Oct 9, 2008

Continuing dilemma: public school vs. private school

I'm sure that in many places, there's no question that children will attend the local public school. But out here in Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley, it seems every parent - at least in our socio-economic class - has gone through or is going through the public versus private school debate. It's a topic I regularly revisit with all of my friends who have kids the same age, and a regular topic at birthday parties and such.

When Alex was born, there was no doubt in our minds that he would be attending private school. But in gathering information over the last two years, I've discovered that the best private schools are so expensive, we'd really be stretching to send two children there for a combined 15 years. The school that was originally my top choice is charging just shy of $20,000 for the 2008-2009 school year for tuition alone. That's just tuition for grades K through 6. Middle and high school tuition is even more expensive (at this rate, it will be $35,000 by the time Alex enters 7th grade). And that doesn't include books, fees, and obligatory fund raising contributions (which one of my friends tells me is about $5,000). Even though we have a good income, it's not that good, or at least I'm not confident that we could keep up with 6% annual increases.

Other schools in the same echelon are at least as expensive. So I've pretty much crossed the top schools off my list, and I've been searching for middle-tier private schools with correspondingly "middle-tier" tuition. I've also been looking harder at our local public elementary school. So far, I've discovered that they are almost on par, at least academically. But academics aren't everything, and I'm not sure how to figure out where we'll find the best fit. We are also concerned about what comes after elementary school, since we don't know much about the local public middle and high schools but have vague negative impressions about them.

Alex will start kindergarten in a little less than two years, so I see this school year as my chance to do a lot of research, figure out our realistic options, and narrow our choices. (I haven't mentioned homeschooling because it's just not something we're comfortable doing and not something that we'd consider.)

In the next few months, I plan to talk with other parents, research the different schools, and meet with school officials (especially at the public school). I'd love your advice here: What has been most important factor in ensuring your child has an overall positive experience at school? And what questions would you ask if you were me?

Image credit: Amazon.com.


Anonymous said...

Have you looked into Catholic schools? We are Catholic so our kids attend for religious reasons, but non-Catholic children attend also. It might be a good "middle ground" for you in terms of tuition. Our tuition is $7,000 total for three kids to attend. Just a thought.

Kacie said...

I'm a totally public-schooled gal. It was ok.

With regard to elementary schools, I'd want to know how they assign children to classrooms, and if the kids stay together all day or if they have time when they split off.

For instance, you can't have a room of 20 seven-year-olds and expect them to all have the same learning styles and same abilities.

I've found that I did better in classrooms that split us up into different groups for math and reading. I was in a lower level for math and a higher one for reading. That way, I wasn't left behind in math, and I wasn't bored in reading.

I don't think it's a matter of splitting kids into "gifted & talented" classes or special ed; rather, I think it can be helpful to have children even within those classes to be in smaller groups for certain topics so they can have more individualized attention.

paidtwice said...

I thought for sure I would send my kids to public school. Honestly, we can't afford otherwise :)

But my son is developmentally delayed and I know would have significant challenges in a traditional classroom. He is 4, and actually in a public school preschool program (a special education one) and it is really great but it isn't reality as far as what Kinder and above will be like. So we are now starting to ponder the idea of looking into private education.

Even though the cost makes me want to cry (and it isn't as expensive here as it is there).

I don't know. I'm as confused as anyone. :)

I am open to homeschooling, however homeschooling isn't what my son needs - he needs to learn social skills.

Chief Family Officer said...

@Anon - We haven't looked at Catholic schools specifically but have considered other denominational schools. Unfortunately, the only academically outstanding religious schools seem to be either super expensive and/or entirely Jewish (my kids are half-Jewish but they would not be comfortable in that environment). So I'm just lumping the "middle-tier" religious schools in with the rest and they are definitely not excluded from consideration. Thanks for the suggestion - $7K for three sounds heavenly. (Bad pun completely intended ;) )

@Kacie - Great suggestions, and ones that would not have occurred to me - thank you. I hope you're not too stressed about that baby of yours and that you get great results at your next appt!

@PaidTwice - Wow, Jaimie, that's a tough position to be in. I personally wouldn't consider homeschooling, but since you're open to it, I wouldn't rule it out. The October issue of Parents magazine has an article on homeschooling and some of the mothers mentioned a homeschooling coop that facilitates social activities and other means of ensuring their kids interact with other kids. And maybe the school district would still pay for some expert consulting, so to speak. If you email me, I'd be happy to rip out the article to send to you.

BusyMom said...

We bought a house in our school district before we started a family, because it was a good school district.

