Public or private?
January 30, 2007 4:34 AM   Subscribe

What questions did you ask when you were choosing your kid's school?

It's the classic conundrum: private school seems better in many of the obvious ways (creative ways of teaching, small class size, "whole child" focus), but is costly, involves a commute and feels somewhat elitist. Local public school is good (rural, small), but feels more like an institution and would mean putting our kid through the whole maze of state-mandated standardized testing and us through the annual fretting about whether budget cuts would mean the loss of music/art/phys ed programs. Philosophically we want to support public schools, but should that even play a role in our decision?
posted by Framer to Education (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I would say no. You have to do what you feel is best for your child and your family. Personally, I think your primary responsibility as a parent is to raise your kid(s) to be responsible adults, and whatever way you choose to do that overrides any responsibility to the community at large.

Also remember that whatever decision you make is not permanent. You can try something different if it doesn't work out.
posted by COD at 4:48 AM on January 30, 2007

I second COD. In my mind you have no responsibility whatsoever to "support public schools". If they are what's best for your kids, then that's fine - if not I wouldn't even consider selling them out for in the name of supporting a public institution.

A few thoughts: You'll probably have to take the standardized state tests no matter what you do. I think this varies by state, but in my state even home schooled kids have to demonstrate proficiency in one of a couple of ways.

Second - The superiority of private schools is not a sure thing. Many of them actually under-perform when compared to public schools. So choose carefully.

As for your original question about what to ask: I would ask, "What are you going to teach my kid?" Then, "Show me the materials you'll use." Do this with a special focus on math and science. I would also visit the classroom and check out the chaos level.
posted by crapples at 5:16 AM on January 30, 2007

I totally disagree with crapples and COD. Raising your kid to be a responsible adult member of society involves joining in with society, not packing them off to some private institution. And it means living by your own principles and philosophy. Not bailing out as soon as a decision gets hard.
posted by handee at 5:21 AM on January 30, 2007 [4 favorites]

What is your kid like? I needed the smaller milieu of private school--the public schools I attended were perfectly good schools, but I did poorly with the whole institutional thing, and my life would have been a lot different, and a lot worse, if I had stayed public. Likewise, I have friends who were perfectly able to thrive at public school, and might have been much more miserable at my school. Either way, I don't think you ought to make your kid's future subservient to theory.
posted by dame at 6:08 AM on January 30, 2007

Institutionalized public schooling will not turn your child into a humorless unimaginative cog unless you let it. If you're an involved parent, which you obviously are, your kid can have the best of both worlds. Be prepared to engage him with his homework and with his own external intellectual pursuits. Encourage him to read and explore on his own time. Get him private music/art lessons if the school isn't holding up. Put him in dance, a sport, a martial art. Take him to museums. Take him on nature walks.

I think the social aspects of public schooling are invaluable. Learning how to deal with people who are different, rich poor black white smart dumb whatever, won't happen as easily outside a school setting. And this kind of socialization doesn't have to come at the cost of your kid's "individuality."

And, honestly, if you won't put your own child into a GOOD public school (your own words), then you don't actually support public schooling.
posted by miagaille at 6:13 AM on January 30, 2007 [3 favorites]

That may be true, handee, but not to the detriment of your own child. My son went to public schools throughout his grade school years, and we had nothing but positive experiences. As soon as he moved to middle school, that changed completely. Granted, my son is autistic and has very different considerations than neurotypical children, but the fact remains that the public middle school that served my area was demonstrably very poor. In the six months my son attended there he lost more then a year's worth of ground. The facilities were bad, the teachers were burned out, and my son's education was being seriously harmed because of it. Moving him to an appropriate charter school was the best thing we have ever done for him, and I don't regret it for a minute. My son did not have the time to waste on us fighting a losing battle to improve the services at the public school.

