Philadelphia Private Schools: Are They the Right Choice for Your Child?

Philly is loaded with independent schools, but are they the right fit for your family? And can you swing the cost? We went searching for answers.

Illustration by Angela Rio

John Nagl is sitting comfortably on the back porch of his house across the street from the Haverford School campus on a sticky summer day. The school’s ninth headmaster, entering his fifth year at the all-boys institution, Nagl is an earnest man whose ready wit is balanced by the gravitas earned via stints as a Rhodes scholar and a tank battalion operations officer in Iraq. On this day, he’s talking about the decision-making process for families considering independent schools and the “investment” they make in their children’s futures. “You are setting the foundation for the rest of their lives,” he says. “You have to find the right place for your child.”

If you’re in a position to be thinking about private school, the questions can seem daunting. For starters, there’s the whole public-vs.-private debate itself: Is an independent school right for my kid? Can we afford it? Are we harming our local public school if we choose the private route? Then there’s the wide array of independent schools the Philadelphia region has to offer, from centuries-old stalwarts like Penn Charter to newer, more specialized schools such as AIM Academy, which focuses on kids with learning challenges.

To help you out, we’ve put together a roundup of questions and issues parents typically think about when making a school decision. From the admissions process to diversity concerns, here’s your private-school primer — and how to figure out if private school is the right path for your family.

There are so many private schools out there. How do we know which one, if any, is the best fit?

The area’s many independent schools have distinct personalities, and it’s important for parents to choose the one that best suits them and their children rather than pick a school based on name, reputation or ranking, which can be arbitrary and unreliable. “The reality is that the educational opportunities in this area are significantly greater than in other areas of the country, so parents can actually look for the right fit,” says Steve Piltch, who’s been head of the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr for 25 years.

Parents can choose a highly competitive environment, select a place that celebrates the individual, or send their children to schools across a broad religious spectrum. There are urban, suburban and rural campuses. Specialty schools offer military training, havens for those with learning challenges, or the opportunity to board. There are schools that provide only elementary or high-school instruction, and those that cover the gamut from pre-K through 12th grade — and even offer post-graduate opportunities.

Religion played a big role for Melissa and Dan Behr of Langhorne, who have two daughters at Villa Joseph Marie and one son at Holy Ghost Prep. “We wanted private Catholic schools where they are actually practicing the faith and mission,” Melissa says. Though it’s harder to figure out what’s best for a four-year-old than for a high-school applicant, it’s vital to match student needs and family culture with the right academic environment. “If the mission of the school doesn’t resound with a family, that’s not the school for them,” Germantown Academy head of school Rich Schellhas says.

Parents looking at high schools should see how user-friendly the college counseling office is, meet some teachers, and ask a lot of questions to develop a sense of the school’s culture.

I’ve heard the admissions process can be intense at some schools. How competitive is it, and how early do we need to get started?

Carlye Nelson-Major, who has spent nine years at the Philadelphia School, has seen more than a few anxious parents arrive to do reconnaissance at the pre-K-through-eighth-grade school. Admission to TPS is highly competitive — “We have many applications for a few spots,” says Nelson-Major, the school’s interim head — so moms and dads seek any edge they can get, short of showing up with sonogram photos. “We want people to make informed, timely decisions,” says Nelson-Major. “But we don’t want people stressed about the admissions prospects of in-utero or newborn babies.”

The independent-school admissions process is selective, and admissions figures are complicated, since many schools accept students at all grade levels. But schools don’t bring in everybody who applies, even if the economy has people reconsidering spending so much for K-12 education. The good news? It’s a little easier than it was. “Very few schools are completely full at any point,” says Shipley’s Steve Piltch. “There are openings.”

That’s true, but families shouldn’t mistake opportunity for ease of admission. Kindergarten, middle school (fifth or sixth grade, depending on the school) and ninth grade are the key — and most competitive — entry points. There are typically fewer applicants for other grades, but also fewer available spots.

Those looking at the high-school scene would be wise to start making inquiries in seventh grade — though some families are investigating even earlier. Holy Ghost Prep president Greg Geruson says a few parents bring fifth-graders in for looks at the school, which offers grades nine through 12. “People are making decisions about where to send their children to elementary school in anticipation of where they’ll go to high school,” he says. Holy Ghost and St. Joe’s Prep offer summer enrichment programs for rising seventh- and eighth-graders, which are good ways for families to learn more about those schools.

For most high schools, the process itself is pretty standard. Families will tour the school individually or as part of a larger open-house event. Prospects will “shadow” current students for a day to get a feel for the culture. Schools generally require a standardized entrance exam as well as completion of an application that includes an essay, a transcript, and letters of recommendation. A lot of the paperwork can be done online, and school websites and social media help families learn more. “The checklist is pretty consistent at most places,” Piltch says.

