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Public vs. Private School: My Experience

Trying to decide whether a public or private school is the best fit for you? I’ve compiled what consider distinctive features of both school experiences for your perusal.

When I started to research high schools at the end of eighth grade, I looked for a few things: rigorous academics, ample opportunities for artistic expression (i.e. robust theater, media arts, and visual arts programs), a supportive school community, and a fast paced, but still manageable, daily schedule that would prepare me for college life. Whether the school was private or public wasn’t really on my radar; all I cared about was that my high school fit the aforementioned criteria. In retrospect, though, it would’ve been valuable to consider the benefits and disadvantages of attending a public coeducational school, like my middle school, versus those of attending a private single gender school, like the high school I ended up choosing. Either type of school could’ve given me what I was looking for, but in different ways and to different extents. So, if you’re applying to schools, here are some of my observations about the public and private school experience that will help you make the most informed decision.

First and foremost, I’ve noticed that at my private school, students have many of the same privileges enjoyed by college students. I’ve attended The Agnes Irwin School for about a year and a half; as a new freshman, one aspect of the school that appealed to me most was its close resemblance to a college campus, and the independence the school allows its students. Agnes Irwin’s Upper and Middle School buildings exhibit several lounges where students can relax in between classes. The cafeteria, called the Student Life Center (SLC), is also open to students from 7 am to 3 pm (note that this is all pre-COVID). The schedule isn’t rigid. No bells ring, signaling the start of each class and during free periods, students can go almost anywhere on campus: the library, where you’ll often see Upper Schoolers working until the school closes, the SLC, the main lobby, and even the blackbox theater that doubles as a dance studio. AIS trusts its girls to responsibly use common spaces throughout the school, and though we did have access to certain areas at my public middle school, we spent most of each day in the classroom. From grades six-eight, I went to Northley Middle School, in which my routine was always the same: go to class, eat lunch in the cafeteria, which was closed immediately after my lunch block, go to class, and return home if I didn’t have sports practice or other extracurriculars. Very few spaces were reserved exclusively for students and free periods weren’t a thing, which significantly limited my ability to interact with friends and complete work outside of class.

On the other hand, my public school did grant students the freedom to participate in any activities they wanted to, and no extracurriculars were required to graduate. Unlike at AIS, where I have to fulfill my athletics credit by taking part in a school-sponsored or independent sport every season, at Northley I could substitute sports for academic competitions and learn essential skills like discipline and teamwork through pursuits I was truly passionate about.

My class size in middle school was considerably larger than it is now; there were close to 260 people in my eighth grade class, but there are only about 80 girls in my tenth grade class. I’ve found that the smaller class size at Agnes Irwin makes for a more close-knit and less cliquey community in which everyone knows and supports one another. Sports teams are intimate, classroom discussions feel very casual, and teachers can devote more one-on-one attention to students. Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the difference between private and public schools that often has the greatest influence on one’s school decision: public schools offer a free education, whereas you must pay tuition to attend a private school. This was a major deterrent for my family when I was exploring the private school option, but then we discovered how much financial aid many private schools, especially those with large endowments, are able to provide in the form of academic and athletic scholarships. According to ThoughtCo, “about 20% of private school students nationwide receive some form of financial aid,” and at schools with large endowments “35% of students receive need-based aid.” So don’t abandon your dream of attending a school just because it's tuition is high. If you really apply yourself and show that you’re a clear asset to the school, the school will likely do all it can to help you attend.

Overall, I’ve had a positive experience in both types of schools, but because I wanted a smaller, more coherent community and the freedom to utilize on-campus facilities during and after the school day, a private high school was the best choice for me. I hope that my observations are useful to you as you search for your next school but that you also take the time to do your own research and determine what you value most in your education.

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