By Michael Beyer
How do you decide which school is right for your child? As a parent, only you know what is most important to your family and to your child. Occasionally Ogden families consider private school options, and just as often, families transfer their child to Ogden from private schools.
Recently, a parent asked me why my own children go to a private school. The question came up in context of the possible Ogden-Jenner consolidation, and the parent’s assumption was that I did not have faith in the Chicago Public School system, and therefore hypocritical if I were to support the consolidation. This couldn’t be further from the truth, so I felt compelled to explain why my wife and I have not enrolled our children in a Chicago Public School.
Seven years ago, when our son Charlie was nearly three years old we wanted to place him in preschool. We walked across the street to our local public neighborhood school and completed the application. We talked to the wonderful teacher, who we knew from the neighborhood. We learned that most preschool seats at the school would go to “high-need” children, which meant four year-olds who had never been in preschool and who came from high-poverty homes. We were placed on a waiting list and unfortunately never received a call.
Our son was an only child, and my wife and I had no plans for a second child at the time. Our neighborhood didn’t have many young children. All of our nieces, nephews, and cousins were much older than our son. We wanted to ensure Charlie had opportunities to socialize with children his age, which we know is critical in the early years, so we were determined to enroll him in a preschool. We were, and still are, both full time working parents and in need of full day care.
At the time I worked in CPS Central Office so I walked down to the floor that housed the department which handled magnet and options schools. We completed the application and crossed our fingers, but were placed on a waiting list for several schools that again, never called.
There were no promising leads, so we researched and applied to private and Catholic schools. We were accepted to a neighborhood Catholic school and were all set to go when, in the middle of summer, we received a call from a private school. The Catholic school was well regarded in our neighborhood but had a lack of resources that surpassed public schools. The private school had more resources and a much higher tuition rate to match. However it was also a Montessori, something my wife and mother-in-law (a former educator) were very much interested in. My wife went to Montessori as a young child in New York and as we learned about Montessori we saw Charlie fitting in very well to that educational method. It also had full day, after care, and summer options, something we needed since we both work full time. This is what worked for us, for personal reasons. There is no other reason than that.
Our children’s private school is Montessori, and the students stay together in small cohorts for three years. In no time our son went from having no friends to having several close friends. He was receiving the opportunity to socialize that we were seeking. He was also learning and growing in a steady environment and my wife became very active at the school and is now on the board. She will chew your ear off about Montessori if you let her.
Numerous times I’ve proposed placing our now two children in public school, both in our local school, and at Ogden. My first year at Ogden I made the suggestion and my wife, always the wiser one, reminded me how difficult it can be for the principal’s children to attend the same school their parent works. My wife also reminded me about the turnover of administration at Ogden prior to my arrival and replied, “let’s see how long you’re there for.”
There have been times when I have pointed out how much money we could save if we didn’t pay private school tuition, the nicer car we could buy, the longer and better and more frequent vacations we could take, and the amount we could save if we put the tuition in the bank. This last one is almost a no-brainer if you calculate the interest: our children could graduate high school with six-figures in the bank if they attended public and we socked away all that private school tuition. At the time, my wife stood her ground.
Now our son is old enough that I occasionally propose the idea of public school to him, usually when my wife isn’t listening. Inevitably he shoots it down because he knows he’d lose his friends. Keeping him with his friends helps to ensure stability. We know that a child’s elementary years are the foundation for their entire life. Having to change schools, find new friends, and learn a different way of doing school can be traumatic. I know because it happened to me.
When I was in 1st grade my school was closed and my class was separated. Even though I still lived down the street from most of my friends, and about half of them went with me to the new school, I can still recall losing the familiarity of my former school and coming to what felt like someone else’s school and trying to acclimate. Some of my closest friends went to the other school across town. I was shy and introverted, and I’m certain the change set me back in school. It was nothing that I couldn’t overcome, and maybe it made me stronger in some ways, but as a parent, it’s difficult making that choice for your child. My parents didn’t have to decide as it was the school district that closed the school.
This is also why I’m sensitive about and determined to ensure the school consolidation is done in a way so that all students feel comfortable and supported before, during, and after the process. When I was a child there was no transition plan to speak of. They simply closed the school and the following year the students showed up at a new school.
My wife and I are both determined to get our children into a public high school, and maybe sooner, but for now, we’re settled.
So what advice can I give parents who debate public versus private?
It’s a personal choice and there is no single right choice. I’m 100% confident our children would receive a strong education if they attended the vast majority of public schools in Chicago. The education might be different, but in the end they’d learn how to read, write, and do mathematics.
One of the most common reasons parents choose private is because of smaller class sizes. In some private schools the ratio of students to teacher is 15 to 1. In some private schools the class “size” is decreased with the addition of a teacher assistant in the classroom. Class size is an indicator parents can understand, or think they understand. Their reasoning is that if there are fewer students, the teacher can devote more time to each child, therefore ensuring they get a better education. Without this becoming a debate over class size, I’ll simply state that education isn’t that simple. The adage that students learn best from their peers is true in both public and private. Humans learn through social interaction. While smaller class sizes might ensure more attention from the teacher, it also decreases the likelihood your child will have a peer they can relate to and learn from. Children learn by sharing knowledge with their peers. Learning is not a rote exercise in which a teacher delivers content and skills to a child’s blank-slate of a mind. Learning is and always will be social.
As a teacher I always liked smaller class sizes as that meant less papers to grade and fewer names to learn, but as a parent is it worth private school tuition? I don’t think it is (and our private school’s tuition is on the lower end, compared so several better known private schools in Chicago). Additionally, private schools don’t require the certification and licensing of assistants or their teachers. In some cases a private classroom might have more adults in the room, but it might not be different or better than having a parent volunteer in a public classroom.
Here are two things I don’t love about my experience in private schools:
The main benefit of a private school for my family is stability, because our children will have steady friendships during their elementary years. If we had found a seat in the preschool in the public neighborhood school across the street from our home, we’d probably still be there. (Side note: This is one way our State could help improve diversity and decrease segregation: fund preschool for all students regardless of need). We have neighbors that send their children to the school, one being a former public school administrator, and they are more than satisfied with the school.
If you ever have questions regarding the choice my family made, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I’d be more than happy to discuss our journey.
This blog has contributions from a variety of faculty and staff at Ogden International.