Opting out of private school

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It's the lurking fear of every private-school parent: The kid next door is getting just as good an education at the public school -- free of charge.

Ben and Courtney Nields of Norwalk, Conn., agonized over the issue last year when they moved their daughter Annie from the New Canaan Country School, set on a 72-acre campus, to a public school for first grade. The move was primarily economic -- they have twins entering kindergarten this year and faced tuition bills of $22,500 per child.

"It was like taking your child out of the Garden of Eden," says Mrs. Nields. But Annie thrived at the school. Her confidence grew and the teacher, say the Nieldses, was phenomenal.

Across the country, some schools and education professionals report a growing movement from private to public. Among the possible reasons: Private-school tuition has grown sharply higher, while some colleges are boosting the number of students they take from public schools. New studies have suggested that public-school students often tested as well or better than their private school peers. And increasingly, public schools are enriching their programs by holding the same kinds of fund-raisers often associated with private schools, such as auctions and capital campaigns.

A select group of public schools say they're seeing a growing share of new students coming from private schools. At Highland Park High School in Dallas, 74 percent of the new students came from private schools this fall, compared with 61 percent a year ago. Over the past three years, the proportion has doubled at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Md. At Homestead Elementary School in Centennial, Colo., the number of kids coming from private school tripled in the past year.

"It's a significant shift here," says Laurie Conlon, guidance chairman at Cold Spring Harbor Junior/Senior High School in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. This fall, all 17 of the new entrants for grades eight through 12 are from private schools, compared with five students last year. The school scheduled its first-ever information sessions to help the newcomers adjust.

Not all public schools are seeing these transfers: Top-scoring schools in affluent areas tend to get the highest influxes from private schools. In fact, the shift serves to highlight the gap between well-funded schools and their underfunded counterparts, often inner-city schools.

While the shift isn't reflected in recent national aggregate statistics, a number of educational consultants and academics interviewed say they're beginning to see more parents opting in to public schools. "Most people agree there's always been some movement between private and public school," says Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University. "But lately there's strong anecdotal evidence of frequent movement from private schools to public schools. There are more choices for parents now."

Interest in private schools shows signs of waning. The number of private-school enrollments in kindergarten through grade 12 increased at a slower rate than the number of enrollments in public schools between 1989 and 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. Last year, the approximately 1,200 schools that belong to the National Association for Independent Schools received 8.5 inquiries for each student who enrolled, down from 9.7 inquiries in the 1998-99 school year. (The group has added more member schools in that period.) While competition for admission in many areas of the country remains intense, the percentage of students accepted at member schools rose to 53.4 percent last year, from 49.7 percent in 1998.

Higher costs are a big factor in the switch. The median tuition for private schools nationally was $16,970 in 2005-06, up 16 percent from five years earlier. In some parts of the country, tuition is now as high as $30,000 a year. Even as the number of families able to easily shoulder full tuition continues to rise -- in 2005, the number of households in the U.S. with a net worth of $1 million or more rose 11 percent, to 8.3 million, over the previous year, according to the Spectrem Group, a wealth-research firm in Chicago -- the NAIS is warning member schools that rising tuitions may cause some families to look for alternatives. "The schools are getting some pushback they haven't seen before," says NAIS President Pat Bassett.

The 9 percent rise in annual tuition, to $10,890 a student, at St. Mary's Academy in Englewood, Colo., prompted Elizabeth Maloney to start researching the local elementary school. The mother of five enrolled her kids at St. Mary's -- alma mater of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- after moving to the area last year. She didn't know much about the public schools, and going private felt safer. "My kids had always gone to private school," she says.

But when Mrs. Maloney spoke with the principal at the public school, she learned that it offered a similar curriculum to St. Mary's, including identical vocabulary and math programs. "I was blown away," she says. Plus, her kids could walk or ride their bikes to school. Now, four of her kids are there. Mrs. Maloney doesn't rule out a return; she misses perks like the foreign language program and the extra arts activities. Deirdre V. Cryor, the head of St. Mary's, says what makes the school different is its strong values.

Beyond tuition, educational advisers say more parents are worrying that the competition at private schools might hurt their kids' chances of getting into a selective college. As the number of applications reached record levels at some colleges this year (at Harvard University, applications were up 15 percent over 2005, with nearly 23,000 students competing for about 1,650 slots in the freshman class) they fear the colleges are placing quotas on how many kids they take from each elite private school. Some also believe their child will have a better chance of standing out at public school.

In our own sampling of 20 selective colleges, 11 had slightly higher percentages of enrolled freshmen from public schools in the class of 2010 compared with 2005. Five were down, and four were roughly flat. At Dartmouth College, the percentage of first-year students from public school grew to 66 percent this year, from 62 percent five years ago. Dean of Admissions Karl Furstenberg says that though the change is subtle, it reflects a growing applicant pool, as well as the school's efforts to reach more students who might not have thought of applying.

"There's no point in spending all that money if your kid is going to be in the middle of the class," says Robert Shaw, a partner at IvySuccess, an educational consulting firm in Garden City, N.Y. He counsels students to consider switching if they aren't in the top 10 percent. However, advisers note that some elite public schools -- such as Edgemont High School in Scarsdale, N.Y., or New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill. -- can be just as competitive.

