In eighth grade, Jennie Brown was on track. Her experience in the Washington public school system had been remarkably good, and she was headed for one of the capital's most prestigious public high schools.
But there was a hitch. "She is passionate about basketball," says her mother, Debbie Brown. "and the best programs are not in the D.C. public school system." So the family took a step it had never foreseen: considering private school. Today, Jennie attends Elizabeth Seton High School, a private Roman Catholic school in Bladensburg, Md.
Like the Browns, the parents of some 10 percent of American students will write often-hefty checks this spring to a private school - a percentage that has changed little over the past decade, according to the US Department of Education. And many of those students will be the first in their families ever to attend one of the roughly 26,000 private schools across the country.
Although private schools were once considered a bastion for the elite, today their student bodies are as varied as the reasons for applying. For some, it is a family tradition. For many others, a poor neighborhood, crowded classrooms, a brief relocation to an unfamiliar area, or a special need can drive the decision - aided by the availability of strong scholarship funds at competitive schools.
But experts caution families against buying into years of heavy tuition bills without careful scrutiny of both public and private options.
Many families feel "that private schools are all socially elite and public schools are all terrible," says Peter Cookson, director of the Center for Educational Outreach in New York and author of several studies on public and private education. "The truth is that there are some exemplary public schools and that there is great diversity among private schools."
Significant differences do exist between typical public and private institutions, which include military, parochial, and those independent of institutional affiliation. The average public school has an enrollment of 516, with one teacher for every 17 students. Private schools average a student body of 191, with one teacher for 14.5 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the Department of Education.
As a result, "there's more scope for experimentation [in a private school]," says Dr. Cookson, "and it therefore may be a better place for a creative child. A good but not great athlete might also benefit because basically everybody can get on a team in a smaller school." Similarly, a child who needs more individual attention might benefit because "it can customize a child's experience a little more."
Yet this does not mean that a child with a learning, emotional, or physical disability would be best served in a private school. Only about 25 percent offer disability services and 43 percent offer diagnostic services. In public schools, the percentages are 89 and 83 percent, respectively.
Nor do talented students necessarily need a private school community to excel. In fact, the strengths of some private schools may most benefit students who are decidedly middle-of-the-road, argues Arthur Powell, senior assistant at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
While public schools tend to focus almost exclusively on the top and bottom extremes, he says, "independent schools pay attention to you even if you're in the middle." Small classes can help teachers get to know all facets of a student's life. "If your load is small enough that you know kids' names," he says, "that's when you're likely to go watch a kid's wrestling meet and say, 'Hey, you did great, now why don't you show the same gumption in French.' "
These interactions help teachers "diagnose why [a student] doesn't get it," argues Dr. Powell, author of "Lessons From Privilege: The American Prep School Tradition" (Harvard University Press, 1996).
But shopping around can convince some students that their best options lie with public school. Brooke Rosenberg had been happy in her Atlanta public elementary school until the kids got older and "started segregating themselves." The family did its research, and Brooke rejected the private route because she did not want to go to school "with a bunch of rich kids." She settled on Dickerson Middle School in East Cobb County because of its high academic standards, various extracurricular activities, and an active community of parents. To accommodate her choice, the family moved out of the city.
Despite its many pluses, the suburban public school didn't provide the atmosphere her mom hoped for. "For the first time, my kids are aware of the clothes they wear and the stores they shop in," laments Marilyn Rosenberg.
Indeed, the issue of community is a major factor in choosing the right school. A recurring concern for many parents is the presence of drugs or violence in both private and public schools. Yet principals and teachers targeted neither as a major problem in a 1994 survey done by the National Center for Education Statistics. Public school teachers most often cited students' unpreparedness to learn, while student apathy ranked first among their private school colleagues.
In both systems, drug abuse ranked 10th: about 5 percent of public school and 1 percent of private school teachers reported this as a serious problem.
Overall, public school teachers reported more problems, including lack of parental involvement (27 percent versus 4 percent in private) and student disrespect for teachers (18 percent versus 3 percent).
With so many schools trying out new teaching methods and borrowing successful models from one another, Powell cautions parents against preconceived notions about what public and private schools offer. In particular, he notes, parents should not think that by sending children to a highly academic independent school they have bought them admission to a top college. In fact, he says, competent but not brilliant students in a good public school would probably stand the same chance of making the Ivy League.
For Richard Weinberg, director of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, there is no alternative to investigating each option thoroughly. "And when they have done all their intellectualizing, he adds, then parents have to go with their gut."