In July, when Brett Kavanaugh was nominated for a seat on the Supreme Court, sharp-eyed reporters noticed an astounding factoid: He was a graduate of the same private school as the last new justice, Neil Gorsuch. Back in the 1980s, both were educated at Georgetown Prep, the Jesuit boys’ school in North Bethesda.
Such are the moments when Washington private schools pop up on the national radar—as news stories involving presidential offspring or society scandals.
Locals, naturally, have a less breathless understanding: Some 17 percent of students in the area attend private schools, a number that has held steady since 2010. Yet just as the capital has changed dramatically since Gorsuch and Kavanaugh prowled Prep’s 93-acre campus, so has its private-school scene. In many ways, the changes are intertwined. Washington today is a region with more wealth, higher costs, greater diversity, less formality, better public schools, worse commutes, increased income inequality, and decreased social snobbery compared with 30 years ago. When a culture and an economy change so significantly, it stands to reason that the changes show up in the places where we educate kids—even places with century-old traditions.
Sometimes those changes shape things in contradictory fashion: For middle-class families with towering 21st-century mortgages, tuition seems newly daunting. But for schools fundraising in a much more dynamic region, there’s more money for financial aid.
Of course, public schools have been changed by the same evolutions in teaching styles, social rules, parental ambitions, and educational budgets. But their changes often get played out in daylight, where aggregate test scores and workplace challenges are a matter of public record. By definition, independent schools are independent of all that—and, in the eyes of parents who need to make choices, not to mention members of the public who are simply curious, much more opaque.
Here, we try to pull back the curtain a wee bit. In talking to experts and educators in the area, we assembled a list of new realities for anyone trying to navigate today’s private education. But we also wanted to know what life inside it is really like. How has the new Washington altered venerable institutions? For obvious reasons, we offered the insiders a chance to speak anonymously, and in the process found many who loved their jobs and believed in their missions—but had some stories to tell.
1. Campuses have gotten swankier.
Once upon a time, many private schools took a perverse pride in the austerity of their physical plants. No more.
DC’s Sidwell Friends now has green, LEED-certified buildings—and a courtyard “wetland”—in keeping with its progressive reputation. Georgetown Prep in North Bethesda, long a sports power, has a 150,000-square-foot athletic center with, among other facilities, an 11-lane pool and two wrestling rings. In the past few years, St. John’s College High School in Chevy Chase DC has opened a visual-and-performing-arts center with acoustically de-signed music classrooms, plus an Entrepreneurial Center for Innovation and Leadership, fueled partly by a $16-million grant from Under Armour founder and 1990 St. John’s alum Kevin Plank.
Says a former admissions director: “There’s definitely an arms race. Georgetown Prep sort of started that when they built their facility. Bullis then put several million dollars into their facilities. St. John’s did the same thing. All the schools are doing it now. The reason they do it is to attract students.”
2. Getting in may be getting easier—but not at top schools.
According to census data, the number of kids in private schools nationwide shrank by 14 percent between 2006 and 2016. The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education has projected a further decline of up to 12 percent by 2025. Around Washington, where about 17 percent of children are in private schools, trends are more mixed. Because public schools have gotten better and the rise of charter schools has given parents more options, many private schools face new competition.
According to the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington, 42 percent of its 77 member schools reported an increase in enrollment last year, while 48 percent reported a decrease. (The organization represents self-governing schools—it uses the term “independent”—and not schools overseen by churches, for-profits, or nonprofits.)
But this new environment doesn’t necessarily change the odds at marquee schools such as St. Albans, National Cathedral, Sidwell Friends, Georgetown Day, Maret, Holton-Arms, Potomac, Flint Hill, and Landon. According to Ross Blankenship, a private-school admissions consultant, top institutions still have much lower acceptance rates—and applicant pools have gotten more competitive.
