The Best Education Money Can Buy
Finding the Right Private School for Your Child in And Around Westchester
By Karen Odom
As the bell rings on another school year, the tough questions about your child’s education are most likely echoing in your mind—more forcefully. Is your child’s class size right for him? Are his teachers experienced? Are there enough kids from different backgrounds, different ethnic groups? Indeed, is your child’s school the best school for him?
If you, like many parents in Westchester, choose not to send your child to the local public school, the good news is you have many, many private-school options in and around the county. Choosing the right school, however, is not easy. Finding the best fit, says Mark J. Griffin, headmaster of the Eagle Hill School in Greenwich, Connecticut, “is part science, part art”—and there’s not necessarily one definitive choice.
Of course, you don’t need an expert to tell you that no one school is right for every child—nor that there are many, many factors to consider when choosing a school, including curriculum, cost, location, size, atmosphere, credo, reputation, and track record. To help you navigate the many choices, here is a sampling of the private schools in and around Westchester.
100 Maher Ave, Greenwich, CT
(203) 625-5800; www.brunswickschool.org
This is the only independent, all-boys school in our area, which appeals to some parents. Take Anne Adler, who sent her sons—Ted, Jonathan, Benjy, and RJ—to the 895-student Brunswick. “Little boys learn differently than little girls,” she maintains. But that’s not to say that Brunswick’s young men don’t get to work alongside young women. In a coordinate program with sister-school Greenwich Academy, when the time is appropriate, girls are added to the mix in the upper school in all classes except math. “Ninth grade is an appropriate time to start that immersion,” says Bonni Brodnick, Brunswick’s director of communications. “At that age, students benefit more in a co-ed atmosphere. The collaboration between the two schools helps prepare boys for the real world.”
According to Brodnick, Brunswick’s strong emphasis on community service also plays a major role in preparing its students for the real world. And students, many at least, get the message. Take the two juniors who on a private summer trip to Cuzco, Peru, helped with construction at a local school during the day, worked with children at an orphanage in the afternoons and evenings, and produced colorful Peruvian wool hats with workers from a cooperative who were selling them. The students bought some of the hats as gifts for family and friends. Recognizing the powerful fundraising potential, they then arranged to import more hats to sell at Brunswick. Not only did they create an immediate (and very cool) Peruvian hat trend, but they managed to send $6,000 (100 percent of their sales) back to Peru to benefit an orphanage. Similar efforts have helped children in need in Jamaica, South Africa, and China.
These real-world experiences—along with strong interpersonal connections forged between faculty and students—can help build a sense of community and lasting connections at the school. “There’s tremendous consistency here,” Adler says. “All five of my kids had the same pre-K teachers. The French teacher is retiring after thirty-seven years! Student connections to the school and each other remain as strong when they become alums.” She gives the example of six Brunswick graduates who rented an RV to drive across the country. “By that time, they had made all kinds of other friendships, but they came back together for this trip,” she says. “The school fosters those kinds of relationships.”
Brunswick also prides itself on its rigorous academic program. Most recently, the school founded a religion and philosophy department (it consists of one instructor teaching six courses), a passion of the former head of the middle school. The courses explore religious roots and philosophical thinking past and present. In addition, Brunswick has extended its Mandarin Chinese Program from the upper school, where it has flourished for six years, to the middle school. It has also added Level I Arabic to Brunswick’s language options. “The world is getting smaller,” Brodnick says. “These languages will be important in commerce in the future.”
Eagle Hill School
45 Glenville Rd, Greenwich, CT
(203) 622-9240; www.eaglehillschool.org
Eagle Hill serves kids ages six through 16 (the equivalent of kindergarten through ninth grade) who have language-based learning disabilities. The school’s specialized staff consists of 75 teachers (95 percent of whom have advanced degrees, and more than a third of whom have been at the school for at least 15 years) along with advisors, speech and language specialists, and psychologists, who work in small class settings (its average class size of six and student-teacher ratio of between 1:3 and 1:4 is among the smallest of the schools we surveyed). To accommodate the wide-ranging learning styles of its students, the staff uses a “multi-sensory approach to teaching,” Headmaster Mark J. Griffin says. Visual, auditory, tactical, and kinesthetic techniques are used. Griffin says these techniques are employed with students in small, non-competitive classrooms arranged by ability and skill level instead of grade level. The result is instruction custom-made to a student’s capabilities and his or her preferred methods of learning.
