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Moms Talk: School Decisions: Public or Private? And Advanced Programs

A new weekly feature for moms, dads and families to ask questions, get answers and give advice. This week parents weigh in on how they choose the best programs for their children

Moms Talk is part of a new Vienna Patch initiative to reach out to moms and families in Vienna.

Grab a cup of coffee and settle in as we start the conversation today with a topic many parents are discussing around this time of year: what schools and what programs to choose for their children.

It's a debate that starts as early as preschool: Should we send the kids to private or public school? Will they get what we need? Is the cost of private school a smart investment when we'll be paying for college tuition in just a few years? What if my child isn't challenged? What are the pros and cons of a more rigorous course load? What about home schooling?

Some background:

About one of every six residents in Fairfax County is a public school student, according to Fairfax County Public Schools. The school system, the 11th largest system in the country, has earned national recognition for high student achievement. Of 196 schools or centers, 48 are alternative programs or learning centers.

In the county system, children can be tested in first grade to enter the Advanced Academic Level IV (formerly known as gifted and talented) programs on a part-or full-time basis. There are additional honors options throughout elementary and middle schools. In high school, they can apply to the Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology, or elect to take Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses.

Some children in Fairfax County never enter the public school system at all. Some are homeschooled. Some are put into private schools that offer full-day kindergarten.

Other students leave the system in middle and high school for private schools in Virginia, Washington, D.C., or Maryland (The Duke Ellington School of the Arts and The Potomac School are two frequent choices). Some parents of these students have said FCPS focuses too much  on the standards of learning (SOL),  which takes valuable time away from intuitive learning, or learning via non-classroom activities like robotics, music, science and art.

Other parents enroll their children elsewhere because they want a lower student to teacher ratio, or, a school that better fits with their child's special needs.

As enrollment season begins, how do you choose what is best for your child?

