Public vs private/parochial

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  February 22, 2012 06:00 AM

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My 4 year old son is very smart. (haha, how often do you hear that?) People call him our little attorney as he loves to argue. He also tends to misbehave when he is bored at daycare. He will sit for hours and color, do puzzles or worksheets while many of his 4 year old peers would rather run around. He misses the K cutoff by 13 days, so he will get an extra year of Pre-K next year. Although we have been told by several of his preschool teachers to push for K next year, we will not.

We are looking into Catholic school options as we live in NH and the regional school district we are in does not have the greatest ratings- nor did it do much for my husband or his siblings! I am a wreck trying to wrap my head around the great Catholic school/public school debate. I just want what is best for my son, who I know would do much better in a smaller class setting. I guess what I am asking is what is the best way to truly determine what would suit him best? I do not want to change schools once he is in Kindergarten and the pressure is on to make this giant decision.

Thank you!
From: Carolyn, Plaistow, NH

Hi Carolyn,

About the only thing you know for sure when you opt for independent/parochial school is that you will get smaller class sizes than public school and more favorable teacher/student ratio. That usually translates to more personalized attention. Not all kids thrive in such an intense environment although, as a rule, small class size is generally a plus in the early grades. By fifth or sixth grade, especially if there is only one class per grade, those same small classes can be suffocating because there's no room for variety in friendships. It's the same kids all the time.

You also cannot assume that all the teachers will be off-the-charts wonderful. Just because it's independent school, doesn't guarantee there won't be a bad teacher in the mix. It happens.

And will he get a better education because it's a private school? That's a debate that's been around for ages. Test scores continue to give the edge to private schools but, personally, I don't think it's as simple as that. There are so many variables, not the least of which is the child and the fit.

In the interest of full disclosure, my son attended private school from preschool through high school. We started off only wanting to buy him an extra year of preschool, got hooked and never looked back. We have no regrets, but that doesn't mean it's for everyone. Before you make your decision I recommend two things: (1)Spend time in both schools, public and parochial, observing classrooms of several grades. I know it's hard to imagine what your son will be like in a year or three or four. But it will help you to see the inside of the various classrooms. (2) Talk to parents whose kids have gone each route. What have they loved/hated about the school?

I hope we get some comments on this one. I'd love to know if folks agree with me.

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9 comments so far...
  1. Hi Carolyn,

    First of all, I'm wondering why you are rejecting the notion of your son starting Kindergarten early. He sounds like he is not challenged enough in preschool and that he might be ready for K.

    If you were thinking of a private school, I would highly recommend finding a school that offers mixed-grade classrooms (PreK-K, K-1, etc.). I think that environment would be ideal for your son, because a school like that can accommodate children who are ready intellectually but perhaps not socially to be at a higher grade. (I don't think you will find a parochial school that does this, but I may be misinformed on that.)

    The thing with private schools, and I say this as a mom of a child who switched from public to private in 2nd grade, is that the question I always ask myself is not "is this private school worth $X tuition?", but "is this private school worth $X tuition *over* the value of the public school education?" That's a killer question, really.

    As Barbara said, it really comes down to the teachers, no matter what school your child is in. And it's tough to judge, because an individual teacher can be great, but her style may be not suited to kids who learn the way your child does, or perhaps she doesn't click on a personal level with your kid. So there's really no one right answer.

    It's a tough decision, Carolyn, but remember that your son is bright, and he is undoubtedly going to do well no matter what decision you make.

    Posted by SandEE February 22, 12 01:59 PM
  1. Absolutely ditto on SandEE's idea of a school with mixed-grade classrooms, though as she says, that's probably going to be independent, not parochial - lots more $$$. The Catholic schools around where I live actually don't have smaller classes than the public schools - they're much in demand, so they do thirty kids to a class, whereas the public schools usually manage smaller class sizes, as well as programs for gifted kids. The main reason they (the Catholic schools) achieve good results is because their discipline is so good, so they can spend more time teaching and less time playing policeman. That said, however, when my daughter spent K and 1st grade at a Catholic school, I found the curriculum rigid and unimaginative - not really suited to a kid who wants more. Could have just been that school and that teacher, though - I know they do very well overall. You should check into all the possibilities and talk to other parents to see what they say.

