Public vs. Private — The Best High Schools

Chris Coughlin, a tall, sandy-haired senior at Noble and Greenough School, knew he’d had enough of Natick High School when his geometry teacher assigned a series of drawing projects that would make up a big part of his grade. “Obviously if you’re a really good artist, you’re gonna get a good grade,” he says. “And if you’re good at math, but you can’t draw, you’re not. I just thought it was totally absurd.”

It wasn’t just what Coughlin calls “mindless busywork”, however, that caused him to jump from public school to private last year. “All the kids at Nobles, you can just tell they want to be there,” he says. “When you go to Natick, there are tons of kids who you can just tell don’t want to be there, and they’re forced to be there. You can tell they’re unhappy, and they want to make everyone around them unhappy.”

Coughlin’s complaint isn’t surprising given the burden every public school bears to educate whoever walks through the door. Yet there are also plenty of kids who, given the opportunity, would choose their own public high school over even a top-tier private one.

Take Ian Crowley. Crowley, now a junior soccer star at Natick High, spent eighth grade at the Rivers School before transferring back to the public school system. “It was very small,” he says of the private school in Weston he decided to leave. “And when you only have 40 kids in your class, and half of them are focused on art, you don’t really have a lot in common with them. In a public school, there are just more kids to be friends with.”

Crowley also had the chance to go to Noble and Greenough this year, but decided against it. “For the amount of money, I don’t really think the education makes that big of a difference,” he says. “I think I’ll be just as well prepared, and hopefully I’ll have the same options.” He adds, “I like how the teachers [at private school] were more involved, but at the same time, if I’m going to be getting help all the time, when I go to college, I’m not really going to be prepared.”

Such anecdotes speak volumes, but we wanted to spell out the differences between public and private schools more clearly. Working with statistician I. Elaine Allen of Babson College, we ranked 212 Boston-area public and private high schools for the first time, based on 28 measures, including test scores, class size, and teacher salaries. Some of what we found won’t surprise you: The schools of the wealthy are better than those of the poor. But some will: Contrary to the doom-and-gloom scenarios widely promulgated by politicians and the media, many public schools are doing outstanding work. And, despite what their glossy catalogs may tell you, some private schools aren’t all that good.

Private schools have obvious advantages, of course, and just about all of them ultimately come down to money. The Boston area boasts many of the richest private schools in the nation, with endowments bigger than those of some small colleges. Phillips Academy has an endowment of $560 million, Milton $143 million, Roxbury Latin $105 million. What all those zeroes translate into is better facilities, more and happier staff members, and greater resources and programs.

Money may not buy love, after all, but it buys something very close to it in the education world. Experts agree that the more involved teachers, counselors, and coaches become with their students, the greater the chance they will develop genuine relationships that help students pursue their interests. And the more resources a school has, the lower it can keep its student-teacher ratio.

Because private schools are not burdened by the sheer number of kids who flood through the entrance halls of public schools each year, class sizes can be ridiculously small — as small as 4 students per teacher at Gann Academy in Waltham, compared to as many as 23 students per teacher at East Boston High. As Chris Coughlin noticed right away upon transferring, “I would have around 20 kids or more in my classes in Natick, and I averaged around 10 this year in Nobles. And I had six kids in my science class. The one-on-one attention you get from the teacher, it just makes a world of difference.”

Kids, of course, have to want all that attention. As Robert Henderson, head of school at Nobles, says about the kind of student who does well at his school, “It’s the kid who wants to have adults actively involved in their lives all the time.” Bill Wharton, headmaster of the highly selective Commonwealth School in Boston’s Back Bay, says, “You have to know every kid. It’s in the one-on-one conferences that the revelation occurs.”

But it’s not just in the classroom that private school kids are getting that one-on-one support. At Commonwealth, kids prepare for the end-of-the-year trip to Maine with the entire staff, piling into buses to spend a four-day weekend with their teachers. The most surprising thing? The students and the teachers are actually excited about it.

At Boston University Academy, sophomore Bruce Jobse says the main benefit of going to a school like his is the level of contact between the teachers and students. “The teachers are companions to the students,” he says. And as Michael Obel-Omia, director of admissions at Roxbury Latin, puts it: “The only thing we promise parents is that we will know their children and we will love their children. What more do you want for your child than for him to be known and loved?”