Christine Neff February 23, 2011 at 07:20 PM
Hi, all. Hope you had a good week. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this subject since I will be faced with these decisions soon. Any additional advice for choosing a preschool program in the area?
Laura B. February 23, 2011 at 10:23 PM
In this area there are quite a few excellent preschools. Word of mouth is a good way to choose a preschool. Relentlessly interrogate other moms at the playground. Good words to hear are: play-based, developmental, age-appropriate. Bad word to hear: academic. Several local preschools are co-ops, which is sometimes a little less expensive and gives the parents the opportunity to spend time at the school. (I never left there without thinking, "We should pay these teachers more!) You can learn a lot. Many preschools are part of the ministry of a church, and if you are not of that faith, you should find out what the religious instruction is, and whether you're comfortable with it. Other preschools rent space from a church and may not have any religious elements to the curriculum. Rigidity about wearing pull-ups is a red flag, to me. Don't ruin your summer, and your child's, by having to worry about being 100% dry by the time school starts.
Christine Neff February 23, 2011 at 10:33 PM
Great advice! Thanks so much, L Bligh!
Katherine H. February 23, 2011 at 11:19 PM
I have a child who was in a center-based GT program from 3rd - 8th grade (Louise Archer Elementary and Joyce Kilmer Middle). He opted not to apply to Thomas Jefferson, but to return to his base high school (James Madison). He is not a "math/science kid," so TJ did not have much appeal to him beyond the fact that many of his friends were going. But the more important factor in his decision was that he also has a rare learning disability. Kids who are both gifted and learning disabled are called "twice exceptional" or 2E. I have to say that, unlike Montgomery County, which has a nationally-recognized program, Fairfax County does a pretty poor job in accommodating 2E students. In fact, they never officially used the phrase until about four years ago. I was once told by an administrator at Kilmer that my son could not be eligible for both GT and LD services at the same time (totally untrue, both then and now). At Madison, there were no team taught AP classes when my son was there (a team taught class mixes regular students and LD students, and has a general ed teacher and an LD specialist). Even some routine classes, such as physics, did not have a team taught option. Self-contained classes (for LD students only) are often not as academically rigorous as their mainstream counterparts. They are, however, generally rather small, so a creative and motivated teacher can make the program challenging for a 2E student...and we were blessed with several such teachers at Madison.
Katherine H. February 23, 2011 at 11:25 PM
NOW is the time to be applying to preschool for next fall! Most of the schools in Vienna fill up fast and have waiting lists. However, if your child doesn't get in to your first choice school, stay in touch with the director over the summer and let her know that you are willing to make a last-minute switch. This is a very transient area due, in part, to so many diplomats and military families living here. Even the most prestigious schools sometimes have last-minute openings, so families that can be flexible may luck out. That said, however, I wouldn't switch a child once school has started just because a "better" school has an opening.
Julie February 23, 2011 at 11:53 PM
Our two oldest daughter started school at a private Catholic school (full day Kindergarten) and my husband is Catholic. We were quite happy with the education there but had them tested for the Advanced Academic program at Louise Archer (as it is our base school). They both started that program in 3rd grade and we have been very happy with what they are learning (3rd grade feels like a big adjustment academically - they actually have to work more than in previous years). If you can get through that first year of transition then the next grades are great. Middle school will be our next challenge as we have not heard very good things about our Advanced Academics choice (Luther Jackson vs. the base school (Thoreau). Any suggestions on AA classes vs. Honor classes would really be helpful.
Chandra February 24, 2011 at 02:06 AM
I can speak about the preschool my four year old currently attends: Holly Brook Montessori (http://www.preschoolmontessori.com/). We have been really happy with it. His teacher is extremely competent and provides wonderful support in order for my son to be successful. He is challenged as much as he is ready for. I love that Montessori allows children to learn and grow at their own pace, rather than based on a calendar or schedule of what the rest of the class is doing. One downside is the large class size, but somehow they do make it work and I don't have any specific complaints about that. I recently visited Fiore Montessori (http://fioremontessori.com/default.aspx) because they have a two year old program and flexible schedule options that would allow for my part time work schedule. I was really impressed with the facility, the founder's philosophy, and strong commitment to making the philosophy a reality. We decided to sign up my younger son for next year. I appreciate others' comments about FCPS as that is in our near future. We have always planned on sending our kids to public schools and the FCPS reputation is one of the reasons we bought a home here.
Katherine H. February 24, 2011 at 02:21 AM
Julie, sounds like you have some time to think about it, but it's good to be listening now to other families' experiences. Visit both schools, talk to parents who have been through it and, most of all, let your kids have some input. By middle school, they need to have some say in it because they will be miserable if you "make" them go someplace they don't want to go, especially if they are separated from their friends. Take into account their extra-curricular interests, too (sports, student government, arts, community service) and weigh the strengths and weaknesses of your options. And lastly, don't overlook your own involvement. If you are the kind of parent who prefers to volunteer for one big thing a year, then the distance to Luther Jackson won't be much of a problem. But if you are a help-in-the-library-every-week type, the traffic and construction between here and there will drive you nuts.
Carolyn February 24, 2011 at 04:19 AM
