Students go private instead of public

By: Stacey Gorski
   For students who attend private preparatory schools such as The Peddie School in Hightstown and The Hun School in Princeton, life has taken a different turn from the "normal" high school experience.
   "Some of my friends outside school are shocked that I live next door to a teacher. I guess when I was new, it really struck me as weird, too," said Aeisha Hill, a Dayton resident who is a senior living at The Peddie School. "It doesn’t seem that odd now."
   While Michelle Torres attends The Hun School, her experience is similar.
   "There’s a couple of teachers I am very close to," Michelle said. "Especially Ms. (Cassie) Wickes. She’s kind of young (25 or 26)."
   Michelle said Ms. Wickes was promoted this year to head of the school’s residence halls, but her promotion did not affect her relationship with the students.
   "We can still talk to her about all kinds of things. She really helps us out," Michelle said. "We also just hang out with her — watch TV in her apartment, sometimes she takes us out to dinner or shopping."
   Accessibility to faculty members as teachers, role models and older friends is just one reason why several local families chose to send their children to preparatory schools, rather than to public or other types of private schools.
   For some students and parents, the reasons for spending money to attend Hun or Peddie are as individual as the students themselves. Most often the reasons given were the academic experience, smaller classes, diversity and the dedication of teachers, most of whom live in apartments that are attached to the dormitories. In most cases, students don’t feel prep schools differ from one another.
   "Hun could be Peddie; all those schools have the same types of standards," Michelle said.
   One of the most common characteristics between the schools is tuition. It is no secret that private preparatory schools are expensive. The schools’ Web sites lists the yearly tuition and room and board costs.
   Tuition at Peddie is $20,400 for a day student and $27,800 for a student to board. Tuition at the Hun School is $19,280 per day student and $28,580 to board.
   According to the Web sites, 40 percent of the 500 Peddie students in grades eight through 12 and 20 percent of the 575 Hun students in grades six through 12 receive some type of financial aid, but even with that help, parents still invest large sums of money into the schools.
   Three examples of South Brunswick families with students at private schools are the Hills in Dayton and the Torreses and McCarthys in Monmouth Junction. The Hill’s daughter, Aeisha, and the McCarthy’s daughter, Megan, attend The Peddie School. Megan is a day student, which means she doesn’t live at the school. In addition, Megan’s younger sister, Courtney, will attend Peddie next year. The Torres’ two girls, Rayanne (who attends Boston College now) and Michelle, are past and present Hun students.
   "Academics" is usually the first reason parents chose the private schools, but often the word also means several aspects of students’ learning experience and the school’s average class size.
   "I really think the academics and the way they guide students to get them prepared for college is like a family," said Julia Torres, mother of Michelle and Rayanne. "The faculty keep in touch with the parents and the kids are quite polite and so well educated."
   Deirdre McCarthy, whose daughter Megan is a junior at Peddie and whose younger daughter, Courtney, has been accepted to the school for next year, agrees with Ms. Torres, though their children are in two different schools.
   "The faculty and their time commitment is outstanding. I have no doubt they know my daughter and they know what works for her," Ms. McCarthy said.
   One of the reasons faculty can know the students well is due to the small class size. While South Brunswick High School’s 2001 graduating class had 445 students, the total enrollment at Peddie and Hun are between 500 and 575.
   The small school population allows for smaller groups in the actual classrooms. At Peddie and Hun, the average English class has 12 to 14 students.
   However, the prep students don’t see the numbers as the reason. Time and attitude seem to be the biggest portions of the academic equation.
   "All the teachers I have had have been willing to work things out — I am always able to go to them for help and they care about whether or not I learn it," Megan said. "Their willingness to be there rubs off on us."
   Because the teachers live on the school’s campus, extra help sessions and casual conversations often occur long after what would be considered normal school hours.
   "She (Megan) often meets Doc (Dr. David. G. Martin) at 8 on certain nights for extra help," Ms. McCarthy said.
   While the extra help is useful, Ms. McCarthy feels Megan’s relationship with another teacher, history instructor Peter Kraft, has altered Megan’s academic experience for the better.
   "She has a great advisor in Mr. Kraft, even though she’s only a day student. He has created a love of history in her. I am floored by how much she knows — a result of how much he has influenced her," Ms. McCarthy said.
   The advisor system is part of the institutional process of tracking students, as every student has an official "advisor." Faculty members advise two to 16 students, monitoring their academic progress as well as their athletic and social experience. The system functions in place of guidance counselors.
   Faculty members such as Mr. Kraft are the prototypical boarding school "triple threat." He lives in the dormitory, teaches classes and coaches sports. The multiple forms of contact can result in close-knit relationships.
   "They are our parental figures while are parents aren’t around," Aeisha said.
   Besides the easy access to faculty members and extra help sessions, the diversity of the schools’ student bodies directly affects education outside the classroom.
   "I guess the first thing I think of in regards to Peddie is the diversity," said Aeisha. "Before I came here, I had friends in one basic group. Now, I have a roommate who is from Saudi Arabia."
   Aeisha explained that diversity affects the small classrooms, but more so, the school’s social make-up.
   "To meet people who live in other places is a chance to know the differences around the world," she said. "Life is a lot more interesting — we socialize with people from all different backgrounds and share cultures and traditions and beliefs and occasionally disagree — it is all part of growing up."
   Ms. McCarthy, from a parent’s perspective, agrees.
   "Megan’s friends are from every ray of the spectrum. She has friends that are wealthy and friends from the projects — they all work hard and are serious about their work," she said.
   That is not to say that the prep school world is all work and no play. Since there are few or no physical education classes during the academic day, which runs from approximately 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., all students are required to be involved in afternoon activities.
   Most prep schools, Peddie and Hun included, have some type of team sport requirement. At Peddie, the requirement is two team sports for eighth and ninth graders. The philosophy is that once students have the experience, they will want to continue competing.
   That is exactly what happened with Rayanne and Michelle Torres. Both girls played basketball and lacrosse and stayed with the sport to the end, as Michelle is currently in her senior lacrosse season.
   "I like the athletics (requirement) because it encourages them to do both — I prefer that to just doing work," Ms. Torres.
   The result is often a time crunch with a busy class day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., practices or games from 3:30 to 5 or 6 p.m. Then, study hall starts at 8 p.m. and ends at 10 p.m. Students are free for 20 to 30 minutes before checking into the dorm for the night, and lights out is usually at 11 p.m.
   The schedule also varies from a normal high school experience as students attend a half day of classes on Wednesday and another half day on Saturday, a scheduling method that originated from the athletics schedule: allowing teams to travel without missing too much class time.
   Ms. Torres explained that people have asked her what is wrong with her kids that they have to maintain such a busy schedule and attend boarding school.
   "They don’t understand. People think kids get sent away to school because they are in trouble," she said.
   In fact, she said, there are some students like that at every school, but most of the students are very hard working and academically focused.
   "That’s what we were looking for: good academics," she said.