Public or Private? The Right Way to Choose a NYC High School

While the notion of private school may conjure up images of elite, ivy-covered buildings and polished students in uniforms, the truth is there’s a lot of variety among New York City area private schools.

Despite the range of NYC high school options, many families immediately dismiss the idea of applying to private schools, either for fear of going bankrupt or simply because they get bogged down in the private versus public high school debate.

There is no right or wrong answer, as often it comes down to personal fit and financial resources. Ideological questions also arise: Do you wish to send your child to a public school because you support public education, even if that may mean a less desirable school? Are you willing to pay thousands of dollars and take your chances on receiving financial aid, to be sure your child gets an impressive education?

To help you decide on the best choice for your family, there are some generalities to consider when comparing private versus public schools. Let’s take a brief look at these characteristics:

Quality and Variety

In a city like New York, you can find both of these characteristics in private and public schools. While there is a vast array of public high schools, for example, not all are desirable or appropriate for a specific child’s talents, interests, skills, or learning style. The same can be said for private schools across the city.

Although there are fewer private schools to choose from, they still offer a broad range of educational philosophies and approaches. Both private and public schools can be large or small, progressive or traditional, highly rigorous or not-as-much-so. Whatever your preferences, however, don’t assume that only private equals quality, or only public equals variety. And by all means, don’t assume a seat in a highly coveted school — public or private —offers a one-way ticket to the best university for child. It merely represents an opportunity.

Class Size

Private school budgets, while not always as limitless as many believe, often do result in smaller class sizes. But do your homework; low adult to student ratio does not necessarily equate to small class size, and class sizes can vary dramatically from one school to another, even from one grade level to another.

It’s also important to consider the class size that may offer the best fit for your child and her learning style. Is a small class with more personalized attention and fewer distractions best, or does your child thrive in larger, more dynamic, and socially diverse class environments?

Admissions Process and Enrollment

Public high schools typically have less control over their application process, criteria, admissions offers, and enrollment. In my experience, I have come across many public school principals who are fed up with overcrowding and would, if given the opportunity, adjust their enrollment and admissions policies. Private schools, on the other hand, generally set their own criteria and enrollment figures based on school mission, strengths, facilities, market conditions, and so on. And these factors often change from year to year.

The implications of these differences are that some public schools will include a more diverse mix of students and families — demographically and otherwise — or simply a population that is more closely aligned to their surrounding neighborhoods. And, of course, among the more highly sought-after schools, demand for a small number of open spots is a common problem in both public and private schools, especially in the highly competitive New York City market.

Facilities

Public school facilities are mostly overseen by the city, and the schools are often met with challenging space demands and competing interests. Private schools, on the other hand, may have more latitude when it comes to how they use their buildings and outdoor facilities, as well as budgets for maintenance, development, and so on. Of course, finding, managing, and operating a school space in a city as expensive as New York can be particularly daunting.

Teachers

Arguably, private schools have more leeway in terms of qualifications and certification when it comes to hiring teachers. In some cases, this could mean that they employ more teachers with advanced degrees; in others, it may mean that they prefer teachers with more classroom experience. Do your homework and understand what teachers in both private and public schools bring to the table.

Accountability

Make no mistake, while private schools have more latitude in terms of following governmental requirements and accountability, they still have to meet certain guidelines as outlined by their state and accreditation associations. Simply because a school is private does not mean it goes by a set of its own rules.

Coursework

While private schools are accountable to certain standards, they often have the budget to provide a more extensive array of classes and coursework, even choices based on student demand. You will find fewer private schools that are cutting arts programs, for example. Of course, some public school communities and parent associations step in to help address these deficiencies in their local public schools too.

Lifestyle and Finances

For some families, especially those who end up getting little to no financial aid, the lifestyle adjustments required to attend a private school can be dramatic. Is it worth spending more time at work and less time with your kids to pay for that expensive private school? How will your family cope with having to move to an entirely new location to manage expenses? Are you willing to sacrifice college savings for high school expenses?

Check out the top sources for outside financial aid for private school.

These types of questions can often be the most difficult and time-consuming ones that families face. Recognize that there are high-quality public options available, and check with an expert to help you navigate the often-confusing public choice process.

Having said that, an important message to families considering private school is this: Don’t assume you won’t get any financial aid. Each school has its own, usually complex formula, and a higher income does not necessarily result in zero aid. You may also wish to consider less expensive parochial schools, or enter the charter school lottery. At the end of the day, I advise my clients to give themselves every opportunity, within reason, to have as many viable options on the table as possible.

Undoubtedly, the private versus public debate will continue for decades to come, and these issues represent just a few of the questions families face. It is also important to note that the information mentioned here is fairly generic in nature, and each school and community will be unique. In fact, some private schools will appear more like public schools, and vice versa. To many families in New York City, for example, the differences between the elite public specialized high schools and other private schools can often appear minimal.

My advice to families engaging in this debate today? Do what’s best for your own family, do your homework, and avoid comparing yourself to others. Consult with an expert who can help you sift through all the factors involved. And remember, the right answer is what’s right for you and no one else.

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