I also have a child in Montessori and echo Chandra's feeling that it allows children to learn and grow at their own pace, rather than based on a calendar or schedule of what the rest of the class is doing. We've decided to keep our son in for the third year of Montessori, rather than send him to kindergarten at Louise Archer Elementary, our "home" school. Montessori will be full-day, while kindergarten would be half-day, but the decision has been much more complex than that. We've considered both the academic and social transition our son will face whenever he moves, and can only hope we're making the best choice for him. One piece of advice I would give anyone looking at preschools is to consider whether that school offers elementary classes and how you feel about the offerings at those levels if it does. You will undoubtedly feel some pressure, whether external or internal, to keep your child in a familiar environment (assuming it's a positive one).
Crystal February 24, 2011 at 06:25 AM
As the mom of a student with a learning disability (diagnosed in 3rd grade), I definitely feel we were blessed with several excellent teachers at Madison. Every child learns differently but the team teaching experience was so much better than self-contained classes. I think socially it prepares them better for college and the "real world" and removes the stigma of being in "the class for dummies". LD accommodations can follow into college, be sure to find out if the college of choice accepts accommodations and if they require updated testing. Our college of choice required a test within 2 years of application. FCPS would not re-test, we had to have a private independent test done prior to HS graduation. Don't wait till the last minute to test, it took 3 months to get an appointment.
J Anderson February 24, 2011 at 11:26 AM
I have three kids in FCPS right now (all at the same ES) in 4th, 2nd, K. 4th grader is in AAP. They all attended the same pre-school - Emmanuel Lutheran Preschool. We were there 7 years in total. We were pleased with the school and the teachers. The children learned what they needed to learn, they made lots of friends and were all prepared for Kindergarten. We also are members at the church but one does not have to be. Some years there is a waitlist, but some years there isn't. I forget how we chose it to be honest. We also opted to keep the 4th grader, with her input, in the AAP classes at WT vs. send her to the AAP Center at LA. WT does a good job with AAP and we didn't feel it necessary to put more pressure on her by removing her from her established friends and social circles. My wife went to an all girls school in NY and I went to public schools in RI - and right now we are satisfied with our ES but haven't written off private schools if need be. I actually like the idea of schools with uniforms - not sure why. FCPS is the 12th largest school system in the country with the #1 high school - TJ - but if you are keeping up with the news lately .... it has it's issues and many parent advocate groups have formed to try and remedy.
Robin February 24, 2011 at 02:01 PM
Julie - I had one go to Thoreau and one go to Kilmer (in the Center) and they are both ending up at the same college, which was the first choice for both. Based on our experience, Thoreau was easy (virtually no homework in all honors classes and good grades) and Kilmer was the better education. Now that Luther Jackson is in the mix, I don't know, but I've heard pretty good things. If your kid is TJ bound, I'd stick with the Center, but otherwise I'd strongly consider going where you like the peer group better.
Carol Lewis February 24, 2011 at 03:07 PM
My son was diagnosed with ADD and with a learning disability in first grade. The principal, counselor, and LD teacher at Vienna Elementary couldn't have been more helpful. They tried other interventions before testing him for LD. He went on to Thoreau, where the basic skills program was immensely helpful to him in providing organizational skills that he uses to this day, and then to Madison where he tested out of LD. He went from not being able to read to taking a double major in college of history and English, graduating cum laude, and going on to graduate school for a Masters in Education and a Masters certification. When he was at VES, a friend said that he got more services there than she got for her son (also ADD and LD) at the Lab School in Washington. I think Fairfax Co schools are great but I also highly recommend parental involvement and working as a team with the principal, counselor, and teachers.
Beth February 24, 2011 at 09:11 PM
Our base school is also Thoreau; my son opted to attend the AAP at Luther Jackson where he is now an eighth grader. He has enjoyed and been challenged at Jackson. I like the principal -- she runs a tight ship, but is friendly as well. There are some excellent teachers, too. The seventh grade American History teacher teaches creatively with many debates and class projects rather than tests. The eighth grade civics / economics teacher has been creative as well. My son has done well in Algebra and now Geometry. He will go to Madison next year (although he's a semi-finalist for TJ -- we'll see what happens there). The disadvantage is that he does not know as many students going on to Madison as he would have had he gone to Thoreau, but he knew that when he made the choice to go to Jackson. He knows some through lacrosse, basketball and baseball, so I hope he'll find the transition easy enough. I have been impressed with the education our son has received at Luther Jackson.
MAL February 24, 2011 at 09:28 PM
Beth you bring up a REALLY good point about getting your children involved in youth sports or activities in Vienna. The Vienna Youth Sports programs is a great way for the children attending these specialized or private schools to meet other kids in their community. Kind of ties in with keeping them grounded too.
DCS February 24, 2011 at 09:47 PM
I have an ADHD son who was very poorly serviced by Madison HS. My advice - if you can afford it, send any child that is not an over achieving, driven student to a private school.
Laura Goyer February 24, 2011 at 10:14 PM
I have 3 children in FCPS schools and have been very happy with the experience overall. All 3 kids attended Wesley preschool for 1 year before K (2-3 days per week) My eldest, now in 8th grade, started at Vienna ES and moved to Louise Archer in 3rd grade. She had no concerns about changing peer groups and it was a good move for her. She is at Thoreau now and that has been great for her too. She is a semifinalist for the TJ pool, so time will tell where she goes next year. My younger 2 are both still at Vienna and it has been a wonderful experience. So many dedicated loving people there, a great school! The families that attend Vienna are also generous with time and volunteer a lot to augment what the teachers provide. The sense of community my children derive from that is as important to me as their education. I feel very fortunate. Having said that, there are 2 things I would like to add, NO ONE knows your child better than you and understanding their learning style is incredibly important. One child may be up for lots of challenges where another shines when they get to be the big fish in a small pond. My only complaint thus far is that when my daughter was at Louise Archer in the center, no one told us that going to Thoreau was an option. We received a letter stating that she was enrolled at Luther Jackson. I felt like I was forced to be more pro-active in that situation than I should have needed to be. The option should be given openly to the families involved.
