There is widespread misunderstanding about what an independent school is. If you are reading this, there is a good chance you are a tuition paying, annual fund-giving member of one of them—or else a friend of one, i.e. The Grauer School.
It is important to know what a real independent school is, and I think you will see why at the end of this very short column—this will be four or five minutes well spent, I promise.
First, let us say that independent schooling is the original, oldest and longest standing form of education in the United States, substantially predating public schooling.
Second, let’s deal with popular misconceptions by covering what an independent school is not.
1. Not a Private School.
An independent school is not the same as a private school, though we are often referred to as private (because it is not a “public school.”)
As an independent school, the Grauer School is a public charity. By contrast, a private school is owned by an individual or corporation and is fundamentally there to make a profit. An independent school does not and cannot profit. Surplus funds inure to the benefit of students and employees, or they may go to endow the future of the school.
Back in 1991, Grauer started out as a private school, where Stuart Grauer took all the risk. Ironically, the original name was “The Independent School.” The Parent Association and Board re-named the school with its current name in 1994. Then, in 1996, once the school became successful and enduring, Dr. Grauer created the California not-for-profit entity and essentially turned over this “life’s work” to that entity so that it might succeed in perpetuity.
2. Not a Charter.
Unlike an independent school, a charter school is granted its charter by a local school district. What’s that mean? It means the charter school complies with all government regulations—but not district teacher’s union regulations if those exist.
There are huge differences in class size between various school types. A charter school has the same class size requirements as other local public schools. Charter schools receive public funding, actually a bit less than regular public schools. The Grauer School, funded by parents and donors, has about one-third the class size of public and charter schools—so we definitely do not want to be mistaken for a charter school. Grauer has 3–14 pupils per class (for Socratic teaching and expeditionary learning), while California public and charter schools typically have 30-40 pupils per class. (We are constantly amazed at the passion and support of Grauer School parents, who have built our school from a borrowed storefront to a $15 million dream campus and are going strong.)
Charter school students are subject to all public school standardized testing requirements. Since public and charter schools spend many weeks teaching for, administering, and taking standardized tests that are not clearly related to success, happiness, or college success, we’re extremely grateful not to be a charter school.
Last week, for instance, at Grauer, rather than deliver standardized tests, we gave our students a survey asking them about their “voice.” We wanted to know things like:
- “My teacher really listens to me.”
- “My teacher understands me.”
- “I am an active (not passive) participant in this class.”
- “I get inspired in this teacher’s class.”
It would be almost impossible to find ANY charter school/public school where students rated their teachers as highly as our “independent” students rate our teachers. Our students are developing independent voices. (Our student average rating of their teachers was 3.5 out of 4, indicating a very high degree of student belief that they are developing their “voice.” But we don’t really need tests to verify that: talk to any Grauer senior or attend any Grauer senior Graduation Portfolio Defense Presentation.)
An Independent School.
An independent school engenders independent thinking. Rather than being bound to narrow or standardized versions of achievement, great independent schooling constantly prioritizes creativity, entrepreneurial thinking, the consideration of unfiltered information, values development, and a broad definition of “intelligence.”
An independent school like Grauer has independent governance. We have a dedicated board of trustees who are elected and ensure that we are pursuing our independent mission successfully. They are following no regulations from governments, but rather, they follow our bylaws and mission. We care about national trends a lot, but for a different reason than charter and public schools do: if we do not stay relevant, and if we are not great, families will not seek us out. So, we are subject to the most important “testing requirement” of all: the marketplace.
And independent school has independent funding. We receive no public money and are bound to no government authority. Our authority is: our families, who take it on faith that we are their authorities—it’s a beautiful reciprocity. Being independent is a big responsibility. It means that the way our students behave and feel is on all of us—it means that transgressions and happiness alike are on us, tied to our livelihood.
Here are some facts about schooling in America, from the nationwide HSSSE survey (taken annually by Grauer as well):
- 73 percent said, “I didn’t like the school.”
- 61 percent said, “I didn’t like the teachers.”
Can you imagine if that happened at an independent school like Grauer? Almost every Grauer student says “I like school.” When measured, our school has unmatched student engagement levels, which include things like encouragement, motivation, connection to teachers and to one another, and safety. If kids find little purpose in their days, as so many students across the country find, it’s not just on them—it’s on all of us. All of this is what we cherish about independent education.
Nearly half of teachers consider leaving the profession due to standardized testing (NEA survey) alone. Public and charter schools are almost universally perceived as subject to politicized and faddish federal and state priorities and mandates that keep sweeping our country, and to typical teachers these often equate to noise that overlays what is really the one purity at our school: the development of clear, student voices.
The most important facet of all of to independent school leadership is also the most important facet of all to independent school families: we simply must deliver high value and extraordinary quality to students and families. No public or charter school has this level of responsibility, responsiveness, and transparency.
I love independent education as a universal cause and devoting my life to it was by far the best professional decision I’ve ever made. I still can’t get over that, in the United States, we can educate our children independently. I think about that every single time I look at our kids raising the flag. The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) envisions “a vibrant community of independent schools for a changing nation and demanding world.” The Grauer School is a member of this vibrant community, and we share in this vision. At independent schools and small schools, students develop independent voices so they can take on leadership roles in our changing nation and challenging world.
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