    Posted by alien57 February 22, 12 06:58 PM
  1. I understand your desire to make the right decision, but you shouldn't rule out the idea of transferring schools once your son is in KG.
    Do what you think has the best chance of success, and be open to changing if your son does not thrive.

    Posted by ReadingMom February 23, 12 12:01 AM
  1. I am a product of both Catholic and Public schools. My public school experience (K - 8) was horrible. Absolutely horrible. But my parents found the "right fit" Catholic high school for me - a school that focused heavily on performing arts and whose dogma was more about teaching theology than indoctrination. The class sizes were medium - not small, not large, but the overall school size/population was small.

    Focus among both students and staff was on education and art. Most of the girls in my school wanted to learn and supported that environment. Mass wasn't compulsory - you could go to the fitness room or study hall instead - and I thrived there, even as a self-professed pagan at the time. There were also students of all faiths, debate was encouraged...it really was a night and day experience.

    I would recommend looking at all of your options as Barbara noted. Visit the schools. See what they're like. Then make the choice.

    Posted by Phe February 23, 12 07:43 AM
  1. I would suggest trying the public school option first. You can always switch if it doesn't work out. And I wouldn't discount starting school early either. My child's birthday is at the end of September so he started K when he was four. He was more than ready intellectually. We were very worried that another year of preschool would bore him so much it would turn him off learning.

    However, my son was friendly and outgoing, so he did fine socially. If you have an anxious child, a private school with *guaranteed* smaller classes might be preferable. But I'd still suggest starting kindergarten next year.

    Posted by momof2 February 23, 12 04:27 PM
  1. Another option is to attend a Montessori pre-school for one year, prior to starting either public or private school. The children in a Montessori school can go as far as they are able to in preschool. They have some excellent resources for teaching both Math and the Languages. My son had a Fall birrhday and spent his 'extra' year there. The thing with starting Kindergarten early, is that many programs are Full-Day. If this is the case in your district, then your child has to be both mentally and socially prepared. It can be a very long day for some children.

    Posted by beentherebefore February 23, 12 08:05 PM
  1. We are in our fifth year in a tiny Catholic school. My son began in Pre K and is currently in third grade. My daughter is now in the Pre K. We love it there; it's a great fit for our family overall. We love the community and we're very happy to be highly involved. My husband and I sit on the board and I serve on the steering committee for the school's largest fundraiser.

    However, not everyone agrees - we seem to drop a kid or two and add a kid or two to my son's class every year. Sometimes the drops are due to logistical reasons - geographical, financial, divorce/custody situations - but sometimes they are because the child/family isn't happy. The openings are filled by students who are stepping out of public school to try for a better fit. There isn't a right answer or prediction.

    You can do research and visit both places, but the reality is that you won't know for sure what is right or wrong for your child (and your family) until you live it. Make your best guess and always be open to change later.

    Posted by RH February 24, 12 10:23 AM
  1. I have some of the same comments as others here - why are you unwilling to try putting him in KG early? Why are you unwilling to switch if things don't work out? Are you *sure* that smaller class size is guaranteed at your local parochial schools?

    Also - I have one other comment - my husband and his immediate family all went to very prestigious private colleges based on their success in a public school in a tiny town which didn't have a well-funded school system. This is because it is what was important to his family. I don't think the school makes the student. I think it is up to the student (and his parents) to make the student successful. I think your son could do equally well in public or private school if youy help him succeed. Like BM said - there are a lot of factors that go into success that could contribute to higher 'test scores' for schools. Higher test scores do not always translate to more success and happiness in life. Best of luck in your decision.

    Posted by Redsoxfan1976 February 27, 12 12:58 PM
  1. Thank you everyone, including Barbara.

