Independent Schools Explained
Independent schools are different from other private schools.
"Private school" is a catch-all term to describe any school not part of a public school system. The term includes church-affiliated schools, where some of the funding comes from the church and the school's philosophy is deeply informed by that of the church. It also includes schools that are run for profit, and that are often owned by the school's director.
Independent schools, on the other hand, are neither part of a church nor owned in any sense. They are free-standing and governed by self-perpetuating boards of trustees. They are philanthropic enterprises, often founded by gifts from generous individuals, and established explicitly to provide an education guided by a clearly stated educational mission.
Free from the bureaucracy of local and state school requirements, independent schools develop their own curricula and benchmarks for student achievement. Generally, these curricula surpass the requirements of the state. Independent schools are free to hire the teachers they wish and they are free to evaluate teaching performance, rewarding those who exceed expectations and removing those who come up short.
Why Choose an Independent School?
Why should a family choose to send their child to Harbor Country Day School rather than the local public school or a nearby for-profit school? The answers given by families vary, but often include our small class sizes, our nurturing environment, our talented faculty and our comprehensive curriculum.
Here is a link to an article at the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) website on choosing an independent school.
And here is a link to a terrific video by Patrick Bassett, current president of NAIS, about the independent school difference.
NAIS and the New York State Association of Independent Schools have identified five questions that parents should ask to assess the quality of their child's current and prospective educational milieu. Here are the questions, and Harbor's answers.
1. Are there high-quality and committed teachers?
Next to our students, our faculty is our most precious asset, and we will continue to hire the most capable teachers and mentors. At every level, Nursery through Eighth Grade, teachers are committed to our school and their roles. We have eighteen full-time teaching faculty members, all of whom either have master's degrees in their field or are currently working toward earning their master's. While state certification is not required to teach in an independent school, nearly all of our teachers are certified in their fields. One hundred percent of our faculty is involved in our comprehensive professional development program, which means they are constantly striving towards improving their content knowledge, adding to their skills, or enhancing their pedagogy. Most important, our faculty is especially strong in understanding children and knowing how our students learn best.
Teachers at Harbor Country Day School all receive one-year employment contracts, rather than earning tenure in a public school system. Each teacher is evaluated on a regular basis and must show concrete signs of improvement yearly. This ensures that our teachers never rest on their fine reputation; rather they constantly try to improve.
2. Are classroom lessons innovative and engaging?
The finest schools strive to provide a learning environment that fosters innovative opportunities for all learning styles. Our mission clearly states that we teach to the individual. Through small class sizes and a time-tested approach, Harbor is able to draw the best efforts from every student. We constantly employ new ways to integrate technology into our already strong program. With weekly classes in computer and our new SMART Board technology and new iMacs, we will only build on what we have started.
An integrated approach to teaching allows students to make connections among disciplines. It provides opportunities to learn content material and hone skills in one class and employ them in others. This is especially true for English and social studies; it is a natural connection that makes sense for children. We integrate art and music into most classes, giving an opportunity for the students to learn in a different way.
Field trips such as our annual journeys to Frost Valley and either Gettysburg or Williamsburg not only foster independence in our students, they encourage team building and leadership skills. They provide opportunities for students to challenge themselves and take responsible risks in a safe environment. Our history field trips offer a chance to witness history and learn firsthand how cold it was on a March day in Williamsburg or how close George Pickett was to the Union lines during his infamous Pickett's Charge. Co-curricular opportunities such as these help motivate and interest students at each level.
3. Do students get clear value from their education?
Throughout America, parents are thinking about college while their children are barely in nursery school. This is perhaps inevitable, given the eventual cost of higher education. Thus the question inevitably comes up: will this school provide a competitive advantage for my child as she or he enters secondary school?
Our answer is yes. And for many, that is the clearest "value" to be gained from the investment. But the value proposition of an independent school, and of Harbor, is about more than that. It is about the educational mission that drives the school.
Great schools provide avenues for children to learn the benefits of charity and a commitment to community. Philanthropy should start at an early age, more often than not involving a gift of time or talent instead of money. Harbor is well known in our community for our dedication to service. Each year we hold many events for the benefits of others. In an all-school assembly the head of school likes to point out that the scallop shell, our school's symbol, is associated traditionally with charity. This message resonates with our students.
Harbor Country Day School values teaching students how to make ethical decisions. We read and discuss their use in classic literature, we write about them in journal entries, and the youngest ones create their own classroom rules that reflect wise and ethical behavioral decisions. Of course, we practice them on a daily basis.
4. Does the school hold itself accountable for its students' academic performance?
Harbor Country Day School is an academic institution first and foremost. High academic performance is expected by the school's capable educational leaders, by its committed board of trustees, and by the rigorous accreditation process of the New York State Association of Independent Schools.
Faculty are held to high expectations. This is evidenced in our faculty evaluations, our annual contracts, our professional development program, and our commitment to continuous curriculum enhancement.
When a student soars beyond her classmates, we find ways to encourage her growth and teach to her level. An eighth-grader in 2008-2009 will be the only student in a tenth-grade level geometry class. On the other hand, when a student struggles, the teachers are right with him, providing support and finding ways for him to have success.
5. Are parents an active part of a student's educational experience?
The most successful schools communicate to parents on a regular basis, ensuring that they understand the mission of the school. A true school-parent partnership is essential to the successful education of each child. Through agreed-upon student goals, parents and school can offer a complete education that does not stop once the bus leaves our campus. Parents are involved at many levels. They run the Parents' Association, which is of never-ending assistance to the school both in organizing events that build community and in providing support for classrooms. Parents occasionally volunteer in classes, and lend their expertise in group settings such as All-School Meeting. While parents do not involve themselves with curriculum, they provide support to all on a regular basis.
For more information on independent schools
Visit the two following websites for more information on independent schools:
National Association of Independent Schools
New York State Association on Independent Schools.