My point is: Sure, don't ditch public schools just because they are public schools, many of them are excellent (especially if you as a parent stay actively involved with your child's education). But if the public school is not meeting the needs of your child (whatever those needs may be), don't shed a tear for moving them somewhere else that will serve them better. That's not bailing out, that's being a responsible parent.
posted by Lokheed at 6:18 AM on January 30, 2007

Wrong, handee. If public schools can't provide my children with even the most basic of educational needs, my children don't go there. You can make any point you want about making sure they get the best education possible even from a public school, but the fact of the matter is that decision is completely out of my hands. The educational incompetence starts at the highest levels of the federal government and permeates all the way down to the local level until we're at the point where we are now: the public school system can't be fixed. Period.

That being said, they still get my money. My taxes still go to pay for those public schools, they just don't have to teach my kids. So, really, you're doing the best thing for the public schools by sending them to private schools.

Framer, I'd ask if you can participate in a parent-teacher day at the schools. See how the teachers teach in action. You can also get a good idea of how good the school is from the number of parents that actually bother to show up. Local school here has 700 students and typical parent attendance on these days is around 60-70. And, not surprisingly, only 54% of the population has a high school diploma. When the population doesn't put a value on education, you don't get a valuable education out of it.
posted by Spoonman at 6:19 AM on January 30, 2007

I went to my local public school through sixth grade, then moved to a private school in seventh when my public school just went downhill. I'm glad I had the time in public school with the friends I'd grown up with, and I'm equally glad I got the chance to benefit from a smaller, more academically-oriented private school when I was old enough to appreciate it. No reason you can't try both out!

How old is your kid? Do you know for sure one environment is or isn't better than the other? If you do feel strongly about the public schools from a philosophical standpoint, send them there for a couple of years. If he/she loves it and you do too, great. If he/she is struggling, seems bored, or the school just isn't offering enough or starts cutting programs, then you can have your kid transfer.

And I disagree with handee. I think you can certainly demonstrate your principles by starting your kid in a public school and show that you really do want to support your local schools, and you could go further by joining the school board or PTO to get involved and make sure the programs you care about stay alive. That would be setting a great example, and would be doing so much stronger than merely going with the default (public school enrollment) and saying that's support. But don't punish your child "on principle" if the public schools really aren't doing good things for them.
posted by olinerd at 6:20 AM on January 30, 2007

If the local public school is (and I quote) "good", then I don't think you can say you support public schools and send your kid private.
posted by handee at 6:37 AM on January 30, 2007

I taught for five years at private schools and one year at public. I'll send my kid to private school hands down because at good private schools kids get more attention and fall through the cracks a lot less.

Ask about teacher turnover-- happy teachers make happy classrooms. Ask about standardized test scores-- what percent of 5th graders read at or above 5th grade level, etc.

Ask about extracurriculars-- are there many offerings or mainly football and basketball, and cheerleading if you're a girl? Are there arts clubs? Chess clubs? etc.? Do they cost extra? Are they run by teachers, parents, volunteers, etc.?

Ask to talk to the PTA president and ask what the climate is like at PTA meetings-- lots of complaining, or lots of support? What are the hot issues right now? Ask the same questions of the principal.

Ask about community service-- is it just collecting canned goods for the food pantry, or do the kids learn to serve hands-on-- picking up trash, peer-tutoring younger children, etc.? What causes do they raise money for?

Ask about services for exceptional learners. Do they have any "special ed" teachers? What if your kid turns out to have learning issues? What if he is gifted? Many private schools do not have services for kids with learning issues, unless they're a dyslexia-focused school, etc. Something to keep in mind. Many do have gifted programs, though. Also, do they have a counselor on site or part time? A school counselor can be very helpful for rocky transitions and encounters with bullies, and if the academic pressure is great.

Ask about endowment and finances. Do they have any building projects on the horizon? What kind of growth are they hoping for or expecting? What percent of alumni give back?

