After Ursuline Academy’s middle school field hockey team lost a hard-fought game to Campus Community Charter School in Dover last September, David Castro, father of a Campus Community player, waited on the sideline for his daughter.
“There were three Ursuline girls walking together, and one of them caught my eye,” Castro says. “I smiled at her, and she smiled back and said, ‘Thanks for coming.’”
Castro was dumbfounded. “It just blew me away that this little girl, whose team had just lost a tough game, would have the grace to express that kind of feeling,” he says.
The next day he fired off an email to Ursuline’s principal: “You have a great bunch of young ladies who obviously exhibit the values of good sportsmanship, and I hope that you might be able to pass my praise for them onto their coach and the players. It is encouraging to see that there is such great hope for our next generation. You and your staff, along with the parents, are obviously doing a great job.”
The incident could serve as a picture of the ideal private school student: a mature, polite young person who makes a profound impression on a member of the community.
Such testimonials are treated like gold at most corporations and, presumably, at most schools. At Ursuline, the compliment was acknowledged, but it was treated as a given that Ursuline girls would comport themselves in such a manner. Indeed, administrators have been unable to determine who uttered the magical words because no one on the team deemed them especially memorable.
For Margarita Rodriguez-Duffy and her husband, sending their child to private school was a no-brainer. Their son James, 14, a graduate of Independence School near Newark, is a freshman at Salesianum School in Wilmington.
“We were looking for a school that concentrated on basic building blocks of education, as well a second language in the younger grades,” says Rodriguez-Duffy, “We also wanted him to be exposed to art and music and other activities that would make him a well rounded person.”
Parents with sufficient resources continue to seek out private and independent schools—especially high schools—for two basic reasons: to ensure their children’s well being and quality of education. For upwards of $7,000 a year, they expect their kids to be assured acceptance into a four-year college or university, where they are prepared to perform well, then carry their good graces and ethics into the working world.
Here’s a compendium of the hows and whys of local private high schools.
The Private School Difference
Private school administrators are reluctant to compare their programs to public schools, or even to other private institutions. Several, in fact, refused to grant an interview for this article. That includes most of the independent schools—Friends, Sanford, Tatnall and Tower Hill did not return phone calls.
When private school administrators do speak of advantages, they emphasize that the education they offer is different rather than better.
“It’s not fair to say that a private school education is better than a public school,” says Paul Pomeroy, principal of Archmere Academy in Claymont. “The mission of a private school can be clearly defined because you have a single group of individuals. For a large school district with many tiers, that gets quite complex. That doesn’t make it better or worse.”
One thing administrators make no bones about: Theirs are preparatory schools.
“We don’t offer home-ec courses, agricultural courses or power mechanics,” says Donald Keister, principal at Caravel Academy in Bear. “There’s nothing wrong with those courses. It’s just that we are focusing on preparing kids for college.”
Peer pressure is a big motivator too. “You are surrounded by people who tend to be successful and who apply themselves,” says Cathy Field Lloyd, new principal at Ursuline, her alma mater (class of 1970). “You’re impressed by your peers, and that creates pressure—in a good way—to apply yourself.”
At Catholic institutions such as Archmere and Padua Academy in Wilmington, there is also a spiritual and emotional commitment to the school’s principles by both students and faculty.
“Padua is rooted in the Gospel and modeled on the values of St. Francis de Sales and St. Francis of Assisi,” says director of admission Shana Ruffner. “We endeavor to provide an academic environment that nurtures the whole person while challenging her to accept the responsibilities of global stewardship.”
“If you look around the school, you will see pocketbooks, bags and computers lying around. Nothing is hidden, because nothing is ever stolen,” says principal David McKenzie. “In fact, seniors simply pick up their exams and take them anywhere they want to complete them. There is no cheating, either.”
University of Delaware photograph by Duane Perry
Nearly all private school graduates pursue a post-secondary education, and almost always at four-year institutions. Because of the preparation they receive, it’s generally accepted that private school grads have a better shot at the more prestigious colleges.
For obvious reason, the University of Delaware continues to attract a large percentage of both public and private school graduates in the state. While the Ivies are a reach, Delaware annually manages to place students in most of those hallowed institutions. Duke, Georgetown, and even Stanford are other choices for Delaware’s top students. Ursuline, for instance, claims 70 percent of its graduating seniors go on to “most competitive” or “very competitive” colleges. In doing so, 91 percent of the class of 2007 was awarded a total of $4.3 million in academic and athletic grants and scholarships.
While placing graduates in colleges is
their ultimate goal, private schools also
attempt to guide grads to the right schools.