If there’s one way wealthy public school districts can compete with private schools, it’s financially. Look at Weston High School, which topped our ranking of public schools. It’s no secret that a school in a wealthy community like Weston can attribute its excellence in large part not just to robust property tax revenues and high-achieving kids, but also to what can best be thought of as a PTA on steroids.
WEEFC, the Weston Education Enrichment Fund Committee, is an organization of parents that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for the town’s schools. In the past year alone, WEEFC bequeathed to Weston High everything from a $40,000 weight room and courtyard garden to digital-video-making equipment, food mixers for culinary classes, and tutoring sessions for the MCAS exams. It’s the kind of manna from heaven a school in a poorer community like Somerville or Chelsea can only dream of. But if you’re lucky enough to live in a town like Weston, it’s also what can make the choice between a public school and a private one a tossup.

To spot the subtler differences, you have to look more closely at such things as the disparity in the ratio of counselors to students at public and private schools. Even the Santa Claus-like WEEFC can’t bring Weston High up to par in this area. While the average number of students per counselor in Massachusetts public high schools is a staggering 415 to 1, many private high schools have the resources to keep the ratio as low as 5 to 1. Which is why 80 percent of the kids walking through Lloyd Peterson’s door come from public schools.

Peterson is the vice president of education at College Coach, a Newton-based college counseling company. He says the public school kids come to him for academic strategy. “They ask, ‘Should I take this SAT II? Does this essay say what [the college admissions offices] want it to say?’ It’s a lot of fine-tuning strategy. I think public school counselors know this information. The extent to which they have the time to sit down and really talk about how your tennis is going to play to this admissions office, I just don’t think they have time for it anymore. There are just so many students and there aren’t that many counselors.” Another reason some private schools have a leg up in the realm of counseling, according to Peterson, is that more private school counselors than public school counselors have actually worked in college admissions offices and therefore know firsthand what colleges are looking for.

And the private school kids who consult with Peterson? “Private school kids come in earlier [in the process],” he says. “All the academic stuff — ‘Should I take this AP course or this one?’ ‘Is an A in an easy course better than a B in a tougher course?’ — all that stuff, those Groton and Milton kids already know it.” What they do come to him for is focus. According to Peterson, private school kids can feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of offerings at their high-powered bastions. “I personally spend a lot more time helping the private school kids find a passion, bite down on something, and then run with it for a couple of years,” he says.

Breadth of offerings is one of the prime benefits of the best private schools, which, unlike public schools, don’t have to worry that their athletic and arts programs might be cut because of budget crises. At Milton, for example, a student can choose from four different a cappella groups. At Nobles, John Chen, who’s headed to Harvard this fall, met one-on-one with his history teacher each week to write a thesis on America’s role in the world. At the Commonwealth School, an upper-floor studio is the site of a nude-painting class. BU Academy students sail on the Charles after school. Everyone in private schools, it seems, fences.

It’s also difficult to compete with top-tier private schools’ campuses, many of which were first settled centuries ago, before the concept of public schooling was even born. “The Nobles campus is breathtakingly beautiful, especially if you get there on a sunny day,” Chris Coughlin says. “You’re just blown away, especially walking down to the Castle on your first day of lunch with the sun shining up on the hill.”

In a small room off the head office at Nobles is a replica of the new performance art center, slated to cost $5 million. Attached to various wings and rooms of the model are Post-It notes listing the amounts — $500,000, $1 million — wealthy donors can pay to have the sections named for them.

Few schools — public or private — can compete with the facilities accorded BU Academy. The students there have full access to one of the top universities in the country. Senior Eric Dahl was doing a report on Herman Melville and found the rare book he needed in the library. The school’s robotics team uses the BU engineering building to put together its robot for an annual competition. “In one sense you might say I have a million-dollar physics facility,” says Gary Garber, a math and science teacher. “You don’t get that at other high schools.”

