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Courtesy Vince Totero
Private schools, public alternativeEighth grader Noah Mele performs in the 2011 All School Fall Strings Concert at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School. Many private schools offer fine arts programs and instruction.
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Private schools, public alternative
Local parents seek specialized instruction for their children
Several years ago, parent Erin Wolf was wondering where her daughter Elysa should begin her primary education.
Wolf had heard other parents rave about a private K–12 Christian school close to home—Regents School of Austin, located off of Southwest Parkway.
“We had prayed about schools. We wanted a school that would partner with us—that was very important to us,” she said.
Wolf appreciated the school’s close-knit community and emphasis on the classical skills of grammar, logic and rhetoric. She signed up Elysa and has sent her children there for the past 11 years.
“There have been so many different [benefits], but one thing is that it prepared our children from early on to stand up and speak in front of other people,” she said. “Any time they meet someone, I will hear back, ‘It was a joy to meet Elysa. It was as if I was speaking to an adult. She looked me in the eye and was respectful.’”
As Austin’s children and young adults return to school, some will not attend the Austin Independent School District.
During the 2011–12 school year, about 86,697 students attended AISD schools. The district reported that 4,350 students eligible to attend went to private or charter schools instead.
Several private schools, academies and prekindergartens have opened in South Austin in the past decade.
Schools like KIPP Public Charter Schools and Bannockburn Christian Academy join longtime options such as Eden Park Academy, Austin Waldorf School and St. Anthony’s Episcopal School.
Admissions staff at these schools say parents have embraced private education because of an emphasis on religious or alternative educational methods, smaller class sizes and the pursuit of greater academic rigor.
Brandee Davis, founder of Austin City Kids, a school placement consulting firm that helps parents compare public, private and charter school options, said some parents want to avoid programs that teach to standardized tests.
“In public schools, they teach to the middle. If you are on the high end, they might give you busywork,” she said. “They are not teaching individuals.”
Davis added that parents look for smaller class sizes and stronger gifted and talented programs. She said most of the changes in enrollment she has encountered are from public to private schools.
Davis said school accreditation matters more after high school.
“In general, a high school might accept your private [middle] school transcript, however most colleges want to see that you either went to an accredited [private] school or were home-schooled,” she said.
There are a variety of teaching styles among local private schools.
Corine Strickland founded Strickland Christian School in 1961 and moved to Central Texas the following year. The school uses a phonic program she developed to help children learn to read.
“All of our pre-K learn the phonics rules and learn to read,” School Director Doug Rigdon said. “Kindergarteners all know the phonics and learn spelling rules.”
Rigdon said the program allows young children to be able to sound out and read the King James Bible, even if they do not understand all of the concepts.
“I think parents like the way we teach Christian character at our school,” he said of the Manchaca Road campus, which was started in the 1990s. “Children and teachers have the liberty to talk about God in our school.”
Meanwhile, the Regents School of Austin combines Christian education with a classical instructional model, Admissions Director Becki Tucci said.
The school teaches grammar in kindergarten through sixth grade, logic and critical thinking in seventh and eighth grades, and rhetoric and oratory in high school, Communications Manager Mary Sue Evans said. The school is working on a new $18 million, 70,000-square-foot expansion.
“There are many good choices, some Christian, some private. Everybody’s just a little bit different, and we all have our little niche,” Tucci said.
Davis said schools based on the methods of Italian educator Dr. Maria Montessori are popular.
“She studied children in various settings and saw there was a great potential for learning. Children could take on their education and have an internal drive for self-directed learning,” said Cheryl McGee, campus coordinator of Austin Montessori School.
McGee said that Austin Montessori School began in 1967 and has three locations in the city. She said that there is demand for more Montessori schools in the area.
Established three years ago, AESA Prep Academy prides itself on its 4-to-1 student-teacher ratio and dual credit program with The University of Texas. The college preparatory school has no advanced placement credits.
“We teach UT classes on our campuses. Students’ work is graded by professors, and they take a minimum of 20 credit hours,” Executive Director Barbara Garza said.
The school also has a flexible attendance policy for students participating in fine arts and athletics programs.
“At a traditional school, you might be only allowed to have eight absences before it becomes a discipline issue. Here we look at someone who is involved [in extracurriculars] and say they are working twice as hard as somebody else,” she said.