“Private” schools are open to the public

Given the seemingly endless list of challenges facing our nation’s public schools, more and more families are exploring other options for educating their children.

Many families, it turns out, are beginning to take a closer look at what are commonly known as “private schools.” Until now, it seems, many parents assumed that “private schools” were, well, private.

“I just always assumed that the private schools were only for the wealthy kids,” a parent admitted recently. “I never imagined that we could afford to send our kids there.”

It is true that these non-public schools charge tuition.  And it is true that these schools require that students meet certain academic requirements to enroll.  But it is not true that these schools are private.

Private School” is terminology left over from the 1960s and 1970s.  Over a decade ago, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) actually launched deliberate effort to change “private school” to “independent school.”  The main reason: Because private schools aren’t private.

Today, independent schools enroll hundreds of thousands of students and serve a diverse population of children and families all over the country. In the Charlotte region, there are a half dozen NAIS member schools – most offering rigorous, college preparatory programs for students from Pre-Kindergarten to 12th grade.

Generally, these are community-oriented schools that are not part of any local school district.  They are typically governed by volunteer boards of trustees and financed through the tuition dollars and annual giving of their families. Because they do not rely on state or federal funding, independent schools are not hemmed in by mandated testing or standardized curricula. Instead, independent schools are free to establish their own missions and visions – focusing on what students need most to be well-prepared for college and for life.

Independent schools are really the ideal learning environment,” says Tom Booker, Dean of Students at Cannon School in Concord. “Our teachers have the opportunity to pull together all the best teaching practices and focus on what their students really need –without having to worry about teaching to a test.”

Over the past two decades, independent schools have become very deliberate in their attempts to be more inclusive and welcoming – especially to those students and families who have not typically included non-public schools on their lists of options.

In other words, independent schools are open to the public. 

Without a doubt, tuition costs are the biggest barrier associated with independent schools.  With tuitions at some schools approaching $20,000 or more a year, it makes sense that many families don’t consider these schools as an option for their children. 

However, most independent schools have tuition assistance programs that can make their programs affordable.  These financial aid grants — typically based on a family’s financial need — can sometimes reduce tuition costs significantly.  These grants – funded by the individual schools through tuition revenue and annual giving – typically do not need to be repaid.

Yes, paying tuition at an independent school can require some sizable sacrifices on behalf of the parents (smaller cars, fewer vacations, etc.) and the student (summer jobs, fewer electronic gadgets, etc.). But for families who place a premium on education, the opportunity to enroll their children in a safe, nurturing school with talented faculty and a challenging curriculum is well worth the investment. 

Like many things, independent schools are not necessarily a good fit for everyone.  But for students interested in exploring their passions in academics, the arts, and athletics –surrounded by students with similar goals and aspirations — they offer outstanding possibilities. 

As news stories continue to circulate about program cuts, faculty lay-offs, and other funding challenges at local public schools, parents are looking for options. In many cases, they don’t have to look far — they can find just what they need at their local independent school.

“Moving my son to an independent school was the best thing I could have done,” a middle school parent told me recently. “He has never been so excited about learning and going to school.”