“Our kids move all the time. They may be in a math class with three or four students who they might not see in their other classes,” Griffin says. Student skills and needs are frequently reassessed to make sure instruction is tailored to each child’s specific learning needs, he maintains. Each student is paired with an advisor who monitors individual progress and needs. “We have a tremendous amount of flexibility,” Griffin says. “We can change class groupings within twenty-four hours.”
Parent Sara Pelgrift vows that the school’s methods work. She believes her son, Daniel, 12, the youngest of her three children, is getting the kind of instruction and attention he needs at Eagle Hill. “It became clear in first and second grade that something was not quite right,” she remembers. “After neurological and psycho-educational testing, I did my due diligence and started researching the few schools for kids with learning disabilities.” Pelgrift says Daniel struggled in his previous school and entered Eagle Hill with the weight of cinderblocks on his shoulders. “Fast forward six months and he went from sinking to soaring,” she says. “It’s amazing to see him blossom and regain his sense of self.”
Although there’s a high probability that Daniel will transition to a mainstream school at the end of the school year, it’s not a time frame cast in stone. Pelgrift says the decision is a collaborative one. “I like the fact that there’s a dialogue with the parents about their child’s needs and comfort level,” she says. “Who knows? We may decide to do another year.”
3901 Fieldston Rd , Bronx, NY
(718) 329-7300; www.ecfs.org
Note: The Ethical Culture Fieldston School serves more than 1,600 students on two campuses—Ethical Culture (pre-K-5) in Manhattan and Fieldston Lower (pre-K-5), Fieldston Middle (grades 6-8), and Fieldston Upper (grades 9-12) in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. References to Fieldston in this section refer to the Riverdale campus only.
Best known for its progressive leanings, Ethical Culture Fieldston (ECF) challenges students to participate actively in their own education. Ginger Curwen, director of communications, says that the ECF’s forward-thinking curriculum appeals most to those who are also interested in the school’s deeply-held and long-standing commitment to social justice instilled by founder Felix Adler, who believed service, justice, and ethics were central to the educational experience.
The school has distinguished itself by discontinuing its advanced placement (AP) program, a decision that, Curwen says, was well received, even by colleges. “There has been no backlash from colleges,” she says. “It’s been extremely well supported.” As a result of its bold move, Curwen says, “we’ve enriched our electives.” Juniors and seniors can now choose from such classes as The History of the Working Class; Inventing Gotham: NYC and the American Dream; The Literature of War; Electronic Music; or Concert Jazz.
Discontinuing the APs is not all that distinguishes the school. “Once or twice a year middle- and upper-school students participate in an all-day symposium on an issue or series of issues,” Curwen says. “The students draw up the symposium topic and reach out for speakers. Topics have included Hurricane Katrina, the fate of human populations, and displaced populations. Some students worked in New Orleans in March and June. Students also were among the speakers on a wide range of topics, including environmental racism.”
At Fieldston, upper-school students, over their four year high-school experience, are required to participate in 60 hours of community service during the year, or 120 hours during the summers in order to graduate.
Even the youngest students benefit from the school’s student-centered learning, as seen in the kindergartners’ end-of-year restaurant project that allowed the young restaurateurs, she says, to learn valuable reading, math, and writing skills while planning, cooking, hosting, dishing, serving, managing money, and having major fun. “I’ve never had such great service,” Curwen says. “Restaurants should take note!”
Meghan Stilwell, parent of eight-year-old Fieldston Lower-School student Luke, found Fieldston’s philosophy compelling. “Fieldston’s approach encourages children to question, examine, and think, combined with an ethics component that emphasizes respect for others from pre-K on,” she says. “My goal is that my children be lifelong learners and continue to be deeply interested in learning and the world around them—not in having the highest SAT scores.”
200 N Maple Ave, Greenwich, CT
(203) 625-8900; www.greenwichacademy.org
It’s a girl’s world at Greenwich Academy. The Connecticut all-girls school is designed to tailor specifically to a girl’s way of learning, its administrators say, while classes with brother-school Brunswick provide co-ed experiences. “Girls thrive having the best of both worlds,” says Ann Woodward, director of admissions and financial aid and a Greenwich Academy parent. “It gives them the chance to see that boys and girls can be classroom peers and have a natural academic friendship that’s not just social, while still being in an all-girls environment and maintaining a special camaraderie with their girlfriends.”
Math classes, on the other hand, remain single-sex, even through high school. “A lot of girls drop out when math is male-dominated,” Woodward reports. “Being around girls who are good in math gives a comfort level—and a chance to excel at a high level.” The school has implemented the Singapore math program, a language-based math program that, Woodward says, has helped children in the lower school make connections between words and numbers and use “mental math” (making calculations mentally instead of on paper) to solve problems.