3. Dress codes are getting more gender-neutral.
“Instead of saying ‘girls will wear’ or ‘boys will wear,’ it says ‘students at this institution will wear,’ ” according to one local teacher. “All students are allowed to wear slacks—there’s not going to be language that has girls having to wear dresses or skirts. It’ll talk about ‘shirts’ rather than ‘girls will wear blouses’ and ‘boys will wear button-downs or polos.’ ”
4. Big Data isn’t much help if you’re comparison-shopping.
Over the past few decades, America’s schools have fallen in love with Big Data, giving pols a way to evaluate school districts—and offering ambitious parents a real-estate road map. Independent schools, though, either don’t have some of that data (they’re not giving some of the standardized tests administered by public schools) or don’t willingly share other data (say, acceptance rates), and they can be selective about which stats they do promote. Which means 21st-century parents are left to choose among schools the old-fashioned way.
5. In fact, Big Data doesn’t make much of a case for private school at all.
What’s more, as for the basic question of public versus private, a recent University of Virginia study found that once you adjust for sociodemographic traits, there’s no advantage when it comes to the kinds of things statistics can measure.
“You don’t see any benefit of kids going to private school that’s above and beyond growing up in the demographic group they grow up in,” says Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education and one of the study’s authors. Pianta points out that the study also didn’t find any difference among public versus private in motivation, expectations for the future, or engagement in risky behavior.
“People don’t like hearing that,” he says. “People will read this and say, ‘My kid in my private school really needs this education to be successful.’ Our research shows, on average, that is not the case.”
6. On the other hand, the gap between public and private in terms of “student experience” may be growing.
The flip side of all that data: Public-school students in places like DC spend more time on standardized testing—and in classes apt to teach to the test. Independent schools that don’t answer to education bureaucracies can offer more customized learning. They’ve also grown more willing to break with pedagogical tradition to do so.
Top schools prize flexibility so much that recently several of them—Georgetown Day, Landon, National Cathedral, Potomac, Sidwell Friends, and St. Albans—announced a phaseout of Advanced Placement courses.
Other experiential upsides: Because private schools tend to be smaller, there’s less competition to land a spot on the soccer team or in the play—the kind of growth experiences people cherish. And less competition for a teacher’s time—including for parents.
7. Private schools have always touted their smaller classes. Some are getting even smaller.
Nationwide, the average student-to-teacher ratio is 12 to 1 at private schools versus 16 to 1 at public schools. Some local private schools have ratios as small as 6 to 1.
Now come even tinier models. Maybe it’s no surprise that in an age when we’re nostalgic for handmade pickles and sweaters, the idea of the one-room schoolhouse, or “micro-school,” has appeal.
Take the Mysa Microschool, which has an elementary in Georgetown with just 16 kids (and a student-to-teacher ratio of 4 to 1) and a middle and high school in Bethesda with 22 (and a 5-to-1 ratio). As in a one-room schoolhouse, children work in mixed-age clusters—a second-grader might be doing third-grade math if that suits the child.
“People seem to be wanting these small community schools,” says Siri Fiske, Mysa’s founder and head. “All the parents know each other, all the kids know each other.”
Capitol Hill’s Blyth-Templeton Academy is another micro-school that uses Washington as a giant classroom for its 46 students, with visits to museums, neighborhoods, and nonprofits. With the elimination of bells and whistles—no athletic fields, buses, or cafeterias—a micro-school’s tuition can be lower. Mysa charges $20,000, Blyth-Templeton $15,550.
8. Private schools aren’t always better choices for children with learning issues.
The old stereotype of private schools is that they’re hyper-competitive environments where there’s no room for kids with learning challenges. In some respects, that’s no longer true. “Almost all private schools now have a learning center with learning specialists—ten, 15 years ago, there wasn’t a dedicated department with trained specialists there to support not only kids and families but also to work with faculty in their professional development,” says a teacher at an elite private school in the District. Private schools also offer more one-on-one teaching and tutoring, which can help children with learning challenges thrive.
Yet not all learning difficulties are created equal. Private schools can be great for children with mild to moderate learning issues—a child may get some accommodations, such as extra test time, but will still be expected to do the rigorous course- and homework. But for kids who really can’t keep up with the school’s pace, says educational consultant Clare Anderson, “public school can be a great option” because it’s more likely to have classes at various levels of difficulty.
9. When it comes to getting a leg up in college admissions, things have changed.
While only about 10 percent of children in this country go to private school, they make up a disproportionate share of the student bodies at top colleges: some 35 percent at Harvard, 38 percent at Princeton.
