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The Private School Option  February 28, 2022 – 01:04 pm
Northern Virginia's public schools count among some of the best in the nation. So why do some families pay for private school?

A few months into his son’s junior year at Langley High School, Chip Kunde got worried. “His grades weren’t what they needed to be. College application time was looming, and we really felt like he needed a different environment, ” says the Falls Church dad (his son’s mother lives in McLean).

After a series of family discussions, Kunde’s son agreed to transfer at the semester break to Bishop O’Connell, a private Catholic prep school in Arlington where the student body is roughly half the size of Langley’s—1, 100, compared with nearly 2, 000.

“We discovered he learned better in smaller classes and when he got the attention that comes with that, ” Kunde says, adding that his son’s transition to a new school was surprisingly smooth for a midyear transfer. After the first day, “a group of kids took him out to Chipotle and made him feel like part of the community, even though he was new.”

Scenes from Bishop O’Connell High School, Courtesy Photos

The teen thrived in the smaller classes, got his grades up and 15 months later was accepted to his college of choice.

Kunde doesn’t see his son’s academic turnaround as coincidental. “You’re a number at [a larger school]. It feels very impersonal, ” he says, compared with a smaller campus where “everyone knows everyone.”

ONE OF THE age-old arguments for private schools (aka independent schools) is that they offer an academic lifeline in places where public education is less than stellar. That’s not exactly an issue in Northern Virginia, which is known for its high-caliber public schools.

In fact, Langley High School was ranked No. 2 on U.S. News & World Report’s 2015 list of the best public high schools in the state, second only to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria. Of all the schools listed in the Top 20, 16 were in Northern Virginia.

But there are families that, nevertheless, choose to go private. Bishop O’Connell has seen an 11 percent increase in applications over the last two years, according to Head of School Joe Vorbach. It’s just one of the 38 independent schools based in Arlington, McLean and Falls Church that collectively serve nearly 6, 500 students, according to Private School Review, a website that tracks and profiles private day schools nationwide.

Though parents may choose to send their kids to private school for all kinds of reasons, there is one issue that comes up repeatedly, and it isn’t prestige. It’s school and class size.

"My kids flourish in a school with no class bigger than 20 students, ” says Douglas Park resident Patty Collins, whose two children, a third-grader and a sixth-grader, attend Our Savior Lutheran School, an independent pre-K–8 program in Arlington’s Alcova Heights neighborhood. “The teachers know each child’s learning level and what particular gifts they may have, and whether they need to be challenged more or need added help.”


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