Private schools offer diverse educational and philosophical emphases, often while stressing community service and high-quality athletics. Is one right for your children?
Here’s what you need to know in order to decide.
From sports to service and from math to science, private schools offer opportunities to excel.
When Mark Anderson became the head of Sanford School in Hockessin in 2011, he was impressed by the number of private schools in the surrounding area. “Delaware, for our size, has a tremendous number of choices,” says Anderson, who was previously the head of school at Whitfield School in St. Louis, Mo.
In some respects, private schools are part of the region’s history. Consider that Wilmington Friends School, founded in 1748, counts Caesar Rodney as an alumnus. (The namesake of Rodney Square in Wilmington signed the Declaration of Independence.) Mike Castle, former Delaware governor and U.S. congressman, graduated from Tower Hill School, founded in 1919, and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden graduated from Archmere Academy, which was founded in 1932.
Private schools, which do not receive public funding, proliferated during the 20th century. There is seemingly a school to meet most students’ needs, and parents expect results. “We as leaders of private schools need to make sure that we’re offering something that parents both want and are willing to pay tuition” to receive, Anderson says. “We have to continually make sure we’re doing a good job for our families.”
Parents choose a private school for a variety of reasons. For some, it’s about the curricula, which often emphasize college preparatory studies. “We begin working with freshmen to offer the best college placement success,” says Cindy Hayes Mann, head of Padua Academy. “We see the student through the eyes of potential—not just who they are as freshmen, but who they will become.”
Getting into a good college is not the only goal. Securing a scholarship is another. Members of the 2015 class of St. Thomas More Academy in Magnolia received a total of $8.7 million in scholarships. The amount is impressive given there were 66 students in that class.
Most parents appreciate a private school’s class size, which typically averages from 11 to 20 students, depending on the school and the subject. There might be just six students in a niche class such as Latin at Sanford School. At St. Thomas More Academy, there is one teacher for every eight students.
Small classes give teachers a better chance to mentor students, says Elizabeth Speers, head of Tower Hill School. “The advisory program helps teachers know our students’ strengths and to personalize the learning process.”
At Tower Hill, she says, it’s the norm for students to ask teachers for extra help or discuss a topic in more depth. By the time they get to college, they are comfortable exchanging ideas with adults. The students have also developed a strong work ethic.
Without oversight from a government body, such as the Board of Education, private schools can adjust, augment and focus the material as needed, whether it’s to suit a student’s learning style or to reflect changes in the modern workforce.
Some parents choose a private school because of its philosophy. At St. Thomas More, teaching and learning are “infused with the Catholic faith,” says Judi Coffield, the admissions director. “In the classroom, through extracurricular activities, on the playing field and through service to others, Catholic high schools develop young men and women who are faith filled, competent and confident as they prepare for college and careers.”
For some parents, choosing a private school is about curricula, which often emphasize college prep studies. “We begin working with freshmen to offer the best college placement success,” says Cindy Hayes Mann, head of Padua Academy.
But students need not be Catholic to attend a Catholic school, Coffield notes. “We know this creates a rich environment for exploration of and respect for faith traditions.” Similarly, students need not be Quaker to attend Wilmington Friends.
Parents may also see the learning advantages of a single-sex student body. Some studies show that these schools challenge gender stereotypes and broaden students’ aspirations.
In Wilmington, Padua Academy and Salesianum School offer both faith-based roots and a single-sex student body. “We cultivate not only the mind, but also the soul,” says Mann. “Our faith community unites our Padua sisters around the world. We teach our young women to be leaders in all phases of their lives.”
The process of learning is as valued as the outcome. Says Ken Aldridge, head of Wilmington Friends, “Our students and graduates earn great successes, from college to career, but it is how they do it—with integrity and hope, and with the courage to be proximate to what matters most—that gives Quaker education its unique promise and responsibility to make a better, more just and peaceful world.”
Many private schools emphasize community service.
Tower Hill senior Matthew Santos organized a drive to collect 200 pairs of shoes for Filipino students.