There are many reasons, from demographics to academics to less competition at private schools for that résumé-enhancing spot on the football team. On the other hand, an A average from a more rigorous school is harder to pull off. For years, colleges took that into account when evaluating applicants, but the practice may be fading.
“College admissions officers aren’t differentiating as much between public and private schools—private schools aren’t getting the weighted-GPA advantage they were before,” says a former private-school admissions officer. “Now a 4.0 from Sidwell is viewed by many college admissions officers as the same as a 4.0 from [Bethesda public school] Walt Whitman, for example. This is especially true in the Washington region, where there are a lot of strong public high schools.”
One edge for private schools: According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, they’re more likely to employ college counselors. With smaller graduating classes, those professionals can spend more time helping all students find a college that’s a good fit and steer them through the application process.
10. Competitive schools are trying to make students less anxious about competition.
When children arrive many mornings at the Langley School, a pre-K–8 in McLean, they’re asked to chart their state of mind on a mood meter. If a child is anxious or upset, he or she can take a break in spaces like the classroom’s “peace nook” and practice mindfulness techniques such as cleansing breaths until the child feels like rejoining the group.
At the Nysmith School for the Gifted, a pre-K–8 in Herndon, students learn concepts such as how to be heard and how to figure out what makes them happy.
Episcopal High School, a boarding school in Alexandria, offers relaxation centers during exam weeks—kids can get foot massages, hug stuffed animals, or talk to an adult.
Says Susanna A. Jones, head of school for Holton-Arms, a private girls’ school in Bethesda: “We spent years focusing on the mind. Not that we don’t still focus on the mind, but we focus more on soul and spirit than we used to.”
11. Admissions officers are now looking at a child’s character.
For about two decades, there’s been a movement among private schools to try to identify an applicant’s character—things like whether the child plays well with others. Now they have a test for that.
“Character has always been an important part of independent schools and admissions, but it might have changed a bit in the way we’re looking at it in the last three or four years—it gets more weight,” says Holton-Arms’ Susanna A. Jones. “If we get a sense somebody might be really bright but she doesn’t get along at all with other people, we might be less inclined to take her than someone who isn’t as strong academically but doesn’t seem to have those qualities. That hasn’t changed, but what’s changed is you can measure it.”
12. Forget bragging about connections. You can impress admissions types via old-fashioned preparation.
While most parents just want a school that’s a good fit for their child, some are so determined to get into a top-tier institution that they call everyone they know who’s connected to the school to put in a good word.
A good impression can be made much more easily, says school consultant Ross Blankenship, who founded Studyhall.com. His advice for parents: “Do some research on the school before you apply. During the interview, ask questions. And when you meet the admissions staff member, make eye contact and have a good handshake. That stuff really matters.”
13. Applicants don’t have to take the official tour—and it might even impress the gatekeepers when they don’t.
“I can’t say it enough: I would never, if I’m looking at a school, go only on the official tour,” says consultant Ross Blankenship. “If it’s your dream school, go off the path. Without your parents, go talk to students in the cafeteria when you don’t have the tour guide watching you. Ask if you can sit in on a class they didn’t tell you that you could sit in on. You have to throw the brochure aside and discover whether that school is what they’ve told you it is. Are kids happy when they walk around? Look at their posture. I’ve never encountered a school that said you couldn’t do that. Wouldn’t it be a red flag if they said you couldn’t?”
The bonus, he says: An admissions office will likely be impressed by a child who shows initiative and curiosity.
14. Parents are rethinking whether they want their kid to be a “lifer.”
One upside to putting your child in a K–12 school: Apply once and you’re done. New thinking suggests that’s not always a great idea. Mary Killay Lavayen, a consultant with Independent School Options in Alexandria, suggests parents think of the process in three-to-four-year increments: “You don’t just plop them in the school and say that’s it. You’ll want to check in to see if it’s the right fit after a couple of years. You’ll know more about that child in the sixth grade than in kindergarten. It’s not uncommon to place a child in one school for kindergarten and then another in sixth grade and again in high school.”
