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Don’t think you can afford private school?

Note: This article was originally published in February 2010.

Kathleen Wareham, a Seattle mom of two high-schoolers at The Northwest School, could not have been happier with her children's public elementary school. But as her eldest hit fourth grade at Coe Elementary and Wareham started to look ahead to middle school, she had some concerns.

"We wanted the opportunity for him to be more connected with the adults teaching him, and to have small classes and teaching methods that allowed for hands-on learning," Wareham says. "We felt the risk of falling through the cracks was greatest at middle school."

Wareham and her husband had looked around at some private options for elementary school, but they realized their children's needs could be met at the local public school. And from a budget standpoint – in the midst of paying off Wareham's law school loans – they wanted to save their resources for when their children got older.

"We thought the middle school age and teenage years were the most important years to pay for private school, to have smaller classes and a small community and the values of a school like the one we chose," Wareham says. "For us, that was where we felt our dollars were going to make the most difference."

While many families opt to enroll their children in private school from the first day of kindergarten through high school commencement, others – like Wareham's – mix and match the public and private school systems for a host of reasons.

Especially in this tight economy, families are taking a hard look at their budgets, which may not allow for 13 years of private pre-collegiate education. Average tuition at independent schools ranges from around $13,000 in kindergarten to $15,600 in sixth grade and $20,500 in 12th grade, according to the Seattle-based Pacific Northwest Association of Independent Schools (PNAIS). Parochial schools average $4,000 to $7,000 K-8 and roughly $9,000 in grades nine through 12.

So how do you sort out when is the best time to go for private school? Where do you get the most bang for your buck?

Of course, the argument can be made for all levels: elementary, middle and high school.
"People can make a legitimate case for spending in each of the divisions," says Meade Thayer, the executive director of PNAIS. "There's ‘let's get the best study skills and foundation in elementary school and then he or she will be successful wherever they go.'

And then there are those who say middle school or high school is the most important and the age is so difficult. Where families start expressing greater concern [with public schools] is as schools get larger, and we provide a more personalized environment that will help someone maximize their potential and increase college placement chances."

Middle School Push

Elizabeth Atcheson, who works with families at all levels – elementary, middle and high school – as director of admissions and financial aid at The Bush School, an independent K-12 school, says when push comes to shove, she recommends middle school.

"We will counsel families that if their circumstances are such that they can only manage a private school commitment for a portion of their child's K-12 sweep, that it should be middle school," Atcheson says. "This is a really valid choice for families to make, keeping in mind that every child's and every family's circumstance is different."

Why middle school?

"The pace of the child's ideological, intellectual, social-emotional development in the span from fifth to eight grade suggests that parents take a really close look at the structures surrounding those children in the schools they attend," Atcheson says.

"The No. 1 reason families choose private schools is the smaller teacher-student ratios," she adds. "And it's not just because that number looks good. It's because it guarantees an environment that allows teachers to establish close connections with students, and, in a middle-school student, where the changes are unfolding so rapidly, there's a benefit to students in working with people who know them well. Those adults will bring some consistency to the picture.

"Kids are making more choices and decisions for themselves, when the executive functioning of their brain is still far from developed. And it's not just students who need guidance during this time, it's parents, too."

On average, at Bush, the middle school teacher-student ratio is 1 to 14. Students meet daily in small groups with a faculty advisor starting in sixth grade and weekly for a longer session. The goal is to promote character development, ethical thinking and student skills, such as time management or how to organize a test calendar. Parents, for their part, reap the benefit of being exposed to the latest research and practice about "how to really skillfully nurture kids at whatever developmental stage they're at," says Atcheson, who has seen "every combination under the sun," of families mixing public and private school, at every level.

Roger Cibella, a Seattle-based admissions consultant who works with families on K-12 school and college placement, says most families feeling the financial squeeze make cuts in every other area of their budget, not in education. But for families who can't qualify for financial aid or don't receive enough aid, "if there's one place they focus, they tend to focus on private middle school because they feel those are pretty important and potentially vulnerable years for kids."

Atcheson says the conversation with families about where to put private school dollars is one she's having more frequently. "If I used to have this conversation twice a month, now I have it four times a month."

Thayer notes that in the last 15 years or so, the Seattle area has seen a boom of independent schools created just for the middle school years.

"We have more schools that are just for middle school-age kids than most regions of independent schools in the country," Thayer says. "There definitely has been demand there for those years."