Each year, Matthew Santos’ family travels to the Philippines, his parents’ homeland, to see relatives. During one visit, the Tower Hill senior, a cross-country runner, noticed that many Filipinos had worn-out shoes. He couldn’t help but compare their footwear to those of his classmates and fellow athletes, many of whom have old shoes piling up in their closets.
So Santos organized a drive at school that garnered nearly 200 pairs of shoes from students and faculty. He shipped the donation to his uncle, who lives in the Philippines near Biao Guianga Elementary School, which serves low-income students and orphans. Then Santos flew over to deliver the shoes in person during a two-hour school assembly that included singing and dancing in his honor.
“It was really exciting, and everyone there was really excited,” Santos told the Tower Hill Bulletin. “Just seeing the smiles on their faces for getting old shoes was amazing.” He was so motivated, he organized a drive for used sports equipment, which he plans to deliver this year.
Santos’ philanthropy is not unusual at Tower Hill, in Wilmington, where upper school students must perform at least 40 hours of service. “Character education and service learning are built into the ethos of a Tower Hill education,” says head of school Elizabeth Speers.
Most private schools have similar programs. Upper school students at Wilmington Friends School, for instance, must perform 50 hours of community service before graduation. At St. Elizabeth High School in Wilmington, students need 60 service hours to fulfill the requirements.
Even private schools without a formal program stress community service. “We ask students to find their own passion,” says Mark Anderson, head of Sanford School in Hockessin. “Often that means supporting local nonprofits and local charities.”
Sanford students recently organized a dodge ball tournament to benefit the Andrew McDonough B+ (Be Positive) Foundation, which provides financial assistance to families of kids with cancer. (McDonough was a straight-A student at all-boys Salesianum School when he died in 2007.) “It was all student-driven,” Anderson says. “It comes down to student choice. There’s something very maturing about that process.”
While service benefits the community and the student, there’s another reason to encourage volunteerism. “Colleges regard community service highly during the admissions process, and many college scholarships include a community service requirement,” says Mac Scott, a teacher at The Tatnall School in Greenville.
Private schools with kindergarten and elementary school programs start early. At Tower Hill, for example, young students engage in age-appropriate activities, such as visiting retirement communities or working at food banks.
Community service ramps up in high school. For the 2016-2017 school year, Salesianum School freshmen formed a partnership with neighboring Warner Elementary School’s Project C.H.A.N.C.E. (Children’s, Health, Achievement, Nutrition and Community Empowerment). The Sallies students provide mentorship to Warner students.
Each year, freshmen at The Tatnall School meet for an orientation to the Upper School Service Learning Program and discuss possible projects with a service learning coordinator. The projects must receive approval before the students can start volunteering.
Approval is also part of Wilmington Friends School’s program, which has a service program coordinator and committee. Students must have steady involvement with a sponsoring agency. The class of 2016 chose to work for such nonprofits as the Center for the Creative Arts in Yorklyn, the Delaware Humane Association, Ronald McDonald House, Food Bank of Delaware and the Haitian Refugee Project. The agency may not have a program inconsistent with the tenets of Quaker faith.
Not surprisingly, service is a large part of a faith-based school’s philosophy. “Serviam, or ‘to serve,’ is at the core of the mission” at all-girls Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, says Lin Nordmeyer, the school’s marketing communications manager. “Each student is required to complete 80 hours of service by her sophomore year, but most students average 160 hours, far exceeding the requirement.”
During Padua Academy’s Sophomore Service Days, the students volunteer with Camden, N.J.-based DeSales Service Works. “As one student wrote, ‘Even though our contributions were small, I’m glad we were able to touch so many lives today. I truly believe God wants us to become more involved in service because we are, in the end, really serving him,’” says Cindy Hayes Mann, head of the Wilmington school. For the 2015-2016 school year, the entire student body volunteered a combined 16,000-plus hours, she says.
During the May Crowning event at St. Elizabeth High School in Wilmington, seniors who have performed at least 200 hours of service are recognized for their contributions. Twenty-three students were celebrated in 2015 and again in 2016.