SCJ February 25, 2011 at 02:06 PM
DCS - I would love some additional information. I have a daughter with ADD (not hyper). She's only in elem now, but am worried about her future in the public school system. Can you provide some advice or examples?
DCS February 25, 2011 at 04:09 PM
My son did very well in elem. school and transitioned well to thoreau ms. In my opinion of the 3 levels - thoreau did the best job. great teachers who want ALL their students to succeed. tms required the kids to read - 12 books per year both years. i don't believe my son was required to read 12 in 4 years at madison. by 11th grade he was totally disenfranchised. his 504 was ignored by all but a few teachers his first 2 years and by the time he received an IEP - he was totally disengaged from school. Again if affordable - small classes offered by private schools benefit all students. They learn even if the effort on their part isn't there. hope this helps!
Katherine H. February 25, 2011 at 04:56 PM
SCJ, now is the time to deal with your daughter's learning disability to get her ready for the higher grades, so good for you for being willing to tackle it. My best piece of advice is get over any fear of labels and, if you haven't already, have her tested by the school for a 504 (which entitles her to accommodations in the regular classroom). If her learning disability is more severe, she may even be eligible for an IEP (which entitles her to accommodations in the regular classroom and special LD services). Teachers who specialize in LD have a huge amount of compassion for these kids, so I would always recommend pushing for an IEP if your daughter struggles at all academically, and especially if she tests well but gets poor grades...a sure sign that she is learning but not able to demonstrate that in the expected ways. Bright kids with LD issues often "self-accommodate" in elementary school when the work is relatively rote, but then hit the wall when the work becomes more complex and analytical in middle school. If the school refuses to test her, bite the bullet and go for private testing, which is usually more in-depth. And remember that she will need you to be her advocate every step of the way. Don't be intimidated by "the system." In this case, the squeaky wheel does, indeed, get the grease. Just squeak politely!
Chandra February 25, 2011 at 05:11 PM
There are some references above to having your child evaluated by the school for eligibility for special education services by parent request. The Virginia state special education handbook for parents can be found here http://www.doe.virginia.gov/special_ed/parents/parents_guide.pdf (the FCPS parent handbook is being revised). See pages 12 and 13 in the state handbook for cases where the parent requests an evaluation. Schools are required to respond to a parent request for evaluation within a specific timeframe and you as a parent have the right to appeal the decision if the school decides NOT to evaluate, which is something you may want to consider before obtaining a private (and costly) evaluation yourself. I do agree wholeheartedly with Katherine's suggestion to be a "polite squeaky wheel." As a former special education teacher, I have found that an active, but also polite and respectful, parent is one who is easy to communicate and collaborate with.
Carol Lewis February 25, 2011 at 05:17 PM
I totally agree with Katherine and Chandra (and thanks, Chandra, for providing the link to info on special ed). As I said in an earlier comment, at Vienna Elem, we formed a partnership of principal, counselor, classroom teacher, special ed teacher, and me to get the help my son needed. As for testing, the school didn't do it immediately when my son was in first grade because they wanted to wait to be sure the "gap" would show up in the testing. Because we were all working on his behalf, he didn't suffer for the delay. Whe he was tested we developed his IEP that carried him through middle school.
Chandra February 25, 2011 at 05:30 PM
Good point, Carol, about the timing! The (imperfect) definition of LD includes a discrepancy component, which may not be measureable until 3rd or 4th grade. A current focus on providing early interventions and the partnership you described should, in theory, ensure that a child's instructional needs are met prior to eligibility testing.
Crystal February 25, 2011 at 05:56 PM
Absolutely advocate for your child. What I learned early on is that every LD is different and not every teacher knows about every disability. A the start of every school year I would send an email to all my child's teachers and copied the asssigned counselor. Giving them "Cliff Notes" on what my child's disability was, links to information online and I always Thanked them for the job they were taking on. The email was my "polite squeaky wheel." and quietly said that I was watching. As I said before, we had a wonderful experience with LD services in FCPS. A very good site to visit is http://www.ldonline.org/indepth
SCJ February 25, 2011 at 06:07 PM
Thanks, everyone, I ended up having her testing on my own dime ( a LONG story) and she already has a 504. I've had to politely remind teachers of my daughter's needs and condition on an on-going basis. She's not quite bad enough to require she be pulled out of class, but bad enough that she needs special acccommodations. That's a tough place to be - the middle. Her IQ is also above average, so she can fake her way thru a lot of things for now. I was really just curious about what's going to happen as the school work gets harder and the school gets bigger!
Beth February 28, 2011 at 06:15 PM
Thanks, MAL! I agree that the Vienna Youth Sports programs are wonderful ways to ground the children, let them try out several sports and have fun. Perhaps the Vienna Patch could do an article on the youth sports' teams? There's VYI with its myriad of options, Vienna Little League, and the Reston Raiders for hockey (many kids play there). During the summer, many children swim in the local swim leagues, too.
Beth February 28, 2011 at 06:18 PM
Regarding local preschools, the Church of the Good Shepherd on Hunter Mill is starting a preschool next fall. The Director there, Penny Ransanke, is beloved by all the children and will be wonderful. Depending on where you live in Vienna, LANK (Lake Anne Nursery Kindergarten) in Reston is also excellent. My son attended there and had terrific teachers, small class sizes, and had creative music and art programs. He is in second grade now, but sees many of his old LANK friends. It's a special place.

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