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Private or Public?


Matching your child to the right school.

Choosing the right school for your child is one of the most important decisions you will make as a parent. And here on the Main Line, where there are excellent options wherever you turn, the process can be fraught with anxiety—such is the luxury and the curse of having so many choices.

One could spend weeks poring over each and every unique aspect of public and private education. But the experts will tell you that it all comes down to one thing: knowing your kids. Here are some things to keep in mind when deciding which type of school—public or private—will best meet their needs.

• Defining what makes your child special. Generally speaking, public schools have a greater array of support services to offer gifted and special needs students especially benefit from the—and you are already paying for them. At private schools, everyone is expected to be working at the same level. But while kids with special learning needs and those who excel do better in public school, those in the middle often get lost, making them prime candidates for a private school setting. “If you can choose, it boils down to family background and your child’s learning style and need for attention and support,” says Leslie Rescorla, director of the Child Study Institute at Bryn Mawr College. “One size does not fit all. I work in a private setting with affluent families, and I often find myself saying, ‘Don’t rule out the public schools.’”


• Fitting in. Kids who attend public school with classmates in their neighborhood have a distinct a social advantage. Parents need to decide if their children would do better with lots of other kids. Or would they prefer to be in a smaller group where they know everyone? The social, temperamental and emotional aspects of your child’s personality are crucial. And the personality of the child and the philosophy and temperament of the family also have to fit.


• Don’t overlook the obvious. The most visible difference between private and public schools is class size and total number of students. Smaller classes are always a plus; teachers are more accessible and more involved. “There’s a premium on being connected,” says Rescorla. “But there is also more competition, more homework, more homogeneity and higher expectations.”


• The need for speed. The curriculum at private schools is designed for quick learners who are able to acquire, obtain and apply knowledge with relative ease. Information is presented quickly, and students have to be able to focus, integrate and respond in a timely manner. This is a stimulating environment for a child who thrives on in-depth analysis and fast-paced discussions. It can also work for quieter kids. “If you have a student who is motivated but has a difficult time getting started or speaking up in class, a more intimate setting affords that child the opportunity to be invited into the conversation,” says Jennifer Jackson Holden of the Center for Psychological Services in Paoli.


Reading is fundamental. Typically, many of the materials being used in upper school demand students’ reading and comprehension skills to be above grade level. In public schools, kids above grade level would be segregated in an AP or honors class. Students at grade level and below also are grouped accordingly. The student body varies so much in public school that teachers must meet the demands of a broader population.


• Bright kids, great opportunities. The top teens at public schools are pretty much on par with the brightest private school kids. And the latter have similar, if not better, opportunities for advanced learning and acceleration through AP and honors programs.


Talk to other parents and students. It’s a good way to get a sense of what kind of situation your child will be walking into. The more conducive the academic environment, the more likely they’ll be to thrive academically—to speak up, to participate, to be available for learning.

Ultimately, the success of even the best students hinges not on the type of school they attend, but whether they’re comfortable learning there. “The goal should be to select the school that is the best match for your child,” says Jackson Holden. “A bright child in the wrong school won’t thrive.”



Life Taught Here
10 cool high school clubs.

1. Building with Books, Harriton High School. Students participate in service and fundraising activities, with all monies directly benefiting the construction of a new schoolhouse in an underdeveloped country.


2. Anime Club, Conestoga High School. Members study Japanese art, language and culture via animation.


3. Shipley Sprouts, The Shipley School. Gardening club with a string of ribbons from the Philadelphia Flower Show.


4. Football Club, The Baldwin School. A rare opportunity for girls to learn about the sport.


5. Ultimate Frisbee Club, Lower Merion High School. Won a major tournament in April.

6. Acoustic Coffee House, The Shipley School. Musicians perform live for students.


7. SHOUT, Great Valley High School. Stands for “Students Helping Others Unite Together.” Advocates and sponsors drug- and alcohol-free recreation activities.


8. Adventure Sports Club, The Haverford School. Rafting, mountain biking and other outdoor excursions.


9. Community Service, Episcopal Academy. Students serve as teachers, construction crew members and mentors in Tanzania, South Dakota and other far-flung locales.


10. Science Olympiad Team, Harriton High School. Won the national championship in 1995, 2001 and 2005. Built a fully functional hovercraft last year.