What is an independent school, and why don’t you just call yourselves private schools? An independent school is an independently organized non-profit school governed by a board of trustees. Unlike private schools, which might be profit or non-profit and which could be beholden to some over-arching organizational framework that could dictate how it is to operate, Independent Schools are free from external control. They represent the ultimate in school-based management, which has been shown to produce excellent outcomes for students, even in the public sector where experiments in school-based autonomy have been undertaken. Independent schools are also financed independently, most often through a combination of tuition revenue and philanthropic support. This means that independent schools are unencumbered by most state mandates, including the burdens of standardized testing, which has not been shown to improve outcomes for students.
So independent schools can do whatever they want?
Not quite. Independent Schools are mission driven, that is they declare clearly and publicly what their goals are, and their focus is, first and foremost, on the welfare of the students enrolled at the school – even before the teachers or staff who work at the school. They seek to enroll students who can benefit from and contribute to the fulfillment of the mission, thereby creating an intentional community of learners who are collectively committed to supporting one another in achieving a range of educational outcomes. Parents choosing an independent school for their child will want to pay close attention to the mission, which is a declaration of the school’s purpose and is the way the school is held accountable – more on that in a minute.
Independent means that decisions about curriculum and pedagogy, about extra-curricular activities and sports, about discipline, about all aspects of school life are made at the school by professional educators (rather than politicians or others who know nothing about education), whose responsibility it is to carry out the mission of the school. Decisions relating to the educational program are made at the school, often by the same people who will be implementing these decisions. Such a framework ensures the buy-in necessary to be able to implement changes in a way that is positive and constructive and meets the needs of students; moreover, it also means that decisions can be made quickly, if necessary, and in response to changing circumstances. Decisions do not have to be “run up the line” to district headquarters or past some bureaucrat in a state capital. This means that independent schools can be responsive to student needs and can quickly implement educational practices that are in the best interests of children.
What about accountability?
Independent schools are accountable, first and foremost, to the children they serve, to their parents who pay tuition, and to the market at large. We must provide an exemplary educational experience for our students and produce consistently excellent outcomes, or people will not enroll. It’s pretty much as simple as that. However, in our continual striving to be excellent, Independent schools also band together, often in regional associations (for us here at Sewickley Academy this is the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools, or PAIS). PAIS has been authorized by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to accredit its member schools, a process that ensures that each school is fulfilling its mission – its declared purpose. If independent schools do not do what they promise to do, they risk not having their accreditation renewed by PAIS, and they risk disappointing parents who will take their children elsewhere to be educated.
Aren’t independent schools pretty homogenous places that lack diversity?
No. Actually, depending on the region, independent schools can often be more diverse than the local public schools because public schools draw their students from one specific geographical region, which can often be racially and economically homogenous. Independent schools, by contrast, draw students from a much wider geographical area, which often comprises a more diverse range of potential students. In addition, most independent schools have as part of their mission a commitment to equity and inclusion, so the schools seek to enroll a diverse population of students, including students from families who might not be able to afford the tuition.
Are independent schools utopian outposts?
No. Independent schools are filled with regular students from a range of different kinds of families, who have all chosen the school to educate their children in an environment that puts the needs of the students first. Because independent schools are human organizations, we have challenges just as any other human organization; however, in working through our challenges, we benefit from a shared commitment to the mission of the school, a central focus on the needs of children, and a decision-making and problem-solving framework that means we can address issues quickly, thoughtfully, and humanely.
If any of this sounds like it might describe a school you would like to learn more about, I urge you to give us (Sewickley Academy) a call – or go to the PAIS web site, or the National Association of Independent School's web site to find a list of independent schools near you. And be sure to make use of our handy guide, "27 Questions to Help You Evaluate a School for Your Child."