March 2007 Issue
Private high schools offer students rigorous academics and a focus on their college future.
Eighteen-year-old Stephanie Olbrych of Bath chose to attend Western Reserve Academy because, in her words: "It has amazing opportunities." Currently a senior at the Hudson boarding and day school with an enrollment of 400 students, Olbrych has clearly taken advantage of those opportunities. She has studied abroad twice, participated in Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS) competitions three years in a row and is captain of the tennis team, chief editor of the school newspaper and a member of the handbell choir. "I love its community. Since it's a boarding school, it's like a home away from home," she says. "And we know how to work with a tough schedule."
Opportunity and rigor are two reasons why some Ohio high school students choose a private education, along with the belief that attending these schools will give them a competitive edge when it comes to applying to college. Still, finding the right fit is important, and it requires that parents do some homework to ensure the perfect match. That's especially true since most private high schools come with a high price tag, although it's a price that many parents are willing to pay.
One of the biggest draws is class size. "Small class sizes really allow for some outstanding teacher and student relationships," says Peter Benedict, headmaster at the Miami Valley School in Dayton, an early-childhood- through 12th-grade institution with an upper school enrollment of 185. "That's probably one of the greatest assets that the independent school experience brings." Couple that with a top-rated teaching staff and committed students. "Independent and private schools are in a unique situation where they get to select both their students and their faculty," says Benedict. "We can attract nationally recognized faculty and create classes of diverse, talented students and students who have above-average learning abilities."
For motivated students seeking a rigorous curriculum, attending a private high school may be the answer. "We have students who are high academic achievers. It's their desire to be challenged and to want to learn and to make a difference in the world," says Claudia Kaeberlein, director of public relations at Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls, a ninth- through 12th-grade high school with an enrollment of 950. "There is an expectation for excellence in all they do here, on all levels - academically, socially, artistically, spiritually and athletically."
Many private high schools are able to meet these expectations, not only because their student body is focused, but also because they may have greater funding than non-tuition-driven schools. That translates into a wealth of academic and extracurricular opportunities, often with a no-cut policy that means participation for all. Private high schools also have the ability to accelerate students and provide individual remediation when necessary.
Many private high schools take pride in their out-of-the-classroom experiences. At Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, a Kâ€“12 institution with 430 high school students in Symmes Township, a two-week term is designed to accommodate off-campus study that helps the student grow as a person. These experiences are as varied as shadowing a mechanic or working in a Mexican orphanage.
A similar experiential learning component is offered at the Miami Valley School. High school students spend three or four weeks in an immersion program that involves either a shadowing opportunity or international travel. "We are trying to create compassionate, global citizens," says Benedict.
Finally, most private high schools want to dispel the myth that they are elitist. These schools have need-based scholarships, and many have merit scholarships as well. Schools such as Western Reserve Academy also emphasize their diversity. WRA has students from 28 states and 23 countries, which fuels a culturally and socio-economically rich environment.
But perhaps the biggest draw for private high schools is their college admissions record - typically, 95 percent or more of the students enter and complete college. The college-counselor-to-student ratio is low, often half that of a public school. "Our college counselors have a relationship with the colleges and universities our kids have been attending and are on a first-name basis with deans in admissions offices," says Benedict.
That may be the return that many parents are looking for from their private-high-school investment. "It's really a financial burden," says Mary Ann Napolitano, the mother of Stephanie Olbrych. "But I really feel that we have one chance to educate our children, and we need to do the best we can." Olbrych chose Western Reserve Academy after her older brother attended the school, and while their mother was initially reluctant to send them away from home, she now has no regrets. "They are still in a safe, comfortable environment even though they are exploring things and making choices themselves," she says. "And that's the real world."
Choosing the right high school is unique to each family. That's why it requires plenty of research, along with a visit or visits to schools before making a choice.
"It's like anything else. You shop around when you are going to buy a house or car," says Britt Flanagan, dean of admissions at Western Reserve Academy. "Looking for the right school is no different. The most important thing is that you have gone through this exploration thoroughly and you verify that you are in the right place."