Private School Prerogative

Thinking about sending your teen to a private high school?  Local parents, educators, and students chime in on the pros and cons of different types of schools.



 

Public schools are the very foundation of the American dream. Rich or poor, every American child is guaranteed an education, and with it the opportunity to move up in the world. With education leveling the playing field, any American kid can grow up to become, say, a rocket scientist, a business tycoon — even the president.

That being said, it’s also true that when it comes to education, one size does not fit all. Sometimes, despite the government’s promise to “leave no child behind,” students do indeed fall behind. Learning may be impeded by crowded classrooms, underfunded school budgets, or student disabilities. Parents may seek a learning environment that is more academically rigorous, more creative, or more attuned to their own philosophical or spiritual beliefs. For those unhappy with their local public schools, the good news is that there are many private alternatives here in the Hudson Valley.

 

Educating the Mind... and the Spirit

Mary Lou Giuliano says that she and her husband weren’t necessarily looking for a religious school when they began considering transferring their daughter Kacie to John A. Coleman Catholic High School in Hurley, Ulster County. “It was more a negative reaction to our school district,” remembers Giuliano, who lives with her family in Olivebridge, Ulster County. A son and another daughter had already graduated from the local high school, which Giuliano describes as “a pretty loose environment with somewhat of a haphazard discipline system.” Because of the prevailing unruliness, she says, “there were really good kids who never got noticed.” The ones getting the most attention, she recalls, tended to be the chronic troublemakers.

Wanting a better educational environment, the Giulianos moved Kacie to Coleman in ninth grade, and they couldn’t be happier with their decision. “I want to stand on top of a mountain with a megaphone and tell other parents, ‘You don’t know what you’re missing!’ ” enthuses Giuliano. Referring to the Coleman motto, “Respect, Responsibility, and Religion,” she declares, “The respect is obvious as soon as you walk through the door.” The hallways are blessedly free of cursing, she marvels, and the rare serious infraction — say, smoking pot in the restroom — is met with immediate expulsion. “I like the fact that if there is a rule, it is enforced,” she concludes, adding that she’s also pleased with the academics and the feeling of community. “I feel like it’s one big, happy family.”

 

 

Kacie, a 16-year-old junior, agrees that the change has been overwhelmingly positive. She made new friends easily, and was quick to join the cross-country and softball teams, as well as the school newspaper. Coleman’s smaller size, she suggests, makes it easier for teachers to really get to know the students — and to help maintain an orderly atmosphere that’s conducive to learning. “It seems like there’s more freedom,” she comments, “but it’s under control. The school knows it can trust kids.”

Families like the Giulianos have helped Coleman raise their enrollment from 142 — the figure six years ago, when the school came perilously close to closing its doors for good — to its present, financially healthy total of 212. “We’ve been growing each year,” notes Principal John Traverse. He estimates that about 40 percent of the student body is Catholic, but is quick to add that “We accept students of all faiths. A lot of kids come here for the academics.” The school offers Regents diplomas, and all of its full-time staff members are New York State certified. The faculty includes one nun, Sister Catherine, who teaches 11th and 12th grade religion. Referring to religion as one of the foundations of a Coleman education, Traverse says, “We try to instill a respect for the religions of all faiths. We encourage the students to be intellectually curious, to ask questions about each others’ faiths, and to exchange ideas.”

Intellectual curiosity, the give-and-take of ideas, respect for those around you — what more could a parent wish for their child’s education?

 

Preparing For College

At first glance, it may seem odd that Poughkeepsie Day School (PDS) is considered one of the region’s top college preparatory schools even though it doesn’t use grades. Instead, this Dutchess County school uses portfolio assessments. That means no valedictorians, and no class rankings. A cornerstone of the educational experience here is the central studies program, in which students in grades seven through 12 work collaboratively on a particular topic — anything from global warming, to Shakespeare, to chocolate. Central studies classes meet for half a day each Wednesday, as well as a full day every fourth Wednesday, a schedule that allows for field trips, all-day rehearsals, and off-campus activities.

Head of School Josie Holford explains her institution’s unorthodox approach: “Students are best prepared for life and work in college when they have been expected to produce quality work over time, have been challenged as thinkers and doers, and have been expected to be responsible members of a community.” In her view, traditional testing, grading and schooling systems are incapable of identifying the skills that will be needed in the future. “We have to prepare students to live in a world we do not know and cannot predict; to work in professions that do not now exist; and work with others in a global context to solve problems of great complexity,” she asserts.

Dore Murphy, a member of the school’s class of 2004, believes that PDS prepared her well for Skidmore College, where she is now a junior. “The admissions officer who read my application and accepted me remembered me and my application,” recalls Dore. The official, she suggests, found it interesting “to see a little more about a person than their GPA  and class rank. It also eliminated that competitive aspect in high school.”

