Nedda Gilbert, MSW, Educational Consultant, and Author
This is a great question because it's one so many parents grapple with. And it's a subject that could fill an entire book to answer adequately. That said, I'll try to provide you an overview and some guideposts. This may help you make the best decision for your son.
To begin with, some parents feel it's their duty to define themselves as a public or private school parent. In other words, they would never consider anything other than public for their child, or vice versa. It's like this choice is less a choice, but more wrapped up in their identity, their birthright, or their ideology. I always find attaching to one type of school over another possibly short-sighted, because so many public schools are as good as, if not better, than a private one. Likewise, many private schools are better than public ones. How good a school is - public or private - depends on the school. Period. When I say this I am referring to academics, quality of teaching, opportunities, classroom size, athletics, mission and culture. And again, this is a very school-specific thing. It really depends on the particular school we are talking about. Excellence correlates with excellence, not private versus public. Fit, which is equally important, correlates with who your son is, what would be best for him and what a given school has to offer.
There is a saying, "The devil is in the details." I've found this has tremendous applicability in researching and choosing the best school for your child.
Public Schools: If you've ever shopped for a home, you know that housing prices are typically linked to the local public school system and how highly those schools are regarded. Use this as a guide. Beyond that, you have many objective measures for determining how good a public school is, and Noodle has some great advice about choosing a school. Some important measures include: public school report card data, state rankings by magazines and even college acceptance rates. Most state departments of education offer a parent portal where you can examine all this data - from average SAT scores, to other rubrics such as how well their students perform on a range of state assessments. You may be able to email or contact a state department employee to ask specific questions. Look to see if the public school you are considering bears the banner of a National Blue/Ribbon school. Several hundred schools each year are awarded this distinction by the US Department of Education for demonstrating that their students have reached a high level of academic success. Of note, in 2014, 290 public schools won this award, and 50 private schools did as well.
But as I said, the devil is in the details. In considering all of the above in a public school, I would suggest you also research the following:
Consider the overall size of the school, and number of students permitted per classroom. For some time, I lived in a school district ranked #1 in my state. However, class size was enormous. Each room was at fire code. In researching other public schools that allowed class rooms to go to fire code, I learned that this often happens in districts in more depressed areas without the funds or means to expand. Regardless of locale, any public school that has to fill their classroom to maximum capacity is a school where students are going to be marginalized. It's just too hard to reach every kid in a classroom of 31 or 32 students. When one of my children entered high school, having over 30 students in each class became a liability, particularity in AP classes where the work was challenging. She could not possibly get the instruction she needed. We had to hire tutors. Size matters. And a smaller learning environment is always better. Before you buy the house, and into the image and rankings, make sure you know the student-teacher ratio in the public schools.
You should also review the school's policy on, and approach to, "soft times." This is typically recess and lunch. This is when and where the bad stuff occurs. Likewise, learn how they handle behavioral issues on the bus, another vulnerable place for your child.
Assess the relative progressiveness of the school's academic curriculum and even the maturity or youth of the teaching staff. What kind of math curriculum do they utilize? What is their approach to literacy? Do they have a solid writing program? Vocabulary? What other districts are using their academic methodologies? Also, a school district can be populated by much older staff (close to retirement) or be populated by new grads. There are pluses and minuses to both. Too newly minted, and the teachers may lack the expertise and experience to manage the class or teach effectively. An older generation of teachers may lack the familiarity with newer teaching methods and tech that younger ones do.
Ask, how many AP's does the high school offer? This offers a pretty good window into the academic tier at which they operate. There are public schools that far, far exceed the minimum standards the state has set for them. At the very top, state officials will tell you there are public schools self-defining themselves in an upper tier of excellence. Many of these public schools are well known within their state, and even on a national level. They can go toe-to-toe with the best private schools and offer the same range of high level AP and honors courses. Three high schools that come to mind are Princeton High School in Princeton, NJ, Boston Latin Academy in Lexington, Mass and Stuyvesent in New York City.
