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Private high schools in Philadelphia have more history than those in most U.S. cities. Some were founded before the United States was born and several have been operating for hundreds of years.
Education consultants say parents in Philadelphia and the surrounding area have increasingly been exploring private high schools after the pandemic made education more challenging – and there are a great many choices.
“I would say that we’re quite saturated with options,” says Caryn Rivers, an educational consultant and owner of Pathfinder Placement in Philadelphia.
For many parents, the ability of private schools to pivot from virtual learning, get students back into classrooms and provide the resources to diagnose and address learning loss and other problems was a major attraction.
“If kids were struggling at all, then their struggles were really highlighted by virtual learning,” says Jody Dobson, an educational consultant and owner of Dobson Educational Services in Philadelphia. “Parents said, ‘We’ve been thinking about making this stretch to go to a private school before now. But now that we see what’s going on with our child, we’re really going to try to make that stretch.’”
A Focus on College
Of course, the appeal of private high schools goes far beyond pandemic practices. Many offer smaller class sizes, more personal attention, better campus facilities and robust programs in subjects from science and technology to music and theater.
For many parents, a primary motivator is gaining an edge in college admissions, which many private high schools can help deliver in ways that range from rigorous coursework and academic support to robust college counseling.
For example, the 63 seniors who graduated last year from The Baldwin School, an all-girls PK-12 school in the suburb of Bryn Mawr, earned a combined 248 acceptances from 149 institutions, according to the school. Members of the Class of 2021 were admitted to Princeton, MIT, Duke, Cornell, Georgetown, UCLA and many other top schools. The graduates earned a total of $1.8 million in merit scholarships. One in five were also recruited as college athletes.
While not every school has such a record, and students certainly don’t need private education to get into a top college, Rivers says the environment in many private high schools facilitates academic achievement.
“The expectations are high,” says Rivers, who attended The Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, and went on to earn a degree at Harvard University. “It’s not just to graduate, it’s what are we doing after. There are constant references to life beyond, constant references to preparing for college. … These are college prep, life preparatory schools – that’s the value proposition.”
Ayanna Hill-Gill, president of the Association of Delaware Valley Independent Schools, says many parents are also looking for the best fit they can find for their child.
“Parents, particularly after this pandemic, have realized their child is multidimensional and that there are other aspects, besides just academic strength, that makes a strong person,” she says. “That’s ultimately what you want, right? You want a strong, happy, confident, smart, engaging, person.”
Perhaps more than many major cities, the Philadelphia area has an abundance of private high schools offering many different educational philosophies and settings: Quaker, Catholic, Protestant and nonsectarian. Urban, suburban and rural. Single-sex and coeducational. Education consultants say finding the right environment is what is important.
“The name of the school where your child is coming from doesn’t matter as much as how well that child is doing in that school,” Dobson says. “So make sure it’s a school that fits your child. It has to be a culture and a teaching methodology that really is appropriate for your child.”
Costs and Assistance
Education consultants across the country say that cost is often the primary barrier to private education. In Pennsylvania, the average private high school tuition is about $15,600 a year, according to the Education Data Initiative. But many schools in the Philadelphia region, like in other big cities, charge far more.
For example, high school tuition at Baldwin is almost $41,000 a year for the 2022-23 school year, according to the school.
Many schools offer financial aid and payment plans, which can help families with costs. At Germantown Friends School, a well-known and respected Quaker school in Philadelphia that charges $41,500 a year, about 32% of students receive aid, which totals about $5 million a year, according to the school. The school also says aid has no impact on admissions. “No student is denied admission because of financial need,” the school says on its website.
Still, some consultants say the true cost of private school is more than just the sticker price, whether or not a family receives aid. There are costs associated with uniforms, athletic teams, testing and application – even requests for parents to donate. It can add up.
“Often, there’s a significant gap between the tuition and the cost of attendance,” Rivers says.
Private High Schools in Philadelphia
For parents who are interested in exploring private high schools, here are some examples in Philadelphia and the surrounding area:
- The Agnes Irwin School in Rosemont is an all-girls school serving about 600 students in grades PK-12. Among high school seniors, 97% are accepted to college in early rounds, and one in five pursue a major in science, engineering, technology or math, according to the school.
- The Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square serves about 1,200 students in grades PK-12. The school offers an inclusive Christian community and students regularly attend chapel. The school was founded in 1785, just nine years after the United States won its independence from Britain.
- George School in Newtown is a Quaker boarding and day school serving about 540 students in grades 9-12. Roughly 28% of the student body is international and the school offers the option of an International Baccalaureate diploma, boasting a 98% completion rate.
- Germantown Academy in Fort Washington serves students in grades PK-12. The school can trace its lineage back more than 260 years. Before entering ninth grade, each student is assigned to one of seven “Houses,” which provide support and community. The Houses compete with one another throughout high school.
- Germantown Friends School is a PK-12 Quaker school serving almost 1,130 students in Philadelphia. The school, which has a student-to-teacher ratio of 6-to-1, says it has produced 13 National Merit Scholars and 67 finalists since 2014.
- The Haverford School is an all-boys school serving about 940 students in grades PK-12, including about 460 in high school. One hundred percent of the school’s graduating classes from 2017 to 2021 were admitted to four-year colleges and universities, according to the school’s website.
- The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr serves about 800 students in grades PK-12, with an average class size of 14 and a student-to-teacher ratio of 7-to-1. Seventy-five percent of faculty have advanced degrees.
- Springside Chestnut Hill Academy serves about 1,060 students in grades PK-12. The school offers single-sex education in elementary and middle school and a coeducational experience in the high school grades.
- Westtown School is a Quaker boarding and day school serving grades PK-12, including about 370 high schoolers. Dozens of faculty live on the 600-acre campus in West Chester, which includes an arboretum, ropes course, and an organic farm.
- William Penn Charter School is a Quaker school serving about 990 students in grades PK-12. Created in 1689 by William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, the school has been in continuous operation for more than 330 years. It is the oldest Quaker school in America, predating the founding of the United States.