“You may think, ‘Well, if this doesn’t work, we’ll switch schools,’ but your kid has a say in that,” says a Chevy Chase mom whose daughter, in a K–12, was diagnosed with ADHD by middle school. “I didn’t feel the middle school and high school were right for her. But by middle school, my daughter was attached to her friends. She refused to go to another school.”
15. For competitive schools, SSAT scores need to be higher these days. There are a few ways to nudge them up.
The Secondary School Admission Test is used by many private schools, starting as early as third grade, to predict what a child’s SAT score will be years later in 11th grade. “The 90th percentile has become the cutoff score for guaranteed admissions into a top private high school,” says Ross Blankenship, author of Admit You!: Top Secrets to Increase Your SSAT and ISEE Exam Scores and Get Accepted to the Best Boarding Schools and Private Schools.
He suggests a few tips for improving this standardized-test score: “Take practice exams under the same conditions as the actual test. If the test is going to be administered on a Saturday at 8 am, you should take your practice tests at 8 am on Saturday mornings. And if you’re going to sit for the SSAT at Georgetown Prep, see if you can check out the room in which the test is going to be administered. It’s allowed.
“It’s about building confidence,” he says. “I cannot tell you how scared these kids are. And many parents are super over-aggressive. Most of them, actually. They’re telling their child, ‘Hey, you’ve got to go to this school or else your life’s over.’ There’s more pressure in DC. It’s ten times greater than what I see from parents in California.”
16. Schools are thinking more about marketing.
For years, schools have been tagged with reputations, whether they wanted them or not—the lacrosse jocks (Landon), the earnest liberals (Georgetown Day). The difference now is that schools aren’t shying away from branding themselves.
Burgundy Farm Country Day School, a K–8 with a campus in Alexandria plus a 506-acre wildlife sanctuary in West Virginia, specializes in environmental science—teaching kids about birds and trees and climate change. It’s been around since 1946, but only in recent years has it promoted its distinctiveness. “With a more competitive marketplace, there’s been an awakening among many schools of more attention to differentiation of niche,” says Seileen Mullen, vice president of the board.
Whether they have a niche or not, all schools now have to sell themselves in new ways. “Ten years ago, parents would visit and take a tour. It was all a feel: ‘I love the campus,’ ” says Elinor Scully, head of school at the Langley School in McLean. “That’s not how it works now. We have to use all these channels to get our message out. We do webinars to get our word out. These are savvy customers. They want to know where our graduates go, how they test, what kinds of activities they engage in.”
17. They’re more expensive than ever.
According to an analysis by the National Association of Independent Schools, almost all schools have doubled tuition since 1998, from an average of $11,837 to $23,372. That’s a national figure—some elite academies in Washington charge double that. National Cathedral, for example, costs $43,585 annually.
The reason, say educators we spoke with: Schools have had to add all sorts of faculty, such as learning specialists, Chinese-language instructors, and teachers for STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math.
“It’s the biggest challenge for independent schools today,” says Jennifer Danish, head of Grace Episcopal Day School in Kensington. “It’s a conversation that all schools are having: How do we control costs? One of the hallmarks of private education is strong teaching, and you want to pay those teachers well.”
18. People who make six figures are getting financial aid.
Financial assistance is more like a spectrum than a binary, and the spectrum extends much higher up the income scale than it once did. “More and more, we’re seeing families with incomes of $200,000 and up qualify,” says Frankie Brown, financial-aid director at Sidwell Friends, where tuition is about $42,000 this year. She says one-quarter of all families there receive financial aid. “There are no salary caps. There could be a family that makes $400,000 a year but someone has lost their job or something has shifted. The key is not to be afraid to ask.”
At Maret, a K–12 school also in DC, the numbers are similar: 28 percent of families getting aid have gross household incomes over $200,000. This is hardly surprising, given that a family with a $200,000 household income in Washington isn’t exactly flush if it has one or more children in private school. “The one group we’re losing in independent schools is the middle class, people on the cusp that almost qualify,” says Katy Harvey, director of admissions and financial aid at National Presbyterian School, a private elementary in DC with tuition ranging up to $31,840.
19. Diversity requires more work than it used to.
In an often unequal, socially segregated society, diversity has always been a challenge for schools. But it has become more complicated as society has evolved. Not long ago, it largely meant thinking about white kids and black kids. Today, in a region that has seen its demographics transformed by immigration, schools trying to assemble a student body that looks like the region need to think about the area’s large Asian, African, and Latino populations—all of which are internally very diverse themselves, and continually evolving.
