September-October 2008 | Parenting

Public vs. Private

Which school is best for your child?

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Public schools have become increasingly data driven; county elementary school students take an assessment test at the beginning and end of every math unit. An education degree helps teachers handle that data, says Rosemary Hills Primary School Principal Ralph Viggiano, whose Silver Spring school boasts 100 percent “highly qualified” teachers, according to MCPS data. “With so many teachers looking at data for reading and math, it gets more to the science of teaching nowadays than it used to be,” Viggiano says.

A good education degree gives teachers a solid grounding in child development, says Anthony Sims of Silver Spring, a teacher trainer with the Yale University Comer School Reform Project. The program is affiliated with the Yale Child Study Center, which trains teachers and administrators in its philosophy that healthy child development is crucial to academic success. A private school teacher without that training may not understand why a child acts a certain way, Sims says. On the other hand, public school teachers feel enormous pressure to get through the curriculum, he says. Sims told public school teachers he worked with last year about a speech his third-grade son gave to his class at The Maret School when he studied John F. Kennedy. Says Sims: “The first thing public school teachers will say is, ‘How do we fit that into what we need to do?’ I say, ‘Do you realize how much they learn from this?’ ”

Getting into college

When it comes to getting into college, is there an advantage in having had a public or private school education? Probably not, according to college admissions officers, private college placement counselors and school officials. However, one advantage of private schools is that they often offer more hands-on college counseling.

When students from Bethesda, Chevy Chase or Potomac apply to college, the issue is not so much where they went to school, but what they did with the opportunities they were offered. Did they take Advanced Placement classes, International Baccalaureate classes or other rigorous courses offered at their schools? “We are looking to see that students have challenged themselves,” says Jeff Schiffman, assistant director for undergraduate admissions at Tulane University in New Orleans and a B-CC High School graduate. “We do give special attention to very elite private schools, but that doesn’t carry a lot of weight. We’re just as likely to admit a student at the top of B-CC as a student at Holton or Landon.”

This fall, a total of 22 students from B-CC and Whitman will matriculate at Tulane. That’s more than from any two other schools in the country, public or private, Schiffman says.

In most cases, it’s the kid with the higher grades and higher test scores who gets in, says Diane Epstein, a private college counselor in Bethesda since 1979. For example, she counseled two students who applied last year to Amherst College in Massachusetts. The student from Potomac’s Winston Churchill High School (public), who had higher grades and scores, was wait-listed; the student from St. Albans School in Washington (private) was rejected, Epstein says. “There was a time, 15 or 20 years ago, when coming from a big name school—GDS, Sidwell—made a difference,” says Bruce Vinik, a private college consultant in Cabin John, referring to Georgetown Day School and Sidwell Friends School. “Colleges weren’t looking to create the kind of diverse campuses they are today. Those advantages are all but gone.”

One advantage among private schools is the level of college admissions counseling. Though parents, consultants and school officials praise public school counselors, their numbers are few and they are hard pressed to rival the level of service private school college counselors can provide. At a private school, that includes holding meetings with parents and students as early as ninth grade, interpreting extensive student and parent questionnaires, arranging for the junior class tours of college campuses and walking students and parents through each step of the college admissions process.

And while private schools have counselors whose sole job is to assist students and parents with college admissions, public school counselors also are responsible for scheduling and general counseling. Public schools may have one counselor per 150 students, as well as a college and career center staffed by one counselor; private schools have one full-time college counselor per 25 to 50 graduating students, according to Tulane’s Schiffman and private school admissions officers. Still, public school counselors can be just as dogged in advocating for their students, Tulane’s Schiffman says. “I’m on a first-name basis with every college counselor in the D.C. area—public and private. At Whitman, Churchill, [Walter Johnson], B-CC—they’re just as aggressive as the private schools.”

Bethesda writer Lisa Nevans Locke has been a PTA leader and volunteer at public and private schools, and teaches English at Montgomery College.