Ask about curriculum. Do they favor a traditional curriculum - the three R's, science, social studies? Do they teach languages early on? Do they have a focus on the classics and teach Latin in 6th grade? Many private schools have quirks that you'd want to know about ahead of time. Most of these quirks are pretty cool (learning Latin in grade 6 is terribly beneficial!) What is their math curriculum like, especially in elementary and middle school (huge debate these days-- progressive like Chicago Math or traditional?) What about the arts? How many minutes per week are devoted to arts learning? How about physical education?

What traditions are celebrated? Do they have a Founder's Day? Do they have family weekend events? Are parents required to volunteer a certain number of hours? What holidays are given?

Walk around and listen to kids of various ages and teachers as well. What are they talking about? Are they in need of prozac or are they relatively happy? Look for interactions between teachers and students as well.

Finally, ask what an ideal graduate looks like. What distinguishes an graduate from Ye Olde Public School graduate? What values do they hope to instill in their students? What is their mission statement?

Good luck to you!

posted by orangemiles at 6:39 AM on January 30, 2007 [3 favorites]

As someone who's lived in both rich and poor, well-funded and poorly-funded school districts, I've observed a little secret: Kids whose parents are involved do well, no matter what.

In districts where kids do less well on average, it's more often because their parents place a lower priority on academics than because those kids are in public school or because of teacher quality. If you teach your kids that school is important, you push your kids to take challenging classes, and you stay involved in their lives, they will do well.

The New York Times ran an article in the past few months affirming this observation. Private schools do not significantly improve the prospects or performance of students, according to a study the Times wrote up. When students at a private school are, on average, better academically and more likely to go to college, it's because they're the kids who would do well in school and go to college no matter what.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:22 AM on January 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've got to agree with cruton. The whole public/private business is moot. If your kid is bright, he will do well no matter where he goes. If your kid needs a little push, you could send him to private school, but it would concern me as to how that would affect him later on in life.

The only advantage to private is since you're shelling out more cash, you're more likely to have someone kicking your kid in the ass to do things that in my opinion would probably be better off learning to do themselves -- unless, of course, they are going to live a life of luxury like legacy admissions to ivy league schools, getting a job in Dad's law firm, etc.

An interesting thing that I've noted is that when I was in college at a large state university, the kids who came to the university from private schools typically had a much more difficult time navigating the bureaucracy than those who had to navigate such a bureaucracy in high school. Obviously, this is anecdotal, so take it how you will.

Some people mentioned the risk of 'falling through the cracks' at a public school. This will not happen if you are involved in your child's school and personal life. In all my experiences, my peers who did not live up to their potential had a combination of parental commitment issues and emotional issues that pretty much doomed them to failure anywhere, public or private.

The private schools I've come in contact with do a lot of the work that I had to do myself in a public school -- researching and contacting colleges, negotiating internships, etc. Of course I feel like since I've had to do this sort of thing by myself, I've got one up on the competition. After a stint working at that state university, I'm now working at a private Ivy League university, and I'm rather surprised at how much more the students are coddled. I can't help but feel like those kids who might have benefited from the extra push that these private institutions give will fare no better than those who went to a public school and had to work a little more to get what they want.

Finally, since you have the resources to send your kid to private school, you have the resources to make your public school much better for the entire community. I think that supporting all community resources like schools and community centers are very important for every level of society. For example, I could afford to buy all my books and go to a private gym, but donating to my local library and YMCA seems like a much better use of my money. Perhaps I'm a little red socialist at heart, but I think that on the closest levels of community, the more involved you are with your neighbors, the better your experience will be.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 7:50 AM on January 30, 2007

croutonsupafreak: "Kids whose parents are involved do well, no matter what."

This is absolutely true. Also, everything miagaille said.

As far as making them a cog in the wheel, I honestly think that public education prepared me to fight unjust rules as an adult and made me more of an independent actor and thinker. Whenever I was confronted with an institutional road block in my school, my parents showed me how to fight it or work around it, and they led by example. My mother - by being a constant thorn in the side of my school's administration - enacted true change in my district and ensured that special education for gifted students was created and maintained.

