The start of school means new books and superhero lunch boxes. For Kathy Keith’s children, learning is exciting enough. Her first-grade daughter is a master of math, and her fifth-grader impressed at his science fair by proving cinnamon is the healthiest gum flavor.
“Before summer break, they said they were worried vacation would be boring. They were going to miss school and the awesome things they get to learn,” says Keith, a Kirkland resident.
Keith credits her children’s enthusiasm to The Bear Creek School, which has campuses in Redmond, Sammamish and Woodinville. Like many Eastside families, the Keiths’ children exclusively attend tuition-based, independent schools.
“Whether you decide on an independent school or not, it’s important to know what’s out there — what you’re choosing and why, what you’re gaining or giving up,” says Keith.
Independent Thinking — Why Make The Choice?
Kathy Keith and her husband attended public schools and foresaw the same for their children. It was sensible since public schools in Bellevue and Lake Washington Districts frequently rank among the state’s and nation’s best.
“As new parents, we had no idea about the caliber of education out there. When we started looking, there was an impressive intentionality to every aspect of independent schools,” explains Keith.
Most independents are mission focused. Bear Creek, preschool to grade 12, offers a Christian, faith-based focus. Bellevue’s The Little School, preschool-Grade 5, emphasizes environmentalism and natural sciences through its 12-acre forested campus. Kirkland’s Eastside Preparatory School, grades 5-12, cross-pollinates topics — Shakespearean literature paired with Medieval history — via a trimester schedule.
Independent schools are one model of private education. Characteristics include self-governing institutions that exercise the freedom to set their own curriculum and hire staff.
“Many of these schools started because there was a desire to determine what to teach and which educational philosophies to live by,” said Meade Thayer, 16-year executive director of the Northwest Association of Independent Schools (NWAIS) before retiring in June 2014.
Thayer cites smaller class sizes as a consistent appeal. Many independents also maintain strong arts programming and field trips even as public schools cut funding. In the Northwest, cutting-edge technology is a frequent attribute. Thayer estimates that the percentage of students proceeding to college is in the upper 90th percentile.
“I like that independent schools can maintain their philosophy of education without succumbing to the whims of whatever federal and state standards come down the pike,” says Sean Mitchell, a Bridle Trails resident whose three children are students of The Little School.
Mitchell cites parental involvement and a sense of community as draws. Most independents educate the whole student — character development, citizenship, morality and sometimes faith — whereas public schools are more strictly limited to academics.
“We partner so everyone is in sync in the classroom and at home,” says Karen Beman, vice-president of collegiate and alumni relations at Bear Creek. “Kids receive the same messaging from the variety of influential folks in their lives. We all strive to run in stride.”
History of Northwest Independents
The Northwest is fertile ground for independents thanks to a focus on education and innovation.
“There is a huge number of independent schools in the Pacific Northwest,” says Dr. Terry Macaluso, head of Kirkland’s Eastside Preparatory School. “This area loves all kinds of individuality, and it shows in the array of options.”
The NWAIS accredits independent schools across an eight-state region including Washington. Almost 80 percent were founded since 1975 and 40 percent after 1990.
“Independents in this part of the country are relatively young,” says Peter Berner-Hays, head of Bellevue’s The Little School, founded in 1959. “In general, the Northwest has more of a pioneering spirit and is a pretty kid-centered area. I think people are willing to try something different from what they personally had as kids.”
Some schools were founded by former educators and experts. Eastside Prep was the result of a small group of parents. The school opened its doors in 2003 with 17 students and has grown to 325.
“Parents of middle schoolers became conscious of how crowded public schools had become. They started looking for interesting alternatives on the Eastside, but there weren’t many non-religious options,” says Macaluso who consulted from the start. “You have to be really idealistic and maintain a good sense of humor to take on a project like this!”
The presence of international citizens working for companies such as Microsoft, Google, Expedia and Amazon further enriches and diversifies educational approaches. At The Little School, student backgrounds include Brazil, China, India and Sweden.
Washington State oversight of independent schools is minimal. Schools annually apply and are approved by the State Board of Education. Regarding instruction, they must adhere to the minimum length for a school year and have one Washington State certified teacher on staff. Criminal background checks are not mandated. Curriculum must cover the “basic skills” of listed topics, which meet the state’s minimum graduation requirements. Independents are not required to participate in state testing.
“There was a desire when the state laws were passed to be as liberal as possible,” says Nathan Olson, communications manager, Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). “If parents didn’t want to avail themselves to a public education, that was fine. Give them the option (of independent schools) with as few hands in it as possible.”
Paying for Private Education
Discussions inevitably turn to the tuition question. Is it a justifiable expense, and who can afford it?
“If there was a stereotype, it would be about the cost,” says Keith. “Even I wasn’t sure I was going to fit in with ‘that’ crowd (at a private school), but there is actually a high percentage of families who receive tuition assistance. Yes, there are Mercedes and BMWs in the parking lot, but there are also plenty of regular minivans, too.”
Bear Creek tuition is $20,300 a year for grades 7-12, less for kindergarten and elementary grades. For the 2013-14 school year, Bear Creek distributed $1.4 million in tuition assistance to 25 percent of its 730 students. The Little School tuition is $19,490 annually and Eastside Prep is $26,975.
On average, Eastside independent schools range annually from $14,000 and up for full-time preschool and upward of $30,000 per year for elementary through high school.
“Schools are like colleges; you want to have an interesting, socioeconomically diverse environment,” says Thayer of NWAIS. “That’s why there is an emphasis on financial aid. Most people are surprised by how much is given.”
For some schools, tuition is also viewed as a statement of school support. At The Little School, about 18 percent of the 155 students receive financial aid, but no one receives full coverage. Families are expected to make some financial commitment.
“We don’t want cost to be an impediment to someone who is a good fit here,” says Berner-Hays. “That being said, there are many families who can’t afford it even with aid. We understand and respect that. Almost all independent schools still tend to draw from a middle- and upper-middle-class clientele.”
As a Little School parent, Mitchell admits that he ponders whether it is worth the expense every time the bill arrives — especially knowing Bellevue public schools have an excellent track record.
“There are the technical things like small class size, teacher attention and the school’s philosophy. Does that end up being worth the money? Maybe not,” says Mitchell. “For me, it’s an emotional decision. The emotional impact of what the school does for my child is immediately visible.”