Is the neighborhood public school just not the right fit for your child? Does he or she need additional one-on-one interaction with teachers? A heavily structured environment, or one that’s easygoing? Less focus on tests, and more on the joy of learning for learning’s sake? Discover all the unique educational opportunities the Valley has to offer with this comprehensive guide to the region’s private schools.
It’s safe to say that ensuring their child gets an adequate education is a high priority for most parents.
But finding the right school so their son or daughter can get that education is not always an easy task. While the Valley’s fine public school system fits the bill for most students, it does not meet the needs of all. Certain children — and their parents — feel that larger class sizes, standardized tests, and a diminished emphasis on creativity (among other reasons) make the public school experience less than satisfactory.
The region’s numerous private schools offer an attractive alternative for many families. In the pages that follow, we profile six local institutions, each of which offers a top-flight education with an emphasis on a specific teaching philosophy. Parents and students seeking a college-preparatory curriculum, for instance, will want to check into Poughkeepsie Day School and the Millbrook School (photo left), just two of many local choices. Parochial schools, such as John S. Burke Catholic High School, offer a religious component. The more structured environment at schools like the New York Military Academy helps students develop leadership skills. Green Meadow Waldorf School, along with other independent institutions, offer alternative educational methods. And Kildonan School specializes in helping students who are dealing with dyslexia and other language difficulties. In addition, our chart of private schools offers information on 23 other bastions of education in our region (click on the link below to view chart). One of them is sure to be a perfect fit for you and your child.
The Millbrook School’s mission sounds like a tall order to fill: Provide an extensive curriculum that prepares students for the future, while keeping kids engaged and continually nurturing their natural love of learning.
But Kathy Havard, Millbrook’s dean of faculty, says students thrive in just this type of creative learning environment. “We don’t gear our curriculum to preparing students for standardized testing,” she says. “We feel that aptitude tests are skill-based, not content-based. They’re about testing specific skills — breadth of knowledge, not depth of knowledge — and that’s not in the best interest of our students.”
But Millbrook hasn’t totally dumped standardized testing. Students do take exams prior to applying to college, and the school offers some advanced placement courses — although, Havard notes, “There’s a strong move in independent schools across the country to drop or cut back on APs.”
As part of its innovative curriculum, Millbrook is launching a new approach to learning science. Starting this year, kids will begin taking physics in ninth grade. “Students will proceed by first observing something,” says Havard. “Then they’ll test it, make a hypothesis, and tinker with the hypothesis some more. It’s best to start with physics in this regard, because you can see, build, and model things in a way that’s not possible in, say, chemistry or biology.”
Havard says Millbrook teachers have a passion for the subjects they teach, a definite plus in passing on their enthusiasm to students: “They’re not just chemistry or physics teachers running through textbook drills. Generally, they’re working scientists.”
The school offers other off-the-beaten-path classes, too. Students (dubbed “zooies”) in the animal-behavior course get hands-on experience caring for the 180-plus critters at the school’s six-acre zoo; stargazers can focus on astronomy at the on-campus observatory.
But it’s not all beakers and biology. “Writing is strongly emphasized,” says Havard. “Our alumni often tell us that the preparation they got here for the writing they had to do in college was sensational. I’m an English teacher, so that means a lot,” she laughs.
Millbrook also offers a full curriculum including languages, math, history — and great studio space for its highly praised art program. Intercession projects — where kids spend a week learning outside the classroom — range from teaching sports to children in Guatemala, to hammering and sawing for Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans.
Despite the shaky national economy, Havard says enrollment is strong — even though tuition for room, board, and meals is $44,775.
So what makes the high price tag worthwhile? In addition to a top-notch environment and creative education, Havard says, “In some cases, parents say they want their kids to enjoy learning for learning’s sake. Others feel they’re giving their child a leg up in the college process if they come to an independent school.
“Our approach is that it’s all about making the right match — building a student’s confidence so they will be well-served wherever they go to college. If a student knows how to learn, how to get help from teachers, how to advocate for themselves — then it’s the right match.”
Favorite class: “I really like English. I’m also the editor of the school newspaper, and I love journalism.”
Why she transferred from public school: “I came here as a freshman. Both of my siblings went to Millbrook; because of them, I kind of knew what I would be getting into.”
Biggest difference from public school: “Classes are smaller here, anywhere from about six to 13 students. And they are mostly discussion-based. In my other school, a teacher might just hand out worksheets.”
