Private School in DC

Well, you decided that public school in DC, Maryland or Virginia isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I’m shocked. You are wondering if you should look into private schools but have no idea where to start? Fall is the season when everyone does their research and applications are due early in January. Since it’s fall, let’s do this.

Disclaimer: When it comes to your real estate transaction, I’m the wizard behind the curtain making sure everything is happening as it should. When it comes to my own life, I don’t exert near the same amount of worry until I have to. Which is exactly how I found myself with a 5th grader with questionable retention skills heading to a problematic public middle school. And like most kids today, she would rather be watching other people live their lives via TikTok. This is all my opinion, based on my experience with DC Public Schools.

The Downfall of the Public School and Why People Look at Private School

I have loved our elementary school. Stoddert Elementary in Glover Park is an amazing gem which I will always cherish and be grateful for. But can a typical over-crowded elementary school where dozens of different languages are spoken at home, filled with kids with different home lives and abilities, properly prepare everyone for middle school? My answer is no. Now, we’re post-Covid with the added mental health issues affecting many kids, the answer is hell no – unless you have a kid who can keep their head above water and advocate for themselves. If that’s not your child, well, I’ll move over so you can get into this boat with me.

I never understood the terms “teach to the middle” or “teach to the test” until I started to pay attention to what was happening in the schools. My experience is solely with DC Public Schools

Let’s cover “Teach to the Test,” first. Testing in DC Public Schools starts at 3rd grade. When I first heard this term I thought “teach to the test” meant they drilled the material on the test into the heads of the kids while simultaneously covering the rest of the curriculum. I thought wrong.

They actually stop teaching the curriculum and move over to teaching exactly what they expect to be on the test. Parents can opt their kids out, but most don’t and the school really discourages this because as they say, “this helps our school.” But they also get bonused. I’d rather we get those couple weeks of test-prep back in our lives for summer. Or legit schoolwork.

“Teaching to the middle” is another issue. Back in the day like when we were little, the kid who needed special help or those who were ahead were pulled out so their education could be tailored to their needs. In later years, this turns into what is called “tracking.” Then there were Nationwide missives like “No child left behind” and such that resulted in schools keeping kids at all levels in the same class. Teaching to the middle was probably untenable prior to covid, but add in behavior issues, mental health crises and violence pervading the schools and this became a recipe for disaster.

This sums up our reasons for leaving. There are people for whom “rigor” and “academic excellence” or sports are other reasons they apply to private schools. We are not Ivy League people here. We’re just trying to make sure our kids are happy and grow into adults with careers they love. We don’t want any opportunities to be taken from them because they didn’t learn how to learn, and didn’t learn how to study.

Why do People Leave Montgomery County Public Schools?

Parents were already not happy with the MCPS track record. There were failures with the implementation of Common Core, then Common Core 2.0 as they called it. In 2018, they engaged John Hopkins to perform an audit where they learned that less than 1/3 of the students understood math for their grade level and less than 1/4 understood English Language Arts for their grade level. The curriculum was re-bid and implemented just as Covid happened, and there are still issues – too much tech and not enough textbooks.

Why do People Leave Fairfax County Public Schools?

More of the same. Less issues with curriculum and more with the administration. There’s a new Superintendent in place but change takes time, initial sentiment isn’t great and teachers are leaving en masse. Special Education programs are suffering. Last year there was a scandal about the National Merit Scholars not being notified until the end of the year, hampering a huge accomplishment that could have been included on college applications.

Doing Your Research

Register and set up an account on Ravenna. This is where most applications are managed. You may find schools that are not on Ravenna but most of the larger and more common private school names are on Ravenna.

Fall is the time to do your research. Once the schools get back into the swing of the new year, they will begin scheduling virtual and in-person open houses and information sessions. Is there anything to be done prior to the Fall? Yes, and it’s my Hot tip: Hone your poker face skills now because when the parent asks the question about how the school will challenge their ultra-genius chess-playing child prodigy who reads 7 grades above their grade level, and they will, make sure you don’t roll your eyes or laugh. Otherwise, leave your camera off and the mute engaged.

