. Everybody was very approachable and down to earth. My children have had a great experience there.”
For Smitha Kurian, parent to a girl attending a private parochial school, the choice of private over public was always clear. “The main reason is that in public schools, there might be children from families that may have different values than ours. That can definitely affect a child in different ways. I believe that private school children come from stronger family backgrounds and that is something that we want. We want to be in a school where the families of all children are similar in their thinking and values.”
Natasha Kumar Warikoo of Harvard.
Natasha Kumar Warikoo, Associate Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, advises parents to appreciate the value of diversity: “There’s a value to going to school where not all children are from the same socioeconomic status. It’s not just about race, but also about class. It’s about understanding that the white collar family background is not a norm. It’s interesting that we value diversity in higher educational institutions but not at schools. I would argue that it’s even more important because that’s when our worldview gets shaped.”
Are all public schools paragons of diversity, though? Rajesh Kurup, whose daughter, Priya, graduated from the Paideia School in Atlanta and will soon be attending New York University, argues that highly ranked public schools tend to be homogenous in their demographics. So why then, he asks, do private schools get criticized on the diversity factor? Besides, isn’t it true that many private schools offer financial aid to needy students and aim for a diverse student body?
(Right) Suzanna Jemsby of Galloway.
“At the Galloway School, we believe that diversity appears in many forms—in language, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality,” says Suzanna Jemsby, a person of Indian heritage and head of school at Galloway. To promote diversity, Galloway offers financial aid packages to eligible students from anywhere between 10 percent to up to 95 percent of tuition.
Families who want an emphasis on faith often choose parochial schools to provide additional faith-based learning opportunities. For Tejal Parikh, mother of four children attending the Westminster School, the emphasis on faith is important. “Westminster has done a wonderful job of providing a holistic education and guiding our children to be lifelong learners, serving their community and neighbors,” she points out. Anshika Karamchandani, whose daughters attend a private parochial school in Smryna, says, “At St. Benedict’s, they have to participate in religious studies and attend chapel, but we [parents] are fine with that. The school embraces diversity.”
Secular private schools are often also chosen for their espousal of certain secular value systems. According to Shalini Patel, whose sons attend the Friends School of Atlanta, “the school teaches Quaker values which are broken down to the kids as Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship (SPICES).” She adds, “We chose this school for the quality of education, philosophy, and diversity.”
Priya Sampath and her family.
However, Priya Sampath, whose oldest daughter is in a public elementary school in a Brookhaven school district, cautions, “We don’t want our daughters to grow up to be princesses. We come from a middle class Indian background. In the Montessori school that my daughter previously attended, families were from the upper middle class, and kids seemed sheltered. I had organized a water-balloon themed birthday party for my oldest a few years ago…the kids were supposed to throw the balloons at each other. But they wouldn’t!”
Only for the wealthy?
How expensive are private schools? It depends. The tuition tends to vary based on what the school offers. In Atlanta, the so-called “elite” private schools such as Westminster, Woodward, Lovett, and Pace charge annual tuitions in the range of $20,000-25,000 per year. Then there are the “mid-tier” schools that may charge between $15,000-20,000 per year. Many religious schools (which may have quotas) tend to keep their tuition rates in the $6,000-$12,000 range. Tuition rates also differ by grade level.
“There is also a rising cost to the schools,” says Anshika Karamchandani. “When we put our older daughter in school in 2009, the tuition was $6,200, which we thought was fairly affordable. We’ve been paying for childcare, so it didn’t seem like much. Today, it is $12,000. That is how rapidly the tuition increases. Had we been living in East Cobb or Suwanee, I wouldn’t have chosen a private school. But since our workplaces are where they are, we chose location for better commute options. We also felt that the time we gave our children was just as important as the schools they attend, so we chose a location where we wouldn’t have to commute too far to get to school or work.”
