September-October 2008 | Parenting

Public vs. Private

Which school is best for your child?

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Approach to teaching

Six Bethesda-area public high schools—B-CC, Walter Johnson, Walt Whitman, Thomas S. Wootton, Winston Churchill and Richard Montgomery—were recently ranked by Newsweek magazine among the top 100 public high schools in the country. Academically, the schools are considered as strong as any private schools, and their students as well-prepared, college admissions officers say.

But the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind law, coupled with the push for increased rigor, have led to a focus on testing and assessment in public schools. The abundant test data measure student progress at every step and give parents and teachers a precise reading of where students stand, but it can lead to dull, worksheet-based teaching, parents say. Because tests focus mostly on math and English, these subjects receive the most emphasis during the public elementary school day, often at the expense of science, social studies, the arts and other subjects, parents say.

Private schools are not bound by the testing requirements, and parents say the curricula at these schools are more balanced, with an emphasis on arts, sports and social and emotional development, especially in elementary school. During the first three years of public elementary school, the majority of the day is spent on reading and math, with just one period a week for music, art and physical education.

At some independent schools, students in the early grades take courses such as drama, hand bells, creative movement, studio art, extended science labs and other “specials” multiple times a week, in addition to a regular academic load, admissions directors say. That’s why Frances Turner, a Rockville-based education consultant, says a gifted artist or talented athlete might be better served in private school, because those pursuits are not particularly emphasized in public schools.

At independent schools, topics often are studied as a unit that incorporates music, language arts, science, social studies and/or math. For example, third through sixth-graders at Holton-Arms School, a Bethesda school for girls in grades three through 12, take a design technology course that combines science, math, technology, art and pre-engineering. Many independent schools also schedule one or more class periods a week where the focus is on social and emotional issues such as bullying, admissions directors say.

Public school teaching doesn’t have to be test driven, says Helen Chaset, the former Burning Tree principal. “If a child is excited about learning, and has been exposed to a lot of [academic] background, that child will do well on tests,” she says. Burning Tree incorporates several innovations often found in private schools, including a weekly “cross-grade buddies” program in which younger students learn from older ones. Chaset has sent teachers to the Maryland Artist/Teacher Institute at the University of Maryland to learn more about integrating the arts into the curriculum.

Physical education

Students spend a lot of time sitting still, and parents of boys often say their children need more physical activity at school. Montgomery County ranks near the bottom in the state in physical education hours, especially at the elementary school level, says Tracy Fox, a registered dietician who chairs the health committee for the countywide PTA. Most elementary students have physical education (PE) just once a week for 30 to 45 minutes, and high school students are required to take just two semesters of PE in four years, she says. Some elementary schools, including North Chevy Chase and Bethesda’s Westbrook, don’t even have gymnasiums. Only middle school students have PE every day, except for the nine weeks they are required to take a health class.

At most independent schools in the region, students at all grade levels have PE and/or sports four to five times a week as part of the regular school day. “I think that’s a huge difference between the two; there’s much more stress [on physical education] in private schools,” says Fox, whose daughter attended National Cathedral School in Washington and now goes to a private boarding school in Indiana. Fox’s son is in APEX, an advanced placement program at Walter Johnson.

Teaching of foreign languages

When Carey Fitzmaurice of Bethesda talks about her son’s French immersion program, her friends always assume he’s in private school. But her son, Elijah Schulman, is enrolled at Sligo Creek Elementary School in Silver Spring in one of seven elementary school foreign language immersion programs offered by MCPS. Most are open to students by lottery.

Some parents are persuaded to apply for a language immersion program for their children by research that shows it might be easier for children to learn a second language while they’re still mastering their own, or simply by a desire for their children to be bilingual in an increasingly global economy. The families of diplomats and others from foreign countries who come to the Washington area often seek out language immersion programs for their children, says Frances Turner, the education consultant. They generally consider both the public immersion programs and private programs, such as Washington International School in D.C. or Lycee Rochambeau in Chevy Chase.

The foreign language programs are among the many top-notch special programs offered by MCPS. But with demand far outweighing supply, the programs are not open to all. Some 801 students applied for about 250 available language immersion slots last year, says Marty Creel, director of enriched and innovative programs at MCPS.

Schulman, now a third-grader, applied to both the Spanish immersion program at Rock Creek Forest Elementary School in Chevy Chase and the French immersion program at Sligo Creek for kindergarten. He was No. 114 on the waiting list for the Spanish program, but was awarded a spot in the French program. “If he hadn’t gotten in, we might’ve looked at private school,” says Fitzmaurice, who works for the Environmental Protection Agency. At Potomac Elementary School, Chinese immersion students study reading in English but other subjects in Chinese. That approach was successful for Jordan Czerwiec, who completed the program last spring, says her mother, Dr. Sheri Hamersley of Potomac. The culminating event was a two-week visit to China for “graduating” fifth-graders.

Hamersley’s brother, who lives in Beijing, rode on the students’ bus, where the youngsters were encouraged to speak only in Chinese, and reported that Jordan and her classmates spoke fluently. Though MCPS offers limited immersion programs, most of the area’s independent schools offer foreign language as part of the elementary school curriculum. Public schools, outside of the language immersion programs, don’t offer foreign language classes until middle school. At Washington Episcopal School in Bethesda, children begin studying French or Spanish at age 4.

This fall, Green Acres School in Rockville will begin offering Spanish in third grade, with plans to phase in a program that will begin in pre-K in about two years, says Jari Graves-Highsmith, lower school head. There are also independent schools that offer language immersion. For example, at the French International School, a K-12 school with campuses in Chevy Chase and Bethesda, classes are taught in French.

Teacher training

The No Child Left Behind law has brought public school teacher training into the spotlight. The law requires teachers to be certified in their subject areas, and encourages the hiring of “highly qualified” teachers; education degrees are required. Independent schools do not require teachers to be certified, and often value expertise in a subject area, rather than a teaching degree. There’s often a mix of certified teachers and educators from other walks of life.

Prospective parents rarely ask about teacher training at Georgetown Preparatory School, says Admissions Director Brian Gilbert. “Maybe it’s simply because they see the results—where our students get into college and the men who come out of here,” he says. “We don’t focus on the pedagogical methods you learn in masters or certification programs; we focus on getting to know students.”

At Landon School, the faculty includes Col. Robert Oetting, a former fighter pilot in the U.S. Marines and a commercial airline pilot who teaches upper school physics and engineering. Tre Johnson, a former Washington Redskins player, teaches middle school history. They would be excluded if the school required education degrees, says George Mulligan, director of admissions.