Says Carson Roy, director of admissions and financial aid at the Potomac School in McLean: “We’re much more proactive in our outreach. One of the things we focus on is continuing to strengthen relationships with the Black Student Fund, the Latino Student Fund, A Better Chance, and the Emerging Scholars Program. These organizations help talented students of color gain access to private schools. We are going to school fairs, we are presenting at workshops. We’re working with placement staffs at these organizations. We’ve had leaders of these organizations come to campus and give tours.”
20. Schools have become more willing to offer scholarships for a variety of talents.
“It used to be only for athletics, but now academics are playing almost as big a role,” says a former admissions director. “There’s also more scholarships available for music, theater, all those things.”
21. There are brand-new models of how to pay.
While private schools have for years awarded scholarships, some are coming up with more unusual approaches to paying the tab.
Grace Episcopal Day School in Kensington has a variable-tuition program—instead of giving financial aid to families who can’t pay full price ($19,900 to $25,900), it tiers tuition, with a family paying what the school determines it can afford. “It gets rid of the stigma they might have about receiving a grant,” says head of school Jennifer Danish. The program has been in place one year, and enrollment increased this fall from 94 to 106 students.
At Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, which serves lower-income students, kids go to class four days a week and participate in a corporate work/study program on the fifth, earning money to pay the bulk of their tuition.
22. Chains are entering the market.
Don Bosco—part of the Chicago nonprofit Cristo Rey Network, with 35 schools in 22 states—isn’t the only out-of-town chain setting up in the area. Another entrant in the market: Basis, which has about two dozen charter schools and five independent schools around the country, including a pre-K–12 in McLean.
“As in other industries, we are seeing in the educational landscape increasing examples of what might be called disruption,” says Peter F. Bailey, executive director of the Association of Independent Maryland and DC Schools. “Opportunities for creativity and innovation are emerging.”
The name making the biggest waves is Chris Whittle, an entrepreneur who for years has started nontraditional educational ventures. Next fall, he’s opening the for-profit Whittle School & Studios in DC’s Van Ness neighborhood. The first five grades will be Chinese-English immersion, with the option to switch to or add Spanish in third grade. Older children will get a chance to study abroad at planned campuses in such places as London, Mumbai, and China.
23. The new tax law includes goodies for private-school parents.
As of January 1, families are now able to use 529 savings plans—formerly restricted to college and post-secondary education costs—for elementary-, middle-, and high-school tuition. DC, Maryland, and Virginia all offer their own 529 plans that allow for tax-free earnings growth and tax-free withdrawals of up to $10,000 per year per child to pay for school.
24. Private-school teachers make less than public-school ones.
According to the Digest of Education Statistics, the average base pay for a full-time US public teacher in the 2011–12 school year was $53,070, while for private teachers it was $40,200.
In a public-school system, pay is determined by a teacher’s experience and degrees. In a private school? “It’s whatever you can negotiate with the headmaster,” says one teacher.
Higher salaries aren’t the only perk of teaching in a public system, says this teacher, who has taught both public and private: “The public system offers more for teachers in terms of teacher development and opportunity because it’s bigger. And the benefits are not good at a private school, again because it’s small. You don’t have a great health plan.”
25. Schools are thinking beyond the yellow bus.
Many parents make sacrifices to get their child a private education. One of those sacrifices: dealing with traffic daily, a hazard when you opt for an out-of-the-neighborhood school.
“Schools are trying to think of incentives to create carpooling,” says Amy McNamer of the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington. “Many of our schools send out Zip-code lists over the summer so families can be in touch with each other. At some schools, as children get older and can drive, if the senior drives in a carpool that’s full, they get free parking for a year.”
Schools are offering shuttle services from the Metro. They’re adding bus routes if feasible.
“We’ve seen Uber here a few times—maybe 15 rides last year,” says Ken Nysmith, head of the Nysmith School for the Gifted in Herndon. “Three years ago, I had not seen that.”
This article appears in the October 2018 issue of Washingtonian.