It’s not enough to do good works, however. Students in many schools, including Wilmington Friends, must create and complete a project that will illustrate the experience. The project could result in a poster, journal, student-designed website or formal presentation to a group, such as the lower-school class, a board of trustees committee or a community group.
Tatnall students complete a self-evaluation and final project, such as a bulletin board display, artwork or article for the school newspaper. “Many students complete their service during the summer, early in their high school careers, and then maintain their relationship with the agency through their senior year,” Scott says. One student, with her family, organized a nonprofit to help Delaware foster children attend sporting events.
Philanthropy knows no limits. Tatnall students have worked locally at the Food Bank of Delaware and helped the Hearts with Hope Foundation, which provides medical, dental and humanitarian assistance to children with congenital heart disease in underserved communities around the world. Tower Hill’s program now includes service trips. Students have worked with Habitat for Humanity in North Carolina and with the St. Bernard Project, which rebuilds hurricane-ravaged homes in Louisiana.
Several schools participate in the locally based Jefferson Awards Foundation-Deloitte Students in Action. The program encourages teenagers to impact their schools, communities and the world. At Tatnall, the club has participated in canned food and toy drives.
The St. Elizabeth Students in Action group in 2015 received the Outstanding Community Service by a High School Award from the Jefferson Awards Foundation and Deloitte. The school went on to win the bronze award at the national ceremony.
Providing a firm philanthropic foundation ideally has a lasting influence, says Shirley Bounds, head of school at St. Elizabeth. “Through the program, students are encouraged to become engaged citizens and to practice that involvement throughout their lives.”
Why sports matter.
Padua Academy Cross Country team members
Chicago Sky basketball player Elena Delle Donne, former U.S. Women’s Lacrosse Team coach Jackie Pitts and Green Bay Packers tight end Justin Perillo all have one thing in common: They graduated from a private school in Delaware.
Delle Donne is an Ursuline Academy alum. Pitts is a graduate of Sanford School. Perillo graduated from The Tatnall School.
These Delawareans demonstrate that private schools don’t let athletics take a backseat to academics. In fact, many schools view physical education as part of their mission to build responsible, well-educated citizens.
“In all activities, including athletics, Wilmington Friends offers students broad opportunities for participation and leadership,” says Ken Aldridge, the head of school. “In keeping with the school’s philosophy and educational goals, Wilmington Friends values excellence in sports and plays to win at the upper school and middle school A-team levels.”
Coaches emphasize good sportsmanship, teamwork and personal accomplishments—not just winning.
Sports can also be part of a college preparatory program. Athletes who graduated from The Tatnall School in 2016 pursued their sport at Duke, Fordham, Muhlenberg, Appalachian State and Auburn University.
And don’t let a school’s size fool you. At Ursuline, small is mighty, says Lin Nordmeyer, the marketing manager. Ursuline’s basketball team has won 16 state champions. Salesianum School, which offers 15 varsity sports, has won 147 state championships.
Physical education requirements differ from school to school. At Archmere Academy, participation in athletics is voluntary. Nevertheless, 90 percent of the students compete in an interscholastic sport, and many join more than one team.
Sanford School volleyball team members
At Wilmington Friends School, upper school students must participate in at least one season of athletics. This follows a three-season requirement for seventh- and eighth-grade students. The policy can have pleasant results. Aldridge recalls one student who wasn’t interested in sports until he signed up for cross-country. “By his senior year, he was captain of the team and a running enthusiast,” he says.
Wilmington Friends includes sports as an extracurricular activity. Even so, many varsity athletes choose to participate in musicals and/or technology clubs rather than to focus on sports.
At Tower Hill, students are urged to join a team that will push their endurance and build self-confidence. Because of the school’s size, there is a greater likelihood that the student will become actively engaged in the sport.
“At larger schools, students may not have the same opportunities to make the team or receive substantial playing time in their high school years,” says Elizabeth Speers, head of school.
That’s also the case at St. Thomas More Academy in Magnolia, which has 131 high school students. “Our small size enables greater participation in all four years of the high school experience,” says Judi Coffield, the admissions director. “Coaches can focus on players and develop their skills and leadership qualities.”
