Private Drive

The how and why of a private school education depends on the who and what

The how and why of a private school education depends on the who and what

By David Hodes


Woodberry Forest School
Courtesy of Woodberry Forest School

Northern Virginia has a unique mix of kindergarten, elementary, middle and high schools—private and public—that are generally regarded as some of the best in the country. But somewhere along the way, a choice has to be made: Where will my child fit in? And what is the difference between a public school education and a private one?

A private school offers preparation for college specifically, but also for the life of a college grad in an increasingly complex and interconnected world. A world where polished writing skills and public speaking skills are critical keys to success. A world where economic changes come fast and furious with an immediate affect on the success of a business, or the health and safety of family.

What a private school does that, as some in the private school venue say, exceeds over a public school—often because of smaller class sizes and a depth of resources—is give the graduate the confidence in his or her tools to deal with the unknown. It’s about understanding there are no perfect answers to problems, just creative solutions to unpredictable opportunities.

Private school students are taught that staying alert to life’s twists and turns means relying on mechanisms of self-study and the confidence of applying principals that were taught as a foundation for personal development.

And this is perhaps the crux of the choice. Public schools educate the child as they are mandated to do by government standards, based on tested practices suited to the majority and dedicated to a measure of societal common good.

A public school education may not always focus on preparing the student for college. In fact, a public high school student may or may not want to go to a traditional college, instead taking courses in a specific study, such as information technology, that fits their strengths and hopefully brings them success.

The Madeira School
The Madeira School (Courtesy of Cameron Davidson)

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 68 percent of all high school graduates went on to college in 2011. At a private high school that figure can be as high as 100 percent.

To be fair, many of the public schools in Northern Virginia are outstanding. And some have adopted a private school approach to learning, such as using an advanced placement program model for example. Diane Dunning, director of admission and financial aid at the co-ed St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes School in Alexandria, affirms that they do share some of the curriculum material at their school with public schools. “But we have more freedom and flexibility to use that material in a way that will challenge the student,” she says. “That allows the student to be the best they can be.”

The Madeira School
Courtesy of Howard Korn

Another advantage over public schools is students getting more one-on-one time with the teacher. With student-to-teacher ratios often as low as six-to-one, as it is at Woodberry Forest all-boy boarding school, teachers can develop a personal relationship with their students.

They have the time—and the passion—to pass along critical lessons of life. They are expected to be mentors who can teach the child that education never ends.

“We want the child saying that they love learning and that they are a lifelong learner,” Janet Marsh, executive director of the Congressional Schools of Virginia, says. “That they are inquisitive and curious and will be that to the day they die … and that they are constantly on a journey for excellence.”

Meredyth Cole, assistant head of all-girl day/boarding The Madeira School, says that another difference between private and public schools is that public schools draw students from their locales. Private schools draw from all over the world. “I think it creates this community that in some ways is reflective of the world at large than somebody’s neighborhood,” she says.

St. Stephen's and St. Agnes School
Courtesy of St. Stephen's and St. Agnes School

Cole says that a child is free to “do deeper dives” into subject matter in a private school. “We talk about depth and breadth in our curriculum and that’s because independent schools are not sort of following a national standard per se. Kids do deeper dives in to particular subjects as opposed to just covering more material at less depth.”

In the private school environment, it’s also the practical application of that learning coming from seasoned and top-notch educators with real world experience to share.

That’s an important piece of the preparatory puzzle, according to Eileen Hanley, assistant principal and director of admissions and student life for one of the larger co-ed private schools in Northern Virginia, the 950-student Paul VI Catholic School in Alexandria. “We have a medical doctor who teaches our duo-enrollment biology,” she says. “We have an electrical engineer who teaches one of our physics classes and a chemical engineer who teaches chemistry. We tend to get people like that, people with a lot of real world experience brought into the class.”

But from the start, the decision between public and private schools is all about the individual fit for the child.

St. Stephen's and St. Agnes School
Courtesy of St. Stephen's and St. Agnes School

A parent-child journey into private education begins not with the school, but with the child—and that child’s family. In a private school, not just academic performance but also character is scrutinized. Dark secrets may be revealed, fears should be analyzed. A detailed portrait of a potential student is created because the school’s curriculum is designed to mine down to a person’s core, pushing them to do better at all times (more so in a boarding school environment), challenging them to think abstractly. A student has to be ready for that.

