When to Invest in Private Schooling

If you could afford to send your child to a private school for only a limited period, which years - if any - would you choose?

Lawrence Gladieux, head of the Washington office of the College Board, sees no reason to spend the money on private education at any point, except perhaps at the university level. "All things being equal," he says, "I believe that a public school education is the best way to go."

He also feels that some children might shine a bit more because of the disparity in the student population in many public schools.

"In a more homogeneous environment," he says, speaking of his own two children, "possibly they might not have gained the same confidence" and considered themselves high achievers. He admits worrying about the public school experience during the middle school years, "when the centrifugal forces become powerful."

This worry is why Richard Weinberg, head of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, would invest his money at the middle school level, "given the importance of this transitional period intellectually, cognitively, and emotionally." If he were to offer a child a situation with more guidance, it would be in those early adolescent years.

It is also the time, he says, that he would expose a child who showed potential for academic success to a more in-depth and varied curricula. He says this would place the child "in a new groove" and orient him or her for the future.

Most public school situations," Dr. Weinberg says "can tune into what a child needs early on." This also gives parents a chance to get to know their child so they can choose the private middle school most appropriate for his or her needs and skills.

Arthur Powell, senior assistant at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University in Providence, R.I., agrees. "It would of course depend on the kid," he says, "but in the abstract I would say 6th through 9th grade. Then I'd be assured that the kid would have taken serious algebra," which is crucial to taking advanced math courses later. "He would get going on foreign languages," and generally get a solid academic foundation, he says.

Peter Cookson, director of the Center for Educational Outreach in New York and author of several studies on public and private education, would invest in private education "either at the very beginning - Grades 1 through 3 to give a child intense, individual attention - or at the very end in grades 11 and 12 to jump-start the kid into college."

If forced to choose between the two, he unhesitatingly opts for the first three years of elementary school "because a good foundation in reading and writing is so critical."

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