The Great Debate: Public vs. Private High Schools

Politicians aren’t the only ones debating these days. For a long time, local parents have been pondering whether or not to send their teenagers to public or private high schools. With college admissions more competitive than ever, the stakes have never been higher. But relax. You can get all the facts right here, so you’ll be able to make an educated decision when the time comes. Study up.

Which is better: public or private? When it comes to education, Valley parents, like those everywhere, grapple with tough, far-reaching decisions about the best schools for their children. Academic offerings, class sizes, cultural diversity, after-school activities — as well as overall costs — all factor into the public versus private equation.

Some parents are convinced that choosing a high school is really a no-brainer. “If you’ve got the money, of course, a private school is better,” some argue. The prestige factor or family-heritage issues sometimes come into play, too. It might be the lure of the Ivy League, and the belief that a private-school background offers a more certain stepping-stone. In other families, where an esteemed relative attended a certain school, parents are sometimes hell-bent on continuing the family legacy.

But interestingly, when it comes to learning, some studies, as well as personal experiences of parents, educators, and students, suggest that the once-sharp distinction — or at least the perception of a distinction — between the excellence of public and private education is becoming more fuzzy.

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For instance, the Center on Education Policy, a national, independent advocate for public education, noted in a study released last year that private and public school students perform just about equally on achievement tests in reading, math, history, and science.

Another notable result of the CEP survey: Private school grads, when surveyed at age 26, weren’t any more satisfied with the career route they’d taken than were graduates of public schools.

And the authors of the book All Else Equal: Are Public and Private Schools Different? (RoutledgeFalmer, 2003) reach a similar conclusion. Coauthor Dr. Martin Carnoy, a Stanford University professor, notes “no significant difference” between kids’ performance in public versus private schools, when factors such as socioeconomic and family background are included in the academic mix.

So, cash-strapped parents can heave a sigh of relief that the high school around the corner might, indeed, offer a better educational match for their child than a prestigious private school with a price tag to match. And on the other hand, most parents who invest in a private education for their offspring say they don’t regret making that pricey choice.

When it comes to deciding whether to go private or public, “It really depends on the child,” says Kris Fox, an advisor who runs College Pathways, an educational consulting college preparatory company in Latham. “For a competitive student, sometimes a private school does give them a leg up, because it might offer a more intense curriculum. Yet, there are many good public schools, too,” she says. “Years down the road after college, a prestigious degree might continue to carry some weight. But it’s what a student makes of his or her education that really counts.”

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What follows is an outline of some strengths and shortcomings of public and private high schools, according to a sampling of local insiders in both areas of education. Plus, you’ll find useful private school statistics and programs in the accompanying chart. And one very encouraging word to parents: We’re fortunate to live, and have our children learn, right here in the Hudson Valley — where a number of our public and private schools consistently rank among the best in the nation.

Private Schools

Small classes, challenging courses, teacher accessibility: a few reasons why parents opt for private schools

There’s no argument that private schools in the Valley have lots going for them. They get A-plus grades for features including an often more creative, less bureaucratic curriculum; strong parental involvement; strongly motivated students; and a higher bar when it comes to discipline, commitment, and performance.

On the other hand, drawbacks of private schools can include a lack of standardized teaching-credential or personnel requirements; likewise, graduation requirements are determined by the school, not the state, since tests like the Regents only apply to public schools.

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Also, since private schools are less numerous, some day students face lengthy commutes. And the student body in some nonpublic schools tends to be economically and socially homogeneous (although some parents call that a plus). Then there’s the cost. According to the National Association of Independent Schools, the median tuition for private day schools in the U.S. soared from $16,600 in 2006 to $18,287 for the 2007-2008 school year for grades nine to 12; boarding school fees increased from $32,000 to $38,148.

One of the strongest selling points for private schools is small class size and individualized attention for students, who tend to be highly motivated. “Every student that a parent’s son or daughter sits next to in our classes will also be heading to college,” says Jill Kane, director of communications at Millbrook School in Dutchess County.

“Students here are really committed to their work and goals.

