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Parents Go Public

Driven by a tough economy, more parents are choosing public schools – and they’re glad they did.

By Cindy Long

Last April, with the economy falling as furiously as a spring hailstorm, Dani Klein Modisett made the decision to transfer her son from a prestigious Los Angeles private school to a local public school -- despite fears that she was “squashing his intellectual potential and all things Harvard” by making the choice.

A year later, she couldn’t be happier about the switch. “It made all the difference in our family's life,” she says. “Not only is the school traditional with a strong academic focus in its teaching, there's tons of art, they all learn to play a musical instrument, and the student body is as diverse as the city of Los Angeles. Plus, it’s been good for the marriage. The financial pressure of private school was a strain on us as a couple.”

Across the country, as parents like the Modisetts feel squeezed by a shrinking economy, they’re pulling their children out of costly private schools -- where tuitions can soar as high as $30,000 a year -- and placing them into our public school system.

The U.S. Department of Education said the number of students in private schools dropped by 120,000 in the current school year as parents who couldn’t continue writing those fat checks enrolled their kids in public schools.

It’s happening across the country. In Hawaii, private school numbers dropped in the 2008-2009 school year for the first time in a decade, according to the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools. A New Jersey Association of Independent Schools survey shows that nearly two-thirds of its 58 member schools are enrolling fewer students this academic year than last. And in Tennessee, the Memphis City Schools are getting an unusually high number of requests for school tours from private school parents.

“Parents are realizing what we have to offer,” says Stephanie Fitzgerald, president of the Memphis Education Association. “We have a Montessori school; math, science, and foreign relations magnet schools; and a high school for the performing arts. We offer languages like Chinese, Korean, and Russian, and our own White Station High School leads the state in the number of National Merit Scholarship finalists.”

Fitzgerald says it’s a shame that economic hardship is the reason some parents find out what great public schools they have. In her area, it’s a case of perception versus reality— the majority of Memphis City Schools students are African American, and an outdated perception that Black schools are poor endures.

“The students may be poor socioeconomically, but they aren’t academically, and neither are our schools,” Fitzgerald says.

Sometimes, it’s not a matter of dollars, but of sense. Fitzgerald met a young mother from an affluent neighborhood who sent her son to Memphis City Schools rather than a private institution -- this despite a neighbor who insisted that “no neighbor of mine would send a child to public school.” But the young mother and Fitzgerald agreed: if you have a child who wants to learn, he or she can go to school almost anywhere and succeed.

That’s been the experience of Lauren Johnson, who made the choice to take her children out of the elite Brown Academy in northern Virginia and enroll them in Arlington County Public Schools.

When her daughter started kindergarten last fall, the family had three children in private school. “Finances quickly came into play,” Johnson says. “Sixty thousand dollars a year became pretty exorbitant.”

But Johnson says moving to the public school was a trade-off, not a sacrifice. There are larger classes at the public school, but more extra-curricular activities and more class offerings. There’s more structure and test-taking – especially the dreaded Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) tests – but also a more facts-based approach that Johnson (a former teacher) finds more rigorous.

Mary Beth Jakubek is also a former teacher, in public as well as parochial schools. Her daughters attended Catholic school in western Pennsylvania, and she had been leery of sending them to the public school for fear that they’d become just another number in the crowd. She soon discovered the opposite was true

The public school was indeed packed with many more students, but the family was amazed by how quiet and orderly it was when they took the tour. (The Catholic school had fewer students, but discipline was an ongoing problem.) After her first day at the new school, Jakubek’s oldest daughter, Mary, marveled at how well-behaved her classmates were during study periods: “Mom, it’s so quiet I can hear the light bulbs buzzing!”

But Jakubek was most pleased with the individual attention her daughters received. Her oldest started out behind in math, “but her teacher tutored her Tuesday and Thursday mornings before class, and by the end of the term, she brought her grade up to an A,” she says.

Many parents are satisfied with our public school because we have rigor and relevance in every curriculum,” says Cindy Mitchell, who has Jakubek’s younger daughter, Ann, in her Spanish class.  “We provide each student with a laptop, we offer "Blended Schools" courses taught by our teachers online so students can fit in all the classes they want, and we have a variety of successful sports programs and clubs.” 

And the number one thing parents appreciate? “That the teachers and administrators care about the students.  We’re very proactive in involving the community and parents.”

In Los Angeles, Dani Klein Modisett believes the community her son is now a part of is what sets public schools apart.

“Every day is a multicultural experience, which is something money can't buy,” she says. “Private school is inherently private, representing a certain segment of population usually distinguishable by wealth. Public school gives a child much more opportunity to be appreciative for what he or she has been blessed with and less time to envy a classmate’s huge TV, number of toys, or vacations in Aspen.  That's beyond curriculum, and it’s a much bigger gift to give your children.”

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