Jim Mitchell strolls through the huge estate that is the campus of Alexander Dawson School. It looks and feels more like a small, private college than a K-12 preparatory school and can take the better part of an afternoon to tour. There’s a state-of-the-art athletic building, arts center, admissions cottage, and three separate language buildings (Spanish, French and Chinese).
Each of the 420 students has about 0.2 acres to his or herself of the massive 95-acre campus. The elementary, middle and high schools each have their own separate “cottages,” which Mitchell, the school’s admissions director, says is important for students to interact with their own age group.
It’s hard to imagine finding a campus of this stature in the public system. Alexander Dawson is most definitely a private school, one that costs parents $17,000 or more a year to attend.
That’s about enough for one year of room and board and in-state tuition at the University of Colorado. For some, that seems an extraordinarily staggering cost for grade school when the public system offers it for free (especially considering local public districts such as Boulder Valley rate among the highest in the state academically). But for others, sending their child to a private institution such as Dawson is well worth the hit to the bank account.
Families who dish out thousands for high-, middle- and sometimes even an elementary-school education do so for myriad reasons—faith, academics, athletics, learning disabilities and so on. But when considering a typical student, the money seems best spent when you get to what is perhaps the core reason for attending a private school: individual attention.
The student/teacher ratios speak volumes. Dawson offers 1 teacher for every 10 students. At Kent Denver, it’s 9 to 1. Rocky Mountain Christian Academy in Longmont has an 11 to 1 mark. These ratios are typical.
Public schools, depending on the district, can see class sizes nearly double that—Boulder Valley, one of the premier districts in the state, has a 16 to 1 ratio. St. Vrain, more than 19 to 1.
For Edra Pollin, the choice to go private was simple. Pollin, a Denver lawyer, sent both of her children to Kent Middle and Upper schools. Each went on to the University of Colorado.
It was the small class size and personal attention they wanted. “(We) began looking at Kent when Chelsea was in the fifth grade,” says Pollin, of her now 24-year-old daughter and graduate student at Emory University.
Pollin says their decision to send Chelsea to Kent, one of the state’s most expensive prep schools, was because they didn’t want to chance their kids getting lost in the shuffle of the Denver Public School system.
She thinks it was the best choice for both her children albeit for very different reasons.
“Chelsea is more of a traditional student. She probably would have done well at any school although she enjoyed the benefits of a great education in a small class,” she says. “But Ben (the younger sibling) needed a smaller class than he would have had in public school. As it turns out, Ben also became very active in speech and debate, and really excelled on that team in high school. Speech and debate was really great for Ben; I think his experience on the team…contributed enormously to his success in high school.”
Pollin believes the personal attention that her kids received was what kept them motivated and, ultimately, changed how they have done in college and beyond.
It wasn’t cheap.
Tuition per year is $18,785, plus hundreds more in fees. That’s a small cost for those who feel the school is vital to their kids’ success. “That’s where (Ben) wanted to go from the start,” Pollin says. “Which kept me and (my husband) working hard all these years.”
The buy in created by tuition pays dividends. Barb Bulthuis, Niwot’s Rocky Mountain Christian School’s director of advancement, says because of high cost, private school parents tend to be more active in their child’s education. Money is a motivator.
“You have parents here who are committed to education, because they’re willing to pay tuition, and kids are typically more motivated when they are here,” she says.
It’s not to say that parents who choose to save their money and send their kids to public schools are uncommitted. There are numerous opportunities for parents to be involved in public schools in Boulder, such as District Parent Council in Boulder Valley and District Partners in St. Vrain.
And public educators such as John Poynton, St. Vrain’s communication manager, don’t speculate on which is better—they simply value the choice that parents and students have.
“Choice is good; options are good,” Poynton says. “Our district not only supports different options, but we work hand in hand with public and private institutions to celebrate our diversity.”
But when parents want their kids held accountable and thinking of preparing for college constantly, a private education makes a whole lot of sense.
Taking a stroll with Mitchell through the Dawson halls is proof that its students can’t really slip through the cracks.
He cheers enthusiastically as several high schoolers try out a small combuster race car in the hallway, built from batteries and CDs for wheels. He jokingly calls one student “Sarah,” a reference to her Sarah Palin Halloween costume. He compliments one art class for making piggy banks out of clay. The students greet him with sincerity as well.
It feels like a community.
As we sit in his office in the admissions cottage, it is clear just how much he loves this academic environment: “It’s the greatest job in the world,” he says.
Private schools go to great lengths to build this community. At Dawson, as with most other privates, students are required to participate in a sport or extracurricular activity each semester. Mitchell says it’s because the school values involvement.
“We’re a school of participants, not spectators,” Mitchell says.
That’s not to say it’s difficult to participate in public schools; getting involved is simply harder to avoid at most private schools.
Perhaps the most tangible proof that privates have a payoff rests in the college prep test score numbers.
Alexander Dawson School’s average SAT score is a robust 1,240 and ACT score 27. Kent High School also scores high with an average ACT score of 27.9. Conversely, in 2008, Boulder Valley school district’s average ACT score was 22.2; St. Vrain’s average was 20.1.
This all helps in placing students into the best colleges. Well that, and another aspect. Because of the influx of tuition cash, prep schools typically have greater access to higher-education resources. The nationwide student to college counselor ratio at public schools is 311 to 1. At Kent, for example, there’s an advisor for every 10 students.
Pollin says she feels her kids came out of high school much more prepared for college than they would have been coming out of a public school. “Chelsea’s told me that she developed excellent writing skills at Kent. When she went to CU-Boulder, she felt that her writing capabilities were more developed than many kids,” she says.
Now that her children are excelling in college, Pollins knows that spending thousands of dollars on their pre-college education was money invested well.
So what if high school cost them the same cash it did to go to college?