AN OVERVIEW OF WHAT HOUSTON PRIVATE SCHOOLS HAVE TO OFFER
For one Houston mom, putting her two boys ages 5 and 6 into the public school system was never an option.
A former teacher in the public school system, says her decision was largely based on the smaller class sizes, the “active learning” approach of the all-boy school and the focus on character building that is so much a part of the private school experience. “For me, character building is as important as academics,” she says with conviction.
She is not alone. Houston private schools are in demand, and waiting lists are long. But not all private schools are created equal, and finding a good fit is important in order for the experience to be satisfying to the students, the parents and the teachers. So how do you know which school is the best choice for your children? As the teachers say, “Do your homework.”
A large draw for many parents when considering public versus private schools is the smaller class size the private school students enjoy. A smaller teacher-to-student ratio translates into more individualized attention.
“One of the benefits of an Academy education is that each boy is valued and understood,” says headmaster John Webster. “Our classrooms are small, with a 9-1 student-teacher ratio, and our average teacher has 18 years of experience,” he adds.
With so much one-on-one interaction, teachers get to know the students and are able to work with them in very specific ways. If a student is working ahead of his or her peers, the child can be challenged appropriately, while the student who is struggling with a particular concept can get the extra help he or she needs.
A FLEXIBLE CURRICULUM
Because private schools are independently funded and not regulated by the state, they are not subject to the TAKS test. “I spend so much time teaching to the TAKS test that I don’t get to teach the way I want to,” says one public school teacher. “It is very frustrating.”
Private schools have much more freedom and flexibility in terms of curriculum. “There are more diverse course offerings academically and in the fine arts and athletics,” says Jennifer Milikien, director of marketing and public relations at Saint Mary’s Hall.
She adds that the depth and breadth of the curriculum is important, offering opportunities for foreign languages, advanced placement courses, advanced math and science courses and more.
Besides being diverse, the curriculum at most private schools is extremely rigorous. “Our students are working one grade level above where they are,” says Nisa Lagle, assistant principal at St. Luke’s Episcopal School. “When they leave the eighth grade, they will be well prepared for high school.”
“My son is reading at a second grade level,” says one San Antonio Academy mom. “He can also hear a piece of classical music and tell you who the composer is because he has been studying famous composers in music. My son is 5 years old!”
But a curriculum is only as good as its teachers. Many of the private schools boast teachers with impressive track records, not just in longevity but also in educational background.
SAME SEX VERSUS COED
In his book Why Gender Matters, Dr. Leonard Saks says, “When teachers recognize, understand, and make use of the biologically different ways boys think and feel and act and play and learn, it makes all the difference in the world.”
It is a fact that boys and girls learn very differently, and while some students perform perfectly well at coed schools, there is evidence to indicate that a same-sex environment can facilitate more of a willingness to participate on the part of the students. One obvious reason is that it removes the desire to impress the members of the opposite sex and allows the students to focus on more important things — like academics.
For girls, the same-sex environment removes any feelings of inadequacy in subjects such as math and science, where boys are often likely to excel. It also allows students to let their guard down and open up, something that Webster has seen firsthand in the Academy boys.
Teachers at boys’ schools will tell you that when boys feel more comfortable in class, peer relationships seem better, and the rapport between the boys and their teachers is stronger. The boys are more likely to open up and share their feelings. Schools like the Academy encourage boys to talk about their emotions and make it safe for them to ask for help, he points out.
STANDARDS OF EXCELLENCE
Most private schools require some kind of academic testing or evaluation for incoming students in order to ensure that the school will be a good fit for the student and that he or she will have a positive academic experience.
“We do achievement testing to make sure that the student is at a level to be successful,” explains Alan Axtell of San Antonio Christian School. “Public schools have to teach to the average kid. We can be more selective.”
With calculus and high-level math, a national-award-winning journalism program and an art program that regularly places 10 to 15 students in the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo’s art competition, the standards are high at San Antonio Christian as well as at most of the other private schools.
Saint Mary’s Hall offers 21 college-level courses, and the San Antonio Academy has received national attention for the students’ performances on testing. This year alone, 25 Academy seventhgraders accepted the Duke University Talent Search invitation to take the SAT. The boys as a group scored 90 points higher than the Duke TIPS national average. Twenty of the boys scored higher than 800, and 14 students were state-recognized.
