Private schools educate with a passion

Teachers, families come together to teach local kids

 

Photo by Paul Moore.

Amanda Werchan, the founder and director of Fairhaven Girls’ School, and a group of children take a break from a work party August 21 to goof off in front of the camera.

 

For many businesses, making a profit is the top priority. But for most private schools, money is not what drove the owners into business it was a passion to educate students.

In this business, the goal is to provide the best possible product — a strong education, said Amanda Werchan, who will be opening Fairhaven Girls’ School this fall. Parents and students are important for different reasons. Though the student is the customer, parental support and involvement has been vital to the creation of her school.

“We managed to get 10 families to say ‘Yay this is a great idea,’ before we even had a building,” she said. “Parents understand that they are the pioneers, the first families to send their children to the first all-girls school in Bellingham. They are willing to do it because they have a vision for their child’s education and they are willing to put in the work to see that vision carried out.”

Many parents choose private schools because they have a specific vision for their child’s education. This might be a religious education, an emphasis on performing or visual arts, increased academic challenge, smaller class sizes or more personalized instruction.

“[Private schools] are businesses in the sense that we’re not government-funded and we need income coming in. But it’s not a business in a profitable sense,” said Gabriel Miles, enrollment coordinator at Whatcom Hills Waldorf school and arts program coordinator at Fairhaven Girls’ School. “We’re not out for profit.”

Instead, Bellingham’s 19 private schools are out to give children an educational experience that public schools don’t have the means necessary to provide.

 

A labor of love

How much does it cost to keep private schools in business? Annual tuition for private elementary and middle schools in Bellingham ranges from about $3,000 to more than $7,100.

Kim Feerer, who works at Cedar Tree Montessori Elementary School, said tuition goes toward her school’s annual operating cost of $206,000. Four thousand dollars is required for construction projects like playgrounds, $131,300 towards salaries, and the remaining $70,700 is spent on rent and insurance.

Many private schools are nonprofit organizations, meaning the money from students’ tuition must go back into funding the school.

Cliché as it sounds, the private school business is truly a labor of love, Werchan said. Passion for the job is helpful because teachers won’t be making a fortune.

Werchan won’t be getting paid at all for the first year of Fairhaven Girls’ School. It’s a sacrifice she’s willing to make for getting to realize a dream she’s been nurturing for four years. Part of the reason she was inspired to start her own school is that she’s a mother of two daughters and is passionate about the thought of inspiring and empowering young women.

Feerer at Cedar Tree Montessori can also attest to the importance of having passion for teaching. Feerer, who has taught in both a public and private school setting, knows that a transition to working in a private school can mean a pay cut — a $10,000 cut in Feerer’s case.

She now makes $36,200 a year as the director and one of the lead teachers of Cedar Tree working with grades one through three. A public school teacher who works with the same age group made $50,657 for the 2007-08 school year, according to Tanya Rowe, communications and community relations director of Bellingham Public Schools.

Feerer said the financial sacrifice is worth it because of the perks attached to working in the more relaxed private school environment. Teachers are allowed to teach according to the students’ own learning pace, she said.

“The amount of time you spend on discipline issues drops,” she said. “The amount of time you spend herding kids drops. When I worked in the public schools, it was dictated how many minutes you would spend on a certain subject area and what time of day you had to do it. That is just not the way kids learn at all. If they are stoked because they spent all this time learning about Antarctica, they should be able to pursue that interest.”

 

Students and standardized testing

It’s not just the students at private schools who have more freedom to pursue their interests, either.

“Teachers become teachers because they love to teach, not because they love to proctor exams,” Werchan agreed.

She said she believes some parents choose private schools because students are exempt from standardized testing like the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL).

Private schools are not bound by the same state-mandated regulations as private schools, thus they are given more freedom in their methods for evaluating students’ knowledge.

In the public school system, student achievement is measured in part through the WASL. Statewide, there is no school district where 100 percent of students pass the test. However, Bellingham’s test scores generally exceed the success rates of the state. For example in 2006, 69 percent of third graders statewide passed the WASL, and in Bellingham, 76 percent of third graders passed the test.

Fairhaven Girls’ School students will take a standardized test to help evaluate how they are doing academically compared to other middle school students regionally and nationally. However, it certainly won’t be the WASL, Werchan said.

She said even though Bellingham Public Schools have a great reputation, she believes public school teachers don’t get enough freedom in the classroom because they’re too busy teaching a curriculum driven by standardized testing.

Kenneth Vedra, superintendent of Bellingham Public Schools, agreed with Werchan, saying a weakness of the public education is that public schools aren’t allowed to call their own shots like private schools. Public schools are more highly regulated and must adhere to standards set forth by the state. These standards may be rigid, but they are also good, as they make public education more accountable, he said.

 

Diversity differs in public and private schools

One criticism often heard of private schools is that they only cater to rich families. Bob Sampson, principal at Bellingham Christian School, disagrees with that assertion, however. At Bellingham Christian School, for example, financial assistance is often available to help parents finance their child’s education, he said.

Enrollment at Bellingham Christian School has increased from 150 to 166 in the past year because, through donations, financial assistance has become more readily available. He said he’s encountered few problems of students not being able to attend for lack of funds.

“Our main concern is that we’re able to provide Christian education to families who desire it,” he said. “[Bellingham Christian School] is one school in the community that works to serve the middle-income family. You see a variety of students with different [socio-economic] backgrounds at our school.”

Like Sampson, Feerer said it’s a myth that private schools are for a specific demographic of family. Many families who send their children to Cedar Tree Montessori are middle-to lower-middle class, she said.

On the other hand, requiring families to pay for education most definitely limits the pool of students who can attend, she said. Every year, one or two families stop sending their child to Cedar Tree Montessori because they can’t afford it.

Feerer tries to be thoughtful about the race and gender distribution of her classes as well, always attempting to attain as much balance and diversity as possible. Twelve out of Cedar Tree’s 46 upper and lower elementary school students are racial minorities. It can be a struggle to build classrooms made up of students with varied racial and socio-economic backgrounds, Feerer said.

Many private and public school educators alike agree that building diversity in the classroom is easier for public schools.

A strength of public education is that it’s a more accurate model of society than what you would find in a private school, Vedra said. More diversity in terms of race, ethnic background, and socio-economic status exists in public school student bodies, because there is no limitation as to who can attend.

 

Public versus private education

Though private schools may be a welcome option for some families, many can agree that the Bellingham Public School District has an excellent reputation, Vedra said.

“When I talk about the mission of the district, it’s to prepare every child for college, career and citizenship in the 21st century,” Vedra said. “That makes us further ahead. We’re future-driven. We’re different by what our mission is.”

He said he believes public schools are most successful at offering a breadth of programs, including academics, athletics, arts and foreign language. In addition, special programs such as the international baccalaureate, advanced placement and AVID programs offer public school students an increased academic challenge or are set up to help a student pursue college.

Private schools, on the other hand, are more niche-based, in the sense that they cater to families looking for a specific kind of education.

Having a more broadly based education works for some children, but others may require an education that’s more personalized in some way, Feerer said.

“If you have an average child with no great gifts or challenges in any subject area, they will probably do just great in the public school,” Feerer said. “That type of child is rare. Mostly you see children who have gifts in certain areas and challenges in other areas, which is why most kids do great in private schools.”

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