Public schools in Northern Virginia are some of the best in the country, which can complicate the decision of where to enroll your child. But lurking below the surface of the K-12 public school education picture are the budget beatings public schools have to deal with to try and keep up as the general population growth in the area continues unabated. And the ripple effect of those cuts can mean that your child is missing out on the instruction of good teachers and the kind of programs that provide smoother entry into the real world.
The Fairfax County Public Schools system, for example, is the largest school division in Virginia and the 10th largest in the U.S. Yet an FCPS report found that $19.5 million is needed to meet the cost of growing enrollment, which is expected to be nearly 200,000 students by 2019.
On top of that, teachers’ starting salaries used to be among the highest in the region. Today, they fall near the middle of all schools. FCPS reports that the 2017 budget expects to enhance teacher salaries to make them more competitive.
What that means for public schools is fewer teachers, as they migrate to better-paying jobs in private schools, and more kids per class. The student-to-teacher ratio remains around 22 to 1 from elementary through high school. Nearly half of Fairfax County high schools are over capacity now.
But there’s more on the plus side of private schools. They do not have to follow as strict a curriculum as public schools, which teach certain state-mandated core curricula. A private school can add flexibility to the core studies of a student or group of students who might want to explore a subject in more depth because the teacher has fewer students and can personalize the teaching more easily.
“People are beginning to see that the apparently strong, robust urban public school systems are not what they are cracked up to be,” Mark Redford, CEO of Basis Schools in McLean, says. Basis is a network of five independent schools located on both coasts offering a pre-K through 12th-grade education program with a focus on math and science. “The teachers at public schools are focused on a particular group of kids who are just below the level of proficiency. So their job is to get as many kids in their class as proficient as possible, to maximize the numbers.”
All of the ups and downs of the economy over the past few years have thrown a scare into parents, motivating them to get their kids the best education that they can find. “I think everyone was stunned by the recession, and our parent body understands that the world is changing fast,” Redford says. “They see it in their own professions, where they are constantly having to upgrade systems and relearn and master new competencies. It really comes down to parents wanting their kids to have good choices.”
Peggy Otey, headmaster of Browne Academy in Alexandria, says that there has been a change in how parents look at private schools. “It used to be that parents would say, ‘Oh, we will put our kids in private schools beginning in high school,’ but by then everything is pretty much in place,” she says. “You should think about developing this child at a much younger age. I think parents are clicking into that.”
She says the inquiry-based method of teaching used at Browne is something they help parents understand because it shows how knowledge can be analyzed and applied. “That is the differentiating piece that we have here,” she says.
One example of the application of that teaching methodology is a game required of their middle schoolers that involves 15 interlocking problems that students work on as teams. It includes the World Bank and arms dealers and deals with complex issues like breakaway republics, ethnic and minority tensions and chemical and nuclear spills. “The students are really jumping into real-world issues and seeing that, as a country, there is concern with events under the sea, on land, in the atmosphere and in outer space and how countries use all of those,” she says. “It’s about how, when someone makes a decision, it impacts the next country or it impacts the world in some way.”
Developing character in students and making them global citizens is the goal at Flint Hill School, according to Emily Sanderson, director of studies. Flint Hill is a junior kindergarten-12th grade college preparatory day school in Oakton.
Most public schools have some sort of science, technology, engineering and math education. But at Flint, they take it to another level. Sanderson explains: “In our second-grade classrooms, students wrote stories as part of their language arts and writing education,” she says. “Then they learned how to code those stories and make the characters animated through a free software program from MIT.”
In third grade at Flint, they teach social entrepreneurship with the end result of making the world a better place. Kids work in a marketplace activity where they produce things and then sell them, donating earnings to a good cause that they as a group have researched.
Sanderson teaches design thinking, a class that is similar to systems engineering. “You take this protocol around how to solve complex problems,” she says. “I teach them the protocol, and then I say let’s go find some complex problem in Flint Hill to solve.”
The vision for this program is to ask students to take meaningful risks and make a difference. “They want to launch off from this and find other things outside of Flint Hill, maybe in Fairfax City, that are complex problems,” she says. “This is very powerful for third- and fourth-graders to have those experiences early on so that they develop confidence and realize that their skills are applicable.”
Randy Hollister, headmaster of Loudoun Country Day School, says that they have had record opening-day enrollment for six years in a row. The school limits pre-K class size to 12 students, with two full-time teachers; 16 students in kindergarten classes with two full-time teachers; and students in third, fourth and fifth grade having one full-time teacher and a shared assistant.
Foreign language instruction is a key program for parents to consider at the school. Spanish is taught from pre-K through eighth grade, and Spanish and French are taught in sixth through eighth grades. “This becomes a differentiator for us,” Hollister says. “Public schools had to make some adjustments around foreign language study. It’s now not offered until seventh grade.”
Eileen Hanley, assistant principal for admission and student life at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax City, one of four secondary schools in the Arlington Catholic Diocese, says that she hears anecdotally from parents transferring there from public school that they are very concerned about large classroom sizes. “Public school teachers are also disgruntled because of the lack of raises over the years,” she says.