Anne Adler, parent of 2003 graduate Emily and four other Brunswick alums, puts the empowerment of girls high on her list of what Greenwich Academy does right. “Greenwich Academy’s programs purposefully empower women,” she maintains, “like the public speaking program in middle school or the â€˜senior voice’ exercise that requires seniors to stand before the entire upper school and talk about any topic. Emily talked about what it’s like to have five brothers.” Adler says her daughter left Greenwich Academy with an “I-can-do-anything-and-can-take-whatever-life-throws-my-way confidence.” Adler is just as sure that an experience as an exchange student in South Africa led her daughter to an international-studies major with a focus on West Africa at Middlebury College in Vermont.
293 Benedict Ave , Tarrytown
(914) 631-0128 ; www.hackleyschool.org
Originally founded by Unitarians who desired an environment that was racially, economically, and geographically diverse, Hackley is today primarily a day school—one with a boarding-school feel. The sign with the words “Honors character over intellect” that hangs over the school’s front door comes from a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, but speaks to what Headmaster Walter Johnson considers one of the major tenets of the Hackley School philosophy: individual achievement is predicated on relationships with others. “There is more respect among students for someone who’s trying as hard as he or she can and gets a B+ compared to a student who’s getting As with no effort,” Johnson says. “Similarly, a star athlete won’t earn as much respect as the player who really loves the game and is trying hard to support his teammates.”
The result, according to Johnson, is a school with a palpably supportive environment. “The fact that students really support each other for striving is distinctive about Hackley,” says Johnson. “Society is so achievement-oriented, it can be a challenge to encourage students to hold back and not do so much at times so they can find their own balance.”
Hackley’s growing international focus includes hosting students from Indonesia, Bulgaria, Sweden, and China, along with taking class trips to Latin America and Asia and inviting guest scholars on international affairs. Chinese is a new language option this year, added as a result of a survey that showed it to be a top choice of parents and students. “We felt a non-Western language was important in order to reach outside our world and see through other lenses,” Johnson says.
The school’s personal approach and co-ed environment was attractive to Marie Vandivort when she was searching for a school for her son, Chris, 18, and her daughter Amy, 16. Vandivort found the school’s ethnically, geographically, and financially diverse community also appealing. (Hackley’s 830 students hail from 94 towns and villages in Westchester, New York City, Connecticut, and New Jersey; 22 percent of pupils are students of color.) “My children meet people from all backgrounds,” she says. “It’s the same kind of diversity you encounter in the real world.”
The Harvey School
260 Jay St, Katonah
(914) 232-3161; www.harveyschool.org
The Harvey School is one of four schools we surveyed where students can board. Intended for students who live too far away for a practical commute, Harvey’s five-day boarding allows juniors and seniors the opportunity to see what life will be like away from home when they’re in college. The option brings benefits to day students as well, administrators say, especially during meals—which are designed for boarders but are available to all—when, Director of Enrollment Ron Romanowicz says, it’s not unusual to find teachers and students sharing both food and ideas.
Meals are not the only times teachers and students are afforded the opportunity for extended interaction. “Our teachers take time to work with students individually, which would never work with a class size of twenty-five,” says Romanowicz. “Most important, we have an understanding of how our students learn so we can develop effective teaching strategies to help them be successful.”
Susan Salice, for one, is glad she discovered the Harvey School for two of her three daughters: Regina, now 15, and Sarah, 18. Despite the differences in their personalities and interests—Sarah’s creative and artistic, Regina’s athletic—they both found a happy home in Harvey, she reports. “I went to the open house of almost every private school in the area,” Salice says. “When we got to Harvey, we stopped looking—both girls felt comfortable and felt they would fit in.” The decision, she says, “has really paid off. The school welcomed them both with open arms, based on who they are, their capabilities, and their potential.” It also proved to be a smooth transition from Windward, where Regina studied before, and was a natural bridge to college for Sarah. “I think it’s phenomenal that after knowing Sarah for only two years, they were able to identify a college that’s such a good fit for her,” she says. “Wheaton College wasn’t even on our radar. It’s an outstanding school and she fell in love with it.”
Every 10 years, the school assesses and grades its own overall health and helps set the strategic plan for the next three to five years. Working in separate committees and supervised by the New York Association of Independent Schools, the process, Romanowicz says, makes sure no aspect of the school is spared the microscope. “We examine what we do, evaluate how we compare to our peer schools, and how successful we are,” Romanowicz says.
