Should Your Child Attend a Private School?

Within the week after Mrs. Frank Cruse’s first attack of morning sickness proved the obstetrician right, she made a hurried trip to the Lamplighter School. She was thinking ahead.

Lamplighter, perhaps Dallas’ most prestigious private school for children between ages three and nine, has a waiting list-a long waiting list. It commonly includes applications for a “Baby Jones” or a “Baby Smith.” Now, to Mrs. Cruse’s satisfaction, the list includes a “Baby Cruse.”

If today’s application totals remain constant through the Cruse child’s third birthday in 1978, the youngster will find himself or herself joining 600 other children hoping to fill one of 60 chairs in a future pre-school class.

If Baby Cruse is, in fact, finally accepted, the Cruses will be required to pay as much as $1,000 a year in tuition and fees, to say nothing of the thousands in taxes they will pay to support a $180-million-a-year public school system they may never use.

Why is it that the Cruses and thousands of other Dallas parents feel they should – no, must – go to the trouble and expense of private education, even for their unborn children?

Parents who were quizzed tended to be general and vague. Most could only shrug and say, “Well, it’s a good school.” Few could cite hard data to support their decisions to spend thousands of dollars on private educations for their children when a “free” public school system is available.

For some, it seems, private schools are still a simple matter of status, particularly when parents are successful in placing their children in a school of the social caliber of Lamplighter, Hockaday, or Greenhill.

Too, Dallas’ booming growth is bringing in large numbers of families from other states-many with public school systems vastly superior to the Dallas system. That means many new students moving into the district are academically ahead of anything the public schools can offer. A Michigan first grader, for example, crosses the Red River with an educational standing roughly equivalent to a Dallas public school second grader. Children in Michigan public school systems begin with compulsory kindergarten; Texas children, in general, start a year later. Parents faced with this predicament often have no choice but to enroll their children in private schools.

But the strongest catalyst behind the exodus to private schools has to do with a nagging fear on the part of many parents that the public schools are on an irreversible downhill slide. Some blame the 1971 desegregation order; others simply think the notion of public education has finally reached a point of diminishing returns.

So just how bad are the public schools?

It’s easy enough to say that, in general, most children most of the time will receive a better education in a private school than in a Dallas public school. Beyond this, however, a reasoned assessment is difficult.

Dallas public schools are a mixed bag, varying from good to awful. More importantly, each student is different. Some may flourish in a particular public school environment; others may lose interest, motivation.

One index-the ability of Dallas public schools’ students to read and comprehend-can be examined. Reading skills are basic to all education; if a child can’t read well, he has two strikes against him in the remainder of the educational process.

Summer before last, the daily press carried stories detailing the reading problems in our public school system. From the academic standpoint, it was a shocking commentary on the quality of public school education.

According to the district’s own research, some 20,000 of the 70,-000 secondary school students- almost 29 per cent-read at least two grades below their grade level. One high school sophomore, for example, read at second grade level. A 15-year-old student read so poorly he had to memorize the color coding of administrative memos to know where to go when he received one: the principal’s were white; the nurse’s were blue; the counselor’s were pink.

Despite such performances, students who read so poorly often find themselves promoted. “We have to promote most of our students no matter how badly they have done,” a public school teacher said. “The principal tells us not to fail too many.”

So the public schools do have their problems. But there are some encouraging things going on in the school system, too. Many Dallas schools do offer honors programs for very bright students and it’s even possible for students to earn college credit before graduation. And there are instances of outstanding individual achievement by public school students. A Skyline student, for example, was one of 14 first place winners in the International Science Fair, chosen from 379 finalists from the United States and five foreign countries. An Alex Spence student won a national French contest, the first junior high student ever to enter, let alone win, a contest which previously had attracted only high school and college contestants.

But the key word here is “individual.” Citing isolated achievements within the public schools can be as misleading as focusing only on isolated failures. For the great mass of average students in public schools, the problem is simply one of numbers.