For Viren Mayani and his wife, Rifka, affordability was always a question. But as Viren put it, “We tightened our belt. We brought our children into the world, so we have a responsibility to provide them with the best opportunities.” The Mayani daughters attend the Walker School in Marietta, GA.
For Kamakshi and Doss Kuppuswamy (below), whose daughter will soon be attending the Fulton Science Academy, “The costs of private school education have always been something we’ve thought about. But the tuition at Fulton Science Academy is much lower than some of the better known metro Atlanta private schools.” Tuition at the Academy is close to $11,000 in the upcoming academic year.
(Right) The Kuppuswamys.
“Be prepared for a few shocks in a public school system,” cautions Priya Sampath, whose oldest daughter, Trisha, moved from a private Montessori school to a public school in Brookhaven. “Take for example, the school bus. We decided to send our kids to school in the school bus. But sometimes the bus wouldn’t show up. At a private school, you raise a ruckus and things are fixed. In public schools, there tends to be more bureaucracy. Parents need to be patient and have a proper perspective.”
Suzanna Jemsby speaking to the student body at Galloway.
Suzanna Jemsby argues, “What you find at [Galloway] is a different atmosphere. There is little bureaucracy and great autonomy. If you think about it this way, public schools are massive ocean liners which take a long time to change course. Private schools are more like catamarans that can change direction and move quickly with the right leadership. As the head of school, I don’t have to double check things with lots of people. When I meet superintendents of public schools here, they are worried about bus schedules and school lunches. I really have the freedom to think about learning.”
John Wembley (name changed), a retired school administrator from a metro Atlanta area public school system, suggests that private schools can be flexible in what they teach and how they teach it: private schools don’t have to meet the restrictions and standards that public schools do. “At a public school, on December 12th, you are supposed to be on page 112 in a textbook. In a private school they might be on page 90 but might have done other things, too. They may have taken the children on a field trip to the aquarium and seen the marine life that they talked about in the classroom.”
What is the ‘value-add’?
“If I am paying taxes that eventually fund public schools, why not use those services?” asks Manu Mathew. What then is the value added by a private school? “If your children do not have any special needs, and money is not an issue, then it really comes down to what kind of value systems you espouse as a family,” says Sampath.
Priya Aiyer, lead second grade teacher at an East Cobb elementary school and mother of two public school students, says, “Based on my experience, a good public school offers excellent well-rounded education. After we moved to one of the best school districts in the Atlanta area, I am seeing first-hand the opportunities that are being offered for both our kids who now attend public schools. The fact that these are in an affluent area has meant that there is tremendous parental involvement and access to fantastic resources. Public schools have excellent music and sports programs especially in the middle/high schools. A small private school will not be able to match the same.”
The question still remains, why do families seek private school education? Leading factors that drive many families to choose private schools are small class size, smaller teacher-student ratios, and individualized attention from the teacher. Karamchandani adds, “Safety seems to a big concern at public schools. Keeping kids safe from bullying is very important to us. I am sure it happens everywhere, but if it happens at a private school, it can be dealt with immediately.”
According to Bhavini Rajan, “We all come from backgrounds where education is very important. But it is not just all academics, but also soft skills. Public schools, in my opinion, don’t seem to hone those skills in presentation, communication, etc. My daughter, at first grade, could stand in front of her class and give presentations, which is a good thing.” Rajan’s children attend the Walker School.
“I wish private schools didn’t have to exist,” argues Suzanna Jemsby. “I wish all children had access to opportunities provided at schools like Galloway.” She points to smaller class size, customization of course work, and no testing as factors that enhance the value of a private school education.
“The testing culture is a remnant of an industrialized model that does not apply to human beings,” Dr. Angell argues. “With increased attention to testing, the whole art of teaching has been squeezed into a mechanistic model of input and outcome that is just inappropriate. You cannot get everybody to learn the same thing at the same time. To say that second graders should be able to multiply by two digits by the end of the year is preposterous.”
A young Thendral Govindaraj and friend.