Many people will ask about sports, the teams, and the no-cut policy which seems to be the norm for privates.

There are also lots of questions about the rigor of the math program.

Many will also ask what colleges the students get into after they finish school. It’s all about the Ivy League with many of these parents. All about those Ivies bout those Ivies bout those Ivies, no state schools.

If it’s a K-8 or only serves lower grades, they will ask about support for getting into the “next” school.

We did not go into it with questions like this. We were mostly quiet, trying to take it all in from the school tours. Something that was very prevalent was finding that the person giving the tour or the staff and teachers answering the questions had very short tenures. We asked almost everyone we met how long they had been at the school. We heard a lot of “I just started” comments. We ruled those schools out.

Another thing we wanted to know was the size of the grade. A lot of people ask about the size of the classes and of course you want to know that, but I didn’t waste my question time with that. Again, I operate that if you’re a private school with a good reputation, I shouldn’t have to check up on how many kids you have per class – you have that worked out. But I did want to know how many per grade. Some schools had only 25 seats per grade, especially the 6-12th schools. Even though our kid is great at making friends, that is such a small group of kids, and friends are so important. I didn’t want to take the social piece away from her.

Look at everything. Even schools you may initially rule out. I almost canceled our interview at the school we were thrilled to receive admission from because of location and that it was just a K-8. But the environment was warm, most of the teachers and staff had been with the school for 15-30 years and we knew we found our place. Your own list of requirements will vary of course but pay close attention to everything from their admission process, to their tours to communication. If they can’t strategically plan a tour to prevent you from walking up and down 4 flights of stairs multiple times or they forget to post in Ravenna that a shadow-day is required, then they might not be good at planning out the education of your child.

What DC Area Private Schools Are Looking For

This is the secret sauce. Getting accepted is more art than science.

Generally we found that these schools are looking for your child and your family to fit a profile of what they want or need in the grade and for the school. There are plenty of qualified kids, but if a class is heavy with boys, then the girl applicants will have a better chance.

Different schools also prioritize different things. Some of the private schools are going to take the child of the well-connected family. Others are very focused on showing diversity so if you fit a particular group they want to represent, in you go. Other schools have the reputation for being “woke” and that will be evident on their application. There are some initial questions which I knew were weed out questions. They asked if we belonged to any of the following races which were listed, if the applicant or anyone in the family identified as LGBTQ, and if the applicant had any additional gender information to specify beyond the checkbox of male/female. It was hilarious to know that our application was pretty much decided after those questions were answered and anything we wrote in the actual application or that came from recommendations wouldn’t have a damn bit of influence.

What Are Your Chances of Getting in to Private School

The too long / didn’t read version is: your chances are not great. Applications are at record highs. Where you used to only see the wealthiest sending their kids to private school, families of all socio-economic statuses are choosing private. And the schools want to help your child get there because they all have diversity/equity missions. Private school is no longer for the polo-playing crowd.

The first thing most parents want to know is if the grade they are applying for is an “expansion year.” This is where they add student spots in a grade. Many of the top schools may not have seats available in some grades and you may think to yourself, “This would be good information to have so we don’t waste time applying.” And you would be right to think it. But, they get $75 per hopeful applicant and when you’re a fancy private school, every little bit helps.

Pre-K and kindergarten seats are usually easier to get for reasons you would expect. Many people give public school a chance while the stakes are lower and then look at private for later grades and if they have specific issues to address with their child. But, more families with 3-4 children are applying for siblings and taking the Kindergarten seats. Families with multiple children are also less likely to leave if they are happy, so there are fewer spots in non-expansion years.

The families who are already there have some impact too. If family surveys indicate they think the school has too many students, admissions may decide that as students leave the school, they will not open up that seat.


The private school landscape took until now to change to a more inclusive landscape. It took a huge social movement though as well as a health pandemic to rewrite the long-standing rule that private schools are only for the wealthy. Whether these changes are here to stay or things shift again remain unknown.