An impressive 100 percent of the graduates of TMI — The Episcopal School of Texas go on to attend college. Those are some pretty high statistics, and they set the standard for success in the private school environment.
THE WHOLE CHILD
Of course, academics aren’t everything when it comes to producing a well-rounded student. Extracurricular activities, such as clubs, student government, sports and more, all work together to make up the private school experience. “The biggest benefit of a private education is that it takes into consideration the whole child,” says Lagle. “Academically, physically and spiritually.”
Faith-based schools often feature Bible study as part of the curriculum, and chapel is a daily or weekly occurrence in many of the private institutions. “The nice thing about a Christian education is the consistency between what’s taught in church, home and school,” says Axtell.
Many private schools offer opportunities for community service and involvement as well as leadership activities. San Antonio Christian provides students with the opportunity for both local and international mission outreach programs, while Saint Mary’s Hall encourages programs such as the Red Cross Club community organization.
“Each day the school provides its students with opportunities that generate enlightened, involved and productive citizens for service and leadership in the school and larger community,” summarizes Milikien. “We believe that by having great facilities, a stellar student body and a faculty that is second to none, we fulfill our mission every day to provide excellent academic preparation that results in success in college as well as in life.”
PEACE OF MIND
Impressive test scores, rigorous academics and character building aside, one of the underlying reasons for many families to choose a private school is the peace of mind it affords. With statistics showing dropout rates at an alltime high and front page stories about gangs, shootings and violence, a private school can seem like a safe haven.
“When one of my friends found out that I was sending my boys to a private school, she told me that it ‘wasn’t the real world,’” says another San Antonio Academy mother. “I told her, ‘Thank God!’”
“It is a family environment,” adds Jones. “You know that your child is in a class with other kids whose families have many of the same beliefs and values as you do.”
That is not to say that nothing bad ever happens at a private school. No school is perfect, and private schools boast plenty of mischief makers. The smaller environment, however, means that bullying and other offensive behavior is easier to spot and address with the appropriate disciplinary measures. And because many of the private schools place as much emphasis on character as on academics, the behavior is much less likely to be tolerated.
But what if your child has a learning disability that precludes him or her from meeting the rigorous challenges set forth by the city’s best private schools? Or what if your child is so extraordinarily gifted that he or she needs more than the average private school can offer?
Fortunately, San Antonio is equipped with private schools that meet the needs of students regardless of situation. The Keystone School, for example, offers nothing but accelerated courses for students with what the Web site refers to as “above-average academic ability.” What does that mean? Last year’s graduating class averaged 2000 out of 2400 on the SAT test if that is any indication.
Also on the spectrum is the Winston School, designed for students with what the school terms “learning differences.”
“Our kids are gifted; they just learn differently,” explains Michelle Mayer, special events coordinator. Winston caters to students with Attention Deficit Disorder and other learning challenges that make a traditional educational environment too daunting for them. Like the other private schools, Winston requires students to undergo testing to determine a legitimate learning disability.
Once admitted, the students are educated in small classes of approximately 10 students. Most of the instructors have a background in special education and work hard to teach each child based on his or her individual needs. “It’s almost like a lesson plan for each child,” says Mayer.
The goal at Winston is not only to help a child overcome a learning challenge but also to increase the students’ self-esteem and confidence. Many children go to mainstream schools from Winston, and as many as 86 percent of the graduates go on to attend college.
THE FINAL CHOICE
Private schools are not cheap. Tuition can range from $5,000 to $10,000 per year and higher. After you have done your homework on all the schools, you must do the homework on your child.
“You really must take into account your child’s personality and how he or she would be best served,” advises Lagle, who recommends asking yourself the following questions:
- Does your child interact well with adults?
- Is your child a hard worker?
- Is your child a self-starter?
- Can your child maintain the standards set forth by the school you are considering?
If you answer “yes,” then it might be time to start filling out applications, getting on wait lists and opening your checkbook.
An education is the one thing you can give your children that will last them throughout their lifetimes. Make sure the educational environment is one in which they will thrive.