Private schools

Educational standards, learning methods and prices

Private schools

There are numerous private fee-paying schools in the US, serving a multitude of educational needs and educating around 10 per cent of children, a total of almost 5 million students in elementary schools and 1.2 million in secondary schools. Private schools include single-sex schools, schools sponsored by religious groups, schools for students with learning or physical disabilities, and schools for gifted children.

Some private schools place the emphasis on sport or cater for students with talent in art, drama, dance or music. There are also schools emphasising activities such as outdoor living or adhering to a particular educational philosophy such as Montessori and Rudolf Steiner schools.

Although most private schools prepare students for entry to an American college or university, some international schools prepare students for the International Baccalaureate (IB) examination. Many international schools teach classes in a number of languages, e.g. English, French, German and Spanish. Some private schools teach exclusively in a foreign language, e.g. Japanese, follow foreign curricula and prepare students for examinations set by examining boards in their home country.

Educational standards of private schools in the US

Religious instruction isn’t permitted in public (state) schools, so many private schools are based on religious principles, ranging from Catholic convent schools to fundamentalist academies. Church-run schools are usually referred to collectively as ‘parochial’ schools, although the term is commonly used to refer to schools run by the Catholic Church. In some areas, particularly the south, parochial schools are seen merely as an attempt to create all-white schools, while in some northern cities, the Catholic schools are considered the best way for minority students to escape problems in city public schools.

Private schools are organised like public schools, although the curricula and approach differ considerably, and are usually aimed at securing admission to a top university. Private schools range from nursery schools to large day and boarding schools, from experimental and progressive schools to traditional institutions. They include progressive schools with a holistic approach to a child’s development and schools with a strict traditional and conservative regime and a rigid and competitive approach to learning.

Learning methods and discipline

School work in private schools is usually rigorous and demanding, and students often have a great deal of homework and pressure (in stark contrast to most public schools). Many parents favour this competitive ‘work ethic’ approach and expect their offspring to work hard to justify the cost. Some private schools are run on the lines of a military academy with uniforms (although these are rare), strict discipline and punishments (corporal punishment isn’t illegal in the US).

Private ‘prep’ schools aren’t the same as public preparatory or primary schools, but are single sex high schools that prepare students for prestigious ‘Ivy League’ universities. Prep schools have a social cachet and are roughly equivalent to British public schools (e.g. Eton and Harrow). They flourish in the eastern states, but are rare in the west, where they’re seen as elitist and decadent.

Although most private schools are day schools, they include a number of boarding schools, particularly in the New England states where it has long been a tradition among affluent American families to send their offspring to board. Note, however, that most American boarding schools cater for high school students only and there are few boarding schools for younger children.

Prices for Private Schools in the US

Fees vary considerably according to a variety of factors, including the age of students, the reputation and quality of the school, and its location (schools in major cities are usually the most expensive). Annual fees start at around $1,000 for elementary schools and around $2,000 for secondary schools, but can be as high as $15,000 in some regions. Boarding school fees can run to $30,000 per year, although this may include books and school trips. In some states, school districts subsidise private schools through a voucher system, and around a third of private school pupils receive some sort of financial assistance.

Most private schools provide scholarships for gifted and talented students, which may be reserved for children from poorer families or ethnic minorities. Some schools have large endowments, enabling them to accept any students they wish, irrespective of the parents’ ability to pay.

Fees aren’t all-inclusive and additional obligatory fees are payable plus fees for optional services. Private school fees tend to increase by an average of 5 to 10 per cent annually.

Most private schools provide a broad-based education and generally offer a varied approach to sport, music, drama, art and a wide choice of academic subjects. Their aim is more the development of the child as an individual and the encouragement of his unique talents, rather than teaching on a production-line system. This is made possible by small classes, which allow teachers to provide students with individually tailored tuition.

Private schools employ specialist staff, e.g. reading specialists, tutors to help those with difficulties, and specialists to assist those who wish to accelerate their learning or work independently. You can find a tutor  to supplement these resources if necessary. Most private schools also offer after-school classes, sports teams, clubs and ‘enrichment’ programmes.

When making applications, do so as far in advance as possible. It’s usually easier to gain entry to the first grade than to get a child into a later grade, where entry is strictly limited. Entry is often facilitated for some foreign children, as many schools consider it an advantage to have students from several countries. Gaining entrance to a prominent private school is difficult, particularly in major cities, and you can never guarantee that a particular school will accept your child (unless you’re the President of the US).

Although many nursery and elementary schools accept children on a first-come, first-served basis, the best and most exclusive schools have a demanding selection procedure, including tests and personal interviews with the potential student and family members, and many have waiting lists. Don’t count on enrolling your child in a particular school and neglect other alternatives.


Before enrolling your child in a private school, make sure that you understand the withdrawal conditions in the school contract, particularly if you expect to be in the US for a short time only. Before sending a child to a particular private school you should consider carefully his needs, capabilities and maturity. For example, it’s important to ensure that a school’s curriculum and regime is neither too strict nor too liberal for your child.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

Does this article help?

Do you have any comments, updates or questions on this topic? Ask them here: