Families are often wowed by first impressions of independent schools: scenic campuses, state-of-the-art labs, modern athletic facilities, theaters, and more. But it’s the things you don’t see on tour that truly make independent schools special.
Locally, there’s no shortage of independent schools heralding these intangible traits, nor families who choose to enroll their children in them. Maryland is home to 66 schools within the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) that educate more than 25,000 students annually. To uncover some of the awesome invisible advantages that lure families to these special learning institutions each year, we turned to their champions—from committed families to staff members.
SMALL CLASSES AND STRONG STUDENT–TEACHER RATIOS
“Smaller class sizes mean you don’t have to be someone who specifically needs more attention to get attention from your teacher,” says Jordan Small, a parent at Park School, which has a 7:1 student-teacher ratio and an average class of 15. “A quieter kid isn’t able to just avoid participation, so students learn to be part of the conversation.”
Independent schools universally offer excellent student-teacher ratios and smaller average class sizes than public schools. National Center for Education Statistics cites the average public school class size as 25, compared to 15–19 in independent schools. Student– teacher ratios come in at about 12:1 for independent schools, compared to 16:1 in public schools.
“With a class of 20, my daughter was able to thrive,” says Amy Metzger, a parent at Immaculate Conception School. “After COVID, my daughter was taking longer to unlock her reading. Her teacher connected with me, sent home books for her to read with me, and helped her directly in class.” Metzger adds that the teacher also supported her daughter emotionally through the loss of a pet and became like a second mom.
“With prioritization on ‘teaching the whole child,’ we are focused on our students’ intellectual, character, social-emotional, physical/ health, and spiritual development,” says Robyn Blum, K-8 principal of Krieger Schechter Day School. “We build our curriculum around the understanding that learning and growth is also about what happens on the playground, on overnight field trips, in the hallways, and in the moments before class when teachers and students can talk and make deeper connections with each other.”
That “whole child” approach is widely employed at independent schools. Stephen Abrams, director of admissions and enrollment management at Loyola Blakefield, hails the school’s Sophomore Conversations as one hallmark of the layered supports they build. Midway to graduation, the program pairs each sophomore with an adult for in-depth discussion. Campus closes early that day, as all faculty and staff are called on for the event. “These connections last well beyond the conversation. Many students find themselves leaning on that adult for guidance and advice even after their time at Loyola,” Abrams says.
CHOICE WITHIN STRUCTURE
Independent schools possess the flexibility to offer both robust coursework and ample extracurricular offerings, in part because they are not bound by state-supervised “teach to the tests” norms. This seemingly subtle benefit can translate into big learning gains.
Giving students agency in their own learning is a strength. “At Friends, our curriculum is both traditional and innovative. We have strict requirements for graduation, but we believe the journey is important,” says Amy Mortimer, director of admission at Friends School of Baltimore. “We don’t think that academic rigor and joy are mutually exclusive.”
“Flexibility in our curriculum allows us to design classes that speak directly to student interests,” says Abrams. For instance, the school’s new elective, Anatomy & Physiology, which provides a deep dive on how the body functions for optimal performance, is directly applicable to the estimated 75 percent of students at Loyola who participate in interscholastic or intramural sports.
“Park faculty create an environment where students can bring their authentic selves to the classroom, the athletic field, the stage, or any endeavor,” says Ruthie Sachs Kalvar, director of admission at the Park School of Baltimore. “We cultivate children’s innate curiosity by nurturing their interests and engaging them as active participants in their own education. This approach is supported by an invisible, but very present, structure.”
It is commonly accepted that learning styles vary by gender, so some independent schools tailor programs just for boys or girls. Loyola cultivates “Men for Others” and Notre Dame Preparatory School readies “Women who will transform the world.” Single-sex classrooms support unique strengths and build character and confidence while forging bonds of brotherhood or sisterhood.
Boys’ language and fine motor skills tend to develop later than girls’, and if boys feel like they are lagging they may act out or and lose interest in school. All-male learning environments account for physiological differences and keep students focused and eager to learn. Research shows that students in all-boy schools don’t feel as pressured to adhere to stereotypical “male” subjects like math and science and are more open to art, music, foreign languages and community service.
“The effects of the ‘All-Girls Advantage’ are immediate and lifelong,” says Sue Sadler, head of school at The Bryn Mawr School. “Girls reach their highest potential when they feel supported by a strong community of peers and adults who believe in the power of girls.”
Finding a school like NDP that encourages curiosity and engages girls to get passionate about STEM at a young age was important to Betsy Soehren-Jones both personally and professionally. The parent of two daughters who attend NDP, she’s also an executive at a leading cybersecurity firm. “As a female executive in a STEM field, it’s lonely in the C-Suite,” says Soehren-Jones. “I feel an immense responsibility to reach behind me.”
Some parents will choose independent school for the sake of faith-based education alone. But commitment to unifying beliefs extends beyond religion. Shared values solidify a community, whether through religious doctrine or secular guiding principles.
Jewish values are central to KSDS. “We have a stellar dual-curriculum program of academic excellence in General Studies and Hebrew/ Judaic Studies. Personal reflection and interpersonal relationships based on empathy and thoughtfulness frame all our experiences,” explains Blum. “Our social-emotional curriculum, Bo N’Daber, engages students with monthly themes for conversations. We approach challenges and missteps as opportunities for learning what could have been handled differently and for practicing teshuva—the process of forgiveness and restitution.”
The Friends School curriculum is infused with the Quaker “SPICES”, which stand for Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship. “We teach kids to think of a global community and be empathetic,” says Mortimer.
FEELS LIKE HOME
Public schools have a radius of eligibility for attendance. Independent schools don’t. Some students will drive an hour or more to get to school. Choosing a school that feels like home is key. Soehren-Jones’ daughters found that feel at NDP. “We moved to Baltimore from Chicago,” she says. “NDP was the logical choice for us because it looked and felt like ‘home.’ We’ve watched our daughters be challenged in unprecedented ways in an environment that feels safe and a community that wants nothing more than to see them succeed.”
“More than a school, we are a family,” says Blum. “Our teachers know our students’ parents, siblings and even pets, and try to have a thorough picture of the interests, talents and factors that help shape our students’ lives, both during and outside of school. Our teachers help create that ‘village’ experience for our students.”
LOYALTY AND TRADITION
In Baltimore, when someone asks, “Where did you go to school?” they likely mean high school; in some circles, it includes elementary or middle school. Out-of-towners are as boggled by this practice as with the obsession of putting Old Bay on everything. But so much local identity is tied to those formative experiences and shared traditions.
“Our alumni feel a deep sense of loyalty and affection for their K–8 school,” says Blum. “They love maintaining connections with their teachers and classmates, returning for reunions, cheering in the audience at the current year’s eighth grade play, and enrolling their own children at Krieger Schechter.”
Perhaps the biggest invisible advantage to families who choose independent schools is the reassurance that their children will not be invisible, but rather seen and valued—oftentimes long after they graduate.