As a child psychologist, Dr. Amy Silverman has spoken with many parents who choose private schools, even though they live in top public-school districts. Silverman and her husband moved to Millwood for the Chappaqua schools, after all. “My husband and I are products of good public schools,” she says, “and we wanted our daughter Alexandra to have the same.”
But when Alexandra didn’t mesh with the local middle school, they reconsidered. “Alexandra is intelligent, but we found that personally and socially she had trouble finding her place there,” says Silverman. They moved her to The Harvey School in Katonah, which has fewer than 400 students, and the entire junior-high class is smaller than many single classrooms. Alexandra is thriving and playing sports, a first for her. Silverman boosted her practice to cover the cost, but it’s been more than worth it: “The personal growth and development that she’s going to get, the person she’s becoming — you can’t put a price on that.”
The Silvermans’ choice to trade public for private is one many parents are making. True, a big reason for moving to Westchester County is its stellar public-school districts — and you get sky-high taxes for the privilege. Given this, why would some parents pay to send their children to private college-prep schools whose annual tuition for two kids roughly equals the cost of a brand-new Tesla Model S?
The answer, according to both parents and school administrators, is that independent schools (a term many prefer to “private,” which to some smacks of elitism) are funded not by taxpayer dollars but by parents’ bank accounts, and they operate with fewer constraints and focus like a laser on getting kids into good colleges.
“The school districts here are extraordinary,” says Chris McColl, director of admissions at Hackley School in Tarrytown. “But the public-school philosophy means, by law, you must be all things to all people. So that means a classroom will have some of the brightest kids in the county and kids who aren’t as strong academically. It’s a lot to ask of a teacher.”
According to Scott Nelson, the longtime headmaster of Rye Country Day School, 20 percent of RCDS’ students come from Greenwich, where the high school has 2,700 students, compared with RCDS’ 400. “We have the advantage of being able to select our students from a large applicant pool,” he says, “so they get more personal attention.”
We asked parents who live in good public-school districts why they send their kids to independent schools instead. And no, these folks aren’t necessarily wealthy. As one mom puts it: “There are those people among us who pay high taxes and private-school tuition. For people who can’t do either, there’s financial aid, if the kids are prepared for the work. And there are the people in the middle, who do a little bit of everything to give their kids the best education they can.”
In fourth grade at Rye Country Day School, students are introduced to band instruments and can begin private lessons on a wind instrument or percussion the following year. Photo courtesy of Rye Country Day School
“…it’s really about what is the best fit for your kid.”
Sarah and Ray Mariani picked Rye in which to raise their two children, who attended Rye public schools through middle school. “We moved to Rye knowing that the school system was excellent,” says Sarah. Both are attorneys (Sarah is a legislative court judge) and served on the Rye School board for six years. But as their older daughter, Carole, approached high school, she was showing an interest in computer science, and in 2004, “there was no curriculum to match her needs,” says Sarah. For the public high school to create a class for only a few students “isn’t a good use of taxpayer dollars,” she continues. “The structure of publicly funded schools limits what they can do. One size doesn’t fit all, and even though you’re supportive and dedicated and working with the school system, it’s really about what is the best fit for your kid.”
“The multilingual and multicultural experience…makes them world citizens.”
Westchester’s foreign-language schools fill a specific niche, mostly for expatriate families living here for work reasons. Karen Hinson-Rehn and her family settled in White Plains, when her husband, a German citizen, relocated to New York for a German bank. Their two children, Niklas and Sophia, were born in Germany, so sending them to the German International School of New York (GISNY) in White Plains was a no-brainer, at least for Niklas. “We wanted to make sure that the German language and culture didn’t get lost,” says Hinson-Rehn.
“At the big public schools, everything’s available, but it’s not accessible to every kid.”
The Masters School’s woodsy 96-acre campus in Dobbs Ferry features a Gilded Age mansion called Estherwood, a souvenir of its origins as a 19th-century girls’ school. This renowned day and boarding school has upgraded its facilities in recent years, including a new fieldhouse, but junior Sebastian Sawhney loves golf. “At the big public schools, everything’s available, but it’s not accessible to every kid,” says his mom, Margarita Sawhney, who is a resident of Larchmont. “I don’t think my son would be playing golf at Mamaroneck High school; it’s too competitive.”
“At the first parent-teacher conference, the teacher spoke as if she’d raised our daughter Gabby.”
Nancy Mezzacappa and her husband have a Bronxville address in the town of Eastchester, with Tuckahoe schools. The first time they visited Hackley School, in 2000, “what I saw blew us away in every way,” she says. “The curriculum, the class size, how involved the parents were. At the first parent-teacher conference, the teacher spoke as if she’d raised our daughter Gabby. She knew what she was about.”
