We are lucky to live in an area that offers such a large number of great schools, both public and private. While public school often is a great option for many students, sometimes a private school is better able to cater to a student’s unique learning style and preferences. I truly believe that in the D.C. Metro area there is a private school to fit every student’s needs, and this was the main source of inspiration for writing my newest book, “A Guide to Private Schools: The Washington DC, Northern Virginia, and Maryland Edition.” A major benefit to choosing the private route is student body and class size — factors that can make an enormous difference in a student’s academic career. The following excerpt is taken from the chapter “Private vs. Public Schools” and takes a look at the role of class and school size in both public and private (often called independent) schools.
About 10 percent of all students in America attend independent schools (about five million students in all). The main advantage of independent schools is that they consistently offer smaller class sizes. Public schools, on the other hand, in a crowded metro area like ours can house classes of 30 or more. In the D.C. area, almost all of the independent schools we surveyed had class sizes of 8 to 22 students, with some going as low as 6 per class. In addition, it’s not just small class size that’s appealing, but also that there are more faculty members such as counselors, learning specialists, and college placement advisers.
Ultimately, class size does matter, and it matters a lot. Various research studies have shown that there is a positive correlation between a class size of fewer than 20 students and higher academic achievement. The effects are significant and long-lasting, especially when smaller class sizes are introduced in the earliest grades.
In general, an independent school also enrolls fewer students than a public school. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, independent schools are also less than half the overall size of public schools on average. At the elementary level, the difference may not be as pronounced. Most public elementary schools tend to house about 500 students, but as children grow older, their smaller, nurturing neighborhood elementary schools feed into large middle and high schools. This is where the change in numbers occurs. At the high school level, some public schools top out at over 2,700 students, such as at Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md. Most high schools in the D.C. area have about 2,000 students in ninth through 12th grade. There are outliers, however. George Mason High School in Falls Church only has 800 students and some alternative schools get as low as 600, such as H-B Woodlawn in Arlington, which covers grades six through 12.
To many parents, the lure of an independent school goes far beyond academics. They see that their child has a greater opportunity to become a leader in a small environment. Whether it’s starting a club or diving deeper into an academic subject, independent schools have more freedom to adapt their curriculum and allow students to drive their own studies. These leadership opportunities help students begin building college resumes early. Furthermore, opportunities for leadership can translate into confidence and real-world social and work experiences.
There is often more flexibility with extracurriculars and athletics in an independent school. With a smaller student pool, it’s easier to make a sports team and still compete at a high level in independent and preparatory leagues. Most independent schools also have “no-cut” sports policies so that everyone is given the chance to play. Students who would not make their local public school team can enjoy the experience of competitive high school sports. Many have the chance to excel when they wouldn’t make the cut in a pool of 2,000 students.
Ann Dolin, M.Ed., is a recognized author and leader in the education, tutoring and consulting fields. Dolin is the founder and president of Educational Connections Inc., a fast-growing, personalized in-home tutoring company in the Washington, D.C., metro area.