Sunday, September 24 2017 9:11

Independent School Education

Written by Linda Phelps, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools

Is your child’s future important to you? If it is, you share something in common with independent schools—they, too, are concerned about the future; the future for the students they serve. Independent schools are about ensuring that their students become connected, confident and successful through balanced academic, arts, athletic and healthy lifestyle programs.

As the Executive Director for the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools, former educator, parent of two, now-adult, independent school graduates, and grandparent of an independent school student, I’ve been fortunate to experience both directly and through others the benefits of an independent school education. And I regularly meet parents who praise their children’s experience in independent schools. One independent school graduate, his child now in an independent school, summarized for me: “What you get … is priceless. You get a foundation. You get a community, your teachers, your administrators, who know you as a student.”

This parent’s experience, in fact, is similar to my own. My successful adult children today maintain strong relationships they first developed in school. Often I talk to independent school graduates who report they were well prepared for life beyond high school. In the course of my responsibilities, I visit successful schools, meet with well-trained, enthusiastic and passionate faculty and delight in seeing happy, engaged students!


Understanding Independent Schools

To begin to understand how independent schools do such a good job, recognize that as a group independent schools share a commitment to providing a safe environment where young people can learn the importance of hard work. In general, these schools offer diverse and strong curricula, small classes, attention to individual student needs, dedicated teachers and advisors, parental involvement and a sense of community. They extol leadership, collaboration, personal responsibility and good citizenship, using service projects to encourage social responsibility.

Teachers are also well supported and commit time to work individually with students, as required. Careful, personal guidance that students and their families receive helps to ensure student success at the next academic level.


The Meaning of Independence

The foundation for this culture is independence. Every independent school is governed by a board of trustees and funded primarily through tuition, charitable contributions and endowment. The independence of its funding and administration allows every independent school to have a unique mission: one that’s supported by the school’s entire community and implemented through its curricular and hiring decisions.

This independence is unlike public schools, which are operated by an elected school board and funded by tax dollars. It’s unlike church-administered schools, and for-profit schools.

Independent schools are not only categorically different from public and other private schools, but they’re also different from one another. Each has its own self-crafted and unique mission. Within the bounds of accreditation requirements (see below), each has the freedom to interpret and implement its mission as it sees fit. As a result, its trustees, students, parents, faculty and administrators share the mission of the independent school. The result is a close-knit community and an ideal educational environment.

Independence does not imply any lack of educational standards. State-recognized accrediting agencies—in our area, the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools (PAIS) and Middle States Association of Colleges and School (MSACS)—are key. Accreditation is based on the school’s mission; the process for a school is rigorous and is your assurance of quality.

It’s through commitment to a demanding accreditation process that schools hold themselves publicly accountable to all who seek assurance that they meet accepted, published standards of educational quality, operation and staff competence. Every accredited independent school in Pennsylvania and Delaware must follow applicable federal, state and local laws and regulations, including those governing 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations. Trustees, boards and families tend to be especially active in independent schools.

Another important feature of independent schools is that they deliver. When asked about their choice of school, independent school families cite individual attention, small classes, teacher excellence and high academic standards.

A national study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education reported that this is what independent schools do. It concluded that more students in independent schools are enrolled in advanced courses than in public or other private schools. It reported that independent school students watch only two-thirds as much television and do twice as much homework as their public school counterparts. They’re significantly more likely to participate in varsity sports and more likely to agree that students and teachers get along well and discipline is fair.


Selecting an Independent School

While all accredited independent schools maintain high standards and emphasize values, it’s important to realize that they are not generic. The very characteristic that enables them to excel—independence—also means that each independent school is different from the next. A wide range of options guarantee that each is a special place.

The community of independent schools offers a wide range of options from preschool to pre-kindergarten to high school, to day schools and boarding schools and to some that do both. Also included are co-educational, all-girls’ and all-boys’ schools, as well as schools with religious affiliations and others that are nonsectarian.

There are stand-alone preschools, lower and upper schools, as well as schools that offer the whole range of preschool through 12th grade. And, although independent schools tend to be small in comparison to public schools, there’s a range in size. Enrollments vary from a few dozen to over a thousand students.


Subtle Differences

Beyond these evident differences, there are more subtle differences, for example, in philosophy, mission and culture.

Researching the world of independent schools, in short, can be confusing and challenging. And your temptation may be to choose the easiest alternative: either to accept the local public school system or to choose an independent school that seems most convenient. I understand that convenience is an important consideration, but do recognize that the many “flavors” of independent schools create opportunity. They create choice. They give you as parent the opportunity to find the right fit for your child.

And so, as you explore the world of independent schools, foremost in your mind should be that your child has special strengths, weaknesses, interests and expectations. He or she is an individual. The right school for your child will be one that fosters individual strengths, addresses specific weaknesses, and serves your child’s individuality. You know your child best!

More particularly, as you look, take into consideration the school’s philosophy and mission. Consider its size, curriculum, religious affiliation, student-teacher ratio, leadership, extra-curricular opportunities and guidance counseling. Be aware that some schools are progressive, with children involved in discovery learning and experiential activities. Others are more traditional, using structured learning settings and teacher-directed programs. Still other schools’ programs are a blend of traditional and progressive styles. Some schools offer online learning as part of the student’s program.

Also recognize that most independent schools, intentionally or otherwise, specialize. And so there are schools for students looking to excel at rigorous intellectual preparations, others dedicated to learners with different interests, and some that focus on bright students with learning disabilities. Similarly, there are schools that offer advanced instruction in fine arts and the performing arts, others that offer travel abroad experiences, and still others that consistently succeed in athletics.

In the end, your job as parent is to look at your child, look at the schools, and choose the one that most closely fits.


Practical Matters

Sending a child to an independent school is costly because good education is expensive. Independent schools are privately funded institutions, with tuition as their greatest source of funding. Parents of independent school children regard the cost of an independent education as an investment in their child’s future.

No doubt financial constraints become a deterrent to some who would benefit from an independent school education. Independent schools try to work with families to help them meet cost. Many purposefully seek a diverse population to provide the richness that a variety of backgrounds and nationalities add to the learning experience. And many offer need-based financial aid, which often includes grants, scholarships, loans and payment plans.

Similarly, recognize that transportation is available for families who live at some distance from the otherwise “right school.” Many independent schools run bus service specifically for their own students. And, under Pennsylvania’s pupil transportation laws, local school districts are required to provide transportation to and from school within a ten-mile radius.

The result is that independent schools are not only, as they are sometimes regarded, for affluent families. Parents are often surprised by the socio-economic, ethnic, religious and geographic diversity found at independent schools. Students develop lifelong relationships with friends they would have never met had they not attended an independent school.

In any case, if “education is life itself,” finding the right school to match your child’s needs, talents and interests ranks as one of the most important decisions you will make as a parent. My recommendation is to give it thought: research and explore and take advantage of opportunities.

For many, the best place to look for that school will be in the independent sector. Independent schools partner with parents in educating their children. In the independent sector, school life becomes part of family life. Students become part of a culture and community that yields lifelong returns for students.

Fortunately, the Delaware Valley has many fine independent schools from which to choose.

For more information about independent education, go to or contact Linda L. Phelps, Executive Director, PAIS at 610-567-2960.