    We do not want to push my son to start K early as yes, he is smart, and he is social, but I don't want him to be the absolute youngest in his grade. Also, he could use another year of Pre-K prep prior to K. The reason for not wanting to switch him after K is that we just moved a little over a year ago and he had a traumatic switch from his daycare of 3 years to his new center- he just got used to the new center and we will switch him this Fall- I'd like to not have to switch him a third time.

    We live on the MA/NH border which makes it interesting because we would have to change states to potentially change schools (public). Currently the closest NH schools again, are all regional, and from asking local parents we did not get any solid recommendations for any of those school systems. In fact, we got very negative feedback. In the area we are in, many kids attend private schools over public.

    I have heard that private schools sometimes lack in math- as the link Barbara included also mentioned that and this worries me. But I think the best advice is to just try and see. I can't truly predict whether a smaller Catholic school is the right fit for him until he has been there. I can't truly know if the teachers are great or horrible until we are there and experience them. I do like reading that some of you have had excellent experiences with private schools. Money wise- we are between being able to do a Catholic school but not a Montessori- and in a public school we would be paying a relatively large amount in aftercare costs, where it evens out with Private tution (aftercare is nearly factored in as it is quite inexpensive).

    Thank you again everyone.

    Posted by Carolyn February 29, 12 01:46 PM
 
9 comments so far...
  1. Hi Carolyn,

    First of all, I'm wondering why you are rejecting the notion of your son starting Kindergarten early. He sounds like he is not challenged enough in preschool and that he might be ready for K.

    If you were thinking of a private school, I would highly recommend finding a school that offers mixed-grade classrooms (PreK-K, K-1, etc.). I think that environment would be ideal for your son, because a school like that can accommodate children who are ready intellectually but perhaps not socially to be at a higher grade. (I don't think you will find a parochial school that does this, but I may be misinformed on that.)

    The thing with private schools, and I say this as a mom of a child who switched from public to private in 2nd grade, is that the question I always ask myself is not "is this private school worth $X tuition?", but "is this private school worth $X tuition *over* the value of the public school education?" That's a killer question, really.

    As Barbara said, it really comes down to the teachers, no matter what school your child is in. And it's tough to judge, because an individual teacher can be great, but her style may be not suited to kids who learn the way your child does, or perhaps she doesn't click on a personal level with your kid. So there's really no one right answer.

    It's a tough decision, Carolyn, but remember that your son is bright, and he is undoubtedly going to do well no matter what decision you make.

    Posted by SandEE February 22, 12 01:59 PM
  1. Absolutely ditto on SandEE's idea of a school with mixed-grade classrooms, though as she says, that's probably going to be independent, not parochial - lots more $$$. The Catholic schools around where I live actually don't have smaller classes than the public schools - they're much in demand, so they do thirty kids to a class, whereas the public schools usually manage smaller class sizes, as well as programs for gifted kids. The main reason they (the Catholic schools) achieve good results is because their discipline is so good, so they can spend more time teaching and less time playing policeman. That said, however, when my daughter spent K and 1st grade at a Catholic school, I found the curriculum rigid and unimaginative - not really suited to a kid who wants more. Could have just been that school and that teacher, though - I know they do very well overall. You should check into all the possibilities and talk to other parents to see what they say.

    Posted by alien57 February 22, 12 06:58 PM
  1. I understand your desire to make the right decision, but you shouldn't rule out the idea of transferring schools once your son is in KG.
    Do what you think has the best chance of success, and be open to changing if your son does not thrive.

    Posted by ReadingMom February 23, 12 12:01 AM
  1. I am a product of both Catholic and Public schools. My public school experience (K - 8) was horrible. Absolutely horrible. But my parents found the "right fit" Catholic high school for me - a school that focused heavily on performing arts and whose dogma was more about teaching theology than indoctrination. The class sizes were medium - not small, not large, but the overall school size/population was small.

    Focus among both students and staff was on education and art. Most of the girls in my school wanted to learn and supported that environment. Mass wasn't compulsory - you could go to the fitness room or study hall instead - and I thrived there, even as a self-professed pagan at the time. There were also students of all faiths, debate was encouraged...it really was a night and day experience.

