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Private Matters

Considering private school for your youngster? Here are three questions to ask yourself now

1. What’s our financial picture look like?

Tuition at private schools varies widely: The average annual tuition for an archdiocesan elementary school is $3,395 for one child; $11,000 or more is not uncommon for an independent private school. Family income is obviously a primary consideration, but it is not the only one. The quality of your public school, other places you feel it’s important to invest money, and family traditions might all come into play.

The question of when a child should start private school itself has several answers. Montessori and multiple intelligences schools, for example, propose that the earlier their techniques are applied, the more likely the child is to become a “lifelong learner.” However, families with small children, a more limited income and a pretty good public school system sometimes decide to start a savings account now for private middle or high school later. This makes sense for several reasons. According to Louise Cadwell, curriculum coordinator at The College School, “Children often become more academically and socially needy around middle school. Schooling that has been working for them until then seems to stop working, and their families might find themselves wanting to make a change.” Those with some money put away for this prospect will feel well prepared.

An inability to pay full tuition for your child shouldn’t stop you from applying. Most St. Louis private schools offer some assistance to students who need it. Ann Babington, assistant head at Forsyth School, says, “We always ask our families if they are interested in learning more about financial aid.” Some good news for families that plan to spread out applications: 44 Missouri private schools use the same financial aid service, which means you have to fill out only one form per child: the Parents’ Financial Statement (PFS), supplied by the School and Student Service for Financial Aid (SSS). (It’s available at https://sss.ets.org.) SSS analyzes your income, expenses and family assets. Babington explains the rest: “SSS sends a form back to us indicating how much a family can afford, and we try to match that amount. It takes the responsibility of having to make those decisions off of the school.”

2. What can we commit to in time and energy?

Sending a child through any school system requires effort, but private school can mean an even greater commitment. Many private schools encourage parent volunteerism to a larger degree than their public school counterparts. There is also the issue of homework. Depending on the school, this can vary widely, from little or no homework in Montessori schools, to two hours in Forsyth’s fifth and sixth grades, to The College School, where third graders write a research paper, in part at home, in addition to everyday homework.

On the other side of the “time and energy” coin, private school can be an asset to working families. Private schools often go way beyond “care” in their scope of after-school activities. At Forsyth, for example, the kids often stay later than usual—and why not, with fencing, tap dance, calligraphy and music lessons?

Transportation is another issue. Depending on where the school is, taking your child to and from might take an hour or more, so keeping your child in the neighborhood has advantages. “If your child goes to school
40 minutes away,” says Juliann DePalma Hesed, principal of St. Margaret of Scotland School, “you won’t have the ease of sending them down the street for a play date. Their best friends might live across town.” Tom Hoerr, head of New City School, sees the bright side to such a scenario. “Having your kids with kids from other races, other neighborhoods, is excellent preparation for life,” he says.

3. What will best serve my child’s needs?

You know your child better than anyone, so trust your gut when trying to decide what school will be best. If you aren’t sure, investigate as many options as you can, including your public school. Many public institutions now incorporate less traditional teaching models into their curricula and often offer services like language and speech therapy, behavior therapy and ESL support. There’s a misconception that a child who isn’t succeeding in public school will automatically do better in a private setting. Nancy Zitzmann, principal at Bristol Elementary in Webster Groves, says, “We often get students who come from private-school settings because their needs weren’t being met.”

That said, there are many children who, for one reason or another, just do better in private school. Kelly Storck, a former school counselor and current Webster-based therapist who specializes in children and adolescents struggling with school issues, says that while public schools should not be overlooked as an incredible resource—they are “a microcosm of society, where everyone is welcome”—they don’t work for every child. For one thing, the sheer numbers at a public school dictate more of a one-size-fits-all approach. “Often at a public school you are fitting into the box,” Storck says. “Some of the boxes are pretty amazing, but if you want a really specific thing and you want it to be more flexible for your child, choose a private school.”

How do parents determine that their child needs that “specific thing”? Storck suggests looking at typical measures like grades, but also asking, “Are they socially accepted? Are they in a place where they feel they belong? When children feel safe and comfortable, they can learn. If they feel like ‘I just don’t fit in here,’ even perfectly bright students won’t do well because they’re bogged down socially and emotionally.”

Of course, many parents choose private school not because their child is unsuccessful in public school, but for reasons as varied as wanting to explore a certain philosophy of education, carrying on a family tradition or believing it will better prepare the child for the rigors of an academically selective secondary school.

If your family decides private school is the right route, start early and explore widely. The admissions process for almost every private school includes a visit, completing an admissions packet from the school and often some kind of interview or testing process. While some parents report that they began considering their private-school options many years before the school bell would ring, Forsyth’s Ann Babington suggests that a full 12 months should be enough time to “really get to know the school.” Whatever your timeline, remember that the admissions process is not only a chance for the school to assess your child, but also a time for you to ask questions about grading policies, philosophies and discipline. Taking time with these steps will help you make an informed decision for your family.

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