Paul VI offers dual enrollment with local universities where a child can earn college credit. They also have a STEM-focused curriculum, backed up by giving students access to technology in class. “It took us six years to launch the laptop program,” she says. “You look at students using them in class, and you are not replacing good teaching. You are just teaching your teachers to teach differently. That is where the excitement still takes place.”
Private-school administrators are very concerned about designing their curriculum to match what is happening in the world and work to keep up with the changing interests of the student.
“There is a cohort of students in both public and private schools that, for one reason or another, the traditional paradigm of education just doesn’t fit who they are as a person or what their needs are educationally, socially, emotionally or academically,” Dan Morgan, regional vice president of new school operations at Fusion Academy, says.
Fusion offers 450 different classes for students that encompass the required core curriculum of English, math, science and history. “But even within the core subjects, we try to tailor it to the student’s interest,” Morgan says.
For example, if a student in an English class is reading a book from the 18th century and wanted to choose another book, they can do that. “There is a lot of differentiation in these core subjects so that they can be engaged in their education and pursue a path that might be more useful to them,” Morgan says.
Brigit Akpinar, director of development at Pinnacle Academy in Oakton, says that they now offer electives in engineering and computer programming and that they are discovering that their students are very interested in that. “Those are just electives now, but we are going to continue them,” she says.
The interest in these programs has inspired the school to create a new program as part of the national comprehensive STEM program Project Lead the Way. Pinnacle administrators are also looking for more STEM-related extracurricular competitions.
Akpinar says that students have been showing more interest in using technology in instruction, so the school now has interactive whiteboards. They also have given all middle school students Chromebooks to help them work in Google Drive, which allows them to get quicker feedback from teachers and also enables teachers to monitor their progress more quickly.
One of the more unique private schools in the area is the Nysmith School for the Gifted in Herndon, a family business that began 32 years ago as a science and technology school. “There is no secret sauce to our program other than the fact that it is about diversification,” headmaster Ken Nysmith says. “There are just 18 children in the class.”
The school has four computer labs and a large multipurpose media center. “Our big focus is to realize that every child is different,” Nysmith says. “We work to reinforce with each child one of the things that they are most passionate about.”
But, he says, you don’t tell a child that they are not a math kid, for example, because sometimes that student will turn out to be a math kid in the future. “He just hasn’t found that excitement yet,” Nysmith says. “There is this evolution that takes place. The beautiful part is that it happens to all of us at different times. That is really where our diversification comes to play—just nurturing each child at whatever skills that they have as they are ready.”
And that is perhaps the real reason that parents want their child to go to a private school, for that nurturing, that one-on-one attention the really makes the learning experience a personal one and a lifelong anchor to their professional development.
Mike McClements is a parent with two kids, a son and a daughter, at Flint Hill. He says that he and his wife were educated in public schools in the area and that is where they wanted to send their two kids. Their son attended a Montessori school as a young child, and it went well. “We talked to the Montessori school administrators and said we were going to move back to a public school beginning in kindergarten, and they were like ‘No, you can’t do that,’” he says. “We asked them why, and they told us he would be bored for two years. We didn’t believe them.”
He said he had his son tested at two different places, and they agreed with the Montessori administrator. That’s when they began their search for a private school, eventually landing at Flint.
“We had this impression of a private school that everybody was uppity, and it just didn’t seem like a good fit for our family,” McClements says. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
His son is now 16 and a junior at Flint; his daughter is in third grade at Flint. Because of the number of courses and the coursework required at the school, what his son is learning there that he may not have gotten in a public school is time management. “That is a significant benefit,” McClements says about his opinion of the academic rigor at private schools. “It’s not just one subject that he is balancing. And then there is athletics. It’s quite a demand, and you have to figure it out quickly. Students have to learn that in middle school, and then they sort of let them get more independent as time goes on while they learn to make good choices.”
Vijdan Korman and her husband moved seven years ago to Oakton to be close to Pinnacle after visiting the school. They decided to put their three children there.
Korman has a Ph.D. in economics, and her husband is an economist working for the International Monetary Fund. “My husband and I value math and science in a big way, and that was one of the important factors in selecting Pinnacle,” she says. There is a lot required of students at the school, both during class time and afterward, she says. “The students don’t get a break. But they are really quite happy.”
Like many private schools, Pinnacle gets personal with the families that go there. The principal, vice principal and classroom teacher visit with the family in their homes to understand more about the family dynamics and the background of the student. “You end up having a closer relationship with students as well as with their parents,” she says. “That makes me feel like Pinnacle is an extended family.”
That feeling of unity, of a concerted drive to the greater purpose of a deeper dive into education as a foundation for the future, is the goal of many area private schools.
The world is changing more rapidly than ever, and all educators face the challenge of keeping up and making sure that students are prepared, especially in STEM-related studies, but also that they are well-rounded citizens of the world. Curriculum needs to be flexible and needs to evolve as educators listen to their students. That happens in public schools as well, but not as rapidly for the whole student population.
Otey says that educators would all like to predict what the future is going to look like for the children of today, but that is really difficult to do. “What we can count on is that they are going to need that transferrable thinking and reasoning skills,” she says. “But really, we have been underestimating children for centuries and their capacity to be able to really think and learn. It’s time for that to end. They want to be engaged in the world around them.”