Claire Straty, a 16-year-old in Dallas, hoped to leave some of the pressure behind when she switched from the Hockaday School, an independent college-preparatory school for girls, to the public Highland Park High School. "If you weren't brilliant you'd fall to the middle of the pack," she says of Hockaday. "At Highland Park I felt I'd have a better chance to stand out." She also thought she would have more time for extracurriculars.

Her mother, Laurie-Jo Straty, had a hard time letting her daughter leave Hockaday, which she believes is an extraordinary school. Mrs. Straty also struggled with leaving the community she'd developed with other parents there. But so far, she's pleased. She recently received an email from Claire's English teacher complimenting her daughter's performance on a test, and Claire's Spanish teacher has been coming to school early to help her catch up on language requirements.

Two studies that came out in the past year showed that public-school students often tested the same or better than private-school students, after accounting for certain socio-economic variables and background characteristics. One, from the National Center for Education Statistics, compared fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores in 2003 from nearly 7,000 public schools and more than 530 private schools. The results: Public-school fourth-graders did as well in reading as the kids in private school and somewhat better in math. In eighth grade, public-school children did the same in math but somewhat worse in reading. A study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that looked at the same data found similar results in the math scores. "It's quite eye-opening for a lot of people," says Christopher Lubienski, a professor of education who co-authored the report.

Still, the studies are contentious: Harvard University researchers came to the opposite conclusion after evaluating the data with different methodology.

Kathy Allcock had other reasons for moving her daughter Christy from an 830-student independent school in Portland, Ore., to a 1,500-student public school for ninth grade last year. Though Mrs. Allcock loved the smaller school -- she still has her two younger children there -- she worried her daughter would be academically but not socially prepared for college.

At first, Christy objected. But she quickly grew to like the greater number of people, clubs and activities. "I realized how sheltered I was and how much I was missing," she says. Initially scared that the teachers wouldn't help, Christy has been surprised at the one-on-one time she's received. She's now aiming for Stanford University, and figures her experience in big classes is good preparation.

Some public schools are actively recruiting private-school students. At Torrey Pines Elementary in La Jolla, Calif., Principal Jim Solo began holding monthly tours and meetings for private-school families four years ago. Many students had left for private or charter schools. While he says it was not a main motivator, having students return to the school increased state funding, as the district is paid on a per-pupil basis.

Mr. Solo has since led a charge to raise more private funding -- $100,000 a year, mostly from parents -- to pay for more teachers, and students' average test scores have grown. The school gets 75 percent of its students from the neighborhood now, compared with 50 percent four years ago. The rest come from out of district.

Palm Desert High School in Palm Desert, Calif., started inviting parents and students from private schools to information sessions three years ago. "I had a ton of friends confiding in me their trepidation about moving from private to public," says Jan Hawkins, a parent who arranged the events; they said they had heard stories about impersonal teachers and pranks like "trash canning" new freshmen. The percentage of new students coming from private schools was 9 percent this year, up from 6 percent three years ago.

Schools are also offering more Advanced Placement classes to prove academic rigor. The number of all U.S. schools with those classes has jumped 36 percent over the past decade, to over 15,000, according to the College Board, the nonprofit association that administers the program. Nearly a quarter of public-school seniors now take at least one Advanced Placement exam in high school, up from 16 percent in 2000.

A range of Advanced Placement classes and other college-level courses was one draw for Frank Thielman, a divinity professor in Birmingham, Ala., when he investigated the local high schools for his son Jonathan. Mr. Thielman had been hesitant at first, fearing inadequate funding and safety issues. But after more research, he enrolled his son, who had spent nine years at Briarwood Christian School, where tuition this year would have run about $5,000. "It turns out we have a very good academic option right here," says Mr. Thielman. Kids coming from private school to Jefferson County IB have jumped to 15 percent of new students from 7 percent three years ago, the school says.

The image of public schools has been slowly evolving. In the latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup annual poll called the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, 49 percent of respondents gave their local schools a grade of A or B. The number has steadily increased every year from the 36 percent recorded in 1978.

Some attribute the shifting sentiment to students having more choice in deciding which public school to attend -- whether it's charter, magnet or out of district. The percentage of public-school students enrolled in a chosen school was 15 percent in 1999, up from 11 percent in 1993, according to the Department of Education.

Any movement toward public schools could be short-lived. With the "baby bust" generation now following the baby boomers, there will be fewer school-age children overall, and public schools are forecast to have sharper declines in enrollment growth nationwide than private schools through 2013.

Going from private to public isn't right for everyone, says Steven Roy Goodman, an admissions strategist in Washington who has had three clients switch to public schools in the past two years. Transferring can be difficult emotionally and some kids do better in smaller schools. Public schools have advantages, he says, but usually can't offer classes that are as small. The average student-teacher ratio in most public schools is about 16 to 1, according to the Department of Education. At NAIS schools, the average is about 9 to 1.

Parents should evaluate their children to see whether they would thrive in a place with small classes or with more extracurricular activities, consultants say. Learning approaches can vary greatly from school to school and what may work for one student may not for another.

After a tough eighth-grade year at the all-girl's Winsor School in Boston, Maddie Pannell decided to try Weston High School. The public school was renowned for its academics and Maddie thought she might like a change. Her father, Saul Pannell, an investment adviser, was opposed but agreed to let her give it a try.

The experiment lasted three weeks. Maddie missed the teachers and students at Winsor and found she preferred the private school's discussion-based method of learning. "I didn't realize how important that was to me," she says. The moral, says Mr. Pannell: "No situation is ideal."



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