Fighting for better public schools is not a losing battle. To be frank, "philosophically" wanting to support public schools is not good enough - you actually have to invest your own time and your children's time in order to make change. You can make public schools better, for your own children and all of the others whose parents aren't willing to stand up for them. You can ensure that your children get a good public school education if you are willing to put in the work fighting for it.

If you believe in public schooling, prove it. In the process you will teach your children that running away from a problem is not the answer and that fighting authority is the only way to make the world a better place. Teach your children to stand up for their philosophical convictions. That's a far more valuable lesson than anything they may learn in fifth grade math.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 7:50 AM on January 30, 2007

Here's that NYT article.

It would support what many teachers have told me - Private schools offer prestige and "networking" but precious little more than the education offered by your (good rural small) local Public School. Sort of like chosing a Hummer over a Ford ina lot of ways.
posted by Neiltupper at 7:51 AM on January 30, 2007

I agree with a lot of what was said upthread about public schools, provided that the school provides a safe learning environment for your child. My brother was briefly enrolled in a public middle school that looked academically stellar, but was in reality plagued by bullies and gang violence. It was really tramautic for our whole family, in part because my parents were not supported by the administration or the school board. They had to fight tooth and nail to get him transferred to another district - we eventually moved back to my parents home town. Although my options were limited by the smaller schools (Latin in 6th grade? We struggled to fill a physics class!), my parents pushed me to excell, and I'm doing as well as any private school kid.
posted by muddgirl at 8:18 AM on January 30, 2007

My folks are teachers with 20+ years of experience and about to retire, and one of them teaches at a school like you describe, small, rural and good. Instead of paying with your money for a private school, pay with your time and volunteer in your kid's class, get to know the teacher and they really do appreciate it. A lot.

If you're involved and you sit down with them and their homework and work through it with them, odds are they'll get it. I was a public school grad, all the way through, and despite the fact that there was an extremely expensive private high school, I came out with the better deal, because the public high school had far more APs than the private school, and then attended a great private college of my choice. (To be fair, the private high school had a better music conservatory, but that was because it was a arts high school designed to kick you into a conservatory somewhere. I needed science and history and good group programs.) And my parents weren't in lots of debt, too.

A commute is hell on a child, even a high schooler, and you'll always be wondering if they could have done better if only it were closer.
posted by lilithim at 9:04 AM on January 30, 2007

My son has been in a private (secular) school for two years (K-1) and we'll be taking him out at the end of this year and sending him (and his sister -- entering K) to public school in September.

You asked about the questions we asked, so here they are:

1. Where will he be safest?
2. Where will be challenged academically?
3. Where will he be given the the best assessment of his abilities and given assistance if needed?
4. Where are the teachers treated well and paid accordingly?
5. Where is there the best variety of activities in the arts?
6. Where will we as parents, be most able to contribute and provide support for his school experience?
7. Where will be best develop a love of and interest in learning that is reinforced with enthusiastic teachers?
8. Where will religion best be kept out of the school?

We thought the private school would score highest on all of the above. Turns out, they only came through on three of them. We are committed to being active parents in the new school, both in PTA and other activities. There's no way to know for sure this will be better, but at least we'll be able to take a family vacation for the first time, and not be so incredibly strained financially. In our experience, the expense simply did not translate into a stellar eduction.
posted by bluemoonegg at 9:11 AM on January 30, 2007

or education, which I seem to lack some of myself.
posted by bluemoonegg at 9:13 AM on January 30, 2007

The commute will get to you after a while. I tell you, it's a wonderful feeling to put your kid on a school bus -- at least it is for me, because I know my son is going to a public preschool with a good student : teacher ratio, where they work with my son and his... ah... own special snowflakeness.

