When it comes to choosing the right classroom for your child, River City offers a bevy of choices, from the traditional to the experimental. In fact, a growing — and surprisingly affordable — array of private and independent schools now dot the Greater Richmond landscape.
"It's a slice of the world right here in Richmond," notes Sonali Shetty, whose 8-year-old daughter, Kaavya, attends Richmond Montessori (499 N. Parham Road, 741-0040, richmont.org), which boasts students and faculty representative of more than 30 countries.
"The collaborative nature of a Montessori education and direct exposure to kids from around the world prepare Richmond Montessori students to live and work in an increasingly shrinking world," Shetty says. "Since three grade levels are in a single classroom, children advance according to their capabilities. Socially, this is wonderful since the younger kids look up to the older ones and the older ones feel the responsibility to act as role models to the younger grades."
But what about the cost? Many Richmonders are quick to assume that an educational wonderland such as this is simply cost-prohibitive, especially in tighter economic times.
In an effort to make tuition more affordable, Richmond Montessori has increased need-based financial-aid funds by 20 percent during the past year. Despite this, studies — such as the 2006 National Public Opinion Poll commissioned by the National Association of Independent Schools — still find that the general public mistakenly perceives private-school students to always be from financially affluent families. In reality, tuition rates vary widely in Richmond's 100-plus private schools, as do the financial backgrounds of the students.
"This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart," explains Irene Charney, executive director of Sabot at Stony Point (3400 Stony Point Road, 272-1341, sab otatstonypoint.org), which serves 180 students from 2 1/2 years old and through eighth grade. "I have clear memories of my daughter's preschool years (she is now a college senior), during which I felt sadly resigned to the assumption that private school would not be an option for us." Charney, who has more than 30 years of experience in education, took a part-time job in order to afford tuition and in the course of her daughter's school career bartered for reduced tuition (by offering her expertise in grant writing).
Charney says the business of private-school tuition deserves serious consideration by all involved in the process. "Both schools and families need to establish priorities," she says. "Schools need to grapple with the question of the extent to which tuition assistance will be budgeted as a regular operating expense. Families need to decide where their expendable income is best invested."
She adds, "It is necessary and responsible for schools to set tuition as close as possible to the actual cost of educating students." Sabot, which costs just over $9,100 per year, currently supports approximately 12 percent of its students through tuition assistance.
Anne Booker, director of admission at St. Christopher's School (711 St. Christopher's Road, 282-3185, stchristophers.com), reports that one out of five students receives financial assistance at her school, with the average need-based grant tallying $12,500. St. Christopher's, one of the top independent schools in Richmond, offers liberal-arts education for boys, from junior kindergarten through high school. Booker, who has worked at St. Christopher's for 22 years, says that there are students represented from 52 different ZIP codes in the metro area.
"We hope to foster the right blend by having a challenging academic program along with spiritual, athletic, artistic and community experiences that shape and reinforce students' character and concern for others," explains Booker.
Less than a mile from St. Christopher's, sister school St. Catherine's (6001 Grove Ave., 288-2804, st.catherines.org) also provides needs-based financial aid to girls from junior kindergarten through grade 12. The school offers about $2 million in aid annually.
"Any student who qualifies for admission is encouraged to apply regardless of whether she has the necessary financial resources to attend St. Catherine's," says Kelly Wilbanks, director of admission. Financial aid at the school is based on a yearly assessment of a family's need, she explains — the difference between the cost of tuition and the financial resources a family has to meet that cost.
Other options in Richmond include such popular choices as Collegiate School (103 N. Mooreland Road, 740-7077, collegiate-va.org), which offers grades K through 12 in a coeducational environment. Launched in 1915, Collegiate places a heavy emphasis on a "community of learners" concept, an approach that sees faculty committed to the whole ball of wax — including intellectual, moral, emotional and physical development. Collegiate offers not only financial aid programs, but also payment plans and financing.
Leslie Strickler, who has three children in three different private schools, opted for the parochial route when securing the best fit for her family. Strickler's youngest daughter attends St. Bridget's School (6011 York Road, 288-1994, saintbridget.org), which challenges its students not only to master rigorous academics but also to apply that knowledge in practical situations by using critical-thinking and logical-reasoning abilities.
"The Catholic faith attracts families invested in involving the family, translating into a warm, caring environment that focuses a child on what is important," says Strickler. "They also attract families of cultural diversity because the religion has a large, worldwide following."
Strickler's oldest daughter attends Orchard House School (500 N. Allen Ave., 228-2436, orchardhouse.org), which has an enrollment of about 80 girls in grades 5 to 8. "They really have risen above all the stereotypes of private schools. The philosophy at Orchard House is to push the limits of intellectual curiosity so each middle-school girl can celebrate her interests and strengths to be the best she can be," Strickler says.
At Orchard, 10 percent of the annual operating budget is dedicated to funding students who fit the mission of the school and who are unable to attend without financial support. Scholarship awards range from 100 percent of tuition and fees to 30 percent of tuition.
Strickler adds, "My daughter talks about the discussions in her world history class where the girls are from different socioeconomic backgrounds, different religions, different political views and they are all talking … expressing their opinions … not accusing each other of having a wrong idea, but learning from each other that differences are interesting."