When it comes to finding a private school, local experts stress that it’s all about finding the perfect fit.
A private education with tuition can be a drawback to some, especially when public schools may be closer to home. But private schools in South Jersey are using those tuition dollars to create unique educational opportunities for students and their families, providing experiences that might not be available in public school.
“We have more resources because we collect tuition,” says Moorestown Friends School director of admissions and financial aid Rachel Tilney. “It allows us to provide incredible opportunities for our students, as well as professional development for our faculty.”
Tilney says that 67 percent of Moorestown Friends faculty have advanced degrees, which include PhDs and masters degrees. And 60 percent of the staff participate in annual professional development programs that only private schools can access.
“We have the resources to look for grit in our faculty, meaning when someone commits to something and they stick to it,” says Tilney. “And higher education is grit.”
Those perks extend to the student body, as alumni provide additional resources for private school scholarships, programs and activities to help grow their alma maters on a regular basis. “Last year, our graduates received over $43 million in scholarship money,” says Stephen Cappuccio, dean of enrollment management for St. Augustine Preparatory School in Richland. “We’re an all-boys school, and single-sex education is very different than co-education, and we believe that it provides a very strong learning environment.”
The Augustinian Catholic prep school is affiliated with Villanova University and graduates 100 percent of its student body each year, with 99 percent of students going on to a four-year university. And the prep school experience is invaluable when it comes to preparing a student for university life, Cappuccio says.
Other private schools boast similar statistics.
“Our goal for every student from the second that they step foot onto campus is to go on to college,” says Bishop Eustace Prep’s Nick Italiano, dean of admissions and Bishop Eustace alumni. “What we try to do is prepare them for that day when they leave for their university.”
For Bishop Eustace students, that means a schedule tailored around the college experience. Students work on a six letter schedule, A-F Days, and not all classes meet every day. This gives students open prep time at the school library, where they have the opportunity to meet with teachers and work on their upcoming projects. It’s an educational schedule that’s entirely unique to Eustace, and an option that could never work in a public school setting.
“In college, students typically have large breaks in between classes; it’s not just 6 hours of school in a row,” says Italiano. “So this schedule gives them the opportunity to learn how to use their time wisely.”
While most people associate the private school experience with high school students, some local schools offer programs for younger children. It’s an invaluable transitional experience that can help keep kids on a steady track to matriculation.
“Education is truly the foundation for everything,” says Jane Affleck, director of admissions for Doane Academy in Burlington. “By choosing an appropriate learning environment early on for your child, you’re solidifying that foundation and opening doors to greater opportunities.”
“We start in preschool at age 3, right up through senior year,” she says. “It’s an all-in-one campus in fully-contiguous buil¬dings, and isn’t it great for kids ages 3 to 18 to be on the same campus together? Sometimes we have siblings that can interact during the day in different grades.”
Tilney says Moorestown Friends integrates all ages, providing older high school students the opportunity to work alongside their younger school peers, teaching leadership through example and giving children relatable and realistic role models.
“It’s important for older kids to model behavior for younger kids. We learn by word and example, and not only do teachers teach students but the students also teach each other. It’s a great opportunity for kids that are older to interact with younger kids.”
Moorestown Friends is unique in that it offers preschool programs, ranging in full-day, full-week programs for preschoolers at the age of 3, then begins a full-day program for children as young as 4. Through the help of tuition, classes are smaller than average, with 10 students per class, one teacher and a teacher’s assistant.
It’s that smaller class size that Affleck finds to be an invaluable part of private schooling. “The learning environment is intentionally small, enabling an emphasis on relationship building, leadership development, individual attention and differential teaching, and ensuring a firm grasp of educational fundamentals,” she says.
And because the children are on a private school campus, the littlest learners have the opportunity to begin learning at a time when most children are still in daycare programs.
“Working, professional families are looking for a full-time program, and the pre-school offers this incredible transition, because they are in a school setting,” says Tilney, who says she sees the pride and excitement on the younger children’s faces when they come to learn. “For a child to have a backpack, particularly a younger child who has watched their older siblings go to school, it’s an incredible experience.”
