By Maria Bennett with Marisa LaScala
In a roundabout way, this article is about two little boys, cousins, both in first grade. Both tall for their age, both skinny as Twizzlers, and both fans of Yu-Gi-Oh! (the PokÃ©mon-style trading card game). One, Gavin, attends public school and the other, Bennett, goes to a Montessori-based elementary institution. I am their aunt.
This Christmas, we were sitting in the playroom watching a video when Bennett started to read the FBI warning that appears before every video, perfectly enunciating each syllable. Gavin looked at him with a mix of envy and curiosity that would melt the hardest heart. “How come you can read that? I can’t.” he said. We asked the same question later of his classroom teacher, who is in charge of 29 kids in a large urban school district.
“He’s slow. We’ll have to make him repeat first grade next year,” was her response.
“Not acceptable,” was Gavin’s dad response.
So what’s a family to do? Gavin will be attending private school next year, where he will learn to read, write, add and subtract with a half dozen other classmates—not more than two dozen other classmates. He will be among the nearly 28,000 other kids currently enrolled in private schools in our county.
If there’s one advantage private schools have over public schools, experts agree, it’s size—because, in education, smaller is better. Says Associate Professor at Columbia Teacher’s College Pearl Rock Kane: “Research shows that not only smaller class size but smaller schools are more effective.” Indeed, study after study has shown the advantage of a smaller class size. In our county, private schoolclass size ranges from six to 15 students—which educators applaud.
“Students in classrooms that have less than 20 pupils in kindergarten to third grade not only learn more while in those grades but continue to learn more and stay ahead through high school,” reports Jon Snyder, dean of the
Why is small class size so important? The smaller the class, educators say, the more easily a teacher can provide individualized attention—something from which, most experts agree, any student can benefit. And individualized attention is even more important for struggling students, particularly in the crucial phase of learning in which Gavin, my young nephew, is still. Jean Piaget, the granddad of educational theory, opined that attention should be paid most heavily to toddlers and early childhood learners in order to develop a strong foundation for success in later years. Pediatrician-extraordinaire Dr. Benjamin Spock too echoed the importance of focusing on early-childhood education.
Private schools have still another advantage. Educators say private schools can be more flexible in their curricula and course offerings. “There are greater degrees of flexibility in independent schools to reflect the interests of the students and parents,” Snyder says. “
, for example, is able to offer a more progressive and learner-centered program because it is free of mandates that come from the state. There’s more freedom to teach the individual philosophy that’s desired”—and, presumably, more freedom to use different teaching methods. At the first Montessori school in Westchester, the
Says Mark Meyer, head of school at
Unlike public schools, private schools can specialize—focusing on perhaps teaching Hebrew or French or teaching children with special needs.
The Eagle Hill School in Greenwich, CT, for example, specializes in a multi-sensory approach for children with ADHD, using auditory and visual stimuli to enhance learning: “We never rely on just traditional lectures in class; our students get visuals and hands-on experience in a subject,” says Admissions Director Rayma Griffin. In math, for example,
Of course, private schools aren’t free. Tuitions range from $2,000 (
Private schools, too, tend to emphasize values-based education; for many parents, it’s not enough for Johnny to get a hefty dose of the three Rs from 9 to 3 each day—if he can’t tell right from wrong. Ethics is a required subject at Fieldston in Riverdale, and in
Soundview Prep in
Finally, if you think the Stanwich Seven is a new rock group, you’re happily mistaken. At The Stanwich School in
So is a private school education better than a public school education? Maybe, for some students, not necessarily all. Indeed, like children themselves, one size does not fit all. Says educational consultant Lynne O’Connell: “Maybe there’s not as much diversity in private schools, but private schools seem to nurture students in a different way. And for many kids, that’s a good thing.”
Maria Bennett is an assistant professor at the City University of New York whose work has appeared in Utne Reader, Daily News, Epicurean and The Journal News.
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