“Public schools are geared towards standardized testing,” says Renu Govindaraj, echoing Dr. Angell. Her daughter Thendral’s kindergarten school, Renu recalls, informed them that her academic prowess would be slow “because she couldn’t differentiate nickels from dimes.” Thendral eventually moved to the privately run Friends School of Atlanta and, later, to Paideia, providing her with a well-rounded education. “Paideia was big on clubs—for debating, charity, environmental awareness, music, theater and so many other areas. The education, especially during the formative years at the Friends School, also inculcated in Thendral the ability to introspect,” Renu adds.
Now a rising senior at Harvey Mudd College, Thendral appreciated Paideia’s rigorous learning processes: “One of my English classes at Paideia, War and Peace, was more difficult than any writing classes I have taken in college. We watched war movies such as The Deer Hunter and Saving Private Ryan. The biggest novel we read was Catch 22. We had really deep, fruitful discussions about wartime morals, the proximity to death during conflict, and how that makes people act. I had to write really rigorous analytical essays in which I needed to choose my evidence carefully and use a lot of it and make clear, coherent arguments. That class really taught me how to write effectively, so it has made academic writing easier in college, especially technical documents.”
Georgia Tech graduate Shashank Bharadwaj, who was schooled in both private and public institutions, says that while he did not necessarily notice many differences between the two when it came to science and math, the liberal arts education was much more well-defined at the private school: “We spent more time on writing and the quality of writing. Those were also some of the differences that I noticed in college peers that came through public school.”
Kamakshi and Doss Kuppuswamy’s daughter will soon switch from Crabapple Elementary to Fulton Science Academy, a private school. Why? “Our daughter is very outgoing and passionate about many things,” Doss explains. “She wants to experience everything. Going to the next level, from elementary to middle school, we want to channel her attention in certain areas. In elementary school, we wanted her to have a broad experience, but at middle school, we would prefer a focused environment.” This is something that they believe will be best delivered at a private school. After middle school, though, they may still consider switching her back to a public high school. Kamakshi and Doss are in many ways following Suzanna Jemsby’s advice to parents. How does one decide what’s best for the child? The word ‘child’ is the most important, says Jemsby, adding: “As your child grows up, their ambitions change, so really think about the kind of people and families that you want to be around. If you want your child to go to Harvard, Galloway may not be the right school. But if your child is so inclined, it may be, because we build in that autonomy and independent thinking for the child very early.”
Private schools often list their matriculation rates for high school graduates making it to elite colleges around the country. But Prof. Warikoo cautions parents, who “should not be sending kids to a particular school so that they can get into an Ivy League school. Admissions are so competitive, and admission rates are so low even among the kids who even dare to apply. Admissions officers are looking at a whole host of things in a cohort and there are so many vastly more qualified kids than there are spots. The reality is that you are going to be competing with very well-qualified peers. Elite universities do have relationships with private schools, but they’re not going to accept the entire graduating class from a private school.” Saying that there is not much research on private school outcomes in the U.S., she adds, “Public schools at least have test measures. It is a crude measure and correlated with social class. There just isn’t enough data out there on private school educational outcomes besides the lists published on matriculations.” That list may not mean much to you or your child, she argues, because there is no way to know if the children making it to elite universities from private schools would have ended up there anyway.
With two children, aged four and two years, can the Mathews speak to their daughter’s interests or aptitudes? “I don’t think I can,” says Manu. “The four-year-old is all over the place. Today, she wants to be an artist. Yesterday, she wanted to be a doctor.” Suzanna Jemsby of Galloway notes, “As a family you know what kind of environment you want your kids to be raised in. Are you interested in arts, testing, and athletics? We are student centered, not teacher centered. This is not the school for everybody. It is inquiry-based…it will be noisy.”
For Rajesh and Nina Kurup, the decision to send their daughter to Paideia was driven in part by the school’s college placements in the northeastern U.S. at rates they believed to be higher than other schools such as Westminster or Woodward.