Hardest thing to adjust to in private school: “The workload was drastically different, but I felt prepared for it.”
What’s cool on campus: “The quad. Especially in spring and fall, it looks like something out of a movie: everybody’s out there playing Frisbee and doing homework. The dorms are centered around the quad, and it’s all topped off with the chapel, which is probably the biggest meeting point on campus.”
Neat perk for students: “I’m a day student, so I commute. But we all have a bed on campus, so I stay over once or twice a week.”
What might surprise people about Millbrook School: “How diverse it is. A lot of people think private schools just have the wealthiest kids in the country coming from a very specific background. But I haven’t found that to be the case at all.”
Times are tough these days for many families — and many learning institutions are making painful financial decisions, too. “Yet, at our school, we’ve always had a sort of recession mentality,” says John Dolan, assistant principal at John S. Burke Catholic High School,.
“Like everyone else, we’re doing all we can to keep everything going,” he explains. ”We did have to cut back a few teachers this year, which was hard. But things are starting to look up in terms of more applications for admissions. We also do a lot of fund-raising to keep things like sports and extracurricular activities, which mean a lot to the kids.
“Parents know it’s a financial sacrifice to send their kids to a private school,” Dolan acknowledges. “But many decide it’s a viable option. They see that nearly all the kids who walk through these doors go on to college.”
Many college-bound Burke Catholic kids are also likely to receive scholarships, Dolan adds. In the past two years, students were offered more than $10 million in scholarship funds each year. “With the economy the way it is, that’s encouraging to families,” he says.
According to Dolan, families choose a school like Burke Catholic — tuition is currently $7,600 per year — for various reasons. “About 40 percent of our students transfer in from public schools.” And while some parents are primarily seeking a Catholic education for their children, Dolan notes, “we’re by no means an all-Catholic school.” (All students, however, are required to take four years of religion courses as part of the curriculum.)
“Other parents are looking for more structure for their kids,” Dolan explains. “Some students need it, and here they get it. The kids wear uniforms, and they have to abide by the rules — we have detention and demerits. It helps create an environment where kids practice discipline and respect on a daily basis, and where they can really focus on learning.”
The Goshen school follows a state curriculum, including Regents testing. Along with math, science, English, history, languages and other standard courses, Burke Catholic also offers popular sports, drama, music, and art programs (“and Latin, which not many schools have anymore,” says Dolan), as well as specialized courses in topics including sports management and music promotion, public speaking, and computer technology.
The school also has affiliations with several local colleges — such as SUNY Orange, Mount Saint Mary, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Marist — which allows some students to take college-level courses while still in high school.
“And, in addition to studying for their courses, about 70 percent of our students are involved in some kind of extracurricular activity,” says Dolan. “They might be volunteering or in sports, music, drama, or the concert band. And another 25 percent have part-time jobs. The kids here are terrific. They work hard. And they really want to learn.”
Located in Amenia, this school has a special mission: It serves students who have dyslexia or other language-based learning challenges.
“The most prevalent situation we see is a student who comes to us from another school that wasn’t a good fit for their learning style, or where their educational needs couldn’t be met,” says Dr. Robert Lane, academic dean at Kildonan. “This can range from a student with mild difficulties — where dyslexia affects only a few aspects of their processing of language — or it could be more severe, where dyslexia affects multiple areas.”
Dyslexia is a learning disability which hampers the ability to read, write and/or spell; it’s thought to be connected to the way the brain processes language. People of all ages struggle with dyslexia; it’s estimated that more than 40 million Americans show signs of the disorder. Fortunately, increased awareness among parents and educators now leads to earlier diagnosis and better treatment.
“When kids first come here, you can almost hear the sigh of relief,” says Lane. “They’ve often been struggling at another school, and finally they’re in a place where every other student knows what it’s like to experience the shame and frustration and anxiety they’ve gone through.
Some public schools do offer assistance for students with dyslexia, Lane points out. “It’s not to disparage what they do, but it’s impossible for most schools to provide extensive help for these students,” he says. “They often pull kids out of other classes to work with them. Kids are very sensitive to that; they might miss their art class or gym or recess. The students feel pointed out as being different, and they’re embarrassed.”
Kildonan has about 100 students, in both day and boarding plans. The school emphasizes one-on-one learning in small classes — the average size is about eight students. Every child also receives a minimum 45-minute daily tutoring session with an expert, using the technique known as the Orton-Gillingham method. One of the oldest teaching approaches for children with dyslexia, this program focuses on the structure of language, and gradually helps students move on step by step to reading, writing, and spelling, taught as a logical body of knowledge.
