Private vs Public?
One of the big questions that weighed on my mind during our Kindergarten decision was the benefit of private school over public. Our situation was a bit different because our private school experience would also combine the Montessori method, making it hard to isolate the private vs public factors but I felt I needed to figure out whether the benefits of paying almost $11K in tuition would get us something worthwhile.
The obvious benefit of private school in Chicago is the class size. You can’t really argue with having 20 or fewer kids with 1-2 teachers compared to CPS who allow up to 30 with 1 teacher. I know (I KNOW!) that “a good teacher can handle a big class.” But let’s face it – the union situation with the CPS teachers ain’t exactly breeding the best of the best. If I were guaranteed of getting one of those good teachers, I’d be in for sure. To alleviate my fears, several people have told me that during the Baby-Boom era, elementary classes could easily have had 40 – 50 kids. “And they turned out fine.” Well, they turned out fine because the Boomers’ sheer mass has allowed them to dominate U.S. culture and policy for a while now. And BTW, don’t I want my kid, my child with UNLIMITED potential to be more than “fine”?! Of course I do! That’s why I’m sitting here writing this blog instead of watching Swingtime on TV.
I suspect that the teachers in private schools are somehow better because if they aren’t, they can be fired – unlike in CPS. On the other hand, I believe that private schools probably pay their teacher less than in CPS or the top suburbs so maybe the teachers AREN’T better. Or maybe they are better because they are doing for the love of the job, not the pay. Argh! I guess it’s impossible to say which are better. Subjectively, I’d go with private. I know (I KNOW!) there are fantastic teachers in CPS. But as my neighbor told me (who has a daughter in high school,) “She has had some fabulous teachers and others who… well, lets just say that if some of them were found dead in the parking lot with a drill in the head, it would probably be my doing.” This from a woman who I’d say is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. Yikes.
Certainly the smaller student body in private schools allows the staff and administration to really know each child and give them the personal attention they need. OK.. good. On the other hand, if your child is outside the norm in a private school (slow learner, ADHD kid) there are not typically the resources available to help them. OK… doesn’t matter since my kid will be perfect in school (ha.)
Let’s move to the important topic weighing on the mind of every parent of a 5-year-old. High school. According to a 2006 Chicago Magazine article, 14-18% of the kids in the selective high schools come from private/parochial school. Seems fair. However 30% of the kids at Northside College Prep (the high school with the top scores in the whole state) come from private/parochial. That seems pretty impressive, I gotta say.
The downsides of private school, in my opinion, are the small student bodies (can you really get an 8th grade crush on a kid you’ve been in class with since Kindergarten?), lack of diversity (both ethnic and socio-economic) and of course the freakishly high price tag that could be redirected into a college fund. Or a new kitchen.
On to CPS. The advantages often include bigger student bodies (more options for friends and activities,) definitely more diversity, its free!, and importantly, the chance to work with your community to build a great local school.
But the downside, CPS can make a mother break into a cold sweat. Bureaucracy. Budget cuts. Teachers union. Big classes. Yucky bathrooms. A general sense of chaos. Weird-smelling hot lunches. And worst of all, just today my son asked me if there would be bullies at his new school. At his private Montessori I could have given an unqualified “No!” (private schools can get rid of the trouble-makers.) Unfortunately, I couldn’t say the same about CPS. It’s a scarier environment with lots of big kids running around, parents who are less-involved, and ultimately the school must take the neighborhood kids whether they’re angels or bullies.
In the end, my personal conclusion was that private schools probably have more a personal and academic focus (they better for that price!!) I’m just not sure if the benefits are worth paying thousands and thousands of dollars for over a decade. I have to believe that if we make education a priority in our household that our son can learn nearly as much in CPS. If we work with the school and work along with other parents to push for progressive education and engaging classroom activities, we can get pretty close to what we’d get at a private school. I don’t think it can happen unless parents get involved. But I’m hopeful that if we all demand it, we can get it.