Many private schools have a no-cut policy. Sanford School is one of them. “That means any student can come out for any team,” says Mark Anderson, head of school. The coaches are adept at working with students who are playing at a collegiate level, as well as novices. “They’re able to get the most out of the entire group while they build the skills of the individual,” Anderson says.
Aldridge would say the same of Wilmington Friends’ coaches, who, like teachers, must write reports with comments and grade the students (pass-fail).
“Student-athletes are held to high standards for developing their talents to the fullest and for contributing to their teams with a conscious responsibility to the good of all.”
From television stars to the vice president of the United States, here are some of the most celebrated graduates of local private schools.
David Acord, Salesianum, 1989, Academy Award nominee, sound editor for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
Jonathan Adler, Tatnall, 1984, leading designer and author, lead judge on the Bravo series “Top Design”
Frank Aiello, St. Elizabeth, 1966, Delaware Basketball Hall of Famer
Adrienne Arsht, Tower Hill, 1960, philanthropist
Erin Arvedlund, Archmere, 1988, author, “Too Good to Be True: The Rise and Fall of Bernie Madoff”
Joe Biden, Archmere, 1961, vice president of the United States
Joseph Robinette “Beau” Biden III, Archmere, 1987, former Delaware attorney general
Rob and Chris Buccini, Friends, 1986 and 1990, urban developers
Ruly Carpenter, Tower Hill, 1958, former Philadelphia Phillies owner
Neil Casey, Salesianum, 2000, actor and writer, “Ghostbusters” (2016), “Inside Amy Schumer”
Christopher Castellani, Salesianum, 1990, award-winning novelist
Mike Castle, Tower Hill, 1957, former Delaware governor and U.S. representative
Carly Ciarrocchi, Archmere, 2010, host, Sprout’s “The Sunny Side Up Show”
Trevor Cooney, Sanford, 2011, Syracuse University basketball standout
Chris Coons, Tower Hill, 1981, U.S. Senator
Elena Delle Donne, Ursuline, 2008, WNBA Rookie of the Year, Olympian
Luis Estevez, Sanford, 1947, fashion designer
Joe Hemphill, St. Elizabeth, 1967, Delaware Sports Museum and Hall of Famer
Johnny Duke Lippincott, Sanford, 2006, touring musician, Little Big Town
Pat Kenney, Salesianum, 1986, professional wrestler Simon Diamond
Ellen Kullman, Tower Hill, 1974, former DuPont CEO
Bill Marsilii, Salesianum, 1980, screenwriter, “Déjà Vu” (Denzel Washington)
Missy Meharg, Tatnall, 1981, U.S. Field Hockey National Team coaching staff; NBC commentator, 2012 Olympic Games
Jim Morris, Tower Hill, 1973, president of Pixar Animation Studios
Michael Newell, St. Elizabeth, 1971, chief judge of Delaware Family Court
Mehmet Oz, Tower Hill, 1978, host, “The Dr. Oz Show”
Dan Pfeiffer, Friends, 1994, former senior adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama
Jackie Pitts, Sanford, 1955, U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Famer
Aubrey Plaza, Ursuline, 2002, comedic actress, “Parks and Recreation”
Kevin P. Reilly, Salesianum, 1969, former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker
Caesar A. Rodney, Friends, c. 1780, Colonial patriot
Will Sheridan, Sanford, 2003, Villanova basketball standout
Thomas Turcol, Salesianum, 1971, 1985 Pulitzer Prize winner for General News Reporting
Caitlin Van Sickle, Tower Hill, 2008, Olympic field hockey player
Andrew Szczerba, Salesianum, 2007, former tight end, Dallas Cowboys
Francis D. Vavala, Salesianum, 1965, adjutant general for Delaware
Val Whiting, Ursuline, 1989, Stanford Athletic Hall of Famer (two NCAA titles, former pro basketball player)
Pat Williams, Tower Hill, 1958, Orlando Magic cofounder
Jamie Wyeth, Friends, 1966, Wyeth family painter