We decided to send my son to a private (Catholic) school for at least Kindergarten. Some of the things that influenced us on this choice included:

all day kindergarten, they don't have it in our public school system and from a schedule management perspective with two working parents, it was best. Besides, all the "enrichment" classes are in the afternoon - Spanish, Music, Art, etc.

Class size - the class size is smaller at the private school. I like that, it means more attention for my son - and what parent doesn't want that.

?? - I'm not sure the tag to use here, but I know that the guiding principles he learns at the private school will be stronger than what he might learn in public with the absence of faith based education.

Uniforms - It is way easier to get ready in the morning when there is only one choice. Besides, I don't need him exposed to every label under the sun, thinking he needs this label or that. Clothes are clothes. When I was growing up, I might have one or two "designer" items in my closet, but they were gifts or I bought them with my money. Loved my Coca Cola sweatshirt (now I'm showing my age).

If you are considering private education, it is my understanding that the money set aside in a 529 can be used for any education, not just college. Now with the current stock market, it might not seem like a benefit, but I have faith things will turn around, that money grows and is used tax free for education. So, if you are set on that way, you might want to beef up the contributions. On the brighter side, if you choose public, you will have a larger early deposit which ultimately will grow bigger for college than the same amount deposited over time.

I myself did both, private elementary, public middle/high school. I think it was fine.

If you are okay with your elementary and just concerned with middle/high school, is there a neighboring community you are more comfortable with? Would you consider moving in the next 8 years to a different schoo? Do you have open enrollment (where you can attend an alternate local school)?

I'm not sure what we will do next year. So far, we like his school, so we might leave him there despite the fact that we are in a good district and the cost of private education (not nearly as high as you quote).

Anonymous said...

I would check out the qualifications for the teachers in both public and private school. Also, check out the per pupil cost; see how much money is actually spent per child on education costs. If you are going to be paying exorbitant prices for a private school education, make sure you know how that money is being spent

Anonymous said...

I do not live in the SF Valley but I do work here and have co-workers who have kids who go to public school here. There are some good public schools in the area, you just have to check them out. In my experience as a parent with 4 kids -- the oldest in his first year of HS -- I find that parental involvement in education is one of the most important factors in a good school so look at the PTA and how much volunteer effort the parents put into the school. Active parental involvement has always meant great academics and enrichment programs in my experience. Jr High and HS are totally different ball games so I would recommend you not venture that far in the future at this point. Personally I have always felt it was better to put money away for college and work with the public schools to help my kids get the best education possible because with the Cal State's running between 13-20K a year now I can only imagine what it will be like even in 4 years when my son will be applying. Good luck! :-)

Mercedes said...

My heart breaks for you. It really is a hard position to be in. We have looked into homeschooling with open eyes and we are receptive to it. I think we will give public schools a try and if not then we will homeschool. We have also talked that between private and homeschooling we would homeschool. There are really many opportunities for children to socialize in the homeschool setting. You mentioned a coop, our YMCA also offers classes for homeschoolers, you also have extra curricular activities. There are many opportunities for children to socialize. So that's not a concern for us.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

ps, I think full time tuition is about $7,000 per year per child.

Anonymous said...

I was born and raised in the SFV, but don't live there now. (I went to Nevada, Columbus, and Chatsworth long before any of them had problems). One of my parents lives right by El Camino High and teaches at Pierce College and it is my understanding that the schools on the far west end of the Valley are still worthwhile. Having said that, you have to remember you are still part of LA Unified, which is a behometh of bureaucracy and bloat, so you definitely need to remain vigilant about your child(ren)'s school experience in any of the schools. PineCrest and Faith Baptist, as well as a number of Catholic schools, were the private school options in the Valley those many moons ago and, as I heard one former co-worker put it, "Even if you're not into the religious education, in elementary school they are teaching basic morals and ethics and that has never hurt any of us." I have no idea how much they cost these days.

Bottom line: I think if you get involved in public schools you can make it good. You can cherry-pick your children's teachers (because you'll be in the loop with the moms who know) and have administrator's who are responsive to your needs because they know you and value your contributions to the student body, but it takes a lot of "volunteering" to make it happen.

Kym said...

I grew up in LA and never attended any public school. From the time I began any sort of schooling until I began 4th grade, I attended 2 Montessori schools. Those were the best school years of my life, for academic and social reasons. As another commenter mentioned, being split into different classes based on ability is really helpful - this is exactly what Montessori does. I didn't even know what "grade" I was in until I left - they weren't mentioned. From 4th through 12th grade, I went to a private French school. Yes, I learned French, but the rest of my education there has not served me well. I learned the French way of doing other subjects such as math, chemistry, physics. When I went to college, none of that was useful - and I ended up being behind because I didn't know the American way of doing these things and the college courses assumed that was our background. Of course this sort of problem wouldn't be an issue, I assume, with a non-French private school. I just mention it since you are in LA and it is one of the mid-range tuition private schools. When I attended 12th grade there 6 years ago, it was about $12k/yr.