Caravel Academy principal Donald Keister says his school prides itself on matching students to the appropriate college. “We have several students who ride horses, and Sweetbriar in Virginia allows students to take their horses to the college, so we’ve placed a couple students there.”
Many students go on to pursue graduate degrees. Says St. Mark’s principal Mark Freund, “The skills you bring to students at this age are those they’ll use for the rest of their lives. So we prepare students for basically a lifetime of learning because in this world and this economy, learning really never stops.”
Teacher Melanie Jago Hiner founded The New School
to let students like Chloe Baker (right) determine what
styles of learning work best for themselves.
Photograph by Luigi Ciuffetelli www.luigic.com
The New School on the Block
Alternative education means many things. At The New School, it means rigorous study—with a degree of fun—in a way students choose for themselves.
In the old farm house that serves as The New School in
One, 13-year-old Chloe Baker, is trying to understand why multiplying two negatives makes a positive. It may be a minor struggle, but Chloe is glad to be here.
She left her old school three years ago because she felt it wasn’t allowing her to advance her reading skills, “I always had to wait for everybody else in the class,” Chloe says. “Here I am able to learn at my own pace.”
The New School is a fully democratic co-educational school of 52 students, ages 6 to 19, that is founded on Leo Tolstoy’s notion that, “the moment you give [children] full liberty and provide them with material, they will fill out harmoniously on all sides.”
Thus The New School not only allows children to choose what they learn, but also how they learn. Some, like Chloe, learn through reading, some through watching films, and others via the computer.
Nine teachers from a variety of academic experiences and professions from art to engineering help students with the basic reading, writing and ’rithmetic, but they also design their own courses. Past classes have covered subjects such as midwifery, glass blowing, vulcanism, linguistics, hieroglyphics, abnormal psychology, cryptology and origami. So in one way, extra-curricular activities such as swimming and equestrianism are the curriculm.
In addition, students set their own timetables for learning. They even decide which hours they’ll attend, though each must be in the school six hours a day.
School founder and teacher Melanie Jago Hiner explains that being able to make their own decisions often leads children to explore things they might find challenging.
“The kids have a greater sense of gratification if it’s something they have chosen to pursue,” says Hiner, whose son John is a New School student. “It helps them realize that learning is something you do, not something that is done to you.”
Hiner says this is something that most schools seem to forget when they attempt to regurgitate information in a uniform way to a class of uninterested children. “Any text, no matter how ancient or profound, can be made inert, turned into a dead thing, by how it is approached,” says Hiner. “Treating texts or ideas as mere information is like being a gravedigger.”
Educational methods are merely the start of the key differences between The New School and others.
The 19th-century farmhouse feels less like a school than the family of students’ and teachers’ real home. The students bring their own food and eat when they are hungry. “It’s important to pay attention to how your own body works,” Hiner says. “We don’t all want to eat our lunch at 1 o’clock.”
More important, the student body manages the school’s finances (revenue is generated solely by tuition of $5,750 a year), and the students’ judicial committee hears and penalizes all infractions of school bylaws, which were, naturally, written by the students. Even teachers are subject to review. Last year, Hiner was found guilty of leaving empty teacups around the school and was sentenced to keep a sippy cup tied to her arm at all times.
The school thus provides all sorts of life lessons and skills. But to graduate with a high school diploma, each student must write a thesis on a topic of their choosing. The student must then defend the thesis to a review committee of volunteer peers and parents who decide whether or not that individual is ready to graduate—not unlike a doctoral candidate defending a dissertation. Students can graduate at any age, but they must have attended The New School for a minimum of two years.
But does it work? In the 13 years since it was founded, the school has graduated 22 students, 19 of whom have gone on to institutions such as the University of Delaware, St. John’s College and the University of Pennsylvania. Graduates have entered an array of career fields such as computer consulting, professional modeling and photography.
“By the time our kids finish school, they have learned how to set their own schedules so they don’t fall apart when they get to college,” says Hiner.
The New School has gone over so well with parents that two years ago Hiner started an adult version called Perpetua Humanitas.
“It is so important to challenge yourself, no matter what age you are,” says Hiner. “If you aren’t actively engaged in thinking well about something and don’t actually let it affect your thoughts and actions, you’re no better than a voyeur, an intellectual peeping Tom.” —Helen Jardine
(from left to right: Joe Biden, Jonathan Adler and Pat Ciarrocchi )
The Power of Alumni
Because of their continual need for funding, private schools focus more on alumni than do public institutions. Both alumni and their parents are looked to for contributions.