Parents looking at kindergarten should start the process about a year before their child will enter, because prospective students will often be asked to take part in classroom activities — and should be able to join in without any difficulty.

If my son or daughter is being recruited for athletics, how do I handle that situation?

Many independent schools recruit athletes to play in high school; parents of those kids must be careful to pick the right place, not just the one with the best team or chance at college scholarship money. No matter how good someone might be at a sport, he or she must be able to handle the schoolwork and be part of a broader community.

At the same time, it’s also important to know as much as possible about the coach recruiting your child, the program he or she runs, and its culture. How are practices conducted? What are the expectations during the off-season? If the coach is promising college attention, what concrete examples can he or she provide of recent success?

I want my kid to be in a diverse environment. Is private school a bad idea?

Many local independent schools have worked hard to make their student bodies more diverse from racial, geographic, socioeconomic and religious standpoints. Nagl reports that students of color make up about 30 percent of Haverford’s student body, while St. Joe’s Prep president Father John Swope says the figure is 20 percent there. At Holy Child Academy in Drexel Hill, a nursery-through-eighth-grade school, about one in three students is non-white.

Of course, not every independent school has been as successful at becoming diverse. “All independent schools are fighting the reputation of being exclusive, but we want to be inclusive,” Germantown Academy’s Rich Schellhas says. “As we look at applications, we’re looking for the Hispanic oboist who plays volleyball and the African-American water-polo player who wants to study Chinese — and everything in between.”

Nelson-Major reports that TPS has 34 percent students of color, along with a growing body of children “who are examining their gender and sexual identities.” The school works with a diversity expert from the University of Pennsylvania to help staff members develop their cultural competences and navigate cultural differences. “We’ve done a tremendous amount of work over the past decade to increase many kinds of diversity,” Nelson-Major says.

Tracy and Kanti Somani have four children who attend or have graduated from independent schools. Jeremy, 24, is an alum of Delaware Valley Friends; Phoebe, 20, is an Agnes Irwin grad; Lydia, 16, is a junior at Agnes Irwin; and Josiah, 13, is an eighth-grader at the Haverford School. Tracy reports that her children have had good experiences at all of the schools and appreciates the efforts they made — particularly Agnes Irwin — to be welcoming to students of color.

“Agnes Irwin is available to participate with us in the process,” she says. “If I need help, I have no problem asking. The girls have had some issues that were handled collaboratively. They helped us as parents and helped our daughters. If there was another student involved, the school helped mediate the problem.”

Yikes! Tuition at some schools is more than college. What’s the financial aid process, and how do we maximize our award?

Families sending children to kindergarten at Penn Charter face a $23,810 tuition bill this year — and $36,375 for the upper school. Preschool students at the Philadelphia School pay $21,960. Even a more “moderately” priced independent high school like St. Joe’s Prep costs $22,900 a year.

In other words, many people need some help.

Independent schools have money to give in the form of financial aid and merit scholarships. Last year, the Haverford School bestowed nearly $7.2 million in tuition assistance. At the Agnes Irwin School in Rosemont, 27 percent of students receive more than $3.2 million in aid every year. That said, very few students at independent schools are getting free rides. The vast majority of families pay, and the tab often is into five figures.

The aid process typically begins with the completion of online forms that are reviewed by representatives at the National Association of Independent Schools, which uses a formula to determine what a family can pay. NAIS sends that information to the schools (not the families), which calculate the aid packages they’ll offer. There’s sometimes room for negotiation, particularly if a student has a strong academic record, is an outstanding athlete, or has been accepted by more than one school — especially a competitor. Some schools acknowledge that the process is flexible. “There’s a lot of to-and-fro,” St. Joe’s Prep’s Swope says. “We get an idea of what families can pay, and we work from there.”

The negotiations only go so far. Many families have to sacrifice to pay the tab. And people with Shore homes, robust investment portfolios and priceless art collections shouldn’t count on very much — if any — tuition assistance.

Will my child become a snob if he or she goes to an independent school? And will we be surrounded by snobs at parent gatherings?

When it comes to private school, some people have an image in their heads of Worthington P. Smithwick and Langston Lockjaw standing at a cocktail party discussing their trust funds and squash matches. Children whose families make the choice to attend many private schools will encounter kids for whom Christmas break means a trip to Gstaad and to whom money is truly no object.

But that isn’t the universal condition — not when Nagl reports that a third of the students at Haverford receive aid, and that the average award is more than $22,000. “We want to fill our class with socioeconomic diversity, and also with students who have talents other boys might not have,” he says.

