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The Inside Scoop on Independent Schools

Linda Nelson, a veteran educator and Executive Director of the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools (NCAIS), describes the diverse makeup of independent schools in North Carolina, and dispels many of the stereotypes people may have about private schools.

Linda Nelson discusses independent and private schools

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: The Inside Scoop on Independent Schools

TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Parents across the state are increasingly taking advantage of the growing number of non-traditional educational options for their children. This includes more parents than ever accessing private education, many times with the help of new state-sponsored scholarship programs. Over 102,000 North Carolina students attended a private school in the school year 2018-19, and over 9,600 of them did so using a North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship. 

Linda Nelson has put her 20-plus years of experience in education to work on behalf of many of North Carolina’s varied private schools in her role as Executive Director of the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools (NCAIS). NCAIS represents more than 80 schools with over 3,800 teachers serving approximately 38,000 students. 

Linda Nelson, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

LINDA NELSON: Thank you Traci, it’s a pleasure to be with you today.

TRACI GRIGGS: There are a lot of different kinds of private schools. So, could you let us know what makes a school independent or private, and what do these schools look like in general here in North Carolina? 

LINDA NELSON: Certainly. It can be a little confusing for families; there are lots of choices out there and it’s sometimes hard to know what the differences are. Private schools in general are schools that aren’t supported by the government. They’re supported by another organization or a group of individuals. Independent schools are a little tricky, because they’re really a subset of private schools. They’re mission driven institutions and they’re governed by an independent Board of Trustees. So they don’t fall under the supervision of say, a college or a church or a corporation. They really are totally independent in their governance. We do have some faith-based schools that are affiliated with churches in our organization [NCAIS], but from the pure definition of independent schools, that would be schools that have no outside influence on their governance. 

In terms of the kinds of schools, it doesn’t do just service to talk about the average independent school in our state, because they vary widely. Our smallest schools probably have 40 students and our largest school has over 1600 students. Our tuitions probably across the state range from under $5,000 to well over $20,000, and that’s not including boarding fees at some of our boarding schools. So there is everything from K-5 schools, to Pre-K through 12th grade, day schools, single-sex schools, boarding schools, faith-based schools, special needs schools; they pretty much run the gamut.

TRACI GRIGGS: So what are you hearing is the primary reason that parents choose a private school for their children as opposed to some of the other choices?

LINDA NELSON: I think the reasons that parents choose a school for their children are as unique as the parents and the children themselves. I would hope, at least in part, that families choose a school that’s the best overall fit for their child. Find a school where you’d like to spend the day, you know? Don’t leave your child in a school building where you don’t feel comfortable. Come spend some time and see what the culture is. See the environment. Get the vibes across the school, and ask a lot of questions. Schools are very, very different and not all children—even children in the same family—have the same needs. It’s interesting, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), has spent a lot of time analyzing why families choose independent schools, and they came up with a real interesting model about jobs to do. Why do families hire independent schools? They came up with four jobs, and I think it’s pretty interesting. I don’t think any school just does one job, but I think it’s nice to look at that in terms of why are families coming to us. 

The first job is to help my child overcome obstacles. The second job is to help me fulfill my child’s potential in a values-aligned community. The third job is to help me develop a well-rounded person who will impact the world. And the fourth job is to help me realize my plan for my talented child. So if you think of it in those terms, both for the parent and the school, it really becomes sort of a different conversation, and I think it’s an important one to have.

TRACI GRIGGS: So, when it comes to meeting needs, do you feel like the way that private schools go about meeting those needs is a lot different than for traditional schools, or even non-traditional public schools like charter schools?

LINDA NELSON: I really can’t speak for the public and the charter schools because I don’t have much experience, or any experience there. But as for private schools, and especially for our schools in NCAIS, it all starts with admissions. Our schools, because they are private businesses, have the ability to admit only those students that are a good fit for their program, as guided by that mission. From the very beginning, we develop a relationship with a family from the moment they walk into the door to when they enroll. We get to know the student and the family well throughout the admissions process, and then the onboarding process, and they really get a chance to know the school. As a part of that process, the family gets to know the teachers and the administrators, which cuts through any perceived bureaucracy that they may see. Even in our largest—our schools that are 1600 plus—they’re still small communities and they have a fairly flat administrative hierarchy. So, asking questions and getting to the right person is typically pretty easy.

Then our schools—and I’m speaking for NCAIS schools here especially—our schools are really good at differentiating instruction. You know, meeting students where they are and providing appropriate challenges based on their readiness. That may mean helping them move forward into areas they’re interested in, and that may mean going above and beyond the curriculum. Or it may mean  some remediation and some special assistance with subjects that are a little bit harder for them. 

Our learning models also focus much more on mastery rather than time and seat. So we’re moving much more toward a more personalized learning environment, which I think is the future of education in general.

TRACI GRIGGS: How about oversight and accountability? Can you speak to the differences between private schools and public schools as far as that’s concerned?