Websites and frequent mailings, including magazines like Salesianum’s Distinguished Gentleman and Archmere’s The Archmerean provide news about classmates and keep alumni informed about happenings at the school. Homecoming events in the early fall are usually major productions, with as many as four sporting events and a dinner.
At Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, as at many schools, alumni are active throughout the year, participating in Ring Day, Homecoming Weekend, Reunion Weekend, an annual 5K race, bus trips to New York theater, a fashion show and a golf outing—a favorite activity of many alumni associations. Most schools ask alumni to come back to discuss their professions or even their first year in college with students.
Combined with annual reunions of classes that graduated at five-year intervals, this makes for strong alumni bonds and networking—some of it social, some professional.
Old grads also show support by sending their children to their alma maters. For older schools, such as Salesianum, Archmere, Ursuline and Tower Hill, such legacies are in the third generation.
At Padua Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school in Wilmington, alumnae even volunteer in the admissions office and help organize class retreats and field trips. Because it’s a boarding school, St. Andrew’s School in Middletown tends to create a stronger bond among alumni than a day school does.
“Our alumni like to come back and visit, not only because it’s got great memories for them but it’s a place where many of their most important mentors still teach,” says Roach. He travels across the country and the world talking to alumni groups, in part to urge them to support an annual fund of $1.5 million.
Some famous graduates of Delaware’s private schools include: U.S. Senator Joe Biden, his son and state attorney general Beau Biden, and U.S. Attorney Colm Connolly of Archmere Academy in Claymont; founder of Wilmington’s Contemporary Stage Company and NBC comedy “30 Rock” star Keith Powell, as well as Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Kevin Mench of St. Mark’s; Channel 3 anchor Pat Ciarrocchi of Padua Academy; federal judge and wife of Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, Marjorie Osterlund Rendell of Ursuline Academy; and interior designer Jonathan Adler, lead judge on Bravo’s “Top Design,” of Tatnall School near Wilmington. Hollywood actor Ryan Phillippe attended New Castle Christian Academy (formerly New Castle Baptist Academy).
The Single-Sex Advantage
Single-sex schools are founded on a very basic premise: boys and girls are different, and that difference escalates once puberty sets in. What’s more, it seems they learn differently. Girls not only mature earlier, they acquire language facility sooner and think conceptually earlier. Boys are more energetic, physical and competitive. (Note to female athletes: These are generalities, and not meant to apply to all individuals.)
Further, says Meg Moulton, co-executive director of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, “Girls work in ways distinct from boys. There are very little turf and territory issues with girls. They use each other in a kind of web-like approach to learning. They’re better listeners and communicators.”
Boys, on the other hand, see issues in a more black-and-white, right-and-wrong mode. They like to take charge and are more confident—sometimes overly so.
It follows, then, that a curriculum geared to a single sex might be more successful. It also leads to counter-stereotypical behavior, according to the experts. “The evidence shows that students in an all-boys environment are more likely to take more not-masculine subjects, such as language arts,” says Brad Adams, executive director of the International Boys’ Schools Coalition. “Activities are not polarized by gender. In almost every boys school I know of, there is a thriving and successful arts program.”
At Salesianum School in Wilmington, which has a fine arts requirement, the principal, Father Bill McCandless, vouches for this finding.
“We get a lot of hype for our sports program because of interest in the community, but what you don’t hear about is our outstanding fine arts program,” McCandless says. “We have TV production and filmmaking, and your standard painting, drawing and sculpting classes, as well as architectural design. We have marching band, wind ensemble, jazz band, chorus. In dramatics, we’re in partnership with the New Candlelight Theatre in Arden, which is something no one else in our state has.”
Padua Academy photograph courtesy of Padua Academy
For girls, a single-sex environment seems to propel them toward math and science—again, counter-intuitively. “According to a 2000 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, NCGS alumnae majored at a higher rate than females and males nationally: 13 percent NCGS, compared to 2 percent females and 10 percent males nationally,” says Moulton.
McCandless posits that boys tend to become more passive in classroom settings “because they don’t want to appear stupid in front of girls.” Conversely, says Moulton, “Girls might not want to look smart, to engage in intellectual pursuit, for fear of some sort of negative inference on their sense of social self in a co-ed setting.”
“For both groups,” says Moulton, “the single-sex culture and climate often create a very can-do, why-not attitude.”
“Boys do better than girls in co-ed classes, probably because they use girls as a leverage point,” she adds. “They are more physical, more energetic.”
