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Public or private? // Exploring school options: a survival guide

For the first time since her first-grader entered kindergarten, Janine Schwartz will not be calling, visiting or researching private schools _ at least for now.

"I've tortured myself for two years," says Schwartz, a Town N' Country resident who will stick with public schools for the elementary years. "I think this year I'm comfortable in my decision _ finally."

Judy Preston of Carrollwood Village also is in a timeout.

Her son, Chaz _ who went to Carrollwood Day School for preschool, Berkeley Preparatory through third grade and Montessori House Day School through fifth, and was schooled at home through seventh _ says he has found at the 60-student Lee Academy for Gifted Education "a more relaxed learning experience."

"I know several people who have their children in private school who move them from place to place," Preston says. "The choice is yours, it's always there and people make it on a year-to-year basis."

While the Schwartzes and Prestons rest easy in their decisions, the agony endures for scores of other parents and their children, who are being tested for private school admittance. Still others, among them public school parents angered by gifted program cutbacks, overcrowded buildings and looming double sessions, ponder which road to travel, or whether they're on the right path.

In the public-private school debate, the signposts are many and there is no one map to follow. For many, the journey begins _ and ends _ with cost.

Dollars and senses

Janine Schwartz acknowledges it.

"If the private schools we considered charged $2,000 a year, I don't know what my decision would be," says Schwartz, a speech pathologist. "But I can't justify spending $150,000 to graduate two kids from high school."

Her husband, Michael, a health care consultant, is leaving the door open. He reasons that if his children graduate from a good prep school, they will get into prestigious colleges, which in turn will jump-start their careers with top-notch first jobs.

But therein lies the dilemma.

"If you spend all that money now," he asks, "will your child qualify for some sort of scholarship? Or do you go to public school and save your money, so you have the funds to pay for private college later? Unless you're among the ultra rich, this is not an easy decision."

According to Brenda Parks of the state Office of Nonpublic Schools and Program Support, roughly 12 of every 100 school-age children in Hillsborough County (18,302 students, or 11.89 percent) attend private schools. Statewide the enrollment number is 233,868, or 10.17 percent. In its most recent directory of non-public county schools, the state lists 104 institutions, 33 of which are "non-religious." Private schools "are not licensed, approved, accredited or regulated by the state," Parks says, although their school buildings and businesses must meet state health and safety and local commerce regulations.

Costs vary dramatically.

Next year's tuition runs up to $8,500 at Berkeley Preparatory, $5,810 at Academy of the Holy Names, $3,700 at Lee Academy and $2,300 at Citrus Park Christian. Palmer Preparatory, a boarding school for academics and competitive tennis, charges $29,850 a year.

Tuition, though, is not the only expenditure. St. Mary's Episcopal Day School charges a onetime $975 building and equipment fee. Montessori House Day School assesses a $500 to $650 "incidental fee" for professional dues, insurance, supplies, snacks and "specially designed forms from Italy and Holland for use with Montessori materials." And at Tampa Catholic High School, additional expenses include uniforms, books, school supplies, club dues and admission to athletic and social events.

At most private schools, an "annual giving" is voluntary _ but count on it.

Typical is the Independent Day School in Carrollwood, which notes in its literature that because "tuition covers only 85 percent of education costs, families are asked _ and expected _ to support the school's annual giving campaign to the best of their ability." Berkeley Prep reports that "nationally, the average gift per student in an independent day school is $600," but that Berkeley parents exceed this amount in order "to enhance the educational opportunities" available to their students.

"I wouldn't say it's a sacrifice; I wouldn't say it's necessarily easy," Judy Preston says of the cost to send her two children to the Lee Academy, which charges an annual $500 fund-raising fee per child. Preston is not in the work force but holds a law degree; her husband is a manager for AT&T Paradyne. "We just feel that this is extremely important and something we'd like to do for our children."

Figuring that a private college can cost $25,000 a year and some state schools provide an excellent education, the Prestons decided their children could "get the education they need without putting them in private college," Judy Preston says.

As she put it: "We opted to give them good school years while they're young."

Making the move

Private school officials say disenchantment with public schools often leads prospective buyers to their doorsteps.

Pam Ripple, assistant headmaster of Independent Day School, says enrollment at the 28-year-old school has more than doubled over the past 10 years, partly because it serves the growing northwest Hillsborough region.

Class size also is a factor, she says.

"One of the things we offer is a low student-teacher ratio: 16 per class in the younger classes, 18 students in grades four through eight," Ripple says. "That is probably one of the most appealing selling features we have."

The story is similar at the Hillel School of Tampa.

"Most of the people we speak to are upset because of the cutbacks in the gifted program and they're nervous about double sessions," says Karen Feller, head of the Jewish day school. "I've had people come here and leave public schools because class sizes are too big and individual needs are not being met."

Bad experiences, though, should not fuel knee-jerk reactions, officials say.

"When parents come to us unhappy with another situation, we really encourage them to talk it through with conferences and observations before they make a hasty decision to move the child," says Kay Murrell, head director of Montessori House and president of the Florida Kindergarten Council. "If they've really tried to work with the school and they can't get anything else for their child, then maybe it's time to change."

Too often, she adds, "parents are guilty of not doing the research, of not coming to visit schools, of not asking enough questions. A lot of times they choose a school because a friend said it's okay to come or because it's close to where they live."

Race and class issues also come to bear.

"Some people send their children to Berkeley Prep and other schools for popularity or it's the fashionable thing to do," Chaz Preston says. "That's something I don't agree with. The point is education, not popularity, and it's about the kids, not the parents."