LINDA NELSON: Yes, and I think that’s an important question, especially with the Opportunity Scholarship and all the press that that’s getting lately. Pretty simply, public schools were established, supported, and funded by the public, and so they’re accountable to the public. Private schools, however, they are established, supported, and funded by individuals and private foundations, and they’re really accountable only to their Board of Trustees and their school community. Those Boards are responsible for setting the school mission and ensuring that all the programs are mission appropriate. Boards are also responsible for the financial sustainability of the school.

The school leadership, then—that would be the head of school and their administrative staff—carry out the day-to-day operations at the school in accordance with that mission and vision that set by the Board. This would include designing curriculum, and defining expected learning outcomes for each grade. Our schools administer standardized tests, nationally normed achievement tests in accordance with the requirements of the Department of Non-Public Education in North Carolina. We report those test results to parents. Usually our schools will report an aggregate, some sort of summary report for the Board and the whole school community as well. And then our schools typically provide a school profile that would show college acceptances, SAT scores, ACT scores. So, yet one other benchmark that would measure the value that our education is bringing to our families. 

In addition, and this is specifically for our NCAIS schools, we are all accredited by regional accrediting agencies. These agencies require self-study and onsite visits every five years by teams of peer educators. And that’s a real important differentiator I think, because we are constantly looking at ourselves and trying to become better. We’re bringing colleagues in to collaborate and hear what they’re doing and learn from each other. But I think the highest measure of accountability across the private school community comes from parents who pay tuition annually. They choose each year whether to return; they express their value and their satisfaction by paying tuition for their child to attend the next year. So, we get some pretty immediate accountability there when it comes time to pay tuition.

TRACI GRIGGS: Right, good point. Well, let’s take a few minutes to address some of the opposition that we might hear to private schools, and particularly the scholarship program going to private schools. How do you respond to, say, an argument that private schools are only for the wealthiest, or smartest, or most accomplished students, and disproportionally ignore the needs of low-income students?

LINDA NELSON: Okay, I’m glad you asked that question, Traci, that’s a common misconception. Most of our schools serve students with average to well above average abilities, including a lot of students with special learning needs. An increasing number of our schools are moving towards “index tuition,” which means that all parents complete a financial profile and the tuition they pay is based on what they can afford. So it’s sort of a sliding scale approach. A number of our schools as well have institutional aid programs that target mission-appropriate students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it. So I do feel like that we look at bringing in some diversity of all kinds, including families that couldn’t otherwise afford this school.

TRACI GRIGGS: So do you feel like then that answers another criticism, that private schools may discriminate based on which students they choose to accept?

LINDA NELSON: Yes, that’s an interesting question. I would answer it first, I think, from a legal perspective. Our NCAIS schools each year—and it’s a part of our 501-(c)(3) status, being a non-profit in North Carolina—we’re required to publish a non-discriminatory statement. So all of our schools have to subscribe to that statement, and that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin. So our schools do meet the legal requirements, but beyond that, our schools are mission-driven organizations. And as a part of being a mission-driven organization, you have a responsibility to only accept students who, by virtue of what you’ve learned about them through the admissions process, have demonstrated that they’re a good fit, and that they have a strong likelihood of being successful. We don’t want to bring students in that aren’t going to be successful in our program. So I think it’s more about the fit than it is the getting in, or the getting accepted.

TRACI GRIGGS: Okay. So private school enrollment has either been dropping or holding steady for several years, until recently. So do you attribute that to any particular thing as far as the increased enrollment now in North Carolina private schools?

LINDA NELSON: I don’t have any data to support this, but I do think it’s reasonable to attribute much of the growth to school choice, and the students that now have the opportunity to take advantage of private education. I think too, both the increase in the number of students and just the increase in the higher visibility that we’re getting about schools, about education and about options. I think that both from an enrollment perspective and just an awareness perspective, we’re getting a lot more publicity out there and families are considering private education at a higher level than maybe they did in the past.

TRACI GRIGGS: All right, well we’re just about out of time for this week, but before we go, Linda, where can our listeners go to learn more about your private school organization, and perhaps what private schools are available in their own areas?

LINDA NELSON: Certainly, our website is, and we have a lot of information on there for families. We also have a listing of all our member schools with a link to their website. The Department of Non-Public Education has a full listing of all private schools that are recognized by the state on their website. I believe they break them down by counties or regions, so you can certainly begin to narrow things down there. The two dioceses in the state—the Eastern and Western Catholic diocese—their websites have information on their schools. The North Carolina Association of Christian Schools would have a lot of information, along with ACSI, which is the Association of Christian Schools International. And then I would also go to the Parents for Educational Freedom website. If you’re looking for Opportunity Scholarship schools, they have a full listing and they’re always there to help families who are looking for options.

TRACI GRIGGS: Thank you Linda Nelson, for your commitment to serving the educational needs of North Carolina families and for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.

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