In addition to Orton-Gillingham tutoring, students have access to the school’s extensive Assistive Technology program. “This includes computers and other specialized electronic devices that greatly help dyslexic students,” says Lane. Some can translate a student’s dictated words into letters on a computer screen, enabling them to express themselves quickly and clearly as they do their schoolwork.
Most students study at Kildonan for at least two years, says Lane. “For students who just need to have a smaller gap between their potential and actual literacy skills, that’s often enough time to give them a ‘booster shot.’ ” But many kids spend their entire middle- and high school years at Kildonan. “They see that this environment not only helps them remediate their challenges, but we think it does a very good job of repairing their self-esteem, while continuing to challenge them,” Lane says.
Starting in the elementary grades, students study a full range of courses. The school also offers a pre-college curriculum for older kids. “We don’t water anything down,” says Lane.
As a private school, Kildonan is permitted to depart from standard state testing requirements. “We’re grateful we don’t have to give Regents exams, although we do administer Regents competency exams in some areas,” says Lane.
The school skips awards such as dean’s list and honor roll, and instead offers Academic Effort recognitions each term, based on a student’s motivation, dedication, behavior, and other key factors.
College-bound Kildonan students can take the SATs in their junior and senior years, says Lane. Approximately 95 percent of students apply to college and are accepted at about 90 percent of schools where they apply. “I can’t imagine anything better than working with these students,” says Lane. “We have alumni who come back to visit and say, ‘Kildonan literally changed my life. I thought I had no future, no prospects for college. But you helped me see that I’m a competent, capable learner, and you helped me find out how I learn best.’ ”
How long at the school: “This is my second year; I started in the ninth grade.”
Backstory: “I was diagnosed with dyslexia in first grade. I was in public schools from kindergarten up until fourth grade. Then my mom home-schooled me from fifth to eighth grade. But when it came time for advanced subjects like algebra and biology, I needed more help.”
Hardest thing about public school: “It was really difficult, having dyslexia. They would pull me out of recess to give me special help. It was hard, and embarrassing, too.
“By the time I was in fourth grade they were giving my mom a hard time about it, and they couldn’t offer what I needed, so my mom took me out of public school.”
How he picked Kildonan: “My mom researched schools for dyslexia, and found some in Colorado and in Texas, where we lived — my dad was born and raised in Texas. But even for the school in that state, we’d have to move to another city, or get an apartment there during the week. My mom is from Long Island, and we still have family there, so we also looked for schools in New York. We went to visit Kildonan, and loved it right away.”
Best thing about Kildonan: “Everyone has dyslexia, so you never feel out of place. I love the Assistive Tech program; it’s definitely helped me the most. There’s a computer software program called Dragon Dictate — you talk into a microphone and everything you say is translated into words on the screen. I do all my papers and essays on the computer — I just took my history test on the computer. It’s made me more independent; I don’t have to rely on other people for help.”
Favorite subjects: “I’m very big into the arts. I love photography, and the school just got a new digital facility, so I’m doing a lot with that.”
What’s cool on campus: “It’s a small school, so everybody gets individual attention. There’s plenty of one-on-one tutoring. And there’s lots of land. It’s a great place.”
The philosophy of our school is to focus on learning,” says Josie Holford, head of Poughkeepsie Day School. But what learning even means can change, she adds. “In the 20th century it made sense to many that education was an achievement-driven, sorting process. Conformity and memory were prized.”
Now, with the ever-evolving challenges of today’s world, “What made sense in the past no longer applies. We need to educate children for active, ethical participation in life — and that means engaging in solving real problems from the very start.”
So, for the just-under-300 kindergarten-through-12th-grade students at PDS, the emphasis is on individualized, innovative learning. “We go beyond test prep by putting the joy of learning at the heart of the process,” says Holford. Students are encouraged to excel in ways that can’t be graded by the usual teach-and-test standards.
“Kids discover how to have a healthy appreciation of themselves and others — and to be smart as learners, dreamers, and problem-solvers. That’s why we don’t confine assessments to grades and numbers. If you’re a straight-A student, there is only one way to go — and that’s down. Instead, the emphasis is on purpose, depth and understanding, beginning in the earliest grades.”