Some parents also worry that going to a school outside their neighborhood will create difficulties with friendships, especially for younger students. It’s a lot harder to manage play dates when a child’s class friends don’t live around the corner. “It does take some effort for parents,” admits Deirdre Cryor, head of Sacred Heart Academy Bryn Mawr. But schools stress the value of the communities they build, and many students are able to develop broad friend groups that include people close to home and classmates who hail from more far-flung locales. “Our students benefit from being part of many different communities,” says Agnes Irwin School head Wendy Hill. “Their neighbors next door are friends and also their classmates. They know people in their churches, synagogues and mosques. They know them from community service. Our students are connected across many different experiences. They are exposed to multiple interests and communities.”

My child has some learning differences. What kinds of help do independent schools offer?

Independent schools usually have rigorous academic programs designed to prepare students not only to gain admittance to the colleges of their choice, but also to thrive there. Because of that, it’s more difficult for them to provide some of the learning support students get in public schools. While Deirdre Cryor reports that some students arrive on campus with individualized education programs (IEPs), that type of specialized treatment is rare.

Illustration by Angela Rio

However, because teacher-student ratios at independent schools are low, instructors are familiar with children’s methods of learning and can work closely with them. The guiding philosophy is no longer the one-size-fits-all approach that prevailed for many years. If students need extra time for tests or access to tutoring, they receive it. Schools have learning centers, reading specialists and psychologists to help kids navigate the academic demands. “One of the biggest changes alumni note from decades gone by is that Haverford School was a sink-or-swim environment,” Nagl says. “I don’t think our curriculum is any less challenging. But we are more willing to throw you a life preserver.”

There are also many schools — like the Woodlynde School and AIM Academy — that exist to provide specialized instruction to students with more difficult learning challenges.

Some independent schools are single-sex. Do kids learn better in that environment?

Depends on your kid — and whom you ask. Deirdre Cryor believes all-girl schools help students develop strong senses of self. Their valedictorians are female. So are the school presidents and top athletes. Anything is possible. “Girls here say, ‘I’m smart. My friends are smart. Everybody can be smart here,’” Cryor says. “There is a confidence level that develops. And the girls can be introspective about themselves because distractions [read: boys] are taken away, and they can be students. When they go off to co-ed colleges, they can be fully engaged.”

John Swope talks about the “brotherhood” that forms at St. Joe’s Prep, and Holy Ghost’s Greg Geruson says that eliminating external pressures [read: girls] for teenage boys helps them focus and develop: “We don’t criticize co-ed schools, but our parents find real value in the all-boys model.”

Single-sex schools work to create opportunities for students to interact with the “other side.” One way is through faculty and staff, which Nagl reports is majority female in Haverford’s lower school and “50-50” at the upper levels. Plays and dances have historically been opportunities to blend the sexes, as are programs like the Human Relationships course that Haverford boys can take with students from all-girls Agnes Irwin and Baldwin. “They study Plato and his ideas of love up to modern ideas of gender issues and sexual identity,” Nagl says.

Of course, there are plenty of supporters of the co-ed model as well. “I love it when a school can function like the real world,” says Schellhas, of co-ed Germantown Academy. “We want everybody in the same room, so that we can model what society looks like.”

Bottom line: Does private school really pay off in the long run?

The truth is, it depends on the school, the kid and the situation. But when Sacred Heart’s Cryor is asked about the return on investment from an independent-school education, she talks about an alumna who was chosen to speak at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Before she went on, the person charged with getting her to the stage asked a simple question:

“Are you ready to speak in front of all these people?”

The young woman looked at him, incredulous, and said: “I went to Sacred Heart; of course I’m ready to speak.”

Many people believe the ROI from an independent school is found away from the classroom. For Rob and Maribeth McCallion, whose two boys went to Haverford and Episcopal Academy and whose two girls went to the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur in Villanova, the “hidden curriculum” is the difference. “Independent schools finish the process we started as parents,” Maribeth McCallion says. “There are so many eyes on them, and the relationships they built with the entire community were as important as what they were learning in class.”

Independent schools can help forge connections that might serve graduates for decades. They can also foster self-discipline and instill confidence that comes from succeeding in challenging environments. “We do a panel in January, and we bring back recent graduates to speak to parents about college,” GA’s Schellhas says. “They gush about how they write better than the other students they meet. … They have no questions about knocking on the dean’s door and bringing up an issue. Kids from other environments are less confident and less able to advocate for themselves.”

Even at the earliest levels, independent schools try to provide tools and training that prepare young students for success later on. “You’re laying the foundation for a lifetime of engaged learning,” says Margaret Fox-Tully, head of Holy Child Academy in Drexel Hill. “Families who make this investment give their children the confidence and the 21st-century skills that lead to success in high school, college, and their professional lives.”

Published as “Private Eyes” in the October 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.