 

PDS, says Dore, prepares students to stand out in college by allowing them to develop their own voices and to interact freely with their teachers and peers. “There is a lot of importance placed on speaking in class and sharing your opinions with your fellow students,” she comments. “It seemed very natural for me to speak up in my classes at college as well as take advantage of the close relationships teachers are willing to have with students at Skidmore. PDS teaches you to be poised and respectful of your peers and educators while not being afraid to criticize others or debate issues that are important to you.”

The extracurricular activities offered by PDS also helped burnish Dore’s college application. In addition to serving as editor in chief of the school yearbook, she participated in Model Congress, was a peer counselor, and co-founded a knitting-for-the-homeless club. During her senior year, she worked as an intern for a documentary film company and a fashion magazine.

Last semester, Dore’s 16-year-old sister Olivia took a central studies course entitled “The Painted Word.” “Each week, we were given a problem that involved text-based painting,” she recalls. The class included a field trip to the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill to see the exhibition Only the Paranoid Survive. This semester, Olivia will be participating in an original musical written by students.

Diane Botnick, the mother of Dore and Olivia, explains why she and her husband enrolled their daughters at PDS after several years at the Haldane Elementary School in Cold Spring, Putnam County. “While I couldn’t exactly fault the academics offered,” she recalls, “I watched Dore become less engaged in school, unmotivated to join in extracurricular activities, and generally unhappy.” The breaking point came during a sixth-grade parent-teacher conference, when Botnick realized that Dore’s public school teacher barely knew her. “We chose PDS,” she continues, “because it promised to introduce our daughter to the joy of learning. We felt that whether she was on her way to becoming an artist or a captain of industry, it had to begin with that joy.”

Speaking of the school’s no-grade philosophy, Sandra Moore, director of development and communications at PDS, says, “Our not having grades — though requiring college admissions officers to work a little harder, carefully reading our well-designed and carefully prepared materials — has not hindered our kids’ admission to schools.” Typically, she says, “100 percent of our graduates each year go on to college, usually to selective, four-year institutions.” Recent grads have been accepted at such top-notch schools as Yale, Brown, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Cornell, and the University of Chicago, among others. 

 

The Military Approach

At the New York Military Academy (NYMA) in Cornwall-on-Hudson, Orange County, the philosophy is summed up in its “Cadet Creed” in which students promise, “I will always conduct myself to bring credit to my Family, Country, Academy and the Corps of Cadets.” Among other things, the cadets vow to be honest and patriotic, to work hard to improve their minds and bodies, and to “seek the mantle of leadership.”

Headmaster Christopher G. Hennen observes that not everyone understands the true nature of a school like NYMA, which is one of 28 secondary school-level military academies in the nation. “As headmaster, I have encountered a number of myths and misconceptions about the military school experience,” he observes. “Often, such schools are viewed as being spartan, harsh reform schools for unruly kids. Nothing could be further from the truth. Because of their structure, their emphasis on discipline, leadership and character development, and their culture of achievement, military academies offer students an effective means of building a solid foundation for higher education and life beyond the classroom.”

Every NYMA student, notes Dr. Hennen, has a leadership role to play, a role that is nurtured by their participation in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC). “They begin as squad members with no authority,” he explains. “Over time, they have opportunities to serve in leadership positions of increasing responsibility as members of the Corps of Cadets — opportunities for leadership development that cannot be replicated in the traditional classroom or even on the athletic field.”

 

 

Cadet Ian Emory, a junior, agrees that the school has helped him learn how to lead. He currently holds the rank of command sergeant-major, the highest ranking noncommissioned officer position in the corps. “The academy,” he says, “has given me more direction in showing me the right way to be a leader, and to go about my academics.” Next year, he plans to apply to the service academies, with the Naval Academy being at the top of his list. A private institution — perhaps Columbia University — is also a possibility.

“Emory,” says classmate Gina Knapp, a senior, “is the best sergeant-major that I’ve ever seen at the academy.” Knapp, who holds the rank of first captain of the Corps of Cadets, dreams of attending the U.S. Military Academy, and has already been accepted into the academy’s prep school. Peppering her conversation with “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am,” she expresses amazement at a recent visit to the public high school in her Connecticut hometown. “At public school, everyone runs around doing their own thing,” she comments. “I was shocked at how some of the students talked to their teachers.” And then there were the puzzled looks she got when she held doors open for other students.

At NYMA, leadership is also built through a challenging regime of academics, sports, community service, and extracurricular activities like Boy Scouts, band, drill team and raiders (military skills competition). Both Knapp and Emory are multisport athletes, members of the National Honor Society, and members of Leo Club, a service organization whose projects have included highway clean-ups, fund-raising for victims of Hurricane Katrina, and toy distribution to needy children at Christmastime.