“I’m a former public school teacher, so I’ve had my feet in both areas,” adds Kane, who points out that a strong college prep curriculum is another feature at Millbrook. “There’s a lot of one-on-one caring, nurturing, and guiding here. We’re a boarding school, so there’s also 24/7 accessibility to teachers; they live here. If a student is having trouble with physics, you can sit in your physics teacher’s living room in the evening and work with that person.”

There’s no arguing with the remarkable facilities at some private schools. Millbrook, for instance, recently opened a new art center with a high-tech theater, as well as a new, extremely energy-efficient math and science center. “When we were designing the math and science center two years ago, we even had students on the planning committee,” says Kane. And then there’s the zoo. Yes, Millbrook has its own wild kingdom, accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “We’re the only high school in the nation with such a facility; we have over 80 animal species on seven acres,” says Kane.

The small classes that are a trademark of private schools definitely enhance education, says Jamie Hicks, director of admissions at Darrow School in New Lebanon, Columbia County. “We’re a pioneer in the hands-on learning style of teaching,” she explains. With a maximum of about 10 students per class, and a five-to-one student/teacher ratio, “the kids are really playing an active role in their learning.”

In a standard class — take history for example — the focus in most schools would be traditional, with the teacher standing in front of the students and lecturing. “But not at Darrow,” Hicks says. “Hands-on learning would mean the kids would take part in discussions and debates. They’d role-play, do board work, create small group projects. We always stress that students learn by doing, by hearing, by seeing.”

Hicks, like other educators who shared their comments here, refused to “bash” other styles of learning or types of education. “It shouldn’t really be an issue of public versus private school. It’s about what’s right for your child,” she says. “When parents come and tell us they want to enroll their child in a private school, we explain that we want to help their child do what’s best academically for them, not just because we’re a private school,” she adds.

“With only 120 kids in the whole school, you get to know everybody quickly, and there’s only about seven kids in a class,” says Shawn Leary, 15, of Pittsfield, Mass., who just completed his sophomore year at Darrow. Leary says he’s especially drawn to chemistry; he also loves Darrow’s Hands-to-Work program. “We go out every Wednesday and do three hours of community service. You have 15 or 20 choices every season. Last winter I was on a tree crew; we cut down Christmas trees and donated them to people who couldn’t afford them.”

Even though he’s a commuter, Leary feels he’s a part of the Darrow family. “The teachers live at the school, so they’re also your friends. You can do things like go caving with them, or go to the mall. It’s cool.”

While many, if not most, private schools are now coed, some emphasize the benefits of girls-only or boys-only learning. “What we bring to the table is a long tradition of single-sex education,” says Trudy Hall, head of school at Emma Willard School in Troy. “We’re proud of it and see it as extraordinarily viable. It’s not the least bit outdated — if anything, there’s been an increase in the demand for single-sex education.” Hall notes that studies show girls learn differently than boys do. “Therefore, it benefits them to be in an environment focused solely on one gender.”

Emma Willard is technically an independent, not a private, school. “Independent schools are not-for-profit; we receive no state funding,” Hall says. She adds that, regardless of whether kids opt for the private or public high school route, the stakes are higher these days. “I worry about secondary schools now,” she says, “because the college marketplace is tighter than it’s ever been. So all of us in secondary schools are doing whatever we can to ensure that students, boys or girls, have appropriate developmental progress in high school. If that doesn’t happen, you’re not as well-served later in life.”

Emma Willard was the perfect high school choice for Charlotte Richards, 18, of Melrose, Rensselaer County, who graduated in June. “I’m a die-hard,” she laughs. “I went to Emma Willard since the beginning of seventh grade. It was a change from public school, but a change I wanted. I remember at the end of seventh grade I thought, ‘I want to be more challenged.’ And Emma Willard certainly gave me the academic challenge I wanted.”

Richards, who graduated cum laude and is headed for Cornell University to study biological engineering, adds, “I loved going to an all-girls school. In the classroom, it’s so much better. You don’t have someone goofing around in the back, and you learn so much quicker.”

Small class size was also a plus for Richards at Emma Willard, where students can take Advanced Placement courses in everything from art to U.S. government. “We had six people in my French class one year, which was great,” she recalls. “Also, you really develop a relationship with your teachers. It’s a good jumping-off point for going to college. I feel like I can talk to any professor, and I’m not afraid to make that first step.”

