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 RCDS Wildcats defeated Poly Prep 34-28 in the 2018 championship game. Photo courtesy of Rye Country Day School
For Carole, the best fit was Rye Country Day School, a sparkling and top-notch campus that resembles a small liberal-arts college. There the Marianis “saw the versatility of the private sector” to respond to student needs and interests. Carole got her computer-science classes and went on to engineering school at Rice University. When it came time to decide where younger daughter Cristina would go, the Marianis sent her to RCDS, so they wouldn’t have to deal with different vacation schedules and school environments. An opera singer, Cristina went on to the prestigious Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, thanks in part to the individual attention she got from the music director at Rye Country Day. “Finding mentors is important,” says Sarah.
The curriculum at the multilingual German International School in White Plains emphasizes science and math. Graduating seniors earn dual diplomas: a NY State High School Diploma and the German International Abitur. Photo courtesy of German International School
“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.
Photo courtesy of German International School
As one might expect of a school representing a country renowned for engineering, the rigorous curriculum emphasizes math and science. Classes are bilingual, starting in first grade. And you don’t have to be German to go there: 20 percent of its kindergartners are from non-German families who like the warm atmosphere, strong academics, and mental flexibility of a bilingual education. In addition to a New York State diploma, graduating seniors earn a German International Abitur, a coveted degree that practically guarantees admission to the best schools here and abroad — plus, lucrative international career opportunities.
Photo courtesy of German International School
After Niklas graduated and went on to NYU, the family moved to Pleasantville. “We knew it had a good high school, and Sophia could walk there. But it was important to her to get the two degrees. She didn’t want to give that up.” Sophia is graduating this year and will attend college in Ohio. Her mom only wants the world for them: “The multilingual and multicultural experience, their ability to adapt, to participate in conversations on topics from every part of the world, from global warming to the Holocaust — this makes them world citizens in every sense of the word.”
The preferred pedagogical model at The Masters School is the Harkness method, where students sit in a large, oval configuration to discuss ideas with only occasional/minimal teacher intervention. Photo courtesy of The Masters School
“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.”
The nearly 100-acre Masters School campus rivals that of many a college. Photo courtesy of The Masters School
Sebastian started out at Larchmont public schools before switching to independent schools. (Sawhney and her husband also have a daughter at Rye Country Day School.) “The model at Masters was a much better environment for how he learns and who he is as a student,” says Sawhney. That model hinges on the Harkness method, a form of class instruction in which students sit around a large table and discuss their subject rather than being lectured to by a teacher. “The Harkness method allows for very deep analysis and thinking and talking about issues,” she explains. “No one can hide. For my son, who’s highly verbal, it’s a great environment…. They learn how to talk to each other about difficult things. At Masters, they teach them how to talk to each other, even if they don’t agree with each other.”
The median faculty teaching experience at Hackley is approximately 18 years. Photos by Chris Taggart
“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.”
An eight-lane pool is part of the 115,000 sq. ft. health-and-wellness center at Hackley School in Tarrytown. Photo by Chris Taggart
Almost two decades later, both her children are “lifers” at Hackley, meaning they attended from kindergarten through graduation. In sixth grade, after a teacher introduced her to Chinese, Gabby started studying Mandarin and later spent two weeks in Shanghai; she majored in business and minored in Chinese at Notre Dame. Son Michael graduates this year and plans to follow his sister to Notre Dame, double-majoring in Chinese and business. “The faculty exposes them to so many amazing things,” says Mezzacappa. And because many teachers live on campus, they aren’t out the door at 3 p.m. but can linger to assist kids after school. To help pay the mid-five-figure tuition, the Mezzacappas, both lawyers, stayed in their little starter home rather than trade up to a bigger house, but “there’s not one moment we regretted the decision.”
Photo courtesy of Soundview Prepatory School
“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.”
Small classes, minimized competiton, and high standards in both academic pursuits and personal conduct are the hallmarks of Soundview Prep. Photos courtesy of Soundview Prepatory School
Soundview’s nurturing environment starts with no admissions test. The average class size is seven students. An innovative Flexible Support Center, run by a licensed psychotherapist and learning specialist, helps with study habits, organizational skills, and homework. There are no tryouts for sports, so everyone gets in the game. There are AP courses and electives, like marine biology and forensics, and many students go on to top colleges. Its music program is run by professional musicians, including Lady Gaga’s jazz pianist, in a vintage chapel converted to a music conservatory and recording studio.
“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.”
Archbishop Stepinac students take Advanced Placement in 19 courses, beginning in freshman year. The school’s STEAM lab is used by the Engineering, Math, and Art departments for robotic, 3D printing models; interactive manipulatives; and other STEAM initiatives. Photo courtesy of Archbishop Stepinac High School
“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.”
Photo courtesy of Archbishop Stepinac High School
Named for a Croatian priest who defied the Nazis, Stepinac is known for its powerhouse sports and drama programs, but in 2013 it became the first school in the country to adopt all digital textbooks. Its forward-thinking Honors Academy allows freshmen to take courses in four areas — law, finance, health sciences, and engineering — to fast-track their college careers. Cregin credits older son Dennis’ participation in the Honors Academy for his acceptance as a freshman into the nursing program at Binghamton University, a rare achievement. At $12,500 a year, “Stepinac’s not cheap, but I can’t think of anything that is more worth it,” says Cregin. I’m like every other parent: I want the best for my family.”
Photo courtesy of the The Ursuline School
“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.”
The 145 students in The Ursuline School’s Class of 2018 earned more than $30.9 million in college merit scholarships. Photo courtesy of The Ursuline School
At Ursuline, trying new things includes everything from coding to robotics to computer science. Many of its graduates have gone on to engineering schools. The school’s growth philosophy encourages girls to try new things without fear of failure. “Girls can be very hard on themselves,” says Francesca LaGumina, the school’s World Languages chair, who sent all four of her daughters to Ursuline. “The Growth Mindset says it’s okay to make mistakes, something boys have already mastered.” LaGumina believes the single-sex approach means “every decision and every program is designed based on the needs of young women.”
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.