When I have kids, I fully intend to keep them in a Montessori as long as they can - there is no Montessori high school. I intend to send them to public school for high school. It's been my experience that my friends who went to public school received an equal if not better education than I did - those of them that wanted to learn, anyway. And of course if they don't want to learn, you can't force them to do so even in a private school.

You might want to look into Montessori if you haven't already. It is what I would call mid-range priced as well, and their teaching philosophy is fabulous. I've recently caught up with some of my friends from back then - almost all of them went to public high school and all turned out amazingly bright. Just my 2 cents on the topic.

Anonymous said...

This is a huge dilemma in Boston, as well. We chose homeschooling even though we are both physicians working part time, and we are more and more convinced each day that we've done the right thing for us. Socialization is the absolute LEAST of our problems, and I believe this is the biggest myth out there about homeschooling. For us, living in a city where the world is just outside our door, we do not learn just at home, we learn in the real world and we socialize in the real world with all of the real people in it, just like we always have. Our idea of socialization is not being in a classroom with 20-30 same aged children, all competing for one adult's attention. Socialization is a difficult thing to measure, to be sure, but we encourage those who are considering homeschooling but are hesitant about the socialization issue to really give it some thought and ask yourself what social skills you value, and how those are best nurtured.

Chief Family Officer said...

Thanks for all of the suggestions and insight, everyone!

In case anyone is wondering, I deleted Roberta's first comment because she included her email address and I wanted to protect her privacy. But she had very nice things to say about The Valley School in Van Nuys, so I'm adding it to my list of schools to research. Thanks again, Roberta!

Anonymous said...

I too live in the Los Angeles area and choose homeschooling. Like the previous comment said socialization is not a issue for us either. I laugh at how people focus only on that and not the obvious academic superiority. My kids are in activities 4 times a week plus Sunday school. They also have 1-2 playdates a week. What is socialization? Not being in a classroom sitting at a desk for 7 hours. Our kids learn to socialize with people of all ages. There are out of the box curriculums for those who don't want to put their own curriculum together(like me). My husband doesn't like the word homeschool. That suggests you are locked up in your house. Private instruction is a better word. In fact my children have a Chinese tutor 3 times a week that comes to the house. We couldn't give them that if they were in school for 7 hours then come home to do homework. FYI_we tried the public school route and it didn't work for us.
CFO-I'm curious as to why you won't consider homeschooling? Lots don't have correct information. You don't have to be with your kids all day like people think. Mine are gone up to 3 hours a day for outside classes/private instruction. I also have a wonderful husband who shares parenting. I make a huge effort to have my own outside interests. I'm in a book club and cooking club plus volunteer at Sunday school. I'm not trying to change your mind just give you a real life look on homeschool. Not what the sterotypes are.
Good luck with you decision! It's a tough one.
Erika in CA

Cyllya said...

I don't see a problem with the quality of education at public schools, just because that's the level of education that everyone will expect you to have. If he gets a better education and then goes to college, he'll have to sit through a bunch of information he already knows because many the normally educated kids need it.

The problem with public school is just that it kind of, you know, crushes your soul. You have to put all your hopes and dreams on the back burner for thirteen years while you jump through a bunch of hoops in a futile attempt to prove to some hypothetical future employer that you're not a moron. Thirteen years!

I don't know much about private school, but does it really avoid that problem? Really?

Some people never make their kids go to school and, though they're officially considered homeschool, they never make their kid do any school work at home either. Their kids actually tend to turn out great. They're well-educated, desirable to colleges, have a desire to learn, tend to get along better with their parents for obvious reasons, etc. It's called unschooling.

The downside of that is that you don't get the free daycare that is public school (unless the kid decides to go of his own free will), but I think a daycare or babysitter covering the same amount of hours would cost you less than $20,000 per year.

Chief Family Officer said...

Cyllya - I couldn't agree with you more about the soul-crushing. I actually enjoyed school, but my husband didn't. I think that private school can be less soul-crushing, if it's a good fit for the child. If there was a private school that was within our price range and I was guaranteed that it would be a good fit for my child(ren), I'd pay the money in a heartbeat. The uncertainty is definitely a huge part of my dilemma.