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5 Things You Didn’t Know About Private Schools

 There are more than 33,000 private schools across the country, educating 5 million – or roughly 10 percent – of all U.S. students. Yet despite those numbers, many parents don’t even consider private school for their child. Why not? Concerns over affordability, diversity and a perceived culture of exclusivity often top the list. But advocates stress that much has changed in the last 20 years and private schools often lead the way when it comes to innovative education, creating community and welcoming all.

Here are five things you may not know about private schools:

1) Private schools are often more affordable than you think.

The price tag of a private education is one of the most common reasons families don’t consider independent schools. What you may not know is that a majority of private schools offer need-based financial aid. How? Private schools often have endowments and active alumni fundraising groups, giving them the flexibility to budget money for this purpose.

For example, last school year, The Orchard School on Indy’s north side awarded more than $2.2 million in financial assistance to 36 percent of its student body. Park Tudor School, just north of Broad Ripple, awarded more than $3.2 million in financial aid and merit awards to 34 percent of its student population.

The process of applying for financial aid at private schools is a lot like applying for aid at the college level:

  • Families of students who’ve been accepted at a particular school (or at several schools) fill out a form online through an independent company outlining their income, assets, expenses and any extenuating circumstances.
  • The program provides them with a dollar figure of what their family should be able to contribute.
  • The school uses that number to budget available financial aid and offer a financial aid package.

“We always encourage families to talk to the school’s financial aid person early in the process,” says Myra McGovern, Vice President of Media for the National Association of Independent Schools, a nonprofit membership organization for more than 1,500 U.S. private schools. “Find out how much the school actually costs, ask about financial aid options and deadlines. Chances are, you’ll find out that there is a way your child can attend.”

NAIS offers information for families about financial aid on its parent-focused website at http://parents.nais.org/afford/paying-for-school/

2) There are private schools for every age/need/faith/interest/ability.

Think all private schools are the same? Think again. From Montessori and Waldorf schools, to Catholic and Jesuit schools, military schools and those that serve gifted students and kids with learning differences, independent schools cover nearly all facets of the educational spectrum.

“Private schools are freer to experiment with different pedagogies and approaches to education than public schools,” says Joe McTighe, Executive Director of the Council for American Private Education, a coalition that represents more than 80 percent of U.S. private school enrollment. “As a parent, you can figure out what kind of environment is best for your child, whether that’s a creative community or one that provides more structure, and then you can find a school that provides exactly that.”

Private schools also vary in location (urban, suburban or rural), by size and by the age range that they serve. Some parents aren’t aware that private schools often offer early education, like the Early Years program at A Children’s Habitat Montessori School on Indy’s north side, which starts at 18 months, or Orchard’s pre-K programming for 3 years old and up.

“We find some parents who are using traditional day care centers don’t even realize that an Orchard education is available at that early an age,” says Jennifer Bostrom, Orchard’s Director of Institutional Advancement. “Our teachers are doing really great things with the younger kids.”

Indianapolis also has an array of independent schools that focus on specific populations, such as The Independence Academy on the north side for students with high-functioning autism and Asperger syndrome and Midwest Academy in Carmel which serves students with learning differences.

School search websites like PrivateSchoolReview.com and GreatSchools.org allow you to narrow down schools by location, size, focus and age range.

3) Private schools strive to be diverse

Forget the outdated stereotype of private schools filled exclusively with wealthy, white kids. These days, private schools pride themselves on creating student bodies that reflect a range of diversity, including students of different races and ethnicities, those with varying socioeconomic backgrounds and those who practice different faiths.

“I think, pretty much across the board, private schools are working to dismantle the stereotype of being elitist institutions,” says Diane Borgmann, Head of School at Sycamore School, serving preschool-8th grade gifted students on Indy’s north side. “We’re looking at every aspect of diversity because research shows that diversity strengthens the educational experience.”

Check the National Center for Education Statistics (https://nces.ed.gov/) or school search sites like GreatSchools.org to find school diversity information.

4) Athletics and extracurricular activities are often required.

Activities like joining a sports team, taking part in the school play or participating in a club are often mandatory at private schools. At smaller schools, they might need everyone to participate to be able to have a full team, while other schools make sports a portion of the school day. It’s part of a larger mission to educate the whole child, advocates say.“It’s often something that’s more philosophical than simply playing sports,” McGovern, with NAIS, says. “It’s about fostering community, encouraging teamwork and understanding being active and leading a healthy lifestyle is an important part of becoming a successful adult.”

Families who are new to private school might also be surprised to find that many schools have a no-cut policy, giving all students a chance to try a sport. Most independent schools outline their sports policies online.

5) Private schools can be set up in different ways.

Not all private schools are organized in the same fashion. The vast majority are nonprofit institutions that operate as tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations, while others may fall under the umbrella of a church or diocese that is tax-exempt. There are also for-profit schools, which are not tax-exempt.

What does this mean for parents? You’ll want to know how your child’s prospective school is organized so you can understand how it’s governed. Independent schools typically have boards of directors that they are accountable to, while some private schools are run by a single person with no other checks and balances in place. Most schools will spell out their leadership and governing structure online.

The lesson here is that it would be a mistake to dismiss private schools in your area before you learn more about them. You may just find they’re more affordable, diverse and better suited to your child’s personality and learning style than you ever considered.

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