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How are private high schools better preparing kids over public schools?

cbugcbug 455 replies159 threadsRegistered User Member
edited June 2011 in Parents Forum
I've been reading CC for some time now and the general feel that I get is that private high schools are delivering a better prepared and more sought after student than the public schools. Unfortunately, I have no first-hand knowledge of this as no one in our family has attended private schools. However, S1 did attend a 3-week writing class at a top ten LAC between his junior and senior year in HS. While he loved this experience, he said that 90% of the participants were prep school kids who seemed better prepared than he was. As a result he had to work harder to keep up — but he did and felt more academically stimulated than he ever had.

Now, as we're working on our college search for S2, it makes me wonder what exactly these private/prep schools are doing to get their kids to this level. And is there a way to mimic this in a public HS setting?
edited June 2011
322 replies
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Replies to: How are private high schools better preparing kids over public schools?

  • momofthreeboysmomofthreeboys 16625 replies66 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    I think that's abit of a broad stroke generalization because there are characteristics of private schools....boarding, religious based, magnet, etc. that are similar. Those same characteristics are found in the good public schools. There are just many, many more public schools out there than private schools. And I would bet there are private schools that don't deliver a significantly better high school education than some publics.

    If you have a public school in a higher than average income area, with the majority of parents college educated, located in an area that teachers want to live in with a dearth of good teachers you have an equal if not better bet of a really top notch K-12 experience. If you have a public in an area where the majority of kids aren't kindergarten ready, where income levels are low and parents are working their butts off to maintain a living or not working at all, where the parents aren't college educated or there isn't an overwhelming sense of "need" for college, well...that's an uphill battle to get those kids ready for college.

    The presumption on these boards is that kids will go to a selective college or university but every year thousands of kids go off from decent but not outstanding high schools to regional public systems or possibly some privates. So if the objective is an outstanding high school experience coupled with a result of an acceptance to a selective college and you aren't willing to live or move into a public school district with that rigor you're only choice might be a private system. But to presume that private is always "better" than public is a generalization. Private can sometimes be better than public.
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  • cptofthehousecptofthehouse 29249 replies57 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    Two of my kids went to a rigorous private high school and ended up as second semester sophomores in terms of credits at college. They had 9 AP courses with test scores of 4 or 5. They also took some courses at a local college for which they got credit. The prep school they attended have high entry standards so that the kids are a highly selective group already put through a filter, so the material covered was very intense and similar to that of the first two years of a LAC.

    All private schools are not equal. There are some that will not prepare a kid for college as well as an average public school district would. But it makes sense that one that is highly selective and chooses only the most qualified students are going to be able to offer courses at the highest level and prepare their kids better than public schools who have to cover the entire spectrum of abilities and issues. They have to take everyone. But there are pubic high schools out there with admissions standards or who are in an area with high achieving kids who do just as well or better than the top privates.

    One thing that I feel was so worth while at that private school where I sent my kids was the Composition course. Every Monday starting with freshman year until the end of first semester of senior year, they have to write an essay on what is usually an unannounced subject. THey have to handwrite the essay in those old blue books used for final exams at colleges. Those essays are scrutinized and corrected and graded. The student then has a chance to rewrite the essay--in class during the week to better the grade. So no out of school help is available for that part of the grade, and the kids really do learn to write. Sometimes a general topic is given and the kids have to research a subject and can bring a page of notes and cites to use for the essay, but still, the exact question is not known.

    What makes this work are dedicated teachers who read and grade those essays. One thing I despised about our public school experience were teachers who did not follow up on corrected papers and tests. They would mark off the answers, sometimes not even reading the work carefully, and then just hand back the paper, If they bothered to look in their wastepaper basket, they would find those returned papers for the most part, thrown in there. The kids would learn nothing from the assignment. X School teachers read every single answer and would make the kids redo what they showed they did not know. But that is not always the case for even private schools. The top privates, the selective ones with the top reps tend to offer this as a matter of course.

