As the Director of Admission and Financial Aid at Montgomery School, I spend much of my day educating families about the benefits, not only of a Montgomery School education, but of independent schools in general. The area in which we are located boasts some very strong public schools, and most families I meet with are just beginning to learn how independent schools differentiate themselves not only from from public schools, but from parochial, charter, and for-profit private schools as well.
I applaud parents who are willing to do the research to determine what educational alternatives are available for their children. Much of our identity as families, neighbors and community members can be tied to an affiliation with a public school district. Parents must strike out on their own with their child's best interest at heart when they are seeking better educational opportunities. It can be challenging when speaking to friends and neighbors about why you have chosen to enroll your children in an independent or private school, as there are many misconceptions about independent schools that can be uncomfortable to talk about. We should be willing to have these conversations, as our children's future success as learners and citizens will be shaped by decisions made during their early academic years.
Myth: Independent schools are unaffordable.
Independent schools are expensive but not unaffordable. It’s expensive to hire and support high quality teachers, maintain relatively small classes, offer intimate advisor/advisee counseling groups, provide a full-range of sports and arts programs and activities (and expect everyone to participate, unlike large public schools where only elite athletes and artists are served). With the financial aid packages independent schools offer, the “sticker price” is discounted for a significant proportion of families so that they can afford to send their children to a high quality independent school. Families of even relatively high incomes will often qualify for financial aid.
Myth: Independent schools are not part of the community.
Independent schools are very conscious of “community impact” issues and opportunities, especially given the commitment as charitable enterprises to demonstrate “the public purpose of private education.” On the most obvious surface level, independent schools have multi-million dollar budgets and employ local citizens, so the multiplier effect is a significant contributor to the local economy. On a programmatic level, virtually every independent school’s programming includes community service, where students and faculty contribute “sweat equity” in the local community, tutoring in schools, assisting at hospitals and nursing homes, cleaning up parks and rivers, and the like. These programs tend to have a “service learning” dimension where the work in the field becomes the subject of classroom research and discussion towards the end of producing lifelong civic engagement. Finally, independent schools are defining being “part of the community” very broadly, seeking to address global challenges by implementing local solutions.
Myth: Independent Schools are “not the real world.”
While independent schools are “not the real world” themselves, they prepare students exceedingly well for the real world(s) of college, the workplace, and life in general, as the National Education Longitudinal Study from NCES demonstrates: independent school graduates in disproportionate numbers earn college and graduate degrees, report high career satisfaction, vote and engage in civic activities, exercise, and generally contribute to make the real world a better place.
Myth: Independent schools lack diversity.
To belong to NAIS, an independent school must agree to abide by “Principles of Good Practice,” one of which is related to “equity and justice” practices to assure that NAIS schools commit resources and energy to advancing inclusivity and diversity of all kinds in our schools. These principles are grounded in the knowledge that all students benefit from more diverse environments and that, once they leave school for college and the workplace thereafter, the comfort students have with diversity will serve them well. Because public schools are tied to specific neighborhoods and independent schools are not, the facts belie this myth: Most independent schools tend to be more, rather than less, diverse than local public schools, since too often residential housing patterns remain largely segregated by race and ethnicity.
Myth: Independent schools are only for really smart kids.
It’s true that “really smart” kids graduate from independent schools, but they don’t all come to us that way, and even the ones that do have much “value added” from their experience. Fundamentally, NAIS schools believe in the “growth mindset” research that indicates that success comes largely from hard work and optimal conditions; and that emphasizing one’s “native intelligence” is often counter-productive. So independent schools create the optimal conditions for what Malcolm Gladwell, in his book "Outliers", describes as formative for highly successful people: they have the capacity for hard work and find themselves in situations that demand hard work. Truth be known, the typical independent school student has average-to-above-average ability, but becomes exceptional from hard work and opportunities to develop multiple intelligences, not just academic and intellectual ones.