Monday, October 21, 2002

$10K-plus tuition worth it, private-school parents say



By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

When Shanita Payne has questions about homework, she doesn't hesitate to call her teachers at home.

At school, she gets extra attention in her small classes.

And, a college counselor will meet individually with her and her parents to help find the best match for college. Shanita and every classmate will attend a four-year college after high school graduation. It's not just encouraged - it's expected.

That's just a sampling of what $14,000 in annual tuition will buy. Shanita, 17, a senior from Avondale, attends Cincinnati Country Day School in Indian Hill, one of three Greater Cincinnati schools that charge $10,000 or more a year.

(A fourth, Springer School in Hyde Park, charges in excess of $10,000 but caters to children diagnosed with learning disabilities.)

SUNDAY STORY
  Household income and stability, race and public school quality all contribute to the influence of private schools. Click here for Sunday's analysis, and lists of neighborhoods with most and least private-school students.
Despite the sagging economy in recent years and rising tuition rates, enrollments have been steady or rising since 1990 at Cincinnati Country Day, Summit Country Day School in Hyde Park and Seven Hills Upper School in Madisonville.

The schools are the most expensive of 150 private and parochial schools in Hamilton, Clermont, Butler and Warren counties. An Enquirer analysis of Census data shows that nearly one of every four Hamilton County students in 2000 attended a private elementary or high school - a higher rate than all but one (St. Louis County) of the nation's 100 largest counties.

Here at the high-priced schools, parents are paying for excellent academics, individualized student treatment and intangibles such as character development.

The schools say they must be doing something right:

At Cincinnati Country Day, enrollment has grown consistently over the past 10 years, exceeding a record 900 students last year and nearing that number this year. About 400 kids apply each year at the school that typically adds just 140 to 150 new students, mostly in the Lower School (preschool-Grade 2).

Summit Country Day's appeal is spreading across the Tristate. The school used to draw from 40 ZIP codes; now it draws from 71.

Seven Hills this fall has 300 students at its Upper School in Madisonville, its highest enrollment ever.

So why would parents, many of whom live in Cincinnati's best public school districts, opt for a five-figure tuition before the kid even goes off to college?

"It's as simple as finding a better life for my child," says Charles Clark, head of school at Cincinnati Country Day. "Parents are looking for the edge they can give their child to be successful."

That doesn't mean there aren't negatives.

Kids at these schools find themselves with a smaller pool of school friends than they might in larger public schools. There's limited diversity - about one in six students is a minority. And everyone is relatively well-off, providing fewer differences in economic experience.

"Expectations can be a drawback," says Shanita, who transferred to Cincinnati Country Day from Clifton Elementary, a Cincinnati public school. "The standards are very high. You're expected to go to college and do well in classes. Teachers are allowed to give somewhere between 30-60 minutes of homework a night for six to seven classes.''

Still, students and parents agree that the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. Here's what they find most appealing:

Access to teachers

Students can contact faculty in a multitude of ways: teacher Web pages, e-mail and telephone. It's not uncommon for students to seek out teachers before or after school.

"That's a good skill to have when you go to college because you have to go to the professors. They're not coming to you," says Nancy Gilman of Indian Hill. Her son is a freshman at Seven Hills, and her daughter is a 2001 graduate.

Susie Lewis, an eighth-grade math teacher at Cincinnati Country Day, says most teachers give their home phone numbers to students. "If I've given evil homework, I get three or four calls," Mrs. Lewis says.

Teachers say they're motivated to do more because they're valued at the schools. That, in turn, contributes to low teacher turnover. Historically, teachers at private schools are paid less than public school teachers, who average $42,892 in Ohio. More than half of the teachers at the three private schools have advanced degrees.

"I'm allowed to develop as a person, not only scholastically, but as a human being. I wouldn't want to leave that," says Carole Fultz, an English teacher in her 32nd year at Summit Upper School.

