Private schools accelerate academics

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According to the Private School Review (, a major advantage of private education is that students are challenged to meet a higher academic standard as they prepare to enroll in the nation’s top universities. In recent years, opportunities for post-high school growth have extended beyond a school’s core curriculum. Tracy Evans, special Pioneer Press reporter, investigates.

Elevated Course Levels

In high schools, Advanced Placement (AP) courses examine subjects, commonly language and mathematics, through deeper analysis. Lake Forest Academy encourages open enrollment for advanced courses that usually require an application process.

“AP course experience provides students with an educational advantage over their peers,” says Phil Schwartz, head of the Upper School at Lake Forest Academy. “Although not all students find great success on the AP exams, the knowledge and experience they gain in the classroom is extremely beneficial.”

Beyond the walls of a private high school, a small percentage of talented students are often allowed the opportunity to study college level curriculum on a campus itself. Northwestern University in Evanston does allow many area schools on-campus study during the summer session and select semesters.

At Roycemore School, also in Evanston, about 10 percent of the high school’s intimate classes — about two students a year — are accepted to pursue an additional course or two at Northwestern.

“A key point of independent schools is allowing more flexibility in the curriculum,” says John Novick, Roycemore’s Upper School division head. “Students can really work up to their potential. They don’t just get As without working, but we want them to be genuinely challenged.”

Novick continues: “We want them to develop self-confidence, and having earned credits from a respected university, they feel more than prepared when they walk on campus as college freshman.”

About 10 percent of North Shore Country Day School’s incoming senior class enrolls in summer semester courses at Northwestern. Likewise, academically superior students at Notre Dame College Prep, a private school for boys, can register for advanced courses at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota by using a system of credit sharing called the Program for Advanced College Credit (PACC).

Out-of-the-Box Education

A new, popular option for accelerated high school students allows for independent, customized study. Juniors and seniors create a personalized course that covers a specific area of interest. They are then paired with a faculty member to guide them through scheduled meetings and to evaluate performance for a course grade. For some students, the process mimics researching and defending a master’s thesis.

Dave Potter, head of the Upper School at North Shore Country Day, estimates about five juniors and five seniors apply to self-study each year. The topics, after being reviewed and approved by the relevant department, are incredibly diverse. One student has elected to study global public health: examining socio-cultural and health standards that influence health care in various nations. The course is set up to straddle several humanities along with basic health science.

“If we can cultivate and nurture an inclination on the part of our students to understand the benefits of working on an individual basis with their teachers, then students become more comfortable with the idea of proactively getting to know their professors in college,” Potter explains.

At Lake Forest Academy, students meet with faculty regularly to work toward a predetermined end goal, which typically includes a formal presentation of the independent study’s results. Schwartz believes this process “cultivates intellectual curiosity and prepares students for the rigors of college and any career they may choose in the future.”

Indeed, Roycemore’s Novick agrees that out-of-the-box learning experiences often lay the groundwork for college majors and a career path. A mandatory short term in January places students in professional internships for three weeks of hands-on study. Often, students find work with a local congressional representative to learn about a career in politics, or perhaps they will be teaching assistants at a local school. Many schools are considering this an important path toward defining a student’s skills and a richer sense of how their education applies to real-world goals.

General Growth Key

While many students exhibit strength in a particular discipline, the challenge is to provide a solid foundation of core curricula.

“A student who is 15 and says ‘I know what I want’ may change his mind several times before college,” Novick says. “We want to nurture their strengths but always want to keep other doors open.”

Many private schools echo this generalist viewpoint. Only then can students understand how to excel in the halls of academia and beyond.