Her challenging, private-school course load was another benefit, according to Richards: “We have the upper hand for college in a way, because we’ve already written the 10-page papers that a lot of schools don’t require. It’s an easier transition to college when you’ve already been challenged.”

The Comeback Kid (or The Braverman Redemption)

On the evening of Saturday, June 7, 2008, a crowd of over 4,000 upstate baseball die-hards filled Troy’s Bruno Stadium to watch the Section II Class AA championship game between the LaSalle Cadets and the Columbia Blue Devils. The resulting nail-biter didn’t end until 12:22 the next morning, when LaSalle second baseman Will Remillard singled up the middle in the bottom of the seventh to send the winning run home — and the delirious Cadets, along with their exultant coach, Jesse Braverman, into the familiar, frenzied victory scrum on the mound.

The keyed up fans streaming into the Albany night knew they had seen one of the greatest baseball games of their lives. Few realized that they had also witnessed the culmination of one of the most impressive — and moving — comebacks in the annals of high school coaching.

In 2000, Braverman lost his position as coach of the varsity baseball team at Bethlehem High School, a job he had held for over six years. The reason: a newly instituted Suburban Council rule prohibiting coaches from managing both a high school and a summer league team. Ten years before, Braverman, a former high school pitching star who cut his cleats playing weekend sandlot ball, had founded the Bethlehem Mickey Mantle team for 15- and 16-year-olds. Now, suddenly, the Council decreed that he couldn’t hold both positions.

Braverman, who had won the 1999 Section II title with Bethlehem, took the Council to court on the issue and lost, sending him into an emotional tailspin. “To say that I was devastated after losing my team is to understate the case,” says the highly lauded instructor, who also teaches special education. After not missing a day of school for two decades, Braverman took sick for a year and a half to try to put his head—and his life — together.

The normally upbeat Braverman, who also goes by the moniker “Mr. B,” kept his hand in coaching by volunteering as an assistant at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and working weekends at the Sports Barn, a popular sports clinic in Halfmoon. One of the many fellow coaches who stopped by to commiserate and offer encouragement was Sal Forino, the varsity baseball coach at LaSalle, a Catholic military institute in Troy.

A few weeks after that visit, Forino died as a result of injuries suffered during a car accident. Two months later, Pat Mulcahy, the LaSalle athletic director, asked Jesse to take his place at LaSalle. The fact that Braverman happens to be Jewish didn’t matter. All Mulcahy knew was that Mr. B was good.

“It was a difficult way to restart my coaching career,” Braverman reflects, “but I like to think that Sal would have approved.” It’s hard to see how he couldn’t. Under Jesse’s stewardship, the Cadets have won five consecutive Big 10 championships before their astounding 27-game victory run this season (which finally ended on June 14 when they narrowly lost to Mamaroneck, 7-5, in the state championship).

If the super-dedicated, detail-minded Braverman has transformed the Cadets, molding what had been a creditable team into an outstanding one, Jesse’s LaSalle experience has, by his own admission, saved him as well. “I have been reminded, at a time when I was immersed in self-doubt, that one must persevere and remain positive,” is the way he puts it. “The Braverman Redemption” is the expression Jim Allen, who covers high school baseball for the Albany Times-Union, uses to describe the extraordinary mutual makeover. Hollywood couldn’t have scripted it better.

The LaSalle Cadets have learned a lot from Jesse, both about baseball, and about life. “I’ve learned to do my best no matter who is watching,” says centerfielder Scott Morrissey, “to do the best I can in whatever I try.”

They’ve also learned that — contrary to what Vince Lombardi and all too many current coaches and parents believe — winning is not everything: It’s how you play the game that counts. When asked to describe his fondest memory of the Cadets’ epochal 2008 season, Scott quoted the pep talk Braverman gave the dejected team as they sat around him on the field after losing the final game of the season.

“He said he wasn’t disappointed that we had lost the game,” Scott recalled.

“He said that either way, the season was coming to an end. Instead, what he said was most disappointing to him was that it was the end of the season, and that as a result he would no longer have the privilege of working with all of us as a team anymore. That is something I think I will always remember.”

“Somewhere, up there,” says Pat Mulcahy, “I know that Sal is smiling.” Amen!