Visit the schools, Prof. Warikoo adds. “Go and see for yourself. Look up the president of the PTA—the problem is that they will say glowing things, but ask them hard questions. About how the school can improve. What kind of child would excel and what kind of child might not thrive. Whose needs does it serve better? Talk to the principal, teachers, and parents in the community, and get a qualitative feel for the place. Each school is different.”
There are good and bad public and private schools, John Wembley says, so it’s important to get a firsthand impression of how they function by physically checking them out, talking to teachers, and visiting them at different times of the day. Wembley argues that, ultimately, parental involvement has a significant impact on educational outcomes for the child: “In both public and private schools, parents have to be involved.” Schools work best when parents are involved.
“I don’t think there is any substitute for observation,” advises Dr. Angell. “Get the permission from the school to observe the class for an hour. It doesn’t take long to figure out what’s going on.”
“Come play with me, Girija,” little Nikki exhorts, as I wind up the interview in the sunny Marietta ranch home of the Mathews. Meanwhile, Sophie is keen to show me a new puzzle that she solved all by herself. I glance upon a refrigerator magnet board with the kids’ names written in black dry erase marker. Sophie has two smiley faces and Nikki, one. Alongside is a list of four and five letter words. Words for Sophie to master this week. The air is redolent with the smell of fried onions and potatoes. Nancy Mathew is frying up pakoras. Friends, adults, and children alike are splashing about in the pool outside. It’s a gorgeous spring day. Sophie and Nikki are surrounded by a loving and caring family and friends. Perhaps education does begin and end at home, after all?
Girija Sankar (www.girijasankar.com) is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. Her writings have also appeared in Eclectica, India Currents, JMWW, Alimentum, Youngzine, and Muse India.
A PRIVATE SCHOOL PRIMER
(Left) Students at The Westminster Schools. (Photo: Billy Howard)
The Atlanta Area Association of Independent Schools (AAAIS) has 70 member schools. It provides a common framework or code of conduct for member schools and sets standards on student recruitments, financial aid, and communication policies for all member schools. Here’s more information on 10 private schools in the metro area.
Atlanta International School
Grades: Preschool – 12th
Tuition: $20,674 - $23,570
Fulton Science Academy
Founded: Not Available
Grades: Pre-K – 10th
Tuition: $10,500 - $10,900
Globe Academy Charter School
Grades: K – 5th
Tuition - N/A (Public charter)
St. Benedicts Episcopal School
Grades: Preschool – 8th
Tuition: $5,495 - $10,294
The Friends School of Atlanta
Grades: Pre K – 8th
Tuition: $16,900 - $19,400
The Galloway School
Grades: Preschool – 12th
Tuition: $11,900 – $23,900
The Paideia School
Grades: Half-day – high school
Tuition: $12,507 - $22,521
The Walker School
Grades: Pre K – 12th
Tuition: $9,110 - $20,500
The Westminster Schools
Grades: Preschool – 12th
Tuition: Ranges $22,125 – 25,160
Grades: Pre-K – 12th
A parochial school is a school supported by a church or parish. Catholic schools include parochial, diocesan, and private Catholic schools.
Affiliated religious schools have a specific religious orientation or purpose but are not Catholic. Unaffiliated schools have a more general religious orientation or purpose but are not classified as conservative Christian or affiliated with a specific religion. Nonsectarian schools do not have a religious orientation or purpose.
A public charter school is a publicly funded school that is typically governed by a group or organization under a legislative contract (or charter) with the state or jurisdiction. The charter exempts the school from certain state or local rules and regulations. In return for flexibility and autonomy, the charter school must meet the accountability standards stated in its charter. A school’s charter is reviewed periodically (typically every 3 to 5 years) by the group or jurisdiction that granted it and can be revoked if guidelines on curriculum and management are not followed or if the standards are not met.
Source: The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)
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