At each school, funds support teachers for personal and professional enrichment. If math teachers want to take whitewater rafting classes, the schools might help fund the trip. The idea is that teachers will come back refreshed and motivated.

Small classes

All three schools are essentially full with waiting lists for some grades. None of the schools want to grow much. Each believes small is good.

"The luxury of small class sizes allows teachers to do more probing and follow-up," says Marilyn Collins, director of admissions at Seven Hills. "Everybody knows everybody, which means you can't hide. You get the chance to know other people that you might not gravitate to."

Statewide, public school teachers work in classrooms averaging 18 students. Here at these schools, it's 10 to 15 students in each class. At Cincinnati Country Day, classrooms in the Lower School have two teachers in each classroom.

"You have two sets of eyes,'' Dr. Clark says. "When you're a parent coming in for a conference you get more than just one teacher's view."

Laura Tholke of Sycamore Township has four children at Cincinnati Country Day. Her two oldest attended Sycamore schools through fourth grade, and she appreciates Country Day's flexibility with curricula. "That's what won me over," she says. "You can do that with a lower class size."

Private schools can develop their own lesson plans because they don't have to follow state guidelines. Private school students, however, are required to pass the ninth-grade proficiency test to graduate - and students at these schools do quite well.

Each school boasts that 100 percent of its graduates continue on to four-year colleges or universities. Personalized college counseling is a key perk.

It starts in the ninth and 10th grades, when groups of students meet with counselors to talk about colleges. Parents of juniors and seniors meet individually with counselors.

Joe Runge, Cincinnati Country Day's director of college counseling, meets with some families 10 times before the student graduates.

Pat White, college counselor at Summit, gives turkey dinner parties at her home for students. After they eat, she answers questions and helps them fill out their college applications.

The three schools also enjoy reputations for placing students in Ivy League schools. In Seven Hills' Class of 2000, six students applied to Harvard. Five were accepted, and one was put on a wait list.

"It's lovely we have those results, but that's not the goal," says Susan Marrs, director of college counseling and former Upper School head.

College counseling gives parents reassurance that all options have been explored, she says. In some cases, those colleges might be ones that families have never heard of or even considered. The goal is to look for the best matches for each student.

Extracurriculars

Students are expected to participate in activities beyond the classroom. The idea is to develop a well-rounded person and provide leadership opportunities.

The schools make it easy for kids to participate. Drama directors look for productions with large casts so as many students as possible can be involved.

All of the schools have no-cut sports policies where any student who wants to participate can do so regardless of ability. Some students who were cut from teams in public schools go on to star on the private school teams.

Last year on the Seven Hills Upper School campus there were 28 clubs ranging from Amnesty International to a Monty Python fan club.

"You can go to Monty Python on Tuesday and write letters to free political prisoners on Wednesday," Mrs. Marrs says.

Character

Ed Tyrrell, headmaster at Summit, says character development and spirituality are two of his school's biggest draws. For eight years, Summit has had a well-defined program, Educating for Character.

"It's not `Values of the Week or Month Club,' " Mr. Tyrrell says. "It's integrated throughout our program."

For example, fifth-graders who studied the industrial revolution last spring formed assembly lines to make 340 Easter baskets for Kids CafÈ, a program for low-income children.

"What I'm most concerned about is developing good people of character," Mr. Tyrrell says. "I've got good faculty. I don't have to worry about English, science and math."

Summit is an independent Catholic school, so many are drawn by the chance to meld academics with spirituality. Seventy percent of the student body is Catholic.

Mary Beth Price of Anderson Township has had two children graduate from Summit. Her daughter is a freshman.

"I'm not a Catholic, but the spirituality aspect is so much of the school," she says. "They can open each day with a prayer. I think that makes a huge difference."

"We give kids time to address social, emotional and physical issues," says Dr. Clark of Cincinnati Country Day. "Those are the kinds of things you `buy' for $10,000 or more when you come here."

E-mail ckranz@enquirer.com

Sunday story: Tristaters turn to private schools



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