Dallas public school classrooms average 27 students (roughly twice that of better private schools), whose IQ’s and motivations range from top to bottom. Personal attention is impossible; more importantly, try as the teacher might, it is tough to find a workable common denominator in such intellectual diversity. By contrast, better private schools have 13-15 students per class, almost all of whom are above average intellectually.

So if the public schools have a clearly identifiable failing, it is that they are for everybody. And in trying to be everything, they may tend to be nothing.

It is precisely this “melting pot” approach to public education that makes private schools such an attractive alternative. The rigid entrance requirements for the better private schools all but guarantee that only the brighter and more highly-motivated students will be admitted. The parent is assured his child can only be pushed to reach greater academic achievements; there is no worry that the child’s learning will be slowed by slower students.

In his recent book, The Learning Society, Robert M. Hutchins, a former dean of the Yale Law School and chancellor of the University of Chicago, among other things, speaks of education in its purest sense.

“Education,” as he defines it, “is . . . the deliberate, organized attempt to help people become intelligent.” One way to achieve this, he says, is through the private school, which he refers to as “elite schools.”

“Undoubtedly, the elite school in many countries is burdened with traditionalism and snobbery,” he wrote. “But in general its aim is to help the student to be as intelligent as he could be, to promote understanding and free the mind.”

To some degree, that description fits what the prestigious private schools in Dallas are trying to do. Alan Stewart, head of social studies at St. Mark’s, undoubtedly means something like that when he says the private schools here “create an intellectual atmosphere” that is not present in the public schools. Other private school teachers use the phrase, “academic atmosphere.”

While the educations at Hocka-day, St. Mark’s and Greenhill may not be pure liberal education, the schools are far more likely to teach by reason rather than rote. As one Hockaday teacher puts it: “It is in-depth thinking that counts, not memorization.”

Much of this can be attributed to the quality faculties private schools are able to attract. The established private schools not only attract better students, they draw better teachers. Private school teachers tend to be better educated; many of them are prep school graduates who attended quality East and West coast colleges and universities. Many have graduate degrees in teaching disciplines such as English, unlike public school teachers who hold nebulous graduate degrees in education.

Hockaday, Greenhill and St. Mark’s all have more master’s degrees than bachelor’s degrees on their teaching staffs. Hockaday and Greenhill also each have four teachers who hold doctorates.

Most teach because they want to. And if they turn out to be only adequate, the schools have little difficulty getting rid of them. Removing a public school teacher, on the other hand, is a jungle of red tape and documentation, and all too often mediocre teachers survive simply because no one wants to go to the trouble to have them removed.

But a private school’s educational potential derives from more than simply its faculty and low student-teacher ratio. It is strongly affected by the school’s admission requirements.

Private school students-at the “name” schools, anyway-tend to be bright youngsters who do well on admission tests and in personal interviews. Well-rounded students who are good at something-be it art, acting or athletics-also have a better chance of getting in.

Students accepted can be classified as achievers, motivated youngsters who usually work hard. As a matter of fact, high IQ students who are unmotivated, low achievers, likely will be rejected by the better institutions.

These schools can be highly selective because there are always more applicants than seats. At one such school, for example, there were seven applicants for every space available.

The dominant schools-Hocka-day, St. Mark’s, Greenhill-which offer pre-school through graduation, had a combined enrollment in 1974 of about 2,300 students. But the total of each’s average number of admissions last year was only 450, roughly one new student accepted for every four already enrolled.

What can a bright, motivated youngster expect to get out of the private school? What can the parents expect to get for all that money aside from the “status?”

It would seem safe to assume that the graduating student has a leg up on public school contemporaries. After all, there were all those years of virtual one-on-one teaching encounters, the mind-broadening field trips, the emphasis on intellectual activity. There should be no reason for one of these students to take second seat to any public school student.

However, not all private school graduates are success stories. “My under-achiever went through St. Mark’s and came out an under-achiever,” one mother complained. A teacher’s reply: “If a student comes to us unmotivated, the chances aren’t very good we’re going to be able to motivate him.”

And there are other, broader complaints about private schools. Some say there is a high degree of materialism among students who attend private schools. One father refuses to send his children to private schools because he doesn’t like the snobbery involved. He lives in Highland Park.