    I don't see a way to mimic this in a public HS setting unless it is a small one. I live near one of the top public HSs in the country. In fact my district school makes the top 100. I find that their great results tend to be more because of the type of kids and families they have in the districts which allows them to teach at a higher level, but I still don't see the amazing personal attention that my sons' private school gives. You see, the top, top student is going to do well with the academics regardless. What the private schools do that is priceless, in my opinion, is by giving those kids who do manage to gain admissions despite not being the top of the top, the rigorous attention to bring them up with their high achieving peers. That is the magic which comes from 4 years of consistent such attention that is done.
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  • pacheightpacheight 1153 replies15 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    OP: you answered it right here: "he did and felt more academically stimulated than he ever had."

    many, not all, private HS and many, not all, public HS in affluent communities have student bodies with higher IQ's, better behavior, and a community of role models (parents) who all work as professionals, this combinations raises the bar much higher. So a kid who is a high academic achiever is going to be more stimulated, and I would argue happier, in an environment where there are more kids like him or her.

    This is why people move to good school districts or send their kids to private schools.
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  • cptofthehousecptofthehouse 29249 replies57 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    I want to share with you the experience I had going to the last commencement for Rice, a Catholic all boys school in Harlem run by the Christian Brothers. The CB are a dying breed, their extinction accelerated by the priest scandals, and this school never did make any money. The school graduated a group of all African American young men from Harlem, none of them deemed smart enough to be accepted to any of the top magnet schools the NYC city offers to its brightest students. The graduation rate of this school is remarkable, given who goes there, and nearly every single one of those kids is going to college, even more remarkable when you look at the stats for inner city AA young men. Now this is not a school that most middle class folks would want for their kids, but when you look at the accomplishments for those young men, given what the alternatives are, the result are phenomonal. I do not support school vouchers, but this a case that really makes me pause, and would the type of exception that I would support.

    I personally know a number of young men who graduated with my son. They did not do well in the NYC high school lottery, so their parents, came up with the money to send them to a Catholic high school. It was a difficult 4 years for these families, who even with discounts and transportation vouchers found it very difficult to go to this school that often required transportation transfers to attend. Some of the kids lived in far away boroughs. They were NOT the brightest or best by any public or private school standards. But every single one of them are going to college with enough merit/financial aid to make it work. I talked to the mom of one who told me that less than half her sons' peers who did not get into the great NYC magnet schools are going to college and if they are, are going to community colleges or at best the CUNYS maybe. What a difference in results.
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  • pacheightpacheight 1153 replies15 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    and cbug your story about the 3 week course at a LAC really hit me. we used to live in a rural area where only 20% of the kids matriculate to college, and we sent our daughter to "medicine camp" in a big city between 7th and 8th grade, I know totally geeky! But she was there with other geeks from around the country and I'll never forget what she said when she came home, "thank you for sending me, I loved it, I didn't know there were other people like me"

    "i didn't know there were other people like me" places where it's cool to be a geek is what she meant by that.
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  • mathmommathmom 32248 replies159 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    Our public high school does not make the top 100 list, but the top students also take 9-10 APs. (And my kids, at least, scored mostly 5's.) Their best teachers were every bit as good and as dedicated as any private school teacher I or my husband have seen. (And we both attended top private schools.) That said, classes are generally larger and there were a handful of clunker teachers and GCs are overworked. My kids' teachers all did a good job of critiquing writing, but my kids did not get the quantity of writing and research papers assigned that a private school kid might. That said, they have had no issues in college with the quality of their writing.

    Many parents in our school district think it's not good enough and send their kids to private school. For our family they were more than fine. I am glad that they had the opportunity to have friends from all economic levels, races and religions. And (since we are on college confidential), I'll add that I can't complain about their college acceptances either.
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  • takeitallintakeitallin 3352 replies26 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    I think it really depends on the quality of public high school in your area, and it can vary greatly from one area to the next. Our older 2 kids attended the high school in our town and we were not at all happy with the level of instruction they received. We felt they were not as well prepared in college as they should have been. We transferred our next 2 out-of district to the high school in the next town over. The difference was amazing and we feel like the new school is possibly the equivalent of a private school. In fact, a friend of ours recently transferred her kids from a very exclusive (and very expensive) private school to this public school, and feels her kids are getting a more well rounded and more in-depth education at the public school. I think one possibility is that the public school can offer a wider variety of classes due to the large size of the school. While it is a large school (2500), my son has only 13 kids in one of his AP classes, and 15 in another, and receives a lot of one-on-one attention.