You can take some of the money you'd be spending on private school and use it to fill in gaps -- music lessons, buying teachers supplies they need, educational vacations. Just an idea.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:14 AM on January 30, 2007

A lot of this depends on the quality of the public schools. I grew up in New York (Queens specifically) - a good chunk of the schools here are pretty bad. The worst of them basically amplified what a bad neighborhood brought to your front door because they concentrated bad teachers and bad kids under one roof - but even in the vast barely functional bureaucracy that is the NYC school system there's an out - there are all sorts of special programs that any NYC high school student can apply for. A lot of them are merit based (some of the more famous ones are entire schools - Bronx Science, Stuyvesant, Hunter high school) and are very competitive - however, if you're just looking to get away from a bad school, there are tons of smaller programs you can apply to at schools in good neighborhoods. You might end up with a long commute (I rode the subway to school), but learning to deal with the paperwork and researching schools helped prepare me for the working life. So I think there's a lot to be said about allowing your kid to navigate the public system - however, I would not have felt an ounce of guilt if I could not escape a bad public school, and my parents put me in the private school (though I would've felt guilty that I couldn't work the system and my parents would've incurred the cost of private school). This isn't a Horatio Alger story though - I am currently a middle class white collar worker, and my trip through public high school didn't end up with me graduating from Harvard - I attend a mediocre public college in the end. But considering how it could've went, I have little to complain about.
posted by Calloused_Foot at 10:05 AM on January 30, 2007

On thing to consider is that your child might make more friends in the neighborhood if they attend the local school. I went to a private school early on, later switched to public school, but most of the other kids had friendships already established.

annual fretting about whether budget cuts would mean the loss of music/art/phys ed programs
Well, with the commute time and money savings, you'll be able to sign your child up for classes out of school in these things. Besides, can't you switch to private school later if this occurs?

Small rural school? Go meet the teacher for your child.
posted by yohko at 11:49 AM on January 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

croutonsupafreak: "Kids whose parents are involved do well, no matter what."

As nice a thought as it is, and as true as it may be for some folks, my mom was equally involved in both places, and I still would have done poorly at public school. Only you can say if it is true for your kid or not.
posted by dame at 12:13 PM on January 30, 2007

I grappled with the same decision last fall. Ultimately my husband and I decided to send our children to public school for the time being. Our son attends a Title 1 school that is close to our neighborhood.

My oldest, a kindergartner is doing very well and we are happy with the school. I will nth the suggestion to volunteer if you can. I volunteer twice a week, and while I
rarely work with my child, I do work with other children in the class. It enables me to check out the classroom, the teacher and the vibe of the school. Our son's teacher is competent: She has been teaching for several years, is extremely professional, is respectful of students, has an enthusiastic teaching style that is engaging, and has control of her classroom. There are 17 students and a full-time assistant in a full-day Kindergarten class. The school is in good repair, not over-crowded, has a well-behaved student body, and a fine academic record.

I don't know about Massachusetts, but in our county it is the same as it ever was; Students attend PE, music, art, and the media center on a rotation in elementary school. On any given week you may have PE twice, or music, etc. The music and art education probably isn't optimal, but it's there. There is also daily recess.

Above posters have given great recommendations. My top three questions would be:

1. Teacher-child ratio (especially in the early years)
2. Academic record
3. Behavior problems and classroom management

There are instances when parental involvement will only take you so far. Often children are in classrooms that are filled with frequent behavior disruptions. Often the school will teach to the lowest common denominator. It depends on the school. Some public schools place an importance on academic excellence. Some are trying desperately to make the grade, as to avoid being shut down and restructured under No Child Left Behind.

Websites to check school performance:
Massachusetts School and District Accountability.

Good luck with your decision.
posted by LoriFLA at 1:24 PM on January 30, 2007

Firstly take a look at how the school presents itself before you ask your own questions. Friendly? Academic? Top at sports? Check the prospectus, website, newsletters, and look at the stuff on the walls -- are they celebrating all kinds of kids, or just a few?