Ninety-seven percent of NYMA alumni wind up working in private-sector jobs, so it’s by no means certain that Emory and Knapp will be among the remaining three percent. But wherever they land, it’s likely that the character- and leadership-building education they received at NYMA will stand them in good stead. 

 

The Quaker Way

Quaker philosophy shapes the school day at Oakwood Friends School in Poughkeepsie. According to Head of School Peter Baily, “The Quaker principles of equality, community, acceptance, and the peaceful resolution of conflict are the foundation of our school life.”

In keeping with Oakwood’s embrace of community and equality, many school decisions are made by a committee process involving students as well as faculty. At a daily morning gathering know as Collection, a student “clerk,” or leader, facilitates the delivery of messages and announcements from members of the school community. There’s also a weekly Meeting for Worship, which involves students and faculty sitting in reflective silence for 40 minutes or so. During this time, explains Baily, “Anyone who wishes to rise and share a message may do so. Often, these messages are deeply felt and very compelling in nature, and they may express such themes as gratitude, concern, sadness, discovery, or joy.”

For one Ulster County family, the social milieu at Oakwood stands in dramatic contrast to the one at their local public school. Connie and Herbert Sullivan of High Falls, Ulster County, turned to Oakwood because their son Sam (note, names have been changed at their request) was floundering at Rondout Middle School. Although Sam excelled in the school’s accelerated math and science classes, this seemed to be a drawback socially. “I don’t know if this is everyone’s experience, but it seems clear that in our junior high school, it is very uncool to be good academically,” declares Connie. Other kids were sometimes cruel to their son, she remembers, and he got into a number of fights. “No one was friendly,” Sam asserts.

The problem, Connie believes, was not with the teachers, many of whom were quite good, but with the size of the middle school. “There are too many students in the school as a whole, and kids become anonymous targets to each other,” she believes. “I think it is a social phenomenon of this age group, that when too many adolescents are crowded together, they naturally create cliques and are cruel to anyone who does not fit in. I believe it is truly a natural, animal, instinctive phenomenon, and our society is seriously negligent for creating this disastrous environment.”

The Sullivans turned to home schooling when Sam was in eighth grade, supplementing Connie’s own instruction with a private Spanish tutor, courses at the local community college, and a few classes at a experimental private school for home schoolers. When scholarship and family money became available for Sam to attend Oakwood, however, the Sullivans jumped at the chance. Oakwood, Connie believes, provides the appropriate social environment for her child — a place where he can learn in an atmosphere free of social trauma, alongside kids his own age. “I believe social learning is equally important to academic learning,” she concludes. “I really don’t know if Quakerism has anything to do with the better atmosphere, but we feel close to this form of worship and are glad it’s a Quaker school.”

Although the percentage of Quaker students at Oakwood is relatively small (an estimated five to 10 percent), the school’s core values are eagerly embraced by the school’s non-Quaker population, says Baily. “Quakers are a very small group in the United States,” he points out, “yet Quaker principles have a disproportionate influence, particularly in the areas of education, community service, and social justice initiatives in this country and around the world.” While Oakwood students and faculty members adhere to various faiths, the majority, he says, respect and even embody Quaker values. “To me, this is one of the great strengths of Oakwood and of Quaker schools in general.”

 

 

Are there drawbacks to private schools? Certainly. Tuition is surely one of them. Many parents, frankly, cannot afford hefty tuition bills on top of their local school taxes. With three kids to put through college, the Giulianos resisted the pull of private school until their youngest child reached high school age. Though the $5,000 they pay for their daughter to attend Coleman High School puts a considerable stress on their budget, the Giulianos believe that it’s money well spent. Similarly, while Connie Sullivan is grateful for the partial scholarship that allows her son to attend Oakwood Friends School, she can’t swing the $16,600 that it would cost to send her middle-school son there as a day student. As a result, he’s still at public school, where his experiences and performance have been decidedly mixed.

Lengthy commutes, which can cut into homework and leisure time, are another potential drawback. Olivia Murphy’s daily commute by car to Poughkeepsie Day School is 35 minutes — “on a good day,” she emphasizes. With no school bus available, she used to carpool with other students, but now that she has her license, she drives herself.  

The diversity of the private school population can also be an issue. Although New York Military Academy cadet Ian Emory only attended public school for two months or so before coming to NYMA, during that brief time he did notice that his public-school peers tended to be less economically privileged, and less accustomed to having everything handed to them. “They were hard-working,” he recalls. Even though many private schools offer financial assistance and may make a real effort to be ethnically, economically and religiously diverse, this is not always the case. 

And lastly, there’s school size. While it may well be true that relatively small enrollments can help foster healthy social interactions, close relationships with teachers,

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