Cole says a boarding school environment is only for kids who have a comfort level living with other people in close proximity with shared values. “I will tell you that if a parent is making a child do it, if the child is not interested in it, that is a recipe for disaster,” she says.

Hanley says the school focuses as much on behavior as they do grades. “We can be selective,” she explains. “And how you treat one another and your work ethic is important because we don’t have to take you here.” Because many of Paul VI’s students come from a Catholic educational background, most discipline problems are already weeded out in a Catholic elementary school, she says. “We will not accept a child with a disciplinary problem. That is a piece of the puzzle that we look at first,” she says.

Paul VI Catholic High School
Courtesy of Paul VI Catholic High School

The admission process to most private schools involves steps of mutual investigation. For example, at St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes, an Episcopal private school of 400 in Alexandria from junior kindergarten through 12th grade, that process involves first filling out an inquiry form; coordinating a campus tour with parents and the child from October through February; filing an application; assessing the child through observation in a classroom setting or by standardized independent school tests; then notification of selection by March.

In this process, it’s not just the child’s personality and academic abilities that come into play; fiscal practicality has to be examined as well. The financial differences between a public and private school are a major consideration, because some of the benefits of a private school education are hard to measure. “It is a hard sell to parents because the alternative is sort of free—you are paying for it out of your property taxes,” Gina Finn, the director of admissions and financial aid at Middleburg’ all-girls day/boarding Foxcroft School, says. “So in some ways it’s a luxury item. But there is a lot more financial aid out there than there used to be.”

Tips on getting a child enrolled in a private school

Mike Brown, of The Boyd School
Brown says that Boyd wants to make sure that the families are comfortable with them—and the Montessori methodology. That is the biggest first step, he says. “Knowing the expectations of the parent is more important than knowing the school’s expectation. Without us knowing it there is no way that we are going to know how to best guide your child and guide your family.”

Eileen Hanley, of Paul VI
Hanley says that parents are looking for a safe environment for their kids—something that is not always possible in a public school. “A safe environment is huge,” she says. “When looking at some of the public schools, there are gang issues. We don’t have fights in our hallways. That never occurs here.”

Diane Dunning, of St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes
Dunning says there is a saying that admission is more of an art than a science. “What we are looking for in these young children is a consistent thread in a child’s file to try to get a sense of this child. We look for that intellectual curiousity, that spark, someone that has that interest in the world around them.”

Foxcroft, for example, offered $1.2 million in financial aid to 25 percent of their student body for their 2011-2012 school year. And, Madeira distributed $2.5 million in financial aid grants to 70 of their families in 2011.

The reason for the high costs is that it’s expensive to run a private school facility, like Congressional’s for example—a 40-acre campus in Falls Church featuring multiple swimming pools and an equestrian center with 14 horses.

Probably the single most significant driver of a private school’s structure is their adherence to a mission, a core set of beliefs that drive their selection of teachers, becomes the foundation for curriculum and inform parents about what their child is getting into. It also typically involves a philosophy about teaching.

One example of a teaching philosophy as a mission is at The Boyd School, a network of seven campuses in Loudoun and Fairfax counties using the Montessori approach to teaching. The basic concept of Montessori teaching is that the only valid impulse to learning is the self motivation of the child. The teacher prepares the environment, programs the activity, functions as the reference person and “exemplar” and offers the child stimulation. But it is the child who learns, motivated through work itself, and not solely by the teacher’s personality, to persist in their chosen task.

Mike Brown, public relations coordinator for Boyd, says that the Montessori method teaches kids mentoring and leadership skills from an early age as a result of their mixed-age classes.

At the school, first, second and third graders are combined as well as fourth and fifth. “The beauty of the mixed-age classroom is that the younger kids want to be like the big kids, and the majority of our older kids have been with us for many years,” Brown says. “So they take on a leadership role in the classroom that is different than it is in a traditional setting.”

Montessori teaches less “pencil to paper,” Brown says. “It’s a lot of building a strong foundation. Once they have that foundation they can move on to more abstract concepts.” He says that there is more Montessori philosophy being adopted by educators in public schools programs. He points to Montessori grads like Sergey Brin and Larry Page, founders of Google, and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, as proof of abstract thinkers with a solid foundation.

Tips on teaching boys in an independent school

Re-think homework
Teachers should try to use homework that gives immediate feedback or give boys a way to earn their way out of homework.

Connect assignments to the real world and to their aspirations to be men.

What are the stakes?
Does it matter to them? Does it matter to other boys?

