Area private schools expand the mind, and its own reach.
By Colin Daileda
The debate of which is better—private or public education—will be one discussion that may never deem a winner, as the scenario is completely subjective. What one cannot argue is that private schools tend to have smaller student populations and more leeway in how their systems are run. So how, you ask, does this affect a student’s outcome?
As your car rolls through the property, Fairfax Christian School unfolds like a scene from summer camp. The kindergarten building sits just off Hunter Mill Road, oversized number blocks framed in the windows. Off to the right of the entrance, a thin black road snakes through lush grass and towering trees on its way to the middle and high school, a large, two-story brick house with four white columns adorning the entrance. The centerpiece building stands nearly at the exact center of the property. In front of it, a field of thick trees rises up, their leaves entangling to form a thick canopy. Their immensity gives the impression of tradition, of a landmark that’s stood the test of time. Through the trunks, you can just make out the elementary school, a small building that sits opposite the kindergarten.
Out the back door, a casual observer might see only a forest. More trees cover the brown earth. Wild turkeys and deer, a student says, are just part of the experience. Trails through the forest lead to a full-size soccer field and two outdoor basketball courts. Inside, the building-turned-school gives off an old-school aura. A small hallway leads students, administrators and teachers through the entrance and down a thin hallway, passing shallow classrooms that seat a maximum of around 20 students, although the average number of kids per class is about half that. Windows line the back of classrooms, state and U.S. flags stand to the right of the door on carpet a shade of green flatter than the grass outside. Rich mahogany wood adorns the principal’s office, its gold picture frames giving the impression that a proper principal with a monocle will walk in any minute.
But the man sitting in the principal’s chair at the moment is Jin Lee Sang, or James as everyone calls him. He’s not the principal, but a former student and current director of the Fairfax Christian School’s international program.
Lee graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in commerce, and he dresses the part of a businessman. Black pants and shoes cover his bottom half, and he sports a white pinstripe shirt with a skinny, immaculate golden tie. His hair, cut in a sort of relative military high and tight, is trimmed neatly on the sides before exploding into a character-filled, yet controlled, jet-black fohawk.
He is Korean, about 5’9”, and speaks English with only a hint of an accent. Lee talks naturally, never struggling for the right word, and moves through the school naturally as well, in and out of classrooms as though they were rooms he grew up in. And in a way, he did grow up here.
Lee came to the United States as a sixth grader, living with his younger brother and aunt while his parents stayed in his native country. He knew so little English that his report card for his first year, as a sixth grader, at Fairfax Christian School had only one grade—an ‘A’ in math. Everything else was listed as ‘not applicable’ because he wasn’t able to understand assignments. But that wouldn’t be the case for long. If Fairfax Christian School is known for one thing, it is their English as a Second Language program.
Foreign students who come to the U.S. looking to attend college seek out the school, even if they come as 11th graders, because they know it’ll get them through ESL and into college prep classes the quickest. That’s what Lee was looking for.
“It took me about a good year,” says Lee. “When I dreamt in English, I knew that [I was] getting closer.”
The school churns out students from its ESL program and into mainstream classes quickly in part because of the small class sizes. There are only 250 students at the entire school, and a mere 80 in the high school. Lee credits the small-class environment with much of his success.
“I was kind of thankful that this school was a small school because I didn’t have to adopt too many things all at once,” says Lee. “If I were to be thrown into a public school when I spoke no English, then I would be busy learning English and making friends at the same time. But here I was able to concentrate on learning my English first before reaching out to school and non-school friends.”
The tiny class size helped James develop personal relationships with his teachers as well.
“My teachers really helped me in a big way,” says Lee. “They were able to spend more time with me because it was a smaller class.”
Lee’s favorite teacher at Fairfax Christian was Mr. Lambert, with whom he is not a colleague. Lambert was Lee’s ESL and Bible studies teacher as well as his bus driver. Lee wasn’t a Christian when he enrolled in Fairfax Christian, and practiced English with Lambert after hours by arguing the principles of the faith on bus rides. That’s not something students would be able to do with too many public school instructors.
Lee discovered that firsthand while taking geometry over the summer at Robinson Secondary School. The class was large, and the teacher wasn’t invested in the students beyond the grades they earned.
“I passed everything, but I was sleeping in the class,” says Lee. “The teacher didn’t care, so long as I did my work. I mean, it’s my fault that I took a nap, but at the same time [at Fairfax Christian] I can’t do that because there are only four other students beside myself. It’s pretty obvious if you’re snoozing.”
The tight-knit relationships with teachers helped Lee in another way, too. He got truly personal recommendation letters that he believes gave him an edge when applying to schools. After talking to an admissions official at UVA, he discovered yet another reason the small environment eased his way into college.
