Myths and Misconceptions about Private Schools

Emma Chonofsky

Many people have heard myths and misconceptions about independent schools. From required school uniforms to tuition affordability, there are many assumptions about private school that are less than true.

Providence Country Day School’s Assistant Director of Admissions Peter Walsworth breaks down the misconceptions that often mischaracterize the independent school community.

Myth 1: Private school is always very expensive

For many parents, the cost of private school tuition can be alarming. Yet, the average cost of private school varies by school and can be more affordable than you think.

Many schools inflate their fees so that they can distribute costs. That means families that can afford it pay a little more to make it possible for families that can't. It makes it possible to have a more financially diverse population. At many private schools, most families aren't paying the full cost.

Some schools are also entirely donor funded. There are several private schools in providence where families don't pay. These schools are aimed at students who wouldn't typically be able to afford private school.

There are many ways to afford a private school education, including scholarships, financial aid, and loans. PCD offers both a range of financial aid and various scholarships to prospective students.           

Myth 2: Everyone must wear uniforms

At this, Peter laughs. Following immediately is a resounding, "no." At PCD and many other private schools, there are no uniforms.  There is a dress code, but this isn't true for all private schools either. At some schools, there aren't dress codes. Students wear what they want and what makes them feel comfortable. In the event they wear something inappropriate, the issue is brought up privately and with sensitivity.

So where does this idea come from? Peter thinks it comes from the idea of the 'posh' private school that we see in movies like Dead Poets Society and Princess Diaries. Modern TV also shows this trope, with shows like Glee having their private school educated characters wear uniforms.

These shows also showcase strict rules and unyielding faculty. The reality is a lot more complicated, as class strictness varies from teacher to teacher, just as it does in public school. They key to this is finding the right school to fit your child.

Myth 3: Everyone is either extremely smart or has behavioral challenges.

The idea behind private schools is to help students succeed.  That can mean accepting straight A students, but it can also mean succeeding in other fields. While talking, Peter makes it clear that he agrees with this sentiment. As he says, " I would rather have a kid in my school that maybe doesn't have the perfect grades but is a good citizen. Someone that I can see being friendly, and helpful, and inclusive of other students. I would way rather see any kid like that than a kid who has straight A’s but isn't going to be nice to the other students in the school."

Because many private schools are small, maintaining a positive environment and atmosphere is incredibly important. Private schools can be very selective when they have to, but a 4.0 GPA is not generally a requirement.

Not every school will match every student. Not every student will flourish at every school. Some schools are targeted towards the academic, some towards the arts, and some towards those who need more help with the basics. Shopping around to find the right private school for your child is a must.

The right school will also help your child manage their emotions and find acceptable outlets for their feelings. Being a teen is hard, and schools know that. The key, as ever, is to find the right school to match your child. That way they will be able to help with any issues that may arise.

Myth 4: Private Schools are an "Old Boys" Society

Recent stories about parents buying their kids way in to college can make parents understandably nervous about sending their child to a school where knowing someone is everything. The good news is, most private schools are not like that at all! As Peter says, there is no 'type' that private schools look for. Not everyone knows everyone, and most independent schools actively try to cultivate an environment on campus made up of many different backgrounds, experiences, and socioeconomic levels.

Myth 5: If you go to a private school, you have to be very academic in college

The current theory behind college counseling is that it's important to find the right school for your child. While it's true that in times past, college councilors may have tried to shoehorn students into prestigious universities, this is no longer true.

It is the job of a college counselor to find a school that matches your child and their needs. This may be as simple as deciding if they want to go for a science degree or for something in the arts, or it may be more complicated than that. College counselors consider the size, location, number of students, methods of testing, and more in order to find the school which is the right match for your child.

In short, college councilors are there to listen to you. If your child wants to go to Harvard, Yale or Princeton, great! They'll help your child on their way. But equally, if drama school, a sports college, an arts school, or a small liberal arts college would be better for your child, the college counselor will try to help find a school that fits.

Myth 6: Everyone has to board at private school

Who doesn't love a brilliant boarding school book or movie?  While titles like Harry Potter by JK Rowling or Looking for Alaska by John Green may have you believing that all students at private schools are boarders, this is simply not true.

First, many schools don't offer boarding at all. They only offer day programs. Only some schools offer boarding at all, and many of those also run day programs.

Students decide to board or not for any number of reasons. Maybe they have to board because their school of choice is too far away from them, or maybe it's simply not financially viable to board. Maybe they want to be super involved in the boarding culture, or maybe they like being a day student and going home to their parents.

Whether or not you board will be discussed at your admissions meeting, where any questions you may have can be answered. But if you don't want to board, don't worry about it!

Myth 7: Private schools are academically focused, so they all have terrible art and sports programs

The culture of any school is made up as much by its sports and arts programs as it is by its academics. Many independent schools don't offer gym or a physical education class, so students get their sports credits by participating in athletics on campus.

Some schools as well have an arts focus. There are some well-known private arts schools which focus more on the artistic side of education than the academic. Walnut Hill in Massachusetts and the Idyllwild Arts Academy in California are excellent examples.

At PCD, students are encouraged to participate in as many arts and sports activities as they can. We aim to help students express and challenge themselves through academics, artistic and sports programs.

Myth 8: Private schools have no diversity.

"Also not true," quips Peter, "That is one area that I think has been a focus for private schools."

By this, Peter means that as questions of race, sexuality, gender, and religion have entered the public psyche and political arena, many independent schools have become more aware of the issues and questions surrounding inclusivity and are making positive changes to ensure greater diversity.

Making sure that private schools represent as much of the general population as possible is not only beneficial to students and teachers, but also affords more opportunities to previously excluded groups. A private school today will look very different from a private school 20 years ago or one represented on screen.

Most importantly, Peter points out, "the goal of private schools isn't to be exclusive. It's to be as inclusive and diverse as possible."

Myth 9: Private schools are elitist

Peter describes this as, "a myth that we're all aware of." However, it is simply untrue. Private schools cover every end of the class spectrum, range from expensive to free, and actively discourage an elitist outlook.

Private schools want to be a place where students are happy and challenged, and they want to help your child become ready to move on to the next part of their life. They want to be inclusive, and to represent a diversity of talents, abilities, and passions. To be elitist is to deny these possibilities.

After all, as Peter says, "If [Private schools] were like that, I wouldn't work at them. I wouldn't be able to stand it."

Author: Emma Chonofsky