Private school or public school? Ask around and everyone has a different answer, but hearing how other families wrestled with their decision might just help in making your own.
We found three local families that pondered sending their children to private schools. One family chose public. Another has sent its daughters to both private and public schools. The third has a son in a private Montessori school. These are their stories.
The Bishops: Public School
As the daughter of teachers, Julianne Bishop of North Seattle has always been a strong proponent of public school education.
“Philosophically, my husband and I have said we’d keep our kids at public school as long as it can meet our children’s needs,” says Bishop, who is a pediatrician and a mom to Katie, a high school freshman, and Jack, a fifth-grader.
After moving to another school because of boundary changes, Katie experienced a “disastrous” eighth-grade year. Thinking an incoming freshman class of more than 600 students at their local public high school might not be a good fit, the Bishops began researching private, parochial and smaller public schools.
And so, Katie applied to three schools: Lakeside School’s new micro school in downtown Seattle; a Catholic high school in North Seattle; and The Center School, a small public high school for the arts in Seattle. She was accepted at both the Catholic high school and The Center School; picking between the two was tough, says Bishop.
“The private school had everything we were looking for academically, but The Center School offered a small size [380 students], an amazing social fit and a leadership team that will provide a solid educational experience,” she says.
In particular, Bishop points to Katie’s involvement in the school’s Gay/Straight Alliance, which she joined in eighth grade. “She wants to be at a school where it’s normal to introduce yourself with ‘Hi, I’m Katie and my pronoun is she,’” says Bishop.
The plan is different for the Bishops’ fifth-grade son: They plan to switch him to one of the local Catholic schools for middle school and high school, based on the schools’ smaller academic environments and to avoid any possible school changes resulting from boundary or overcrowding issues.
Bishop’s advice to parents: Start the school touring process early.
“Make visits the year prior to when you want to apply,” she says. “Involve your child by giving them options that you will support. Ultimately, my daughter chose the school she felt was the best fit, but if we hadn’t looked at all of the options, I couldn’t have supported her final pick.”
The O’Driscolls: Private and Public Schools
Kari O’Driscoll fully planned on sending her daughters to public school after they attended kindergarten at a private Montessori school. But a prolonged illness in the family made keeping her daughters together in the same school particularly attractive.
“My husband was sick for three and a half years and in and out of the hospital every 12 weeks,” O’Driscoll says. “The one-year overlap when Erin was in class with her younger sister, Lauren, was awesome during an incredibly difficult time.”
For fourth grade, Erin switched to a Woodinville public school. “Although she tested into the school’s advanced program, she was wait-listed. By Thanksgiving, she was depressed, anxious and in therapy,” says O’Driscoll, a social-emotional learning specialist and writer who lives in South Seattle.
Involve your child by giving them options that you will support.
After learning that other parents had enrolled their wait-listed kids in private after-school enrichment programs to quell their boredom, O’Driscoll began researching private schools.
“When we visited Seattle Girls’ School, it was loud and joyful. Erin said, ‘Oh Mom! I have goosebumps — this feels good,’” she says.
The choice was made: Both girls attended the private Seattle Girls’ School for middle school. For high school, Erin attended Seattle Preparatory School (also private), while Lauren attended The Northwest School for two years. She’s since transferred to a community college to finish high school through a public high school’s Running Start program.
“Lauren is incredibly intrinsically motivated, and she knows who she is and what she wants. This way, she can finish high school and follow her passion to learn more about her chosen field of music,” says O’Driscoll, who says private education has helped her youngest thrive.
“During kindergarten, a teacher helped us figure out that Lauren has a sensory processing issue. If she had attended public school, I feel like Lauren would have used her entire bandwidth to keep it together. She probably would have been diagnosed with ADHD. At Seattle Girls’ School, she learned to self-advocate to have her learning needs met,” says O’Driscoll.
O’Driscoll urges parents to look at every available educational option: “Nothing is forever. If your first choice isn’t working out, there’s nothing wrong with finding a better fit. You know your child’s strengths and challenges. You can choose an environment that helps support their growth.”
The Stewarts: Private School
Facing the expensive fees of her son’s private Seattle-area Montessori school, Kay Stewart* planned to switch her son, Max*, to public school this fall. But then she realized that her 7-year-old first-grader’s private school had become more than a school.
“While we have neighbors and friends, the only significant adults in his life besides me are at this school. The smaller size means all the kids can have close relationships with the staff,” says Stewart, a victims’ rights advocate who lives in Seattle. “The personalized learning environment is his luxury; it’s my gift to him.”
Many details factored into her decision to keep Max in private school. For one, Stewart was concerned about her active son having less outdoor time at the local public school. She also likes the Montessori school’s mixed-age classes and its flexible environment, which includes plenty of project-based learning driven by student interests.
A single mom, Stewart also prefers the private school’s schedule to maximize precious early-morning and late-afternoon time with her son. Plus, she was worried that there wouldn’t be space in the public school’s after-school care program.
It was talking with parents whose kids attend the local public school that confirmed Stewart’s choice. Based on what she heard, Stewart felt she’d have to be constantly advocating for Max if he attended the school.
“Max’s current school is already working hard to help him, and I’ve already established a relationship with them that makes advocating easy,” she says. “By keeping him there, I can focus more on enjoying my time with my son.”
Still, Stewart says she may send Max to public school later. She’d love for him to experience a more diverse community of families and to attend school with neighborhood kids. But she’s happy with her decision and encourages other parents to trust their gut.
“I fought my intuition, but deep down I knew what was right for my kiddo all along,” she says. “Everybody else has an opinion, but the only thing that matters is what’s best for you and your child.”
*Name has been changed