Then ask how do you teach reading? How much time does each child learning to read get to read out loud to someone each week? How do you teach handwriting? Spelling? How big are your classes?

There are no "right" answers to these, and statistically class size matters a lot less than you might suppose. But ask anyway to judge how much thought the school is putting in to what it does and why. (Obviously a comparison of figures on class size and reading time might make a decision between schools easier.) Ask about what they do with slow learners, even if your child is unlikely to be in that category, because that is also illuminating. Ask about how they handle bright kids in the later years.

What specialist staff are there? How many classroom assistants/teaching aides are there? What is their role in the classroom? Again, look at the answers for philosophy and ethos.

Judge the behaviour of the kids towards the teachers. You want polite but confident. Ask how many kids have been "asked to leave" in the last few years. Zero is actually a bad sign -- one of the big advantages of private education is that the badly-behaved are not permitted to hamper the education of others. Ask about discipline and repeat offenders.

I believe in at least starting kids in the public school system for the "mixing with everyone" aspect. However we found a big chasm in basic skills opening up within three years. Check for suitable changeover points and ask the private schools how many they do take in from the public system at various stages.
posted by Idcoytco at 2:34 PM on January 30, 2007

The first question I would ask the teachers is "Would you send your own child to this school?" Sometimes teachers will come right out and say no, and that will tell you a lot. Sometimes you'll get a yes but it sounds like a canned answer, and that will also tell you a lot. Sometimes you'll get a yes that sounds enthusiastic and passionate.

I teach in an urban school in Massachusetts, and I am 100% committed to public education. I would send my (hypothetical) kid to the school where I teach in a heartbeat - teachers who really care, who don't badmouth the kids in the teachers' lounge, who are passionate about teaching and learning and who have tried to shield kids, to the best of their ability, from the testing regimen and the bureaucratic inanities. I feel lucky to teach there. That's also true for several other schools in our district.

BUT there are other schools, in the same city, that I would never, ever send my child, support for public education be damned. I could never imagine sacrificing my child's well-being for a political principle.

All this is to come to the fairly unhelpful conclusion that it absolutely depends on the school, and labels such as public versus private are next to meaningless. On preview, the kinds of questions and observations bluemoonegg and Idcoytco are making seem right on the money.
posted by Chanther at 5:32 PM on January 30, 2007

I taught for one year at a high school in New Jersey (and I still kiss the ground since I have escaped!) and in my younger years, attended public schools K-12, university, and graduate school.

Honestly, at the private school where I taught - although there were significantly fewer students in a classroom and a monstrous tuition bill ($30 K/year), I saw no difference in the quality of education.

However, as the quality of public and private schools vary widely, you will need to make your own assessment.

If I had a child, this is one thing I would do to assess the school (after deciding the most important subjects you would like your child to learn). To make this easy, pretend it is science:
-Ask to see classroom materials such as topics covered in grade ___
-Ask to see classroom assignments and labs
-Ask to see student work, etc.

If you have the materials, you can compare the courses at the different schools.

Also, as others have suggested, look into magnet schools in the area. A Stuveyssant in NYC is worth far more than any private high school here - and some magnet schools only select students from the public schools (although I don't know the rules here, find that out where you live).

Also, another idea you can do to get the best of both worlds is to implement your own education solution.

Last semester I met (and tutored) for a parent in Brooklyn, New York. Anyway, this parent has a 6 year old in public school (he did not want to pay 20 to 30/K for private school). His child was far ahead of the curriculum The parent talked to the teacher and the school and found that he was allowed to pull his child out the first 2 hours of school. During that time, he either hired special tutors, taught a course himself, or had other parents teach material for a group of 5 to 6 students.

This solution is A) Cheaper, B) Significantly smaller class size, C) Parent directly selects the quality of education and topics that will be taught.

This last solution required time and money, but - seemed like a neat solution.
posted by Wolfster at 6:38 PM on January 30, 2007

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