Public School, Private School, or Home Schooling?

I’m not about to wade into the whirling food-processor blade of this issue. However, here are a few editorial comments on how to think about the relative developmental powers of public schools, privates, and home schooling.

My personal experience with public schools has been quite positive.

Loud Angry Voice from Offstage: “Yeah, right. Your kids probably went to some high-end, snooty suburban schools that were built with the tax dollars of the rich and famous!”

Hardly. My kids went through a system that included really old buildings and the usual dose of bell-curve-quality teachers and administrators. They did have one, singular advantage, though: an outstanding so-called “gifted support” program that enabled them to gain access to a challenging curriculum and better teaching. As far as the “rich-and-famous” factor goes, the local school district where I live took great pride in the fact that it did not raise school taxes during the entire term of my kids’ education. I realize that fact will break some readers’ hearts out there, but it’s true.

Obviously, a parent’s and student’s experience with public schooling revolves around where they live. If you live in a district where the schools are great, then you’re more likely to have a positive experience than you would if you live in a lower-performing district. Even lower-performing schools can have their bright spots, though. It’s up to us parents to find the opportunities within our schools and exploit them. This takes time and vigilance, sometimes more than we are willing to contribute.

The public-school-parent’s mantra, then, must be: “Get involved!” This involvement begins on Day One in preschool and persists through kindergarten, the elementary years, and on up through middle school, and high school. You may think that our children’s 14-year-long, pre-college education window is a long haul, but it flies by incredibly fast. The tricky part is charting the proper start in the formative stage. That’s what we’re talking about-maintaining a watchful stance as our precious little ones begin to strut their stuff in the early years.

Bottom line for public schools, then: Many times they are what you make of them. Assuming that you have hatched an Ivy Baby, don’t just shuttle him or her off into the abyss of your local public system and hope for the best. Be a good consumer. Check it out, check with other parents, and-most of all-maintain your motherly/fatherly monitoring.

The private-school route offers both edges of the sword. My experience with private-school students has been mixed. Don’t be mislead into thinking that just because you pay many thousands of dollars for a private educational experience that it’s going to guarantee success. If I may generalize, though, the primary advantages of the private route over the public route lie in (1) the quality of curriculum and its delivery (teaching), (2) the likelihood of more rewarding personal relationships between students and faculty, and (3), in the end, better overall college counseling. Advantages 1 and 2 seem to equate to the advantages that private colleges maintain over many state-affiliated schools.

The boarding- or day-student option can be a crucial one because of a child’s need for home-based parental nurturing. I always think of those wonderful opening moments of the movie Dead Poets Society, where we see the young, sobbing, elementary-grade boy clinging to his mother’s neck as she prepares to leave him on the first day of classes at Welton, the prestigious prep school. These are significant, primary developmental decisions.

You may have read years back about the home-schooled twins accepted at Harvard. The parents, both college professors, felt that the traditional schooling route didn’t offer enough advantages for the twins. Before the Loud Angry Voice from Offstage stomps on me at this point, allow me to explain that I realize that most of us are not college-professor parents, but some among us may be pondering the relative advantages of educating our children in the home.

Many parents consider the home schooling route because of what they perceive as negative influences in the public-school system. They may also believe that they can do it better themselves. Both reasons may have some basis in truth. However, this is no small decision. I tend to be somewhat conservative in my approach to home schooling. If you’re considering going this way with your youngster, do some serious investigation into the public-school situation in your district.

If you are not the kind of person who can apply rigorous attention to the areas of schedule, performance measurement, curriculum design, social development, and discipline, you may want to think twice about educating your kids at home. It’s no small challenge being a parent, teacher, principal, counselor, and friend to your child. You need a life too.

In my experience dealing with home-schooled college applicants, I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum. A few have been exceedingly well prepared for their assault on ultra-competitive college applications. I had to admire the care with which they were prepped on all fronts: writing skills, expressiveness, imagination, and the classical liberal-arts perspective. Most of these superior young men and women appeared to be the kinds of students any top college would welcome to their student bodies.

On the other hand, I’ve seen home-schooled “seniors” who seemed somewhat thwarted in their social development and outlook. I often regret that I was not able to maintain consistent contact with them once they went off to college. Some, in my view, may have been looking to the college experience as a way of escaping what, for them, was a highly limiting social arena within the strictures of the home school.

The home schooling decision is a big one and, in my view, risky. There are many caveats and conditions. As a parent, you have to take a good hard look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Do I have what it takes?” If you can answer affirmatively and objectively, then go for it. There are many resources out there waiting to help the home schooling parent (one superb one: Just do a Web search for “home schooling” and you’ll see how much information there is. I just did a quick search for that phrase and got a ton of links. There’s no reason why anyone should have to make an ill-informed decision about home schooling amid this mountain of data.