    I am not sure of all the reasons that this public school is so much better than the one in our town. Unfortunately, I feel that a lot of the difference is due to the fact that the districts are at polar opposites as far as income level and education level of parents. Our towns are similar economically, however our in-town school is part of a district in which the average income is very low, and the highest education level reached by parents is also very low. The new high school is in a district with a fairly high average income, and is in a town where one of the largest employers is a high-tech research company which employs a large number of very well educated scientists. There is an expectation that all kids will attend college which was not our experience at our local HS. Unfortunately, it is quite apparent that kids in the US do not have equal opportunities for good education depending on their income level and social status. I'm sure there are a lot of people who may disagree with me on this point. However, 400 kids from our town have transferred over to the adjacent district along with us, and are definitely seeing better results when it comes to college acceptances. I am not saying that there are no successes at the lower income district, but only that I think those kids have to work a lot harder to get the same opportunities that my kids are getting .
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  • cbugcbug 455 replies159 threadsRegistered User Member
    So how does one gauge if the local public school is doing it's job -- or that it's competitive with private schools. We live in a small college town and in the most recent HS graduating class (size=160) one kid is going to Harvard, another to U of Chicago and another to Northwestern. So does this automatically tell me the school is doing just fine or that these kids could have just been exceptional. Or is there a framework in place that allows one to compare high schools across the nation?
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  • vincehvinceh 2280 replies11 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    I agree with all the comments about sweeping generalizations; that said I'll throw in a couple of my own.

    Simply put, private schools expect more from the students. They expect you to be prepared, to have done the homework, to participate in class. The teachers have smaller total student work loads and can get more involved. They also know that parents who are paying private tuition don't like being surprised at "report card" time and thus address problems sooner rather than later.
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  • pacheightpacheight 1153 replies15 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    cbug: I like college matriculation rates as a good indicator.

    If your high school doesn't do a college matriculation survey, that's not a good sign. At our high school 100% of the kids go to college, 83% to a 4 year college, and HYPS admits are represented as well every year.

    Furthermore they publish every kids name (300 kids) and what school they are going to.

    and this is a public high school
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  • 2bornot2bivy2bornot2bivy 385 replies13 threadsRegistered User Member
    If you want to judge the quality of the high school look at where the top 5 % go to college but also look at the lower deciles. If the middle kids are going to impressive schools then you know its a great public or private high school.
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  • toledotoledo 4774 replies290 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    So how does one gauge if the local public school is doing it's job

    Does your state mandate statewide testing? Look at those results. Find out the average ACT/SAT scores for graduating classes. Find out the percentage that goes on to college.

    My son attends a very rigorous public school, but is actually looking to escape. As a junior, he'll be transfering to a local catholic school, hoping to find a more relaxed environment. Can't believe we've agreed to pay for this! He's our youngest and I guess we've learned that academics aren't always the end all, be all.
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  • momofthreeboysmomofthreeboys 16625 replies66 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    I agree that college matriculation is a big factor and where kids are matriculating. Doesn't hurt if a high percentage of those same kids actually get a degree...something most public high schools don't track. Of course exceptional kids are exceptional no matter where they go to high school or schools like Harvard, Princeton and the ilk wouldn't spend so much money looking for them so you have to take that factor out. I like to look at where the B kids are going...that says much about the school. When selective schools choose 3.0 - 3.5 uw GPA kids out of a public system..that's a good public system and clearly the colleges know this or they wouldn't be accepting those kids. For the most part I'm convinced there is much grade inflation going on in America these days.