There is also considerable worry that the close personal supervision and “sheltered” environment of the private school does not adequately equip the child for “a real world.”

Says one mother, whose teen-age daughter has attended Hockaday since the first grade: “She’s gotten a great education. But now that she’s getting up into high school, I’m worried that she can’t really do things for herself.”

“I don’t know. Her private education has been good, but I’m wondering if she hasn’t grown too dependent on all that personal attention. Learning in private schools is easy-maybe too easy if the child is smart.”

This mother, like so many others, is considering transferring her child to a public school, “to let her learn how to fare on her own.”

Beyond the pros and cons of public and private schools is the feeling of many educators that in the long run, schools don’t have much effect on a child’s success in life. It all goes back to his or her family life.

The Educational Testing Service once did a survey of students who took its National Merit Scholarship tests. They then matched the scores of the students and followed them through their college experiences.

Some, of course, went to Harvard or Yale or some similar university. Other opted Podunk U. for one reason or another.

When it came time for graduate school, the students took the required Graduate Record Examination (GRE), a brain-strainer designed to measure the quantitative and qualitative abilities of members of the group. To the surprise of the ETS, a student with the National Merit Scholarship score of, say, 150, who went to Podunk U. did as well on the GRE as the student who also made 150 but went to Harvard.

Some people say the survey shows that it doesn’t really make any difference where the student goes to school. Anyway, it does show that a student’s college or university may not have much effect on his or her ability to take standardized academic achievement tests.

As a group, St. Mark’s students, for example, may make higher scores on their Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) simply because they got into St. Mark’s, partially on their demonstrated ability to score well on tests. But, according to the ETS theory, any individual at St. Mark’s would have done as well on his SAT had he attended Hillcrest.

Getting to be one of those 450 accepted to a private school can be a harrowing experience for parents and students. At coeducational Greenhill, for instance, prospective students must successfully complete two one-half day test batteries. The competitive results are reviewed by an eight-member admissions committee as a prelude to an extensive private interview with the student alone. Last fall, only 105 of the 700 who applied made it.

At all-female Hockaday, the only private school among the majors with boarding facilities, screening is similar to that at Greenhill-with one major exception. Hockaday’s admissions committee openly gives preference to relatives of the 5,200 former students taught there since the school was founded in 1913. School officials acknowledge this and point out that 25 per cent of the current students have this advantage.

With these facts in mind, parents considering a private school education for their children should ask themselves four basic questions. Less than truthful answers all but guarantee hardship or heartbreaks -to say nothing of wasted money.

(1) Does your child have aboveaverage intelligence?

(2) Is he or she an alert, highlymotivated student?

(3) Is it important to every member of the family that the child geta special education?

(4) Will enrollment in a privateschool impose a financial hardship?

Obviously, all but question number four should be answered yes.

One more piece of sound advice. If private school officials say your child should go elsewhere, take the advice. A good private school knows.

Once the decision is made and the child has been accepted by a private school, it is time for another careful and deliberate re-evaluation of the total family situation. Enrolling your child should not be based on the idea that he or she can always return to public school if the private school plan doesn’t work out.

Assume Johnny goes to St. Mark’s for a few years before the family discovers that the expense is more than can be continued. The chances are better than 50-50 that those years at St. Mark’s (or any other prestigious school for that matter) have taken the boy well beyond the achievement level his public school contemporaries have attained. Where does that leave the boy?

Most likely, in serious trouble. You can bet he is going to be bored to death slogging along with public school students who are just now hearing ideas he explored months ago. Unfortunately, the public schools seldom allow academically advanced students to jump into a higher grade, no matter what the reason.

And there should be no illusion about the costs of private schools. Some private schools charge upwards of $27,000 for 12 years and that’s at today’s prices and today’s dollars. And this does not include an incalculable cost, the dollars needed to satisfy what some criticize as the “materialism” of private schools.

If parents put a youngster into a private school in the hope of prying open the doors to some Ivy League university up East, they may be in for a disappointment. The child may be accepted at such an institution, but for some reason graduates are more likely to choose a university close to home, available records show.