Do not use the threat of failure
This does not work for boys because they eventually write off the entire enterprise.

Does a teacher know what the boy knows? They won’t respect a teacher until the teacher finds out what they know.

Do not compare boys unfavorably to girls
Boys know that they are behind developmentally.

Use humor
Irony, mystery, surprise and a well-told story work well.


All girl: All-girl v. co-ed school

When rating their computer skills, 36 percent of graduates of independent all-girls schools consider themselves strong students, compared to 29 percent of their co-ed peers.

48 percent of girls’s school alumnae rate themselves great at math versus 37 percent for girls in co-ed schools.

Surveyed about what they liked most about an all-girls school, 46 percent of students said either having the opportunity to take safe risks or the supportive environment.

The all-boy boarding Woodberry School is also defined by the tenets of their mission. “We have felt that we are as good at educating boys as any school in the country,” J. Harrison Stuart, the school’s director of admissions, says. “That has been our founding mission and one that we are going to stick with.” As a result, he says, they are going to see less applications than other boarding schools. “That doesn’t mean that we are less prestigious,” he says. “It means that less people are interested in our model.”

The school has one of the most supportive alumni bases in all boarding schools, Stuart says, with 54 percent giving back to the school every year. “That is reaffirming their devotion to our mission,” he says. The school is always studying the mission and always trying to enhance it, he says. “But we also want to communicate it as clearly as possible so that we might be able to attract boys that are going to be the most successful as Woodberry boys,” he says.

The how and why of a private education is supported by a library of studies and stastics. What’s hard to explain in admissions is the intrinsic value of personal development and sense of a shared community experience a students gets in a private school.

Dunning says that an independent school creates an environment of not just physical safety but emotional safety. “So students feel they can take an intellectual risk. They feel it’s a safe space where they can make a mistake.”

Entrepreneurs in the world right now are constantly making mistakes and having little, and sometimes, big failures as they come to something great, opines Dunning. “So we want our students to have that emotional safety and really push themselves to try to understand how to take an intellectual risk.”

So, public or private?

The question, unfortunately, creates more questions.

Who is your child? What are they able to do? Can they fit into a structured, focus environment where that child is being challenged and pushed to excel? And most importantly, can that child go to a higher level of thinking and see the big picture of his existence in society?

That is the ultimate goal you hear time and time again when talking to many of the local private school faculty and administrators. “We are really geared toward preparing children to understand their responsibilities as global citizens,” Marsh says. “To be successful in that type of environment.”

Dunning says that they try to give students the message that when they leave the school, the student has a responsibility to make the world a better place.

“Whether it’s in the neighborhood or whether they find themselves on the world stage, that sense of community and character development is very important to us.”


Virginia private independent schools v. national independent schools

  Virginia U.S.
Total enrollment 25,069 551,377
Average median tuition, all grades (day) $15,983 $19,100
Average median tuition, all grades (boarding) $31,765 $45,200
Percent of students on financial aid 21.2% 23%
Average student attrition rate 12.3% 9.23%
Median class size, grades 9-12 13 14



Private Schools: Co-ed v. Same-sex Schools

Meredyth Cole, of Madeira All-girls school
Cole thinks that girls in a same-sex school are able to focus on themselves as individuals. “Our girls are a little more authentic to themselves. They don’t have the social pressures that a co-ed environment would create. Girls are willing to take risks in science and math and leadership that they might not take in a co-ed environment.”

Gina Finn, of Foxcroft All-GIrls School
Finn says that she has been a teacher and a school administrator in both same-sex and co-ed schools. “In an all-girls school, it’s as if you lifted a weight off the girl’s shoulders. Their lives just become less complicated and the focus is really on them.” She says they don’t have to censor themselves or second guess themselves, so they tend to develop a much stronger voice in the school community and the classroom. “The whole school community is focused on what is best for the girls.”

Eileen Hanley, of Paul VI Co-Ed School
Hanley is a product of an all-girl school, and can see some advantages. “But a co-ed education is a little more real world. It’s a co-ed world out there.”

J. Harrison Stuart, of Woodberry Forest All-Boys School
Stuart says the school is a nurturing educational environment where boys can be challenged and can take risks. “What we have been able to preserve here are four years of boyhood. We keep them moving, we have short classes because we know they are not going to be able to sit for long periods of time. Boys and girls learn differently, studies have shown. We want a boy who is going to be a good citizen, a boy with endurance and mostly a boy with ambition.”

