What Is An Independent School?

It is easy to see and feel the difference in an independent school as soon as you walk in the door. The hallways have small groups of students in them walking purposefully, respectfully, and happily about. The classrooms are brightly lit, well appointed with the latest, state-of-the-art learning technologies, lively, and energy-filled. Rarely will you see students slumped in their seats, listening rather listlessly to a lecture. Instead, you will see students up at the whiteboards, sitting in a circle on the floor, on stools in a science lab adjusting the variables or elements of an experiment, at a podium giving a speech in character as an historical figure, or discussing what they have learned on a recent field trip to, say, the Chicago Art Institute.  Learning experiences like these … and many others … are the beginning of what sets independent schools apart from their institutional counterparts.

The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) describes the following attributes typical of its member schools – and in response to the question:  “What makes an independent school worth the investment?” *

  • High academic standards.  Independent schools nurture intellectual curiosity, stimulate personal growth, and encourage critical thinking.  A larger percentage of students at independent schools are enrolled in advanced courses than in public, parochial, and other private schools.
  • Small classes and individual attention.  Independent schools have low student-teacher ratios that encourage and foster close connections with students.  The median ratio in NAIS-member schools in 2012-13 was 8.5 students to 1 teacher – well less than half the median ratio in public schools.
  • Excellent teachers.  Independent school instructors characteristically teach in their areas of expertise and are passionate about what they do.  With more autonomy within the classroom, teachers are able to develop a full understanding of how each student learns and what interests and motivates each student individually.
  • Greater likelihood of a student going on to a college or university and completing a bachelor’s degree or graduate degree.
  • Education for the whole child.  Independent schools nurture not just students’ intellectual ability and curiosity but also their personal and social growth, leadership capabilities, and civic conscience. Opportunities extend well beyond the classroom to athletic competitions, artistic pursuits, experiential learning, field trips, school leadership experiences, internship opportunities, etc.
  • Inclusiveness.  NAIS-member independent schools recruit and maintain diverse and vibrant student communities and welcome and respect each family.  Member schools strive to achieve ethnic, socioeconomic, and racial diversity.  For example, in 2012-13 students of color comprised 26.2% of total independent school enrollment nationwide.
  • A community of parents who participate actively in their children’s education.  Independent schools promote and foster regular and frequent communication among students, parents, and teachers to ensure that everyone is working toward the same goals and outcomes for the student.
  • The opportunity to choose a school with a mission.  You can select a school whose mission, values, educational philosophy and approach is right for your child or children.
  • Most important of all:  An education that will pay dividends for a lifetime!

*  National Association of Independent Schools report, 2013.