Big Demand for Aid

What's also clear is the demand for financial aid is up. Way up.

Thayer says PNAIS schools have seen increases of 5 percent to 25 percent in demand for aid. And many schools have expanded their aid programs to meet the demand, he says.
Lakeside School, for example, increased its aid pot by 15 percent, more than the usual year-to-year increase, according to Booth Kyle, director of admissions and financial aid.
University Prep boosted its aid budget and approved its smallest tuition increase – 4 percent – in recent years, says Kathy Mitchell O'Neal, director of admission and financial aid. The Northwest School has increased both the number of aid awards and the amount given, says Anne Smith, director of admission.

And the requests for financial aid are up not just among new applicants to schools, but among families currently enrolled at independent schools.

"We've never seen an uptick like this since I've been here," says Smith.

At University Prep, typically one or two families a year go from paying full tuition to receiving some aid; this year, it was 13 families. Lakeside reports a "record number" of new and current families applying for aid. Because so many rising eighth-graders wound up needing aid at The Bush School, Atcheson says, the school has been unable to offer aid to any newly admitted ninth-graders this year.

Thayer says most Seattle-area PNAIS schools have seen the number of students seeking admission stay the same or go up from last year. While a fair number of the schools saw their enrollment increase this fall, over all enrollment dropped slightly from last year, by about 1.2 percent. "We've seen more schools that have experienced a decline in enrollment than we've seen in my 12 years here," Thayer says.

O'Neal says University Prep, which serves grades six to 12, used to draw roughly 70 percent of students from private schools and 30 percent from public schools. Over the last three years or so, the draw has shifted, with 45 percent of students coming from public schools.

What impact that shift may have on whether those families return to the public school system for high school is unclear, but it is something O'Neal will be tracking.
"I will say that they are more willing to look at public high schools, perhaps, than other families who came from private schools. I won't be surprised if, now that we're pulling more students from public school, we see a little more attrition from eighth- or ninth-grade families who say ‘Hey, we can only afford this for middle school.'"

Atcheson says a few years ago perhaps two eighth-grade families on average told her they were leaving to go to public high school "because ‘we're looking into the tunnel of college tuition.' Now, it's really twice that number."

‘Not All or Nothing'

The bottom line, says education consultant Cibella, is that sorting out where a child should attend school is a highly individualized process. So starting at a private school in elementary versus switching in middle or high school may make sense for one family, but not another.

"There's not really a better or less better time to go to private school. It depends on the needs of the student. And the most important thing a parent can do is to help advocate for that child's individual needs," Cibella says.

And for middle-income families balking at the sticker shock of a private education, the message from independent schools is: Just apply.

"We have people across the income spectrum that receive financial support," says Booth Kyle of Lakeside School. "We encourage people to apply for aid and see what the numbers look like once the process is done. People see the tuition number and gulp and say ‘no way' if you multiply that by eight years. But once they get through the process it becomes more feasible."

For Gail Klemencic, a Seattle mother of two daughters and a son who attended public Laurelhurst Elementary and moved into the independent University Prep at middle school, the switch made sense.

"The education they got in the public elementary school was great, so it was, save your money and then go [private] for middle and high school," Klemencic says.

She was daunted by the size of Seattle's middle schools and the unpredictability of the student assignment system. And she yearned for the close-knit community she had experienced in the smaller elementary school environment. "At U Prep, there were 16 kids in the sixth-grade class. I could see my kids wouldn't fall through the cracks and that the adults there would be on top of them and make them accountable."

Lora Poepping's two daughters attended Laurelhurst and then took diverging paths at middle school. Jordan stayed in the public system, attending Eckstein and now Nathan Hale High School. Poepping says Jordan has thrived in the public system and that the family never considered private school until her younger daughter's fifth-grade teacher suggested it.

"We had to make a decision based on the needs of our second child, who was a different kind of kid," Poepping says. Merrill is now an eighth-grader at the independent Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Now that college looms large, Poepping says, the family will have to make tough choices.

"We believe SAAS is a great choice, but we also need to think about whether we need to set that money aside for college rather than a private high school," she says.

Her message to other families grappling with public and private school choices: "It doesn't have to be ‘OK, you pick one track and you stay in that one track.' It's not all or nothing."

Lynn Schnaiberg​ is a Seattle freelance writer, mother of two and former education reporter for Education Week. She has also written for Outside, Business 2.0, Hemispheres and iExplore.com.

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