For What It’s Worth
Growing frustrated with the public school system, this family chose the private school route. The school they're currently looking to get into is expensive, but they say it's a worthy investment
Written by Kristina B. Hill
Education is serious business in the home of Ron and Juanita Lewis. So serious that the parents of a son, Ethan, and daughter, Brianna, took the leap to private school when they faced ongoing challenges with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
The Lewises' first encounter with Charlotte's public schools began ten years ago, after relocating to north Charlotte from Los Angeles. The couple enrolled Ethan, now a student at Santa Monica College in Los Angeles, in Alexander Middle School and soon felt the impact of a city and educational system in an exploding population.
"With Ethan, we felt the growing pains of Charlotte," says Juanita, a project manager with Wachovia. "Ethan and some of the other students were moved to different schools multiple times because of constant rezoning in north Mecklenburg."
In 2001, Ron and Juanita enrolled Brianna, now eleven, in Hornets Nest Elementary School and experienced the same difficulties they had with Ethan. "North Charlotte was still growing rapidly, so the schools were overcrowded," Juanita says. "There was also a very high turnover rate among teachers, and communication from the staff was low to nonexistent due to so many students."
Brianna excelled academically in spite of her shaky surroundings. But her parents still worried that she was not reaching her full potential because of the overall state of the school.
"In situations like these, the teachers are trying to manage the class and keep the lid on," says Ron, director of marketing and communications at University Park Baptist Church. He also says that advanced students sometimes doubled as "instructors." "The good students played the role of teacher's aid, and spent time assisting struggling students instead of learning more."
As Brianna entered third grade, these issues and other mounting problems made the Lewises' decision to try private school an easy one. The couple transferred Brianna to First Assembly Christian School in Concord. "We couldn't afford to wait on Charlotte to figure out public education," Juanita says.
They found a drastic difference with the private school they chose. First Assembly's Christian-centered foundation, increased teacher interaction, and smaller classrooms were some of the improvements the family embraced. However, the switch was not without its trials. "The first couple of weeks at First Assembly were tough for Brianna because the curriculum was much more advanced," Ron says. "We let her know that she could not get by on past success. She had a great teacher that helped her along the way."
Another plus, they say, is the proactive interaction from teachers and faculty. Ron also likes that a lot of the curriculum can be accessed on Edline, the school's Internet system. He and his wife use it to communicate with teachers and gain instant access to Brianna's grades and other activities.
One decision that did not weigh heavily on their switch to private school was cost. Although both admit that tuition is expensive, they advise parents to look beyond annual cost when considering private school. "Don't rule out the idea because of cost," Ron says. "Look at scholarships and other support that might be available. Some schools are willing to work with parents."
Ron and Juanita are following their own advice in their current search to find a new private school for Brianna. The couple wants to put the sixth-grader on a fast track to college and end their daily commute from north Charlotte to Concord. The school at the top of their list is Charlotte Country Day School. "We selected Country Day because we received positive feedback from parents and friends we trust," Ron says.
The Lewises will start the entry process for Country Day in January. They will have to complete a series of assessments, tests, applications, and group and individual interviews. Brianna already has participated in a Country Day "buddy system" program where she partnered with a current student to get a "day in the life" experience at the school. Ron says the entry process is elaborate because the school wants to know Brianna's academic prowess and personal hobbies. "They're interested in the whole child," he says.
The Lewises will learn in April if Brianna gets in. They say they're willing to absorb Country Day's annual tuition of $17,000 because of its emphasis on foreign language; use of innovative teaching tools like Smart Boards, an interactive display that replaces the traditional chalk boards; its engaged alumni; and fundraising efforts.
The benefits of these offerings are tangible. Country Day's Web site reports that its 2007 graduating class received scholarship offers of nearly $4 million. "Country Day will cost more, but it's a guarantee of a college scholarship," Ron says optimistically. He also adds that most Country Day graduates go on to top universities. "We can pay now or pay later."
Overall, the Lewises view private school as an investment. "People invest in expensive luxury items, so why not their child's education?" Ron says. "With education, there is a dividend."