As eighth-grade graduation approached, Carlyn Rosenblum faced the end of her nine years at Norwood School. No longer would she revel in the arts-rich curriculum or bond with her 60 classmates at the private K-8 school in Bethesda. As her friends prepared to move on to private high schools, Carlyn, who had turned down an offer of admission from Georgetown Day School, was headed to Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda.
“I wanted to have a typical high school experience: homecoming, a football team I could root for, basketball games,” says Carlyn, now a senior at Whitman. The wide variety of courses was appealing and she has especially enjoyed participating in Whitman Shorts, a class in television news production. “No private school I looked at offered a class like that,” she says. “There’s so much you can get involved with in the public schools.”
Two years after Carlyn left Norwood School, her younger brother Harris, also a Norwood student, sought a different path. After considering Whitman, he chose The Potomac School in McLean, Va. Harris felt ready for a bigger school—but not too big. At The Potomac School, there were 100 students in his grade, compared with 50 to 60 at Norwood. At Whitman, he would have been among 450 freshmen. “I liked having more people in my class, and a greater variety of students in my grade,” says Harris, now a sophomore. “But it wasn’t too big. I know everyone in my grade still. I wouldn’t at a big public school.”
Every year, thousands of students and parents in the Bethesda area confront the public vs. private school decision. At PTA meetings, on school tours and playgrounds and in neighborly front yard conversations, parents sift through the endless education options available to their children. The seemingly unlimited choices can make picking a school a difficult decision: What is the best place for my child? Is it a neighborhood public school; one of the public school system’s many special programs, such as math and science magnets, gifted and talented programs, International Baccalaureate, language immersion and other programs; or a private school, either mainstream or nontraditional?
It’s a topic as touchy as religion or politics, and parents tread lightly when discussing their decisions, careful not to insult their neighbors, even as they passionately extol the virtues of the schools they’ve selected for their children.
Montgomery County public schools vary widely; a child’s experience will be quite different depending on his or her school. Some schools are half the size of others: public elementary schools in the Bethesda area range from259 to 600 students. They vary in their diversity, the special programs offered, even their focus. “There is a different tone in each school,” says Frances Turner, an education consultant in Rockville. “The [principals] are different, the staffs are different, the test scores are different.”
Similarly, private schools vary in their reputations and education philosophies. Some are tony and attract children of senators and presidents; others are run on shoestrings but are no less passionate about their educational philosophies. Georgetown Preparatory School, founded in 1789 and situated on 95 acres in North Bethesda, offers boys a Jesuit liberal arts education that emphasizes service to others. The Washington Waldorf School, in a former public school building in Bethesda, offers a hands-on, slow-paced approach steeped in the arts and based on child development. Washington International School in Washington, D.C., offers a bilingual education to students from more than 90 countries.
“This is a community with a lot of choices, and they [parents] like to weigh their choices,” says Sean Bulson, former principal of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and now a director of school performance for Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS).
Some of the factors parents consider include class and school size, diversity, academic and nonacademic learning opportunities, a child’s individual talents, foreign language instruction, the cost of private schools, college admission, and the desire to be part of a particular school community. Those considering private school might choose a parochial school, largely financed and governed by a religious organization; a for-profit school; or a nonprofit independent school, which finances and largely governs itself. Parents and educators from both public and private schools say it’s a matter of finding the right fit for each child.
Certain students—those who are outgoing, confident and driven—probably will do fine anywhere. But “underachievers,” whether they struggle with focus, a lack of confidence or shyness, can get lost in a large school. Those students often thrive in the more intimate setting of an independent school, where small classes and small student bodies let every child share the spotlight.
In smaller classes, “teachers can focus more on individual children,” says Dr. Sheri Hamersley of Potomac, an OBGYN who has two sons at Bullis School in Potomac and a daughter at Potomac Elementary School. The State of Tennessee’s Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio Project and follow-up studies show that children who are taught in classes of 17 or fewer students in kindergarten through third grade are more successful academically than their peers in larger classes throughout school and even into college, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Virtually every one of the more than 50 parents, students, educators, education consultants and admissions officers interviewed for this article cited small classes as a key advantage of independent schools. Admissions officers at those schools say their annual surveys show small classes to be a consistent parent priority. Amy Carroll’s son Ben had good grades and plenty of friends in elementary school, but his behavior and academic performance began to deteriorate in middle school. By eighth grade, Ben—a bright student who has attention-deficit disorder—got into fights, got suspended and was mad at the world. “We call it the year from hell,” Carroll says. A Cabin John Middle School administrator advised the Carrolls to consider private high school for Ben.
The private school admission season had passed, but Bullis accepted Ben for ninth grade. Four years later, he graduated as captain of the football team and president of the student council; he is now a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “He flourished academically because it was so small he wasn’t able to get lost in the back of the classroom,” says Amy Carroll, a writer and a graphic designer. “We’ve made a lot of sacrifices to do this. But my husband and I agree it has completely changed the path for my son.”
At Landon School in Bethesda, it’s literally impossible for a student to get lost in the back of the high school humanities classrooms. Rather than the traditional rows of desks, four long oak tables form a square; the teacher sits among the students. The arrangement lends a less formal feeling to the classes, which average 15 to 16 students. In a 10th grade U.S. History class, students joke with the teacher as they review for exams. Down the hall, Advanced Placement U.S. History teacher Bill Reed remembers his days as a public school student, when teachers seemed so distant that he’d see one in the grocery store and think, “You eat food?” He’s much closer to his students. “Here at private school, the kids know you,” says Reed, who is teaching at his third private school in 18 years. “If you’re one of 15 kids in the classroom, you get more face time with the teacher.”
The size of independent school classes can be significantly smaller than those at Montgomery County public schools, where classes in 2007-08 averaged 21 students in elementary school, 24 in middle school and 25 in high school, according to MCPS. In contrast, most of the area’s independent schools have average class sizes of 12 to 17, according to Georgia Irvin’s Guide to Schools: Metropolitan Washington, Independent and Public/Pre- K-12, 2nd edition.
It’s also easier for independent school teachers to get to know their students. A public high school teacher with a traditional course load has 125 to 150 students to keep track of; a private school teacher with the same course load might have half that number.
Sarah Schrag of Bethesda, a graduate of Georgetown Day School, says teachers were able to give her a tremendous amount of feedback because they had so few students. Schrag says she would write a three-page English or history paper and get back a full page of comments. “Very few high school students get that,” says Schrag, now a student at Oberlin College in Ohio.