Finding your fit
While South Jersey private schools are always looking for young minds to teach, every professional preaches the same message: No private school can be forced. A private school is a personal experience, and each student will react to schools differently.
“Everywhere that you go, it’s going to be a different experience,” says Italiano. “The key is to find the school and situation that you’re most comfortable with.”
That’s why private schools all over South Jersey provide more than enough opportunities to test the waters before making the financial commitment.
Shadow day programs have become the best way for local private schools to provide prospective students with the experience of their school. Seventh- and eighth-grade students fill out questionnaires and are matched with high school students that share their interests, then spend a day following the student throughout the school.
“Students get to see what daily life is like,” says Paul VI president Michael Chambers, of the Haddonfield school’s “Eagle for a Day” program. “This is the school where you’re entrusting your young student’s future in and it’s important to be involved and fully educated.”
“You have to physically go and experience a school as many times as possible,” says Cappuccio. “You need to get a firsthand look at the faculty and of the students going to school there to see what students matriculate at the school. That will give the opportunity to see if that is the right fit for the child. Do your research, ask the tough questions and don’t just ask faculty. Ask the students and the parents.”
The right questions can make all the difference, according to Italiano. “I would focus on the academics, not so much SAT scores, college placement, etc.,” he says. “Those are the buzzwords, but they are out of the school’s control. Find out what the student will look like in four years, how will they develop from freshman to senior year? What is the curriculum like?”
But how do you know if a school is the right fit for younger children, and for parents?
“Kids are incredibly flexible and adaptable, adults are so the opposite,” says Tilney. “Adults worry how kids can adjust, but these little people can do so much.” That’s why finding a school that emphasizes communication between parent and teacher is so valuable for younger children.
“It’s about finding a school where the parent can form a true partnership with the teachers and administrators, be part of a committed community, and feel confident that their child is safe, nurtured socially and academically, and being given the necessary foundation to grow successfully as a student and a responsible young person,” says Affleck.
Still, smaller children have to be comfortable in their classroom, too, which is why many schools offer open houses and days for younger children to get a look at the school. “You can ask them how they felt about their day, who they met that they’d want to befriend,” says Tilney.
But for children of any age, honesty and openness remain the key in a successful private school education. “I advise parents [to] honestly speak about what their child’s needs, strengths and desires are,” Tilney says. “Have a real, honest conversation. Start with what you know, which is your child.”
The changing family dynamic
It’s clear that most private schools in the area have a religiously based education program, but as the traditional family structure changes, what does that mean for your private school education?
“It’s something we’ve been aware of,” says Italiano, on the diversity of the modern family. “What we’ve seen is a shift in the population, the amount of students coming from Catholic schools has dropped and the amount from public has increased. Our main focus is to provide students with a great high school experience, and we have students from all backgrounds coming. But we will continue to teach the Catholic identity, and I think that it’s a great learning experience for students from all backgrounds.”
While local private schools aren’t steering away from their religion, they are focusing a brighter light on celebrating diversity, and tying that diversity into their classic religious structure.
“What Quakers believe is that there is goodness in every person. Everyone is valued, no matter what your family background is, or what your lifestyle or your personal preferences are,” says Tilney. She says that 37 percent of Moorestown Friends’ student body is non-Caucasian, a percentage that is impressive for an independent school. “We’re really open to everybody: Friends schools set a cornerstone on diversity long before other schools were discussing it.”
“While Doane’s Episcopal affiliation is very much part of the school’s identity and culture, with students being required to attend chapel once a week, religion is not integrated in the school’s curriculum,” explains Affleck, who says high school students have the option to study world religions as a class. “Doane Academy believes in enabling conversations from students of varying and unique upbringings, as a way of expanding views, instilling awareness and growth, and producing young people who are prepared to go out into the word and make positive contributions.”
In fact, Chambers says that Paul VI’s Catholic identity is what makes the school such a personal and intimate setting for students. “The Catholic identity separates us and makes us who we are,” he says. “In times of joy or sadness we come together and celebrate in a way that is not able to happen at a public school.”
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 7 (September, 2014).
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