    I agree that statewide testing like the ACT can show you where your public compares to other publics. Look at what the kids are doing. If there are clubs and activities that are focused on activities other than athletics that is a good sign. Are there study groups? What happens if the kids are struggling in class, do they have access to the teachers? Are there study groups? Private schools can have strong supports available to kids to keep them from "failing" in addition to strong parent support.
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  • thumper1thumper1 74309 replies3251 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    Here is my sweeping generalization of the day...it's amazing how much more involved FAMILIES are when they are paying out of pocket for schooling for their kids. Private high schools not only provide good schooling, but the also draw a very committed family unit...not just the student, but parent support too. It's a broad generalization but there it is.

    Having said that, my kids went to a semi-rural no-name small public high school which we felt was outstanding. They were challenged in high school, had ample opportunities for interesting learning experiences...and were very well prepared for college.

    YMMV.
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  • cptofthehousecptofthehouse 29249 replies57 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    My kids all go to private schools. Though two of them went to high schools that are considered top prep schools, for the most part they went to private schools that were inferior academically to our district schools. The big question has always been why we spend the money to send our kid to schools that are not a "up there" as our public school.

    The reason is that our kids were/are not the caliber of the top students at our school district. If you are not in that group, you don't get all of the wonderful goodies that school offers. And wonderful those goodies are. My kid would have been hard put to get into ONE AP class in their public high school, but could rival Mathmom's very gifted children (yes, I know they are, Mathmom) in APS when GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY. So it really doesn't matter how great your school is rated but what it offers for your particular child.

    I have a friend whose son so loved basket ball. A very good basket ball player, but no way could he make the team at his big very good public school, nor would he have a shot at some of the Catholic schools to make the team. The way it works in our great country is that all of those traveling teams and great rec opportunities for sports for kids come to an abrupt end at high school dumping a lot of kids who have loved the sport into a no where land when they can't meet the golden dozen that make up the freshman team in basketball. The same with soccer and other sports where we get hundreds upon thousands of kids on the field only to be cut at that level. So you get an unhappy kid in high school. He's also not in the honors track and may be with kids of all economic classes, races, and activities. He will be with kids who are into activities that are not so great and with not much occupying him that he likes...well, the transition is clear, and I've seen it happen too many times.

    If you have a top performing kid, you can put him/her anywhere and s/he is likely to do well. If you have what I have, middling kids without a lot of common sense, a lot of energy, a hunger for friends, if you don't find the right environment as they become teens and out of your circle of control, you are far more likely to have trouble. You get it anyways, but it is more controlled and you just might get an education in their heads with the right school.

    My neighbor were very unhappy with the public school here, as great as it should be. They found that there was very little teaching but the class moved a long at a brisk pace. The teachers would assign homework without adequately teaching the tenets needed to do it. A lot of the kids were bright enough to make up the gaps and do it anyways. Others had parents who took up the slack. Or got them tutors. My neighbor was used to the old Catholic schools that taught those fundamentals at school,and made sure that those kids learned the material. She resented the time she had to take to teach her kids which she felt was what the school should be doing. It is commonly known here that reading is not taught at all in kindergarten, but if your kid isn't reading at the start of first grade, he is in the remedial classes. Where do you think they learned to read? So top districts are not necessarily the best districts. If you are willing to sit there and work with your kids and your kids will meet you half way, and you pay a tutor or service to make up the gaps, you can do well in such districts even without kids who are top grade and highly motivated.

    In my case, with bottom feeders, they would not do well. Yes, we tried with the older ones, and it did not work. They got exactly what they deserved, yes, but I wanted more for them. I homeschooled them to get them way up there in test scores for the ISSEEs and got rid of their miserable grades and mediocre recs, and they got into top private schools that forced them to bring up their standards. The private schools forced them to work at a higher standard. Their highest standards, in some cases at some schools were not as high as the public school's but it was a lot higher than my kids would have gotten had they gone there.