Kids do face rigorous academic requirements at PDS. “They have to take subjects such as history and math,” Holford acknowledges. “But we’ve developed a flexible schedule that allows students to double or even triple up on courses in an area of interest.” Such courses run the gamut from calculus to theater and visual arts, from environmental studies to astronomy. Classes concentrate on group work, and students are encouraged to individually develop new problem-solving techniques.
Students also sit for tests such as the SATs, says Holford. She adds that each year, 100 percent of PDS students who apply to college are typically accepted by at least one of their three top choices — and that last year’s 19 grads were offered more than $1.7 million in merit aid alone. “The irony is that we don’t teach to these tests, but typically, the kids still do very well on them,” she notes.
The type of innovative, extensive learning offered by PDS does come with a hefty price tag ($21,675 annually in high school). “Expenses are definitely a factor for many parents, especially in this economy,” acknowledges Holford. “But we encourage parents to apply even if they think they can’t afford it. We have a very robust financial aid program.” (About 30 percent of PDS students receive financial assistance.)
One of the best things about running PDS is interacting with enthusiastic students, Holford says. “It’s exciting that these kids aren’t turned off by school. They’ve got a thirst for learning — sort of like kids did back in kindergarten. We think that hard work and happiness are not incompatible in education — and that learning should be joyful.”
Favorite class: “My favorite subject is history. In junior year, we did an independent study on a topic of our choice. I picked the fall of democracy in Weimar Germany between World War I and II; it’s very interesting.”
Backstory: “I’ve been at Poughkeepsie Day School since first grade; I took a year of leave freshman year and went to public school, then I came back.”
Biggest difference between public and private school: “There were so many more students in public school. Here, there’s more of a focus on learning for learning’s sake; kids don’t do something just to get academic credit. And here, you can go to your teachers if you have a problem or question; that was harder in public school.”
Favorite spot on campus: “The student center; that’s where everybody meets.”
Neat thing about PDS: “We have four school periods a day, and one is sometimes a free period. It’s really nice to be able to use that time to your advantage. You can catch up with studying, or sometimes I’ll go meet with my counselor about college applications.”
People have many misconceptions about a military school education, says Major Jeffrey Coverdale, superintendent of New York Military Academy in Cornwall-on-Hudson. “Parents call all the time and say, ‘My son or daughter wants to come to the school, but I’m not ready for them to go into the military.’ Actually, only about 13 percent of our students go on to military service, either through a service academy or on an ROTC scholarship.”
The day and boarding school’s primary focus is on college prep for its grade seven-through-12 students, he says. “We’re essentially doing that in a military-structured environment. The bulk of our kids are aiming to get into top-tier colleges, and many receive major scholarships.”
That helps dispel another common misconception: that academies like NYMA are full of unruly kids who have been “sent away to military school.” Explains Coverdale: “We go to a lot of school fairs, and sometimes we hear parents say to kids as they pass by our booth, ‘See, if you don’t get your act together, that’s where you’re going to school!’ But the truth is, if you don’t get your act together, you can’t come to this school — we don’t take discipline problems.”
“The military structure and tradition really helps students with organizational skills, time management, and responsibility,” adds Director of Admissions Alisa Southwell. The school implemented a new, expanded college curriculum during the 2010 school year. “Academically, we’re teaching at honors level or above,” she says.
The academy’s students — last year they came from 10 states and six different countries — take a full roster of classes and participate in athletics and community service programs. And a brand-new “tracks of intention” program allows cadets to focus on specialized subjects, ranging from classical studies to research and green technology.
“The military structure means that students follow a very regimented schedule,” says Southwell. “Cadets know what they’ll be doing on a daily basis.” That begins with six a.m. wake-up and ends with lights out at 10 p.m.
What makes NYMA different from other private schools, Coverdale adds, “is that we’re a real-life leadership lab. Not only do we focus on subjects that make students academically strong, but with the military structure, students are put into leadership positions on campus. The corps of cadets is literally run by the students, under adult supervision. Our cadet battalion commander is a 17- or 18-year-old student who’s in charge of the day-to-day workings of every other cadet on campus — what uniform they wear, their schedules, their activities. They’re not only charged with making sure everything runs smoothly, but they’re also tops academically.”
NYMA — its alumni include real-estate mogul Donald Trump and composer Stephen Sondheim — came perilously close to closing for financial reasons in recent years. But thanks to local investors and alumni who have rallied to its aid, the school has bounced back, according to Southwell. “We will continue, very strongly, into the future, thanks to their support.
