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The Decision to Go Independent: Flexible But Pricey

Weighing the pros and cons of sending your child to such a school.

An independent school is just that—a self-governing, self-supporting school independent of a public school board, religious body, or other outside entity. These schools are usually overseen by a board of trustees and funded by some combination of tuition, donations, and endowments.

Independence from state budget woes, independence from the pressures of preparing for standardized testing, and independence from the directives of district administrators and parish leaders can be very appealing. There’s a perception among independent school parents that this autonomy translates into a greater focus on the needs of students.

When considering schools for her daughter, Maria Rossman said institutions that looked out for the individual student ranked high on her list.

“I was attracted to the notion that a private school would place less emphasis on standardized testing and may be more responsive to children’s needs and parents’ concerns,” said Rossman.

After much consideration, she felt that the girls-only Springside School in Chestnut Hill was the best fit for her child.

Independence may also allow these schools to experiment by adopting new curricula, teaching trends, and alternative approaches a little faster than their public and parochial counterparts. A one-of-a-kind parent-teacher cooperative program at  convinced Pam Chaplin-Loebell to send her two daughters to the small, co-ed school in East Mt. Airy.

“For parents who are trying to find a school community where they can jump right in and really be involved with their child’s education, Project Learn School is a great option,” she said.

In response to concerns about the amount of work expected of co-oping families both in and out of the classroom, Chaplin-Loebell offered some advice.

“Don't fear the co-op work," she said. "Not only is it extremely flexible and doable; it is also a powerful way that you can personally make a difference at your child’s school.”

But even though autonomy and the freedom to experiment are major incentives, those were only two of several reasons why parents said they sent their children to independent schools. Many offer a foreign language, a library, music and art programming, a variety of team and individual sports, well-maintained facilities, relatively low enrollment and—in some cases—a student-to-teacher ratio comparable to a college seminar class. Like , independent schools organize community service projects and other volunteer opportunities for students and their families.

These schools also have unique missions setting them apart from other schools. For example, both Springside and Chestnut Hill Academy are single sex campuses, while Academy in Manayunk primarily serves children with learning disabilities. There’s often no single reason that a parent will choose to send a child to a particular school. The decision is usually based on a complicated mix of issues involving a child’s needs and a family’s expectations.

But independent schools are not cheap. The tuition is usually among the most expensive, with costs as high as those found at some private colleges. Although most schools offer some level of financial assistance directly or indirectly, aid is usually need-based and is disbursed in the form of scholarships, grants, loans or some combination.

“Don't be discouraged by the tuition - financial aid may be available from the school, and there are other sources for scholarships, even for elementary-age children,” Rossman said.

In addition to tuition costs, critics of independent schools say their concerns include the perceived lack of economic and/or racial diversity and a sense of exclusivity and isolation from the larger community.

Ultimately, parents must do what they believe is best for their child at that point in time.

“I am a big believer in looking for a school program that is appropriate for who your child is today, and what their needs are right now rather than selecting a kindergarten based on worries about what college admissions will ultimately be like," said Carrie Kimball, whose children attend The Miquon School in Whitemarsh Township. “If you are trying to build a structurally sound and functional house, you don't begin with the roof.  You start with the foundation."

There are approximately 1,300 independent schools in the United States, and these schools are well-represented in northwest Philadelphia. Local non-denominational independents—other than the ones mentioned above—include the  in Mt. Airy and The Crefeld School in Chestnut Hill.

Some religious-based schools may still be considered independent because they’re not affiliated with a parish or other religious body. Local religious-based independents include  in Chestnut Hill, as well as Germantown Friends School, Greene Street Friends School and William Penn Charter School in Germantown.

For more information about these and other independent schools in our area, you can contact the schools directly. Additionally, the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools (PAIS) maintains a directory of PAIS accredited schools and other information that has to do with independent school education.

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