Whether they chose private or public, today’s parents can be easy to poke fun at. How many of these types do you know?
By John Bruno Turiano; Illustrations by Chris Reed
A parent who stifles their child’s independence by overseeing every aspect of that child’s life.
These parents tend to be very loving but provide few guidelines/rules and do not expect mature behavior from their children. Can often seem more like a friend than a parental figure.
Using strict authoritarian methods, these parents pressure their children to attain high levels of academic achievement, often at the expense of emotional, social, and physical well-being.
Obnoxious Sports Parent
This parent is over-invested in their children’s sports participation, over-identifies with their child’s experience, and may even define it as their own.
Lawnmower parents go to whatever lengths necessary to prevent their children from having to face adversity, struggle, or failure, mowing down obstacles so their children won’t have to experience them.
“There’s nothing like a mom knowing her child is in a place that understands who he is.”
Soundview Preparatory school in Yorktown Heights has only 60 students, in grades 6 through 12. It’s headquartered in a 19th-century mansion on a bucolic 13-acre campus that includes a pond with a resident heron. Soundview is a safe place for students who might not fit in at other schools, who think and learn differently, and who may have been bullied as a result.
“Soundview is for intellectually curious children who might be slightly quirky, who want academic challenge and rigor, but may need it at a slightly different pace,” says Yonkers resident Linda Holden Bryant, whose son Ian attends Soundview. Her other son goes to Hackley. “I love the schools in very different ways because my kids are different people. As parents, you can’t fall into the trap of every school fits all, because it doesn’t.”
“You can get lost in the independent school system, especially if you’re the shy kid who’s not extremely outgoing,” says Bryant’s friend Candace Evans, who also lives in the Park Hill section of Yonkers. Her son Josh wasn’t thriving at another boys’ school outside Westchester, but at Soundview, “he’s done a 180. He used to have stomach aches at his other school. He hasn’t had a stomach issue since he started here.”
“There’s nothing like a mom knowing her child is in a place that understands who he is,” says Melanie Sindaco. She and her husband moved to Yorktown Heights knowing it had a great school district, but her son Justin, who has learning disabilities and “social quirks,” couldn’t learn there. Soundview’s $45,000 tuition for the upper school is worth every penny, she says: “Academically, Justin is doing stuff I didn’t know he was capable of doing. I’m ecstatic.”
“I thought it was important for them to go somewhere where their faith is encouraged, not suppressed.”
At Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, an all-boys’ Catholic school opened in 1948, the scent of incense from the school chapel drifts down the hallway. Inside the classrooms, boys in shirts and ties under dark-blue Stepinac quarter-zips sit at laptops under dimmed lights, so they can see the screens. This combination of faith and future were the reason Yonkers resident Regina Cregin sent her sons here, even though Yonkers High School scores high in statewide rankings.
“I thought it was important for them to go somewhere where their faith is encouraged, not suppressed,” says the pharmacist, who grew up in local Catholic schools. “It’s like Stepinac brings the best from the past while going into the future.”
“Ursuline built that into me, that I wanted to be something more.”
Adora Fou’s middle daughter, Madeleine, wanted to attend The Ursuline School, an all-girls’ Catholic prep school in New Rochelle, for a specific reason: She loves the mythology-infused Percy Jackson books and wanted to study Greek. Harrison, where they live, has excellent public schools, but ancient languages are not on the curriculum (though Mandarin is). That request was just the start, says Madeleine’s mom: “She’s done the Model UN; she’s doing a film in film club, and she’s excelling in Greek.”
The spirit of St. Angela Merici, who founded the Ursuline order of nuns devoted to teaching, lives on at The Ursuline School. “The Ursulines have always been in the forefront of encouraging girls to try new things,” says school president Eileen Davidson. “Our students are encouraged to be bold, to be fearless, to live a purposeful life.”
Before going to Ursuline, senior Julia Durkin, a tennis player, “never dreamed of being the president of the school or taking computer science. As a woman, coding is so empowering. I might minor in it in college. Ursuline built that into me, that I wanted to be something more.”
Numbers listed represent the most recent data available. Note: “N/A” means “not applicable” or “not available.” (1) All information from schools themselves or greatschools.org; (2) Combined 4- and 2-year percentages.
*Hackley: Some AP courses offered.
*Montfort Academy: one guidance counselor on staff.
*John F. Kennedy: represents placement in 2-year college or armed services.
*School of the Holy Child: Every student has a faculty advisor.
*Solomon Schechter: Some students take AP exams.
Frequent contributor Dana White is a product of public schools, save for the time her mom sent her to Catholic school for a semester in 1970. She lives on the 50-yard line of the Ossining High School football field.