Student perspectives on private and public schooling

Many students at Palo Alto High School have only ever been exposed to one framework of education: the public school system. Though in many places around the country private schools are considered the providers of higher quality education, the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) public schools are consistently ranked among the top schools in the nation. As a result, many Palo Alto families choose to send their children to public schools. So in Palo Alto, besides sources of funding, what is the difference between private and public schools?

One of the most stark differences between public and private schools is the difference in the size of the student population. While Paly has around 2,100 students and approximately 500 students per grade, private schools, such as Castilleja, an all-girls school, have around 50 students per grade. Subsequently, students at private schools tend to form a tighter community within their class and school as a whole.

Students at Paly who have been exposed to the private school system, having attended some of the many neighboring private schools in the area, note the closer communities of their previous private schools.

“I’ve been able to form really great relationships with those teachers [who have] pointed me in the direction I want to go in.”

Maddy Birnbaum


Senior Emma Raney, who attended the Girls Middle School (GMS) in Palo Alto, had to adjust to being in a grade at Paly that has significantly more people than her grade at GMS.

“Going from knowing everyone to sometimes not being aware [a] kid even goes [to Paly] was definitely a change,” Raney said. “There were also a lot fewer of us [at GMS], so the community was more tightly knit.”

Senior Elana Rebitzer, who attended Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto from kindergarten up until eighth grade, also noted how tight-knit her class was. She notes that she was able to connect with every single one of her classmates, a characteristic she believes is unique to private schools.

“I had every single class with some of my friends and I think in that sense it was nice because you got to know everyone in your grade,” Rebitzer said. “You know so much about people’s lives when you go to a small school.”

“You know so much about people’s lives when you go to a small school.”

Elana Rebitzer


This tighter community also translated into the classroom, where Rebitzer found that smaller class sizes made it easier to engage in discussion with fellow classmates rather than learn passively in a large class.

With more opportunities to speak up in class also comes more opportunities to form connections with teachers. Most of Rebitzer’s teachers stayed with her for more than one year, some for up to five. In comparison to PAUSD, where most students rarely have teachers twice, these connections foster a relationship between student and teacher.

Maddy Birnbaum, a current senior at Woodside Priory School in Portola Valley who attended schools in PAUSD up to eighth grade, notes that not only does she now get to have teachers for more than year at Woodside Priory School, but that they help her hone in on her interests, such as English.

“If you choose a subject and you choose to pursue it and you get to the higher levels, you’re likely to have the same teachers for a while,” Birnbaum said. “I’ve been able to form really great relationships with those teachers [who have] pointed me in the direction I want to go in.”

Another byproduct of smaller communities at private schools is the abundance of resources available to every student. Resources and opportunities cannot always be offered to the large student bodies of public schools since there are too many students and schools that are funded by taxpayers’ dollars, but these options are more viable when there are less people to accomodate for. With more resources provided for students, those who want to start on a career pathway  have the opportunity to do so. In addition, private schools have more money along with fewer students, since each student pays a tuition to attend.

At her small private school, Raney had opportunities her counterparts at public school did not have, including skateboarding as a part of her physical education and a year-long entrepreneurship project to apply learning to the real world.

“At GMS, there’s this huge year- long project we do in seventh grade called Entrepreneurial where we basically get to start our own business,” Raney said. “The process is complete with investors and we divided the profits of real money amongst our group.”

Private schools even provide opportunities and applications of education outside of the traditional school boundaries, most notably on the national scale. Birnbaum recently got the chance to travel to New Hampshire to attend political rallies and debates hosted by Woodside Priory’s sister school, Saint Anselm College, an opportunity uncommon in public institutions.

“There were only about 1000 people at the debate and it was easy to run up and briefly talk to [and] take pictures with the candidates during commercial breaks,” Birnbaum said. “We could see the whole political primary system in action, which we had just studied.”

Additionally, many private schools grant students the opportunity to delve deeper into concepts surrounding religion, culture or language that public schools cannot, due to separation of church and state. In retrospect, Rebitzer appreciates the exposure she had to Judaism and the Hebrew language through her religious and linguistic courses.

“Academically, I think the only main difference [between Gideon  Hausner Jewish Day School and Paly] was that we had Jewish studies education so I came [to Paly] not quite bilingual but speaking another language which was helpful in general,” Rebitzer said.

In fact, after years of learning and understanding more about her religious background and its history, Rebitzer now views her religion as a larger piece of her life than if she had not went to a religious school.

“I think my identity as a Jewish person is maybe stronger because of Hausner,” Rebitzer said.

Overall, though both private and public schools offer similar levels of high-quality education in Palo Alto, the similarities end there.

With smaller class sizes, more resources and the opportunity to delve deeper into subjects, private schools offer different strengths than public schools do, leading some students to make the decision to forgo the public school system. However, each decision ultimately resides on the personal preferences of each prospective student and what type of school they feel fits them the best.

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