    I would recommend looking at all of your options as Barbara noted. Visit the schools. See what they're like. Then make the choice.

    Posted by Phe February 23, 12 07:43 AM
  1. I would suggest trying the public school option first. You can always switch if it doesn't work out. And I wouldn't discount starting school early either. My child's birthday is at the end of September so he started K when he was four. He was more than ready intellectually. We were very worried that another year of preschool would bore him so much it would turn him off learning.

    However, my son was friendly and outgoing, so he did fine socially. If you have an anxious child, a private school with *guaranteed* smaller classes might be preferable. But I'd still suggest starting kindergarten next year.

    Posted by momof2 February 23, 12 04:27 PM
  1. Another option is to attend a Montessori pre-school for one year, prior to starting either public or private school. The children in a Montessori school can go as far as they are able to in preschool. They have some excellent resources for teaching both Math and the Languages. My son had a Fall birrhday and spent his 'extra' year there. The thing with starting Kindergarten early, is that many programs are Full-Day. If this is the case in your district, then your child has to be both mentally and socially prepared. It can be a very long day for some children.

    Posted by beentherebefore February 23, 12 08:05 PM
  1. We are in our fifth year in a tiny Catholic school. My son began in Pre K and is currently in third grade. My daughter is now in the Pre K. We love it there; it's a great fit for our family overall. We love the community and we're very happy to be highly involved. My husband and I sit on the board and I serve on the steering committee for the school's largest fundraiser.

    However, not everyone agrees - we seem to drop a kid or two and add a kid or two to my son's class every year. Sometimes the drops are due to logistical reasons - geographical, financial, divorce/custody situations - but sometimes they are because the child/family isn't happy. The openings are filled by students who are stepping out of public school to try for a better fit. There isn't a right answer or prediction.

    You can do research and visit both places, but the reality is that you won't know for sure what is right or wrong for your child (and your family) until you live it. Make your best guess and always be open to change later.

    Posted by RH February 24, 12 10:23 AM
  1. I have some of the same comments as others here - why are you unwilling to try putting him in KG early? Why are you unwilling to switch if things don't work out? Are you *sure* that smaller class size is guaranteed at your local parochial schools?

    Also - I have one other comment - my husband and his immediate family all went to very prestigious private colleges based on their success in a public school in a tiny town which didn't have a well-funded school system. This is because it is what was important to his family. I don't think the school makes the student. I think it is up to the student (and his parents) to make the student successful. I think your son could do equally well in public or private school if youy help him succeed. Like BM said - there are a lot of factors that go into success that could contribute to higher 'test scores' for schools. Higher test scores do not always translate to more success and happiness in life. Best of luck in your decision.

    Posted by Redsoxfan1976 February 27, 12 12:58 PM
  1. Thank you everyone, including Barbara.

    We do not want to push my son to start K early as yes, he is smart, and he is social, but I don't want him to be the absolute youngest in his grade. Also, he could use another year of Pre-K prep prior to K. The reason for not wanting to switch him after K is that we just moved a little over a year ago and he had a traumatic switch from his daycare of 3 years to his new center- he just got used to the new center and we will switch him this Fall- I'd like to not have to switch him a third time.

    We live on the MA/NH border which makes it interesting because we would have to change states to potentially change schools (public). Currently the closest NH schools again, are all regional, and from asking local parents we did not get any solid recommendations for any of those school systems. In fact, we got very negative feedback. In the area we are in, many kids attend private schools over public.

    I have heard that private schools sometimes lack in math- as the link Barbara included also mentioned that and this worries me. But I think the best advice is to just try and see. I can't truly predict whether a smaller Catholic school is the right fit for him until he has been there. I can't truly know if the teachers are great or horrible until we are there and experience them. I do like reading that some of you have had excellent experiences with private schools. Money wise- we are between being able to do a Catholic school but not a Montessori- and in a public school we would be paying a relatively large amount in aftercare costs, where it evens out with Private tution (aftercare is nearly factored in as it is quite inexpensive).

    Thank you again everyone.

    Posted by Carolyn February 29, 12 01:46 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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