Hudson Country Montessori School
340 Quaker Ridge Rd, New Rochelle
(914) 636-6202; www.hudsoncountry.org
At Hudson Country Montessori, Head-of-School Mark Meyer says lessons are taught individually or in small groups using a hands-on, experiential approach that is core to the child-based educational method introduced by Maria Montessori in the early 1900s.
The school also includes three grade levels in its classrooms. “A push-me, pull-me competitiveness develops when you have for example fourth, fifth, and sixth graders together,” Meyer says. “The fourth graders want to catch up with the sixth graders and the sixth graders want to work harder to pull away so the fourth graders can’t catch up. It creates an intrinsic and internal self-motivation. A teacher might ask a sixth grader to work with a fourth grader on a science project and the fourth grader may help a kindergartener. Everyone gets a chance to be in a leadership position and everyone gets a chance to be led.”
The school works hard to foster independence. It holds a “community meeting” every week, in which students discuss issues important to them and learn to solve whatever problems they may face themselves. “During the meetings, the kids instead of teachers are judge and jury,” Meyer says. Issues addressed in community meetings range from working out rules of fair play to resolving disagreements to intervening on behalf of a student who feels picked on.
Tuckahoe resident Kirsten Swinth, parent of Gabriel, 10, and Alison, 6, finds that I-can-do-it-myself spirit fostered in the school is brought home by her children. “Gabriel can plan his own homework now with little guidance from me,” she says. “The younger students have a daily plan and the older ones—starting in fourth grade—have a weekly plan. The plans contain exercises and describe what they need to accomplish by the end of the day or the end of the week. My son has to pace himself to do a little every day and, at the end of the week, he meets with his teacher to go over his work plan and determine how he did. The teacher then knows how to structure his work plan for the next week.
“They clean up, put their things away, and work together to solve problems,” she continues. “It’s a beautiful balance of individual learning and shared responsibility.”
The Masters School
49 Clinton Ave, Dobbs Ferry
(914) 479-6400; www.themastersschool.com
A diverse school, with students of color representing 28 percent in its upper grades, the Masters School provides an education that is “a microcosm of the world,” declares Maureen Fonseca, head of school. “Students can expand their horizons just by talking with classmates from other states and other countries.” The school is also focused on getting its students out into that world, taking advantage of its proximity to New York City. Sophomores get other views of world religions from a wide assortment of religious institutions in Queens. They also meet with UN delegates during the Masters’ model UN project (required for all 10th graders), which combines history and English and simulates the UN General Assembly.
Fonseca considers Masters’ international focus to be the natural result of having 15 states and 18 countries represented on campus and one-third of the faculty having lived or taught outside the U.S. “We feel we are grooming future global leaders,” Fonseca says.
The Masters School also uses the Harkness method of teaching—all students sit around oval tables—which emphasizes class participation and discussion. “The Harkness table pedagogy puts students in the driver’s seat,” says Fonseca. “Everyone actively participates in the discussions—no one can hide.”
Deborah and Murdoch Campbell say the Masters School was a perfect fit for their daughter, Ashley, 17. While boarding school wasn’t even a passing thought during Ashley’s freshman year in her home state of Michigan, she began craving a more challenging experience. “Every time we see our daughter, she seems to have grown academically, developmentally, and emotionally,” Deborah says. “There’s a book called, Colleges That Change Lives by Lauren Pope. If there was a similar book for private schools, I’m sure Masters would be in it.”
The Milestone School
70 W Broad St, Mount Vernon
Since opening in 1979, Milestone’s focus has been the early years—the years founder Angela Freeman firmly believes are the most important in a child’s education. And though its pupils may be small, the curriculum is certainly not. Milestone kids experiment with Spanish and music at age two, learn to read by age four, try out yoga in kindergarten, and perform Shakespeare in second, third, and fourth grades. And, with a whopping 70 percent of its pupils are youngsters of color—by far the highest on our list—Freeman says multicultural diversity is clearly achieved.
Instruction is provided in small, mixed-grade classes of 16 or fewer students, who are grouped by growth pattern instead of age. “We can go rapidly if a child is grasping things quickly or more slowly if a child needs more reinforcement,” Freeman says. There’s one specific class that is Freeman’s personal favorite. “Drama is my baby,” she says. “It’s a great vehicle for teaching children self-discipline, how to articulate, how to be a team player, and how to memorize.” No wonder everyone gets in the act for school productions—from Shakespeare on stage to Motown revues, usually held at Pelham’s turn-of-the-century Manor Club Theatre.