And there are other benefits to a private school education that tend to be harder to measure. In a private school, where all the students who enter are selected from a larger pool, kids are more likely to be surrounded by others with the same level of interest in learning. As Kevin O’Brien, a freshman at Roxbury Latin who previously went to public school in Canton, says, “At Canton it was uncool to care about school.” Sam Duffley, a BU Academy senior who has taken BU courses in biology, differential equations, and linear algebra, says, “You end up with a lot of nerds and geeks. It’s really nice to be with people like me.”

Because they’re invested in their own learning, kids at private schools are accorded more freedom based on the expectation that they’ll act responsibly. But it’s not just the kids who revel in this freedom. Says John Doggett, headmaster of the pristine and rambling Governor Dummer Academy, “The wonderful thing about independent schools is just that: They’re independent.” Roxbury Latin’s Michael Obel-Omia takes this concept a step further. “The great thing about an independent school is we can stand for something,” he says. “We believe God exists and we can say that to our students. Public schools, they can’t really stand for something. The single great difference is we stand for something we can articulate. You can accept it or reject it, and we’re fine either way. We’ve been here more than 350 years. We’re not going anywhere.”

Despite all the advantages these top-tier private schools offer, they can be prohibitively expensive, topping out at $37,333 a year to board at Cushing Academy. And there are other serious drawbacks, including a disconnection from community. Chris Coughlin says this was the main problem with leaving public school. “Of course, I miss my friends from my town,” he says. “When you go to Nobles, if you make a lot of friends, it’s hard to get together with a lot of them because everyone lives half an hour away from the school.”

Edgar DeLeon, who came to Nobles from the Lawrence public school system after discovering the wooded oasis through a summer program, says, “I miss my friends. Now that I board, I miss being close to home.” But the opportunity was too good to pass up. “I talked about it with my mom and we knew what we were getting into,” he says. Still, the 45-minute drive each way every weekend so he can see family and friends has been hard for DeLeon and his mother. And though he is entering Boston College as a freshman this fall, a feat he may not have accomplished had he finished at Lawrence High School, his gain clearly came with some loss.

Part of the reason Ian Crowley returned to Natick High was that, “I found it was hard to keep in touch with friends because I had school and athletics every day after school. By the time I got home, it was really hard to keep in touch.”

When asked what qualities most set private and public schools apart, Bob Weintraub, headmaster of Brookline High School, deadpans, “They don’t let everybody in. Isn’t that a big difference?”
Which leads to the great benefit of a public school education: Simply put, public schools may better prepare kids for the real world because they more accurately mirror it. “There’s definitely a sense of shelter” at private school, says Chris Coughlin. “You can tell a lot of kids haven’t been exposed to the real world. You get the stereotypical Nobles kid who’s got millionaire parents, and they’ve never been alone in the city, so they’re probably not very street-smart. I guess it can be kind of an illusion that makes the world seem safer or more perfect than it actually is.” As Edgar DeLeon, who had to repeat his sophomore year to attend Nobles, says, “At public school, everything hits you in the face. At private school, I was academically behind, but I could deal with problems. Some of the kids here don’t know how to deal with the problems of the real world.”

To handle the diversity of their student bodies, schools like Brookline High have created schools within schools, each one tending to the specific needs of the student. Bob Weintraub talks proudly of the various programs focused on troubled or simply disorganized learners. “That’s alright. That’s who they are,” he says with a stoic understanding of the array of students he’s charged with helping. But at a top-notch public high school like Brookline, there’s also a large contingent of kids who are every bit as academically talented as the students at the best private schools. The difference is, they’re walking the hallways, taking gym and computer courses, and having lunch with students who aren’t anything like them.

Asked why a parent should send a child to Brookline High School instead of a private school like Phillips Academy or Roxbury Latin, Weintraub answers without missing a beat, “Do you want to prepare your kid for the whole world or part of the world?”

The good news is that there are plenty of good schools, public and private, doing good work. Even Harvard says so. “Most people think schools are going to hell in a hand basket,” says Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of undergraduate admissions at Harvard. “But from here, we see more and more clearly good schools producing good candidates for us. It’s quite impressive.” And, when admissions officers start sifting through applications each September, what they’re looking for is students who’ve made the most of the opportunities they’ve been given, no matter where they went to school.
“We don’t admit schools,” McGrath Lewis says. “We admit students. People forget that.”

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