    That is why, by the way, that URMs, first generation, economically disadvantaged kids from the top private schools are so highly sought by selective colleges. These colleges KNOW from a lot of past experience that to get through certain prep school, you have to have done a certain core of work that gives you a high chance of getting through their curriculum. What is particularly spectacular in results from these schools is the tracked success rate of graduates from these schools that successfully get through college. They follow their alums very carefully, staying in close touch--mine get a dozen mailings a year from their high schools with invites to things, so that they know exactly where most of those kids are. There is even a voluntary college directory of all kids that are currently in college with their contact info, so that those who are undergoing the college search can directly contact graduates at various colleges and get the scoop, maybe stay with them when they visit. These type of services just do not happen in most public schools.
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  • oldfortoldfort 22898 replies290 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    D2 went to what we would consider to be a top tier private school in the states, and now she is at one of the best internationals where we live. Most of local kids are there because their parents could afford it not because they excel academically, but the school still sends large number of students to top colleges in the US (always a few to HYPS, Rice, Columbia, USC). D2 is taking full IB at this new school, and she says theres is no comparison in terms of quality of work by the students and level of discussion in class. At the other school where both D1 and D2 went to in the States, not that many APs were offered, but students would often take AP exams and get 4s and 5s.

    To get into some of those private schools, the application process is just as rigorous as college process - high GPA, test scores, and interviews. They offer a lot of incentive to keep good teachers (discounted to free tuition to faculty children). They are not required to follow state mandated curriulum, which allows more leeway to students/teachers in determining the pace of their work. Facilities tend ot be better - some high school science labs could rival college labs. Teachers have less work load, so they have more time for office hours, and are able to give feedback on homework/test/essay faster. One major difference between public and private is that a private school is not there to service every student, it doesn't need to keep any student who has disciplinary problem or learning disability. Whereas a public school is there to service the masses, unless a district has a lot of money and is able to offer different tracks for different level of students, they will teach to the lowest denominator.

    For us in making a choice of sending our kids to a private school was never about what college they could get into, it's more about their learning environment, and opportunities available to them. We figured if they enjoyed school, they would do well academically, and getting into a good college would just be a by product of it.
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  • cptofthehousecptofthehouse 29249 replies57 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    Same situation with us, Oldfort. In fact, we compromised some of our ability for college in putting out the money for private school before college. But we felt that it was more important. I think we made the right choice.
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  • thumper1thumper1 74309 replies3251 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    Oldfort makes a good point. Private schools can and are very careful about who they enroll...and who they KEEP enrolled.

    I don't think there is a right or wrong here. I think it's what works for your student and your family. For some, private school is the right choice and for some public school is the right choice.
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  • momofthreeboysmomofthreeboys 16625 replies66 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    Once the bones are in place - decent teachers, parental involvement, available curriculum - it doesn't matter all that much where the kids go. It's what the kids do on their own that makes the difference. There really isn't a right or a wrong. Using our smallish group and now that many of our kids have finished college they all pretty crossed the finish line in a herd...private HS, public HS, private college, public college. Time will tell how it goes for each of them, but in terms of preparedness for college and an ability to get into pretty good colleges and actually finish undergraduate degrees, first jobs out of college...not so many differences. The cummas, summas, magnas or no umas I couldn't have predicted but in the grand scheme of things not all that much importance.
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  • shellfellshellfell 3304 replies11 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    Both my sons went to the same private school. The things I found better there than at our local public HS were:

    - small class sizes (avg. 15). Students can't hide in classes that small.
    - involved faculty. Teachers also acted as coaches & advisors and got to know their students well.
    - consistent advising. Students had to meet with their advisor at least once every 2 weeks.
    - excellent college advising. There were advisors who did nothing but college advising & they had far fewer students than HS guidance counselors.
    - emphasis on writing. Sophomores had a mandatory once a week writing workshop. They stayed in writing workshop until they could pass a written test on usage and an essay test graded by 2 teachers. Some students were still doing writing workshop well into their junior year. Both my sons credit this emphasis on writing with the relative ease they've had with writing assignments in college.
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