Is Any High School Really Worth $136,000?

As always, my 13-year-old son has waited until bedtime to download his anxieties. He's a bright, sensitive kid whose worries run the gamut from global warming to how long his gerbil will live.

Tonight his questions revolved around his private school applications, which we submitted just before Christmas. Will he be admitted to any of the schools he applied to? We calculate the odds. What if he gets into all of them? How will he choose? We talk about visit days and how he can decide which school suits him best. What if he starts at one school and decides he'd rather be at another? We discuss that, too.

The one thing we don't talk about is money. I'm glad. Not because I'm avoiding the issue -- well, maybe just a little -- but because I still haven't managed to wrap my mind around how much money a private high school education costs.

My husband and I are already tiptoeing through the college tuition minefield. We have two older sons who have just graduated from college. Our two daughters are still at university. We've paid and paid for our kids to grow into educated, worldly citizens with college degrees in hand. That's been tough enough. So what business do I have, thinking that I should pay $136,000 for this last kid of ours to attend a so-called "independent school" for grades 9 through 12? What will our son get for this money? A gold-plated locker?

We didn't start down this road by choice. We went to public high schools. Our four older children also went to public high schools and thrived. They played sports, participated in music and theater, belonged to clubs, did the proms and parties. They complained about the usual things: boring classes, teachers who yelled, mean kids, crowded classrooms, stupid homework assignments. Yet all four of them were accepted by good colleges, even Ivy League schools. They majored in subjects that ignited their passions. Our two graduates -- one in 2009, the other in 2010 -- even managed to find jobs right away in their chosen fields. Hallelujah!

Our youngest son, though, has been different from the start. He always hated his public school, starting with kindergarten, where he fumed about rest time. Why would he rest, when there were so many other, more interesting things to do?

In elementary school, he was chastised soundly by one teacher for making a gingerbread house that wasn't like the A-frame house his teacher showed them, but more like a Frank Lloyd Wright design, all flat roofs and porches. A fifth grade teacher complained that he asked too many questions that weren't on topic, while he ranted about her making mistakes, especially in science. He was selected for the Gifted and Talented Program in fourth grade, but that consisted of just more research papers. He hated going, but went because it got him out of class.

Here in Massachusetts, we have a tense, worksheet-driven MCAS curriculum that puts teachers and kids through their paces so fast that there's little room to do anything else. "Don't learn the math in that chapter," one teacher warned our son. "Those problems aren't on the MCAS test."

By the time he hit middle school, our son was complaining about "having to learn too many dumb things that I can't remember" as well as the typical mean or absent-minded teachers. His classmates bothered him, too. Their idea of fun was to push each other into lockers, smoke dope between classes, or de-pants each other in the hallway. His "most exciting day at school ever" was when his seventh grade math teacher lost his temper and chased one ornery kid down the halls with a chair.

At home, meanwhile, our son continued to be enthusiastic about everything, especially when he was building machines, like an automatic card shuffler or a robot that fed his fish for him automatically once a day. "School is just something I have to get through until I can come home and learn things," he told me with a shrug. "I can't wait until I'm old enough to drop out."

Uh oh. In desperation, I stopped by a local Montessori School to ask about their middle school program. Amazingly, they had space for him. Even more shocking, we could afford it. Yes, $10K was a lot of money. But, if it made our son love going to school, it would be worth it. We were fortunate enough to have an education fund for him. We decided to use part of it for middle school instead of saving all of it for college. "It's just a different resource allocation," my husband rationalized. I saw it as an incubation period, one where he could take a breather from the rigors of public school.

The result was shocking. Our son was transformed within a few weeks. He was happy, polite, and sweet again. He was not only allowed, but encouraged, to follow his interests at school. The first year, he built a camel out of wire and paper as a visual aid for a research project on the desert; he also built an architectural model of our bathroom to scale, and performed as Lysander in Midsummer Night's Dream, reciting Shakespeare in the car on the way to and from school.

"This doesn't even feel like school," he confessed one day. "It's more like a place where everyone wants to learn things, even the teachers."

It was true that Montessori didn't feel like a "real" school to me, either. There were no chairs lined in rows. The students wore slippers in the classroom. They snacked when they felt like it, worked together or alone as they wished, and called teachers by their first names. It felt more like learning in someone's living room. The philosophy of Montessori -- that each child is naturally curious, and will do the work of learning if you just get out of his way, guiding him only as necessary - might as well have been designed for our son. It seemed to work for lots of other kids, too.

Alas, our Montessori School goes only through eighth grade. Now we're making another transition. Hence our dilemma: We've seen what a difference this private school education made in our son's life. We'd like to keep his enthusiasm level for learning high. But is it really worth paying $136,000 for a high school education?

Most New England independent schools average around $32,000 per year just for day student tuition -- not much less than most colleges. These schools look like colleges, too, with their glassy science buildings, smart boards, indoor rowing machines, ice hockey rinks, music studios and playing fields. You name it, they have it: debate team, Latin, Chinese, AP Physics, study abroad, science internships, math teams. The teachers have masters and doctoral degrees. There are just 12 to 14 kids in a class. Who wouldn't want to go to a high school like that, especially if it's filled with other students and teachers who actually want to learn?

But -- and again, I ask this in all earnestness, because I really don't know -- is an independent school education really a better start in life than a public school education? Part of me thinks yes, absolutely, at least for this child. My hope is that our youngest will find a high school that fits him as well as Montessori has, and that his high school years will help him continue to blossom as a passionate lifelong learner; a concerned citizen of the world; and a confident, loving, generous young adult.

Then I am seized by doubts that aren't just nagging. They're like hammerhead blows to the back of my neck: What if we lose our jobs, I wonder, and we suddenly can't pay for this mythical, magical high school with smart boards and, for all I know, unicorns? What if one of us dies in the next four years, and we can't afford college because there is only one household income, and we've blown our education fund on high school?

Or what if paying $136,000 for a private school education turns out to be a mistake for other reasons? What if this money only continues to shelter my son from knowing what it's like to be around people who struggle every day to put food on the table and gas up their cars?

What if, by going to a school where it's considered normal for every child to have a laptop computer and a North Face jacket, he becomes one of the elite people who don't try to change the world, because they're busy maintaining their status quo?

My son is asleep by now. But I am wide awake, thinking about all of the decisions that we parents make for our children that are so much bigger than the here and now, starting with the kind of education we give them -- both in and out of the classroom.

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