How private school educations in NoVA reap long-term benefits for students

Northern Virginia’s public schools rank as some of the top in the nation, so attending private school isn’t always an obvious choice. But for many parents and students, the tuition is worth the investment. With robust alumni networks and ongoing professional development, attending a private school can help students connect with others in their industry long after the last bell rings.

broderick c dunn in suit
Broderick C. Dunn, now an attorney, attended high school at Woodberry Forest School and remains active in its alumni network. (Photo by Christin Boggs Peyper)

Growing up in Woodbridge, Broderick C. Dunn attended public school, but when it came time for high school, his parents wanted to give him a private school option.

In 1996, Dunn was accepted to both Woodberry Forest and another private boarding school in the Northern Virginia region. “(My parents) sat me down and said, ‘We want this to be your decision. Where do you want to go?’” he recalls. “I said (the other private school) is close to home, there are girls there and I think it would be a lot of fun.”

Shortly thereafter, Dunn’s parents got a call from Tony Gould, a Woodberry Class of 1960 alum who served on the school’s Board of Trustees. Back then, he would contact the families of every newly admitted student from around the Washington, DC area. Gould spoke to Dunn’s mother for an hour. Afterward, “my parents said, ‘I know we said this was going to be your decision but after talking to Mr. Gould, we think Woodberry is the best place for you.’ I went to Woodberry and I ended up really enjoying it.”

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One of Dunn’s mother’s concerns was that he have enough spending money while attending Woodberry. Gould, also a Girls and Boys Club board member, got Dunn his first job in Dale City as a day camp counselor, which he did for four straight summers.

This post originally appeared in our November 2019 issue. For more education-related content, subscribe to our newsletter.

This was just one example of how Dunn, a 2000 Woodberry alum, benefited from the school’s vast alumni network filled with college students to those who graduated more than 50 years ago. While the region’s public schools rank as some of the top in the nation, private schools offer alumni networks filled with a bevy of opportunities, including networking, professional advice and mentoring. For some local parents, it’s that long-term benefit that makes the financial investment in private school worth it.

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Making Connections

Jacob Geiger, Woodberry’s director of strategic communications, explains why he thinks alumni are so connected to the school. “We think a lot of it is because they felt a lot of connection when they were students,” he says. “We want them to always feel like they have a root here. They are part of this community forever, not just for those three or four years as a student.”

In November 2017, the all-boys school launched Woodberry Connect, an online platform for alumni to post about a variety of needs, such as internships, job opportunities, professional advice or networking. About 1,000 of the school’s roughly 6,500 living alumni members joined in the first year.

It also has 14 regional associations in cities where the biggest pockets of alumni live, such as DC, Dallas, Charlotte and Richmond partaking in networking events or service projects. “We see these groups will get together even when there is not a school-organized event,” Geiger says. For example, “They might get together to watch the big rivalry football game each year with Episcopal in Alexandria.”

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The school often has alumni come back to speak to current students. The talks are less about telling students to take specific classes or go to certain colleges and more stressing the importance of skills like being trustworthy and reliable. “I think it helps our boys to hear that from someone who was in their shoes in the past,” Geiger says. “We can tell them that as teachers or parents, but there is a level of buy-in when an alum tells them, ‘Hey, this is what has served me well in my professional and personal life.’ That is different from hearing it from Mom and Dad or hearing it from a teacher who is in your ear every day.”

The students enjoy getting a chance to meet with the alumni because they have shared the same experience they are going through now. “When you are away at school you are doing something that is different than a lot of your friends at home are doing,” Geiger says. “It is nice to know that there have been people who have been through a similar experience, but also it is great because it creates these connections for eventually going to college, for careers down the road—just like you’d expect from a good university alumni network.”

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Madeira students all graduate with three internships. Here, history teacher Andrew Sharp, director of co-curriculum, advises students. (Photo by Christin Boggs Peyper)

When the time came for Dunn to choose a college, he wanted a smaller liberal arts school and had his heart set on Williams College. Gould had stayed in touch with Dunn and set up a meeting for him to meet his uncle, a former trustee at the Massachusetts school. Afterward, Dunn received a letter of recommendation from the trustee as a part of his ultimately successful application.

He also met with alumni while attending Washington and Lee University School of Law to explore different aspects of the legal profession. While in Richmond, he became active in its local Woodberry chapter. Today, he is active in the school’s DC chapter and even served as president.

