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Should You Send Your Child to a Prep School?

Private school tuition costs are a hefty burden, and if you spend your education savings on that, what's left over for college? Not much. So is it worth it?
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Right about now, parents across the country are agonizing over whether or not to send their child to a private high school as spring admissions letters roll in. Even if the child is admitted, they're agonizing: private school tuition costs are a hefty burden, and if you spend your education savings on that, what's left over for college?

Not much.

So is it worth it?

When I was trying to make this decision for our youngest child, I was sleepless for weeks. We are not, and have never been, a prep school sort of family. My husband and I both went to big regional public high schools, as did our four oldest children. We drive modest cars and live in a middle class home. Neither of us plays golf. I don't even own a pair of khakis, much less a sailboat. How, then, could we ever fit into a private school?

And yet, even though our older children had done well at their public schools, gone on to college, and are now either in graduate school or working, our youngest child was cut from a different cloth. For one thing, he was anxious, and chaotic situations made him more so. He's also extremely bright, noisy, and often jumpy. His grades were just okay.

"Give him time to adjust," everyone said about the public high school, when our son complained about the bus, the teachers, the noise, the other students.

It might have worked out over time. But I could see in this child a need for a different kind of learning environment, one where the teachers were less authority figures than mentors, and one where the time spent on hands-on learning and independent study was at least equal to, if not more than, the time spent on memorization and worksheets, which seemed to be what the public school curriculum had become devoted to since the teachers began having to teach to standardized statewide tests.

"What if there's another school where he'd be happier?" I finally asked my husband.

"It would cost money," he warned. "We have almost enough for college. If we spent it on high school, we wouldn't have any left."

That was a dire pronouncement, indeed. But things were getting worse, not better, as our son started to avoid school because he was being bullied, suffered from stomach aches, and reported one math teacher literally chasing a student down the hall with a chair over his head.

We knew we didn't want a boarding school, so we looked only at day schools. To my surprise, although many of the private schools were what I had expected -- brick campuses with students in polo shirts and suit jackets, parking lots filled with moms in high end SUVs -- others were not. We found two schools we liked, both of them small prep schools with good reputations and a more diverse looking group of students. He only got into one of them, so that was our choice.

Should we or shouldn't we? My husband and I were up several nights in a row, trying to decide. Why not send him? The first reason was easy: money. The second: how could we justify spending money on private school for one child, when we hadn't for the other four? The third: sending him to a private school would mean we would no longer be as closely connected to our neighborhood, and it would be tougher for our son to see friends since they'd live far away. The fourth: our son would have an elitist education, and we worried that would make him feel -- and act -- entitled in a way that didn't fit our family values. The fifth: graduates from private high schools don't necessarily go to better colleges than graduates from public high schools, so why spend the money?

In the end, our son begged us and we agreed to try it for a year.

We started the school year with trepidation. Our son's attitude toward school had been one of resigned acceptance alternating with an antipathy that caused him to moan about the point of it all. Within two weeks, that had changed. Despite the hour-long bus ride (this school offered a bus from a local town, which saved us from having to drive him), and the fact that our son now had to wear khakis and collared shirts, the turnaround was almost immediate. He came home talking about a history teacher who made ancient civilizations come alive like episodes of Jersey Shore, and a physics teacher who had the kids doing experiments almost every day -- experiments that often involved cool things like bowling balls and dropping eggs off the tallest building. He joined the cross country team and discovered a love of running, and played tennis with equal enthusiasm in the spring. Our son was reborn.

By sophomore year, he was talking about majoring in chemistry because of a chemistry teacher who did more magic tricks than you see at the science museum in Boston, and had earned the school's top award in mathematics. He earned an award for his running, too, and began talking about running in college. He knew how to tie his own necktie, because of the many formal dress days, and he knew how to shake hands with strangers and make conversation with adults. He knew more about art history than I do and could speak Spanish, if not with fluency, than with abandon. This was our son?

Why send your child to a private school? There are many, many fine public schools, and my older children certainly did well at theirs. They had teachers who even today they talk about as being mentors. However, for children who need smaller, more intimate learning environments, a private school might be the best answer. The teachers in private school have smaller classes, are typically in it for love rather than a salary, and don't have the same behavioral issues to deal with that public school teachers grapple with daily, so the atmosphere is definitely more conducive to learning and the academics tend to be challenging.

More importantly, because the teachers treat students with respect, the students are more apt to respect the teachers -- there is less of the authoritarian regime thing you see going on in many public schools. In addition, most private schools may seem elite, but in fact they have a culture of service they pass on to the students. Students are expected to volunteer and work hard, and they do. At the same time, they also learn how to handle themselves well in situations that call for fancy dress and a handshake, because they practice that at school.

Should you send your child to private school? Only you can decide if it's right for your family. Our bottom line? We will, indeed, spend all of our education savings on private high school, so we're going to be scrambling to figure out how to pay for college. That's definitely the down side. The up side is that our son will now be a scholar for life, someone comfortable in his own skin and passionate about learning. We would make the same choice again.