— Gordon F. Sander

China’s Influence Comes To Woodstock

China is the wave of the future; at least, that’s what officials at the Woodstock Day School are touting with the launch of the school’s new, expanded foreign language program. As of next month, the state-chartered, independent school will begin teaching Mandarin Chinese to students in grades preschool through 12. Spoken by approximately 1.6 billion people worldwide, Mandarin is the official language of Mainland China and Taiwan, and one of four spoken languages in Singapore.

All students at the day school are enrolled in the new program, which will be taught by Grace Kurland-Zang, a recent Bard College graduate. Kurland-Zang majored in Chinese studies and hopes to eventually create a fully developed Asian studies curriculum. The course will utilize an academic “buddy system,” in which younger students pair up with older students, so one can help the other master the difficult language.

While it might seem an unusual choice, Woodstock Day is one of a growing number of schools nationwide now offering Mandarin. Head of School Dr. James Handlin says the program is part of the “practical and modern education” the school strives to offer its students. “The United States is a country that faces the Atlantic as well as the Pacific,” he says; learning a language such as Mandarin is “a way into the mores and characters of the people” of the Pacific Rim region. Although classes have yet to begin, “parents and children are really excited about the program,” he says.

— Shana Wilensky

Public Schools

Socially diverse and publicly funded, these schools offer a variety of learning experiences

The majority of kids in the Valley, and the nation, attend public high schools. As education experts point out, just the fact that they’re free (except, of course, for rising school taxes) and open to all, offers an opportunity for learning that’s unparalleled in many places elsewhere in the world.

Among the overall pluses of public schools: teachers are required to have specific academic credentials; the curriculum places emphasis on mastering core subjects; the student body tends to be socially and economically diverse; many public schools can fund a variety of activities; and parent and community involvement is encouraged.

On the flip side, some parents and teachers decry the inherent bureaucracy of public school systems. They believe the focus on rote learning and testing requirements (think the “No Child Left Behind” program) erodes staff and student creativity, and can stifle the love of learning for learning’s sake.

Other challenges for public schools include larger classes; a more impersonal atmosphere; less individual attention for students; and in some cases, more time and energy spent dealing with potential discipline problems.

Yet generations of kids have been schooled — and become happy, high achievers as a result — in these traditional settings. “I’m a firm believer in the public school system in New York,” says Paul Fanuele, principal of Spackenkill High School in Poughkeepsie. “I don’t want to knock private schools because they can do a very good job also. Public schools can be at an advantage because of funding for programs. But I’m really for both.”

He notes: “I think Spackenkill High School works because of a combination of several things — strong teachers and administration, a good staff, and support from home.”

The school, which this year is ranked number 466 among public high schools in the nation by Newsweek, is big on encouraging well-rounded students. “Most studies show that kids involved in school activities, be it an athletic team or scholastic club or sports, tend to do better academically,” Fanuele says. “It’s a matter of success building on success. It gives kids confidence to keep moving on.”

Greg Holt, 17, recently completed his junior year at Spackenkill. “I think the teachers educate us very well. It’s easier, too, in our school because it’s smaller [the high school has about 600 students]. If you need help, you can just stay after school and talk to a teacher. They really care about the students.”

Holt, who says he might pursue math and psychology in college, gives a thumbs-up to the school’s college prep and AP programs. “We have a programming course to learn to write JAVA scripts, and one for architects to learn to design and make blueprints.”

He’s compared notes with friends who attend private school. “One sometimes complains that they have more rules, dress codes, and there’s no tolerance in the way they handle things if you do something wrong,” he says. “I’m not saying they don’t get a great education; but I’m happy here.” Holt also enjoys the diversity among students at the school. “Cliques don’t exist here much anymore. I’m friends with jocks and geeks — we all get along.”

Arlington High School in Dutchess County, on the other hand, is a highly rated — and big — public school that was ranked 915th on Newsweek’s list. “We have over 3,400 students, so we’re one of the largest in the Hudson Valley, and we view that as positive,” says Dwight Bonk, a house principal at Arlington.

“Having a large student body gives us an opportunity to offer extensive programs, extracurricular activities, nearly 100 clubs, and other chances to get involved in the school. We can give support to students, whether it’s various AP courses, or courses you might not find in a smaller

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