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Lessons our Board of Education can learn from School Choice — Part 1

This is a reprint of an August 23rd article in the Tentacle.com00000000000

I’ve been a long time advocate of the school choice movement.  I see some tremendous opportunities for the soon to be elected new Frederick County Board of Education to break from its long entrenched establishment and take a fresh look what this movement has to offer our public schools.

With this being a two part article, I’d like to first focus on my personal experiences, and the lessons that I have learned in the education of our two now grown daughters in both private schools and Frederick County Public Schools.  When I use the term “private” I am also including religious related and parochial schools.

In Part 2, which will appear on September 7th,  I’ll attempt to highlight what is happening in the public charter school movement and how I think it could positively impact the future of Frederick County Public Schools.

What was the right fit for our kids?

Our children attended middle school through the Frederick County Public School system, as well as private elementary and high schools.  As parents the experience of educating them went beyond just sending them off to school and paying for their education either through our property taxes or private school tuition.

My wife Nancy and I volunteered a tremendous amount of our time to the schools they attended, as many parents often do. Whether public or private institutions, Nancy always found something to be engaged in.  And as for me I put in a combined sixteen years of service on the board of trustees of the two private schools our children attended. The Trinity School of Frederick MD

What’s the difference?

From those experiences, we learned a tremendous amount about the differences between the public and private educational concepts.  There are many.

While the public experience for our kids was in middle school for both and 9th for just one, we found that the small school atmosphere of a private school overly prepared them for public middle in “book learning” and socialization, the structure and discipline of the private setting went along way to hold them accountable for what was expected of them.  This spilled over through the public middle school setting … that is until that one year at Frederick High School, where for our average student “distractions” prevailed.  The structure that our child needed was just not there, as is the case for many average kids.  After that one year, we knew we needed to make a “choice” and find a place where they could experience a culture where it was “cool” for all kids to get good grades through a structured environment that reinforces accountability.

For our children we were fortunate enough to be able to afford to send them to a good private school to finish out their high school careers with great success.

The primary differences that I found between a public system and that of private education is that, while it works tremendously well for many children, especially those who are independent learners and rank high in their classes, there is a reasonable percentage of average and below average students who require more than the public system can realistically offer.  In such cases all too often these kids don’t discover their maximum potential.

The other stark contrast that we found is that the percentage of parental involvement in the private environment at home and at school far exceeded that in the public arena.  This is not to say that a large chunk of public school parents are not fully engaged, it’s just that my experience is that in private schools much larger percentage of the school’s population made that commitment.

This level of parental engagement aids in making the mission of the organization very clear.  This typically leads to a  culture of transparency and accountability for not only the students, but the faculty, administration and parents.  Across the board expectations are well understood.

In a public environment with the size of the centralized government bureaucracy, the influence of the teachers unions, and all the politics involved, many parents often don’t even know if there is a mission.  In many public systems, the mission is written in such broad terms to serve so many constituencies, it is unlikely to filter down to the parents and students.

All those fancy buildings

Of course the physical plants (buildings and all the stuff inside) in both the public and private systems can range from the one room school house to the Taj Mahal.  Many private schools operate from older buildings or portable structures adapted for their use … and still families flock to them seeking an educational model to best serve their children’s needs.  A perfect example is found at The Trinity School of Frederick – an excellent website worth visiting!

On the other extreme we see here in Frederick County magnificent and very attractive school buildings with a plethora of amenities being constructed over the last decade or two … built with taxpayer money, while older schools like Frederick High School are still begging for attention.  I’m still trying to figure that one out!

In the private school environment, if the institution wants to expand, they raise the money through the current school family, alumni, corporations, foundations and the religious order (if applicable).  Some private schools over the course of many decades have been able to build large endowments that support significant physical plants, tuition assistance, facility salaries, etc.  In the case of the latter, private school teachers are non-union and often willingly accept lower salaries than their counter parts in the public system, for the opportunity to work in a more focused educational environment.

So, what’s next?

Our youngest graduated from private school in 1998.  I remained on that board of trustees until June of 2002, at which time with some regret, I figured my involvement in educational choice was over.  But it wasn’t even 90 days later that I read in the Frederick News Post of a small and struggling band of parents who were attempting to accomplish the impossible in Frederick County … start a Public Charter School.   I picked up the phone and when Norman Quist answered, I was back in the saddle with one of my passions.

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The author: Rocky Mackintosh, President, MacRo, Ltd., a Land and Commercial Real Estate firm based in Frederick, Maryland

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