In 1972, for example, Hockaday and Greenhill graduated a total of 112 students, 93 per cent of whom went directly to a four-year university. About a third of these chose UT-Austin or SMU. Contrary to what might have been anticipated, only a handful wound up at a Harvard or Yale, Wellesley or Newcomb.

By contrast, 67 per cent of the 7,520 students who graduated from Dallas public schools in 1972 were accepted and did enroll in some junior or senior college. About 29 per cent of those chose four-year colleges or universities in Texas.

Quality private schools appear to be the ultimate answer, but only for parents of means who also have bright children. But is there an alternative for the average parent who is truly concerned about his child’s intellectual well-being?

Barron Kidd, an educated oil operator, believes there is. To him, the alternative lies with the parents themselves. And he has decided to prove his point with Ben Milam, a small public elementary school whose attendance boundaries include the Northern Hills area. (Northern Hills adjoins Highland Park and is bounded by Fitzhugh and Abbott.)

There is a depressing quality about Ben Milam; at 62, it is tired. It is not air-conditioned, the maintenance is less than good and the cosmetic green and Pepto-Bismol pink paint job screams mediocrity and institutionalism.

Ben Milam, though structurally sound, was once on the school district’s list of schools to be closed. It remains open because the school district’s integration case has frozen the district’s building plans. And, because, too, it is difficult to find a nearby elementary which can take students now enrolled there.

Ben Milam’s student body, less than 200 strong, is composed of a little over 100 Mexican-Americans, about 80 Anglos and a half-dozen blacks.

Not a single student enrolled at Ben Milam comes from the 60 homes in the Northern Hills neighborhood. Every school-age child from Northern Hills attends a private school.

Kidd says he has two reasons for being interested in the school. One is altruistic: he wants to do something to help the school and its students. The other, he admits, is selfish; if the school improves, property values will go up.

He believes that families of the Northern Hills neighborhood, acting together, can upgrade Ben Milam. “The degree of improvement will be limited only by the effort and intelligence of those in the neighborhood and the school district,” he says.

His interest in helping Ben Milam actually dates back three years to when Dallas businessman Ross Perot’s foundation gave $2 million to improve and enrich the educational opportunities at predominantly black Dunbar Elementary in South Dallas.

Since that happened, Dunbar has become one of the school district’s showcase elementaries, relying heavily on parental involvement to improve the achievement level of its students. It added an early education component which takes children as young as three, provides free meals for students, after-school child care, and a variety of innovative educational programs such as violin lessons and a reading program, which Kidd says have shown good results.

What Kidd and others in his neighborhood want to do is turn Ben Milam into a pilot inner-city school which would not only challenge its present students, but the Northern Hills youngsters as well. Some, if not all, of the Northern Hills residents feel that it is also important to show that children of all races can successfully attend school together.

Today, the Northern Hills group is in the talking stage. There are, of course, many problems in pulling off what the neighbors have in mind. Part of it is that no one yet has a clear vision of what should be done, and no consensus for doing it.

John Shinn, the principal, has wisely insisted that the entire school community become involved in any plans for the school, not just Northern Hills. And that will be difficult since many of the parents whose children attend the school have kept their distance. There is, for example, no parent-teacher organization.

Already, the Northern Hills parents have disagreed on one significant point, a chicken or the egg issue. Should their children stay in private schools until Ben Milam is shaped up, or should they show their commitment by putting their children in the school while the upgrading efforts are underway?

Kidd believes it is possible to work around these problems.

“People think of the Dallas Independent School District as a monolith, one big, single block,” Kidd said. “It isn’t.”

He is convinced the school district can be changed, made to respond appropriately to the needs of the people who make it up. To Barron Kidd, the place to effect such change is within one’s own neighborhood school.

If Kidd and the neighborhood can pull it off, it may be possible for a given public school to duplicate the education many now find in the top private schools.

But for now it appears that families with sufficient funds can provide their children with a definite edge on children who must attend public schools.


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