Diane Dunning, of St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes Co-Ed School
Dunning says that the school does have single-gender classes in math and sciences in the middle school because studies have shown that girls tend to take a back seat. “That’s another example of the freedom that independent schools have to tweak your program like that. Our students are graduating into a co-ed world so having the perspective of both genders I think is important for them in both education and the workplace.”



About the schools in this article

Congressional Schools of Virginia
3229 Sleepy Hollow Road, Falls Church, VA 22042; 703-533-9711;

Teaches: PK-8
Annual tuition: PK-SK=$20,000; grades 1-4= $20,800; grades 5-8= $21,700
Total enrollment: 400
Mission: To prepare children, through an innovative and accelerated curriculum, to embrace the opportunities and responsibilities they will face as global citizens.
Curriculum highlights: The Bright Beginnings Program is designed to nurture the physical, emotional, and cognitive needs of children under the age of 3. Particular emphasis is given to language development, fine and gross motor skills, self-awareness and building relationships with others, exploring the environment, toilet training and preparing children for preschool.

Foxcroft School
(all-girls day and boarding)
22407 Foxhound Lane, Middleburg, VA 20118; 540-687-5555;

Teaches: 9-12
Annual tuition: $38,500(day) all classes; $47,500 (boarding) all classes
Total enrollment: 156
Mission: To provide a residential learning experience for girls in which academic excellence, leadership, responsibility and integrity are the highest values.
Curriculum highlight: Equestrian program, from beginning riding to the Foxcroft riding team as part of the school’s Exceptional Proficiency Program.

Paul VI Catholic High School
10675 Fairfax Blvd., Fairfax, VA 22030; 703-352-0925;

Teaches: 9-12
Annual tuition: $11,750 (Catholic); $16,450 (non-Catholic)
Total enrollment: 950
Mission: To provide an excellent Catholic education to young men and women by affording them the means to achieve spiritual, intellectual, personal, social and physical development according to the teachings of the Gospel and St. Francis de Sales.
Curriculum highlight: Dual enrollment with Northern Virginia Community College for biology and fine arts; 120 technology programs.

St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School
400 Fontaine St (one of 3 campuses) Alexandria, VA 22302; 703-751-2700;

Teaches: JK-12
Annual tuition: JK= $23,185; K-grade 2=$25,960; grades 3-5=$26,085; grades 6-8=$28,495; grades 9-12=$30,765
Total enrollment: 1140
Mission: To pursue goodness as well as knowledge and to honor the unique value of each of their members as a child of God in a caring community.
Curriculum highlights: 23 advanced placement offerings; 11th and 12th grade students are selected for the Virginia Governor’s School to study a variety of topics, including humanities and sciences, visual and performing arts and foreign languages.

The Boyd School
3909 Oak Street (one of seven locations in Loudoun and Fairfax County), Fairfax, VA 22030; 703-934-0920;

Teaches: infants-8
Tuition (monthly): K= $1,755; elementary, grades 1-6=$1,981; middle school, grades 7-8= $1,562
Total enrollment: 503
Mission: To guide children to independent learning
Curriculum highlights: Periodic results of Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) diagnostic language and math (kindergarten, elementary, middle school assessments.

The Madeira School
(all-girls day/boarding)
8328 Georgetown Pike, McLean, VA 22012; 703-556-8200;

Teaches: 9-12
Annual tuition: $36,824 (day); $48.497 (boarding)
Total enrollment: 321
Mission: To help young women to understand their changing world and to have the confidence to live lives that are of their own making, their own passions, their own dreams.
Curriculum highlights: Internships with various institutions, including the National Institutes of Health, National Geographic and the United States Geological Survey, as part of the school’s co-curriculum program.

Woodberry Forest School
(all boys boarding)
10 Woodberry Station, Woodberry Forest, VA 22989; 540-672-3900;

Teaches: 9-12
Annual tuition: $44,800 for tuition and room/board
Total enrollment: 405
Mission: To develop in its students, under Christian principles, a high sense of honor and moral integrity, a deep respect for sound scholarship, a full acceptance of responsibility, a love of excellence, and a will toward personal sacrifice in service to others. It is likewise its mission, based on these ideals, to develop its students into leaders, to train its students toward a useful contribution to the democratic society in which they live, and to give them thorough preparation for the best colleges and universities consistent with their individual potentials.
Curriculum highlights: Summer study program for international studies in Central America, England (Oxford), France, Scotland and Spain.


(November 2012)