Three (Private) Schools for Smart Kids

When my frustration with Neil’s current school year had reached a high level, Peter encouraged me to look at some private schools. In Peter’s opinion, it doesn’t hurt to look and see what else is out there.

As we already knew, public schools have the advantage in resources and range. Whenever I volunteer in a classroom, I’m amazed at the variety of teaching tools each teacher has at hand, but whether those tools are used all depends on the teacher’s willingness to take the time to use them. And if a teacher is more comfortable with an even field of learners, the high achievers, like Neil, get levelled. The private schools I chose were all geared towards high achievement, though they were each different. One offered a high educational level; another creates smart kids; and the last was for smart students only.

The first school I looked at was a nearby Challenger school. It’s notorious among parents for pushing their students and giving them a lot of homework. I don’t have a problem with that, nor with the larger class sizes the principal was slightly apologetic about. Small classes are great, but Neil will do better in a class of 40 studious, hard-working peers than he would in a class with 5 rowdy clowns. My overall impression of the school was that it was British “public” (their upscale private) school, American style. The principal took me into a 5th grade classroom where the uniformed students were all quietly and dilligently working on their math and writing. I browsed the class work displayed on the walls, which on one wall, was essays about the difference between a democracy and a republic, and letters to the principal about changes they’d like to see in the school. One was a letter that asked for cell phones to be allowed on campus, and went on to wax rhapsodic about all the high-tech features of the phone the student wanted to have and show off to his friends. This kid outgeeked Neil, and if Neil went to Challenger, he’d find plenty of people like this to bond with.

The disadvantage of Challenger, though, was that their material was closely tied to each grade: so he’d actually be slowed down even further than he is in a public school on math. I reluctantly passed it up as an option, though looking at the students, I saw the children of this valley’s doctors, lawyers, and engineers, children who were obviously going to be the next generation of well-educated professionals.

Yesterday, we went to the Open House at Merryhill School. Until very recently, this chain of private schools was known as Rainbow Bridge. We visit science museums a lot, and it seems that everytime I see the winners of some schools-wide science competition, Rainbow Bridge was always one of the top schools. I thought Rainbow Bridge was some sort of highly exclusive school in a hoity-toity town: it turned out to be one of the more affordable private schools on the least glamorous side of San Jose.

The vice principal, who gave us and several other prospective parents a tour, boasted about the school’s small class sizes (20 students max, and usually less), science laboratory, comprehensive child care, and smart, empowered teachers. Oddly, it didn’t seem much different from the public school science magnet we’re sending Neil to now, if you were able to skim off the top students and cut out the state-mandated nonsense and burned-out teachers. It also didn’t seem that different from a lot of other good private schools I’ve heard about, like Almaden Country School. All such schools seem to instill a love of learning in their students, which makes for smarter kids.

Our favorite school was one that stood out for being so very different from standard education, The School of Choice. I wrote about it, in part, before, but it really amazed us in how it tossed out all sorts of educational notions we’d never questioned before. It combined the students by mental maturity and ability, rather than age, and made us realize how age-segregated education can be detrimental. It dared to insert religious studies into education, and made use realize how important this is to understanding literature, philosophy, history and art. And Neil, who never has anything to say about what goes on in his public school classroom, is still talking about what he learned during his one day there. The headmaster happens to be an advocate for homeschooling as well, but only at the School of Choice would Neil be learning sports and sportsmanship from a former professional athlete, and English from an experienced educator with a literature degree from Oxford. Neil called it the “school for geniuses” because he was impressed with all his classmates’ intelligence, and Peter thought it really had the feel of a being a Hogwarts for (mental) wizards.

In the end, putting Neil in private school is still frightening and intimidating. Making his secondary school education private would set us back about $70,000, and once you get into the habit of sending one child to school, you’re not going to want to deny that opportunity to the next one. And a commute that, for at least 2 of the schools, is terribly daunting, adds to the cost, not to mention the cost of sending the children to college as well. True, a lot of other families who are no better off economically than we are, manage to do it, but in the end, I just wish the public schools, who have more money than any of these private schools do, could do as well for their students.

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