Special Features — 05 January 2013
The case for private vs. public schools

Wondering whether your child should go to public school or private school? There are more factors to consider than you probably realize – just ask these admissions directors from some of South Florida’s top learning institutions.

BY LORI CAPULLO

You’ve got a straight-A student attending a public school where the art program has been dropped and Band 101 is spent learning about tempo because there aren’t enough instruments to go around. Or perhaps your daughter’s straight-A record is in jeopardy because her honors algebra class is so overcrowded that she can’t get the personal attention she needs to address the lessons she’s having trouble comprehending.

There are plenty of excellent public schools in and around South Florida, of course, and the aforementioned scenarios may be exceptions rather than the norm. But too many times parents don’t know until their children are settled into a new middle or high school that such problems exist. So before you dismiss the notion of private school because you think you can’t afford the tuition or that it’s not for your child, read on.

Dr. Doug Laurie, vice president at American Heritage School in Plantation and Boca Delray, says there are definitely questions parents need to ask themselves in the decision-making process.

“One big question is,” he says, “does the public school meet your child’s needs academically? For example, does the school have a good record as far as how many of its graduates go on to college? For the past three years, we’ve been the number one school in the state for National Merit Scholars, and for the past four we’ve been the number one private school in math competitions. In fact, one out of every four National Merit Scholars in Broward came out of our schools.”

The academic aspect of any school is at the top of the list of factors to assess. But private schools take a far broader perspective when it comes to how parents should evaluate a school to determine if it is the right one for their child.

“What parents need to understand about public versus private schools if they have a student with special needs, on the high end or low end, is whether the school is going to accommodate those needs,” says Cindy Hirsch, admissions director at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Fort Lauderdale. “Now there are some private schools that have special needs classes, whereas that used to be something that was only in public schools.”

Hirsch points out that while Cardinal Gibbons, which with about 1,200 students is the smallest Catholic school in the district, does not offer such programs, “There are some good ones that do have very good programs for kids who are struggling a bit.”

Another point Hirsch makes is one that many parents may be unaware of.

“Today, kids in public schools can receive Certificates of Attendance instead of a diploma,” she says. “At the end of four years, if a student doesn’t pass the FCATs, attend school regularly or earn the necessary grades, he or she can walk away with nothing more than a nifty little certificate of attendance. And today, you can’t even get a job at McDonald’s without a high-school diploma.”

Then there is the matter of instruction. A key difference between public and private schools is that public-school teachers are guided by a statewide curriculum. Says Lynne Fazzio, admissions director at University School of Nova Southeastern University: “In public schools the focus is on high-stakes, fund-driven and politically driven standardized testing. The kids have to spend all their time preparing for the tests, and teachers are putting pressure on them because the teachers are getting it from the school board. Meanwhile, kids are not learning.”

At Nova, Fazzio says, that’s not the case. “The classrooms are engaging. Teachers are innovative. There’s a great use of technology in the classroom,” she says. All of which translates to positive results. “We know as adults if we love our jobs, the more successful and productive we are.’’

Because there is so much competition to get into colleges, across the board the most desirable universities are requiring more of their applicants than high grade-point averages and SAT scores. Admissions officials examine applications and essays looking for students who spend their high-school years building a well-rounded résumé that shows character, curiosity and vitality in addition to academic success.

“More and more, colleges are looking for students who have something more to offer than just grades,” Laurie says. “Such as the ability to play sports or involvement in clubs, drama and community service.”

It’s not just colleges that are looking for well-rounded students. That starts at the college-prep level.

“When a candidate applies, we consider many aspects,” says Elena DelAlamo, vice president of Admission, Financial Aid and Enrollment at Pine Crest School, which has campuses in Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton and serves students from pre-K through 12th grade. “With 4-, 5- and 6-year-old children, we bring them in for a developmental assessment only. As for those candidates who are older, have attended school elsewhere and received report cards, we request their grades and recommendations from the sending schools. It’s important for a child who is admitted to our school to want to learn and to be inquisitive.”

Why? Because Pine Crest’s courses are advanced at all grade levels and, DelAlamo says, the students are expected to want to be challenged – and they do. “On our logo, you’ll see our Alumni Bell Tower with the words, ‘Character, Education, Leadership.’ This may help in understanding our students.”

But that doesn’t just apply to the classroom. American Heritage, Pine Crest, Cardinal Gibbons and University School all require a certain number of hours worth of community service from students. At Cardinal Gibbons, where students perform a mandatory minimum of 20 hours per year (Families of students are required to perform at least 10 hours per year), many students graduate with twice that number of hours.“They enjoy it so much and get so involved that they tend to perform far beyond the bare minimum,” Hirsch says. “We give special acknowledgment to those students who have more than 250 hours by the time they graduate, and that’s not unusual.”

It’s also easy to understand why students are eager to study, when electives include options like movie-set design, guitar, screenplay writing and precursors to college majors such as engineering, medicine and journalism.

“We have over 60 clubs and more than 300 course offerings, with 75 choices in fine-arts electives alone,” Laurie says.

Exposure to colleges is another factor when weighing the differences between private and public schools. While some public high schools coordinate occasional field trips through various programs to local colleges and universities, American Heritage students are visited every year by representatives from approximately 200 universities who speak to sophomores, juniors and seniors.

“We also take four to six field trips a year to visit universities, some as far as the Midwest and even California,” Laurie says.

 

GETTING IN AND STAYING IN

All the schools mentioned in this story have a rolling admissions process that typically begins in the early fall for the following school year (for example, September 2013 for the 2014-2015 school year) and continues through to the spring. It’s not uncommon for all the slots to be filled by January or February, at which point a wait list is put into effect. 

 Elena DelAlamo, vice president of Admission, Financial Aid and Enrollment at Pine Crest School, says admission to Pine Crest is competitive. The potential student and his or her family are both interviewed, and applicants must take the SSAT (Secondary School Admissions Test). 

At University School, prospective students are tested and undergo a series of activities and interviews, records are examined, and they spend time with teachers, administrators and admissions counselors. 

“The mission of the school is to accept average to above-average students who have been performing on or above their grade level, demonstrate motivation and contribute something, whether it’s a talent or community service, to their community,” says Lynne Fazzio, admissions director at University School of Nova Southeastern University.

“We’re looking for potential in addition to performance.”

 While private school does come with a hefty price tag, financial aid is available to families that qualify. Last year, Pine Crest awarded $4.2 million in financial aid to more than 375 students. 

“We realize that not all families are able to pay tuition at an independent school,” DelAlamo says. “But it’s important for us to have a diverse community with as many socioeconomic backgrounds as possible.” 

Adds Dr. Doug Laurie of American Heritage: “We are a very culturally diverse population, ethnically and socioeconomically. There are 50 countries represented in our schools. It’s really a melting pot, and most people appreciate that because that’s what South Florida is. And that makes it another learning process for the kids. It’s important to have a view beyond your little world and realize there’s much more out there.”

 

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