Consider the environment: is the public school a pressure cooker and unhealthily competitive? Are the students judgmental, with pointy elbows, or more laid back and collegial? Is there a healthy socioeconomic mix? Does one group of parents or type of kid seem to lead? Is this a clique-y place, or a welcoming one? Is there genuine tolerance, openness and diversity?
Will your son be a big fish in a little pond in this school, or a smaller fish in a bigger pond? Can he swim with the sharks?
How much do athletics matter? Does this district get a lot of kids recruited at the college level? (hint: if they do - athletics are going to be fierce, and it will be tougher to make the teams even at the JV level).
At what age does the district begin middle school? Grade 6 is preferable and more common. 5th is on the earlier side and far less ideal While middle school can be a bumpy time, starting that process sooner often creates social dynamics not every child is ready for.
Do they place students in an accelerated math track in middle school? At what age? How many tracks are there? How does this impact the ability to be able to take certain accelerated math classes in high school. In some districts, a student can not test or opt in later. A late bloomer may be precluded from taking the highest level math classes in high school (AB and BC Calculus). Depending on a chosen college major, this could be a serious problem in being a competitive applicant.
Finally, meet with several of the area's top pediatricians if possible. They have their ear to the ground. More than anyone, they know what really goes on in the classrooms and buildings of the local public schools. Which schools have the highest rate of somatic illnesses (anxiety, headaches, eating disorders, depression, etc). Your areas's pediatricians will let you know because they see it all.
As for private schools, many of the same issues are worth researching - administration and policies, school culture, level of academics, resources, etc. But there are some fundamental differences. Private school teachers don't have to be certified. That opens up a potential can of worms. You may want to look at staff bio's to assess their qualifications. However, many private schools go out of their way to hire extraordinary staff who have impressive backgrounds. Likewise, private schools are not held to the academic standards and testing public ones are. So you will have to trust your child is getting a solid education. You should also learn about average class size, number of APs taught] at the high school (if they go to grade 12), and college acceptance rates. Finally, research their policies on bullying and other disciplinary matters. Again, public schools are held to strict state standards. Private schools do their own policing. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but you should read the student handbook beforehand to get a sense of how well run the school is (or intolerant). Private schools can counsel your child out (translation: you son would do better elsewhere), or simply expel your child. A public school is stuck with anyone from the district who enrolls. You're guaranteed a spot even if your child is disciplined with a serious matter, i.e. bringing a nice batch of marijuana brownies to school. Yes, this is still going on. A private school would likely expel your son. A public school will give him a suspension of about a week. AND, this probably won't appear on their academic record.
A final thought on private schools: you can research the heck out of a private school and think you have learned everything there is to learn. But your child's private school experience will be most affected by who in his class and grade. You may choose a standout private school. But if the incoming class happens to be a bad batch of kids, all the academic prestige in the world won't change it. A leading cause of students fleeing a private school is getting stuck with a bad cohort.
Cohorts can also drive classroom dynamics. and some students into too many confrontations. Private school classrooms tend to be unduly populated with children who are an only child, or come from a two-kid household. That's because with hefty private school tuition fees, families with three or more children may be less likely to be able to afford the cost. By comparison, at public schools students come from a more diverse sibling population. I know one parent who pulled her daughter out of private school because there was not a diverse enough mix of personality types. The reason? A majority of students were firstborns in their family, or the only child and it just turned out to be a very bossy class. I don't mean to suggest only children, or first borns are more bossy, but a child who comes from a family of four siblings, may behave differently than a child who only has to share toys with his or her parents. I know of a prestigious suburban public school where the principal asks parents to disclose the birth order of their child. She is careful to create a classroom mix of students who represent an only child, firstborns, and middle children.
Last thought on private schools, some parents feel a private school can become socially limited over time. A public school may offer more social options depending on size.
Where you send your son to school is a highly personal decision. Hopefully the above may aid you in deciding where he will best thrive.