As she walked through the halls of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School on the first day of class in September 2010, Emma Davis felt as if she’d been “dropped into another world.”
It was her junior year. The Chevy Chase teenager had transferred to B-CC from Bullis School in Potomac, and she was overwhelmed at the sight of nearly 1,900 kids milling around the hallways.
When she walked into honors English, she was surprised by the noise level, even after the teacher entered the classroom. There was a security button on the wall. Emma later learned it was there to have unruly kids pulled out of class.
“I didn’t even know what security would be for, coming from Bullis,” says Emma, now 18 and a freshman at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
And yet she grew to love B-CC for the sense of independence and responsibility it fostered in her, and for the inclusive group of friends she found in what was initially a sea of strangers.
Emma was one of 1,652 kids who transferred from a private school to a local public school in 2010, according to Montgomery County Public Schools.
Typically, about 1,500 transfer annually, but that number increased to more than 1,800 in both 2008 and 2009, thanks in part to a deteriorating economy that made private school tough for some families to afford—or made them question whether it was worth the price tag, which can top $30,000 a year.
Bethesda Magazine interviewed a number of students who transferred from a local private high school to one of the five major Bethesda-area public high schools: B-CC, Walter Johnson and Walt Whitman in Bethesda, Thomas S. Wootton in Rockville, and Winston Churchill in Potomac. We asked them about the differences between public and private in terms of academics, athletics, social life and other facets of the high school experience.
Like Emma, some say the switch awakened a sense of responsibility and adulthood; others, not so much. If there’s anything to be learned from their educational experiences, it’s perhaps that one size doesn’t fit all.
Most students say class sizes roughly doubled when they transferred—from about 15 students per class in private school to as many as 30 in public. That difference in size affects teaching methods, class discussions and testing styles, they say.
“I don’t think I ever took a multiple-choice test before I transferred,” says Gaby Gerecht, a 17-year-old senior from Bethesda who transferred from the Washington International School in Washington, D.C., to Whitman her sophomore year. “That was a tough transition for me.”
Emma was dismayed by how few chances there were to interact with teachers and classmates at B-CC. “Class used to be just a one-hour discussion,” she says of her old school. “The classes at B-CC seemed more formulaic. I love discussions, and I kind of missed that.”
Bigger classes also make it tough for teachers to give students individual attention.
“As soon as I got to WJ, I had to learn that you’re competing with 30 other kids in your class for your teacher’s attention,” says Noya Levy, now 18 and a freshman at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. She transferred from McLean School in Potomac to Walter Johnson her sophomore year. “At WJ, you really have to study the material and learn it before class,” she says, “and if you don’t get it, you have to come in during lunch or after school.”
Athena Diligenti, a 17-year-old Walter Johnson senior from Bethesda, transferred from The Madeira School in McLean, Va., halfway through her sophomore year. She was accustomed to having teachers “hold your hand and coddle you a bit more” in private school.
“In public school, everyone kind of assimilates into one big blur unless you ask for help,” she says. “But learning to ask for help when I need it has helped me grow into a more responsible, mature person, because no one’s holding my hand and telling me what to do all the time.”
Many students were surprised to find public school even more academically rigorous than private school, but only if they took advantage of Advanced Placement and honors classes.
“I thought public school was going to be so much easier,” says Josh Price, 18, of Chevy Chase. He transferred from Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville to B-CC his sophomore year. “My friends and I would say, ‘You got A’s in public school—what does that even mean?’ But then I started my AP classes.”
Josh now attends Haverford College in Pennsylvania.
Liam Hatch of Bethesda found AP classes surprisingly difficult, too, when he transferred from Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., to Whitman his junior year. But the 17-year-old senior notes that his regular private school classes were often just as challenging. In fact, the regular chemistry class at Gonzaga was comprehensive enough to enable him to earn a 730 on the SAT Subject Test.
“In private school, the classes were pretty rigorous across the board,” Liam says.
For her part, Gaby thinks the regular curriculum at private school is actually more rigorous than AP classes at public school.
“Even in ninth grade, my private school was much harder, and I felt more like I really had to work for good grades,” Gaby says of the Washington International School. “At Whitman, I usually have two or three hours of homework. My friends who stayed at private school go home and start their homework and don’t go to bed until 11 p.m. because they’re still working.”
But then there’s that issue of hand-holding.
“Private school, academically, is very rigorous, but I felt like some kids there were kind of careless. They expected teachers to hold their hand and get them through it, which is really not the point,” says Rebecca Golub, 16, of Rockville, who transferred from Bullis to Wootton her sophomore year.
Many students say they like the variety of course offerings at public schools.
Mairin Hall, 18, of Potomac, who transferred from Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda her sophomore year, was excited to see “like, 10 different kinds of history classes you could take” in Churchill’s course catalog.
“I took environmental science, AP psychology, global issues, Asian studies—all courses I couldn’t have taken at Stone Ridge,” she says.