An underlying reason for every single-sex school is the matter of distraction. Administrators believe their students are better able to focus because they don’t have to deal with the opposite sex and all the hormonal and sociological dynamics that entails—especially teenagers. (This applies largely to post-secondary schools. At the pre-school and primary levels, some studies indicate that boys and girls learn better together.)
While the presence of the opposite sex may indeed cause eyes and minds to wander, single-sex schools also run the danger of creating another kind of distraction by imbuing boy-girl events with undue importance. A former Ursuline Academy student remembers that, as those events approached, “All anyone talked about was the next Sallies dance, or the next class we were going to have with them.”
But principal Cathy Field Lloyd has nothing but fond memories of Ursuline. “I remember feeling freer to express myself in a girls’ environment,” she says. “And I definitely saw that in others too.”
Tatnall Upper School fields 23 athletic teams. In
fall 2007, five of six teams qualified for Delaware
high school tournaments.
photograph by Jim Graham/The Tatnall School
Athletics: More than Sports
“Work hard, play hard” has a whole new meaning for today’s private school students, says Chuck Durante, a 1969 graduate of Tower Hill School in Wilmington. “Having a certain commonality, whether it be religious, sporting or school related, can get you a first audition later in life.”
By the time they graduate in 2009, twins Megan and Amanda Hudson both will have earned 20 varsity letters in five sports at St. Thomas More Academy in Magnolia. But the Hudson girls aren’t strictly jocks. They’re both good students, and in November 2006, Megan was one of 11 Academy students who bused to Gulfport, Mississippi, to help with the continuing Hurricane Katrina cleanup.
“We expect our students to participate in three activities—one of them a non-sport activity,” says principal David McKenzie. “We don’t check to make sure, but almost all of them meet our expectations. We feel they mature a lot quicker when they’re involved in sports and other activities. And everybody makes the team. We don’t cut anyone.”
At schools such as Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, a traditional power in girls’ basketball and volleyball, and Salesianum School in Wilmington, which dominates in football and several other sports, athletics are important, but both schools maintain that they don’t encourage students to participate in sports per se, but in some sort of extra-curricular activity.
Some teams extend the reach beyond their sports to serve the community. “Our basketball team volunteers throughout the year at a local soup kitchen,” says Principal Mark Freund of St. Mark’s High School in Wilmington. “Part of the St. Mark’s philosophy is to give back to the community, and is rooted in our Catholic faith. It’s part of our DNA.”
Wilmington Friends School
The Diversity Question (Does it Exist?)
“Diversity is a concern for many private schools,” says Roxanne Higgins, president and senior consultant for ISM (Independent School Management), a Wilmington firm that provides management support for private and independent schools. “Tuition is obviously a barrier, but they try to diversify both economically and socially. Very often it’s in their mission statement.”
The National Association of Independent Schools has a membership of 1,018 and represents 524,806 students. NAIS claims 22 percent of that total are students of color. That figure includes Asian Americans (7.3 percent), African Americans (5.7), Hispanics (3.1) and “multi-racial” (4.2). NAIS schools are providing financial aid to 17.3 of the students in its member schools, with an average grant of $9,728. Average median tuition for all grades is $15,763.
Achieving a 22 percent enrollment of “persons of color” would be virtually impossible for Delaware’s private schools. At the all-boys Salesianum School, the number is 3 percent, according to the principal, Father William McCandless. “Socio-economic diversity is critical to a student’s education, and we’re looking to grow that,” he says. “We’re actively looking at having a director of diversity to help us in that pursuit. Our minority enrollment is actually increasing slowly but steadily.”
McCandless says Sallies needs to do a better job of getting the word out to the community that financial aid is available and “that you don’t have to be rich and you don’t have to be middle class to come to Salesianum School.”
“Schools are very closed environments, no matter what you do,” he says. “But you somehow have to reflect something that’s more in keeping with the real world. The more we can expose our students to real-world dynamics, the better able they’re going to be to take their place successfully in the world.”
Principal David McKenzie of St. Thomas More Academy in Magnolia calls diversity “one of our problems.” His estimate of minority enrollment is 15 percent—a relatively high number for Delaware private schools. Some 43 percent of the 205 students are on financial aid.
Despite tuition of $38,000, St. Andrew’s School in Middletown—the state’s only boarding school—offers “tremendous diversity in terms of where the kids are coming from,” says principal Tad Roach. “Sixty percent of our 288 students come from the Mid-Atlantic states,” he says. “But we have students from 28 states and 11 countries.” Some 45 percent of the students are receiving financial aid to help defray that hefty tuition.