Dunn is now a partner at Cook Craig & Francuzenko PLLC in Fairfax handling labor, employment and business litigation cases. “Whether you graduated 10 years ago or 20 years ago or 50 years ago, I think the Woodberry experience binds you and Woodberry trains you to take advantage of that network … It opens doors and puts you in contact with people from various backgrounds, various countries, various lifestyles and I think teaching you how to interact with those people and giving you access to that is helpful,” Dunn says.

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Madeira’s U.S. history class includes prep for a five-week Capitol Hill internship. Here, history teacher Andrew Sharp and Tasia Harris, assistant director of co-curriculum, help students prepare. (Photo by Christin Boggs Peyper)

A Modern Network

St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School in Alexandria is another educational institution that offers alumni multiple ways to stay connected to their alma mater. Saints Link serves as a secure networking platform for alumni to post job opportunities, internship possibilities and offer mentorship to others. Active for two years, there are more than 800 registered users. Alumni also have access to the school’s online directory where they can personally reach out to others.

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The school also invites alumni to speak at the school for special events, like when upper school students sign the honor code, a commitment promoting an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. Meredith Robinson, senior director of Alumni and Parent Engagement, notes one faculty member who teaches AP government brings back multiple alums to speak to his class, including successful entrepreneurs and a United States District Attorney. “It reinforces those lessons that are being taught in the classroom by showing real life examples from this community,” she says. “I think (the alumni network) helps set expectations. I think it shows where our students can get to based on the foundation that was built here but also through hard work.”

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Emily Barre (far left, in a science class at Madeira), now a junior at Duke University, did an internship at a biomedical device company during high school. (Photo by Christin Boggs Peyper)

A History of Mentoring

Over 100 years ago, Madeira founder, Lucy Madeira, wrote in her first alumnae bulletin, “The alumnae of any school are its greatest asset. What they think and say of the school makes or breaks it.” The McLean-based school has more than 7,000 living alumnae that host student interns in their workplaces, participate in mentor clubs and affinity groups on campus and speak at campus events.

“Madeira’s mission is ‘Launching women who change the world,’ so not only are Madeira alumnae mentors to current students, they are part of a long tradition of preparing Madeira women to lead,” says Susie Keller of the school’s Alumnae and Development Office.

Students at Madeira learn how to prep for professional internships. Here, a student looks at clothing appropriate for a professional setting. (Photo by Christin Boggs Peyper)

Every Madeira student has a five-week internship embedded into their curriculum each year from 10th through 12th grade. Sophomores work in community organizations while juniors are on Capitol Hill and seniors focus on their career interests and passions. “By granting over 12,000 internships, Madeira has given its girls unparalleled access to the real world and built lifelong confidence,” Keller says. “Madeira has offered this co-curriculum experiential internship for over 50 years so alumnae who were themselves beneficiaries of this life-changing experience as high schoolers love to ‘pay it back’ to today’s students by offering them meaningful internships to build their real world experience and an enviable resume that rivals those of college graduates.”

McLean resident and class of 2017 graduate Emily Barre is a junior at Duke University. Her senior year internship was in the quality control department of K2M, a biomedical device company in Leesburg. “A Madeira alumna designs spinal devices and introduced these internships to the school,” she says. “This summer I returned to K2M as an intern on their engineering team through their formal college internship program and cannot imagine a better fit of a summer experience. When writing my cover letter and even during my interviews, I was able to pull very significantly from my co-curriculum experience as a whole and the weekly reports that we wrote during the placement proved to be valuable in reminding me about the specifics of what I did during my time there.”

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Great Falls resident and class of 2016 graduate Kristin Joostema always knew she wanted to be a pediatrician. During her senior year, her co-curriculum internship was working for pediatric cardiologist and Madeira alumna, Dr. Jennifer Lindsey. Joostema is a senior at the University of Richmond.

“Although hectic and crazy, my internship affirmed what I wanted to do and gave me even more motivation to succeed in college so I can reach that end goal,” she says. “Dr. Lindsey didn’t just sit me in a corner; she took the time to draw diagrams of the heart and walk me through step by step what was happening in a case. To have the opportunity to work with a fellow Madeira girl who started with my same high school experience and made it in the world is so inspiring.”

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