Education with a Difference

The Valley abounds with private schools that offer challenging courses, small classes, and outside-the-box extracurricular activities.

Education With A Difference


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College-level course work, small classes, and outside-the-box programs are just some of the reasons parents opt to send their children to one of the Valley’s myriad private schools


by Valerie Havas

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The right to a free public education is not one that everyone chooses to embrace. When it comes time to send their own children off to school, some Hudson Valley parents — for religious, philosophical, academic, or personal reasons — decide to go the private route. Luckily for them, the Valley is not only blessed with many fine public schools, but with a wealth of private options as well.


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Many parents are seeking to give their children a competitive edge in what Westchester parent Ken Dengler calls “the educational footrace to college.” Dengler chose the Hackley School, located in Tarrytown, for his two sons, who are now in seventh and ninth grades. “As a single parent, I couldn’t afford to make a wrong choice,” he explains, adding that “competitive demographics suggest that a differential edge is needed.”


Hackley’s strengths, says Dengler, include a challenging academic program and small classes, taught by passionate, caring teachers. “They care because the students are universally bright, focused, and have a voracious appetite to learn,” he asserts.


College-level work is the norm at many private schools, where Advanced Placement (AP) classes are common. At Emma Willard School in Troy, students can earn college credit through AP classes in American history, art history, biology, calculus AB and BC, chemistry, computer science, English literature and composition, European history, French, Latin, physics, Spanish, statistics, U.S. government, studio art, and music theory.


They also have the option of enrolling in classes at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Private schools can provide the extra boost that some students need to succeed. The Crossroads School in Brewster, Putnam County, prides itself on offering a customized education to “challenged” as well as “gifted” students. The Kildonan School in Amenia, Dutchess County, focuses on students with dyslexia, a learning disability that can make reading fiendishly difficult. Phoebe Ijams, a sophomore at Millbrook School in Dutchess County, suggests that struggling students are less likely to be overlooked in a private school environment: “In public school, if I was falling behind no one seemed to notice,” she recalls. “At Millbrook, if I started to slide in my studies, it would be my teachers’ top priority.”


Many schools have religious affiliations, which may be important to parents seeking to nurture their children’s spiritual and moral growth. Westchester Hebrew School in Mamaroneck stresses service and leadership in addition to scholarship. Gail Mahler, the school’s director of admissions, notes that this year’s seniors flew to Houston to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. Most of these students, she adds, will attend a pre-college program in Israel before embarking on their college careers.


The Montfort Academy, a Catholic school in Katonah, aims high. “We want our students to strive for excellence, and then go out and be agents of change in society,” declares David Petrillo, headmaster of the Westchester County school. “We focus not only on academics, but on character — on mind, body, and spirit.” To that end, the school emphasizes the classics — works by great minds including Plato, Galileo, Shakespeare, Dickens, and the founding fathers. “You have to study the past in order to understand the present, so you can influence the future,” Petrillo believes. The academy was recently recognized by the Acton Institute as one of the 50 best Catholic schools in the country.


Some turn to private schools because of their innovative approaches to learning. Students at the Darrow School in New Lebanon, Columbia County, spend a week and a half pursuing an interest of their choice each spring. Past spring-term projects have including hiking on the Appalachian Trail, crafting Shaker furniture, and bicycling to Cape Cod. At the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, middle-school students are separated by gender to lessen social distractions and to accommodate their different learning styles. Upper-grade students at the Westchester school learn in seminar-style classes by sitting around oval-shaped Harkness tables. At Millbrook School, unorthodox learning tools include an on-site zoo and a forest canopy walkway.


Poughkeepsie Day School uses portfolio assessments rather than grades. It also has a “central studies” program in which students collaborate on a particular topic or project for half a day each week (or longer). “Each topic lasts for a couple of months,” explains Accord, Ulster County, resident Dave Belden, whose son Rowan attends the school. “Students may help teach a topic. They may write a musical together, or study forensics, discuss the world’s problems, the nature of art, the history of jazz — it’s wide-ranging and engaging.” Rowan, a junior who attended public school through fifth grade, approves of the central studies concept, saying, “It’s like a college course; you get to choose.”


Some parents recoil at what they perceive as the mass-produced nature of public schools, with the emphasis on standardized testing and mandated curricula. Nina Jecker Byrne of Stone Ridge, Ulster County, sends her 12-year-old son, Reilly, to the Hudson Valley Sudbury School in Kingston. There is no required curriculum — students design their own — and all ages are mixed, on the theory that older and younger students have much to offer each other. “I chose HVSS because the philosophy was based on respecting kids and trusting them to determine their own educational path,” she explains. “In general, I think that public school, at least K-12, is very good at preparing young people to be good factory workers. Do what you’re told, base your personal worth on what someone else thinks of you, and don’t think for yourself.” Vanessa Van Burek, one of the school’s founders, declares that “Our goal is that students become responsible for their own education as well as for their community.”


Real-world experience rather than rote learning is stressed by schools featuring internships or work programs. Steven Ricci, director of communications at Emma Willard, notes that his school’s students have worked in many fields, including genetic research, law, even figure skating. “It’s a great opportunity for our students to get real-life experience,” he declares. Francesca Libassi, a 17-year-old boarding student at Millbrook School, has carried out her community service requirement in the school’s communications office. “The great thing about my service,” she says, “is that I’m working in an area that I hope to end up in after college. I’ve learned a lot.”


Some schools are magnets for students with particular interests. The visual and performing arts departments are strong at the Oakwood Friends School in Poughkeepsie, where famous alumni include Grammy Award–winning musician Bonnie Raitt and actor Lee Marvin; and at Rockland Country Day School in Congers, where all art and music programs are taught by working professionals. In Orange County, the New York Military Academy in Cornwall-on-Hudson  attracts students with an interest in military matters, while Trinity-Pawling, in Dutchess, has an excellent athletics program that has helped a number of student-athletes go on to sports-related careers.


There are some potential drawbacks to private school, of course, including hefty tuition bills and long commutes. Parent Ken Dengler mentions “logistical travel issues” when it comes to arranging play dates for his sons, whose classmates live in Putnam and Westchester counties as well as New York City, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Ella Wise, a senior at Poughkeepsie Day School, feels that moving from her Ulster County public school made it harder to stay involved in local events like her town’s annual library fair.


She also misses competitive sports (which are not a major focus at her school). But Wise, like many local parents and students, has no real regrets about her decision to leave the public school system. “Honestly,” she says, “the more time I spend here, the more I appreciate the school, its community, and the great dedication of the people here to pursuing the ideal educational experience.”


The ideal educational experience, after all, is what we all want for our children, whether they’re attending the public school down the street or a private school on the other side of the Hudson River.

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