At public schools, sports teams have tryouts. If you’re not good enough, you get cut. But at Fairfax Christian, if you want to be on the team, you make varsity. Lee played both basketball and soccer, something he readily admits he wouldn’t have had a chance to do in a public school. He also volunteered with the Republican Party, and got the opportunity to volunteer in other ways, building up the diversity in his portfolio to a point where it became difficult to ignore. In six years, Lee went from a boy new to the country who spoke no English to a fluent student very much prepared for the academic rigor of UVA, largely due to the private school experience.
The private school experience, as Fairfax Christian School Director Jo Thoburn puts it, is “a whole different ballgame” from public school.
Thoburn, who calls running a school “the perfect mom job,” went to all Fairfax County public schools growing up, eventually graduating from Fairfax High School after being transferred from Robinson Secondary School, and she says the difference in the environments is vast.
“You don’t have the distractions [in private school],” she opines. “You don’t have the stabbings in the hallway[as in some public schools]. You don’t have the crime. And, you don’t have the higher influence of pop culture.”
The surroundings are different, and Thoburn says the students are cut from a different stone, too.
“What is popular is different here,” says Thoburn. “I mean, the kids are kids no matter what to some degree, but the focus is different.”
Fairfax Christian School is not only a private school, but, like many other private schools as well, it is a college-prep school—100 percent of students are admitted into a college or university. Of the 15 students who made up the Fairfax Christian graduating class of 2011, two were admitted to Ivy League schools, an impressive 13 percent.
“The academics are much better [in private schools],” says Thoburn. “Period. No question about it.”
Fairfax Christian has always been an honors school in name, but they’ve only recently delved into Advanced Placement courses, shooting up from one to 19 of them in around five years.
But despite the success rate of the school, getting more students to attend is proving more than difficult.
Fairfax Christian’s campus is 28 acres and just around 250 students, simply because the county won’t allow them to admit more.
“We would really love to expand, and we’re turning people away,” says Thoburn. “Where do we go?”
Because of the difficulties Fairfax Christian has with expanding in the county, they’re expanding internationally. Plans are in the works to open schools in five different cities in China, each housing approximately 100 students, with campuses set to open in the Fall of 2012.
But no matter what part of the world Fairfax Christian students are learning in, the motive for all of them remains the same.
“You go here because you want an education,” says Thoburn.
Students go to any college-prep school because they want an education. That school could be Fairfax Christian, or it could be Paul VI.
When Sheila Clarke, who’s been out of law school for a year now, went to Paul VI, it was because her parents thought that was what was best for their daughter, and she didn’t mind because all her friends were doing the same thing.
Clarke is a tall woman—she played volleyball in high school—with auburn hair and eyes that almost seem to match, embedded in a thin, attractive freckled face. She attributes much of her success at Vanderbilt University to the college-prep environment at Paul VI—if students knew they wanted to take calculus in college, they took pre-calculus in high school.
After graduating from Vanderbilt, Clarke attended law school at American University, giving her a great opportunity to work for Washington, D.C.- area firms. She wound up clerking for Cyron & Miller LLP in Old Town Alexandria, the same firm she currently works for as a litigation lawyer, and it was a lot more than luck that got her there.
Clarke says the environment of Paul VI engineered her success at Vanderbilt, which in turn set her up for success at AU, which gave her the opportunity to do well in the field. Yet Paul VI not only provided Clarke with a great education but with a vast alumni network. A Paul VI alumnus worked at Cyron & Miller LLP and saw that Clarke had also graduated from there. It didn’t hurt her application.
A few years later and Clarke is taking on 15 clients, a hefty load, and is in the process of getting appointed a child’s lawyer for kids in need, such as abuse victims, foster care children or children whose parents are getting divorced and can’t agree on what is best for their child. So far in her early professional career, she seems to be more than on track.
That wasn’t the case for Fairfax Christian School’s James Lee. After graduating from UVA, he quickly found a job as a salesman for a firm in Fairfax City. The problem was he was practically the only salesman.
“I love doing sales and marketing, but, at the same time, if the entire company is counting on me to make all the sales, it brings you a lot of pressure,” says Lee.
So after two months, he wanted out. Lucky for him, Thoburn called him and invited him to dinner. Soon after, she offered him a job as the director of Fairfax Christian’s international program. He had other offers from companies such as Audi, which wasn’t easy to turn down because of his love of cars, but he picked returning to Fairfax Christian.
“I ultimately chose Fairfax Christian because I love helping people, and I love when somebody says ‘Thank you for your help,’” says Lee. “I can impact a lot of people in a good way.”
The school served him, and he wants to return the favor.
Lee says, “I’ll be so happy when somebody could come back to me and say ‘Mr. Lee, I got into Harvard, and it’s because of your help.’”