“One of the best things about the education here is that, when students leave, they’re well-rounded,” she adds. “They’re organized, structured, and confident. This makes them well-equipped to succeed in any university environment. We’re very proud of our cadets.”
You won’t see kids at the Green Meadow Waldorf School glued to computer screens during study hall or chattering on cell phones between classes.
“We’ve instituted a no-media policy up through the fifth grade,” says School Administrator Tari Steinrueck. No cell phones, MP3 players, or other electronic devices are allowed on campus during school hours without special approval.
“We also ask parents to adhere as much as possible to a no-media program for the kids at home, too,” Steinrueck continues. That means no TV, movies or videos, and no computers, cell phones or texting. “We realize it’s nearly impossible to totally avoid electronic media, but it’s important for a child’s development that parents restrict it. Feeding children all sorts of outside stimuli from the media, constantly imprinting images on their brains, has been found to dampen the ability to imagine and think creatively.”
And just as Green Meadow discourages oversaturation by technology, it encourages some “old-fashioned” pursuits, such as plenty of playtime for its youngest students. “Our kindergarten, for instance, is play-based,” says Steinrueck. “Research confirms that when kids are allowed to move around and play a great deal during kindergarten age, they’re learning important life skills and developing executive functions. On the other hand, when children are placed in chairs at desks for hours a day, it can work against future learning ability. This can actually block development of some brain pathways that occurs when kids are allowed to move around and be active.”
Green Meadow — a day school located in Rockland County’s Chestnut Ridge — also encourages kids to learn to read at their own pace, not according to an external timetable. “Reading comes naturally for most kids,” says Steinrueck. “They usually begin to learn it on their own, generally between first and third grade. Sometimes a child doesn’t really pick it up until about the fourth grade. But teachers and parents fear that a skill like reading may not unfold, so they start pushing kids earlier and earlier.”
Waldorf education was developed by Austrian thinker Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th century and is based upon his philosophy called anthroposophy. Steiner espoused the view that the human being is a being of body, soul, and spirit; and that children develop through several specific stages from childhood through adulthood. One of the oldest Waldorf schools in the nation, Green Meadow opened in 1950. It offers nursery school through 12th grade classes, with a full curriculum including math, science, languages, history, English, music — along with activities such as athletics, gardening, even knitting instruction. Tenth and 11th graders can expand their horizons even further, with foreign exchange programs in countries ranging from France to Peru.
Since Green Meadow isn’t a public school, it isn’t required to administer state tests. “We do have a lot of testing — it just isn’t standardized; it isn’t the Regents,” Steinrueck explains. “Our students take tests regularly, but they don’t learn to the test. Instead of multiple-choice tests, students go into depth about a topic; they write a lot of essays.”
Since about 98 percent of Green Meadow students continue on to college, they do take SAT exams. “And although many go to excellent colleges, we don’t consider ourselves an elite private school aiming to get our students only into the upper 10 percent of colleges. We feel that we educate a bell curve of students who go to a bell curve of colleges,” Steinrueck says.
Still, tuition costs can be a jolt for parents. With current basic annual tuition ranging from $11,800 for full-day kindergarten to $17,900 for grades nine through 12, “it can be challenging. The economy is really difficult for everybody,” Steinrueck acknowledges. “As a nonprofit school, we try to keep tuition as low as possible. We’re not here to make money for anybody. Tuition costs allow the school to stay open, to operate and provide excellent teachers, excellent programs.
“We help students become whole human beings,” she adds. “The goal is not for kids to get a certain grade, or get into a certain college, but to grow up to be an individual able to stand on their own two feet. To make healthy, ethical decisions in their life, to feel free, and think creatively.”
How long at the school: “I’ve been here since the sixth grade, and been in Waldorf schools almost all my life. I did go to a public school for six months, but I hated it. It was very dry and factual. One day a science teacher brought in dead animals and we were supposed to observe their characteristics. I said, ‘How can I observe their characteristics if they’re not alive? How can I observe this bird fly if it’s dead?’ Things like that were hard to deal with.”
Hardest thing to adjust to in private school: “I came to Green Meadow to visit for three days and never left. There was no adjustment; I was so happy to be here.”
Favorite subject: “I love music; I play the oboe. I also like science and will probably go into that field.”
Best part of the school day: “We have 45- to 50-minute classes and I’ll go from, say, chorus to chemistry to German. I love the diversity and variety of the courses.”
Best thing about the campus: “It’s a small size. Everything is right at my fingertips.”
People might be surprised: “At how vigorous the academic program is in our high school.”