"People have to be up front with themselves," says James MacDonald, principal of Tampa Catholic. "Some people are not conscious of their choices, that they're racist or that they have an economic bent. If they're affluent, they may not want their kids associated with those less affluent or poor."

Joseph Merzulli, head of Berkeley Prep, says his school "sometimes gets the bad end of some comments on the elitism business." But "we have, as most schools do, as public schools do, the gamut of social, economic families. If you drive through our student parking lot, you'll see some nice cars, but you will also see some held together by glue and paste."

Mapping a plan

For the Teresi family, making the decision to send Sammy, 5, to private school next year was easy.

The hard part was deciding which one.

After visiting eight schools, they opted for the Bible-Based Fellowship Christian Academy, a ministry of a predominantly African-American church in a predominantly white neighborhood.

The Teresis, new to Northdale, are white.

Linda Teresi says she likes the small classes, the individualized attention, the nurturing climate and the non-traditional teaching and testing practices she found at the school, which opened in Carrollwood this year.

"We were looking for basically good kids, whether they're red, black or yellow," Teresi says, "and we wanted a Christian influence."

Moreover, she adds, "the people running the school seem intelligent and focused on how kids learn differently; whereas in public school, kids are constantly compared to one another. Here they check to see if you actually learned anything, not just if you got a good grade because you did all your homework right."

In choosing the private school, the Teresis sought a teaching environment that matched their son's hands-on, kinesthetic learning style. They chose public school for their daughter, Kara, 8, a straight-A student "who excels and does fine with lots of kids."

For the Teresis, it wasn't a matter of which was better, but which school was best for each child. It was a pedagogical decision, not an ideological one.

Janine Schwartz is on the same page.

"When people say, 'I believe in public education,' I personally do not understand what that means," she says. "What is it you believe in? Does that mean we should have public schools? Yes. Does my child have to go to public school? I don't think I have any obligation to do that. Public education is going to continue if my kids are there or not."

So why did she choose public?

"A lot of private schools didn't want parents working with the children," says Schwartz, who last year volunteered 300 hours at Gorrie Elementary School in Hyde Park. Some schools required too much homework. ("Two hours a day in the second grade, I think that's absurd.") She didn't seek religious instruction. ("My kids go to temple; they'll get that there.") And she didn't want to shortchange after-school and family activities. ("After paying tuition, you don't have money left over to go anywhere or do anything.")

Contrary to popular belief, Schwartz adds, not all private schools have smaller classes. Some are too small. ("When my kids go to gym class," she says, "I want them to have a softball team.") And while some parents want their children to have the same classmates year after year, Schwartz likes the fact that in public school her "kids are constantly changing their circle of friends."

Most important, Schwartz says, she chose public because she works well with her school's teachers and administrators to get the kind of education she wants for her children. And that, says C. Skardon Bliss, executive director of the Florida Council of Independent Schools, should be the deciding factor.

"It's more important to find the right schools for your children, rather than decide public or private," he says. "I don't think there's a simple formula for across the board. Parents really have to become involved in the process."

A sampling of private schools

Here are 13 examples from among the private schools that serve the North Hillsborough and South Pasco areas, chosen to illustrate the diversity of offerings available. Information came from the schools. Inclusion on this list is not meant as an endorsement by The Times. Tuition figures do not include fees and other costs, such as uniforms, supplies and charitable donations.

Academy at the Lakes

2420 Collier Parkway, Land O' Lakes

948-2133

+ Established: 1992

+ Religion: nonreligious

+ Enrollment: 210

+ Pupils: co-ed

+ Grades: Pre-K - 8

+ Full-time teaching faculty: 10

+ Full-day tuition: $4,000 - $4,700

+ Accreditation: Florida Council of Independent Schools (FCIS), new school candidate.

Academy of the Holy Names

3319 Bayshore Boulevard, Tampa

839-5371

+ Established: 1881

+ Religion: Catholic

+ Enrollment: 810

+ Pupils: Coed; all-girls 9-12

+ Grades: Pre-K--12

+ Full-time teaching faculty: 72

+ Full-day tuition: $4,470-$6,160

+ Accreditation: Florida Catholic Conference; Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)

Berkeley Preparatory School

4811 Kelly Road, Town 'N Country

885-1673

+ Established: 1960

+ Religion: Episcopal-affiliated

+ Enrollment: 975

+ Pupils: Coed

+ Grades: Pre-K--12

+ Full-time teaching faculty: 93

+ Full-day tuition: $4,500-$8,900

+ Accreditation: (delete first reference to organization) (FCIS)

Bible-Based Fellowship Christian Academy

4811 Ehrlich Road, Carrollwood

264-2222

+ Established: 1995

+ Religion: Nondenominational

+ Enrollment: 53

+ Pupils: Coed

+ Grades: Pre-K - 3 ('96: Pre-K - 5)

+ Full-time teaching faculty: 8

+ Full-day tuition: $2,520-$3,150

+ Accreditation: FCIS, new school candidate

Carrollwood Day School

12606 Casey Road

19521 Michigan Avenue, Tampa

963-2388

+ Established: 1982

+ Religion: nonreligious

+ Enrollment: 431

+ Pupils: co-ed

+ Grades: Pre-K - 8

+ Full-time teaching faculty: 33

+ Full-day tuition: $2,850- $5,850

+ Accreditation: FCIS; Florida Kindergarten Council (FKC); National Association for the Eudcation of Young Children.

Citrus Park Christian School

7705 Gunn Highway

920-3960

+ Established: 1983

+ Religion: Southern Baptist

+ Enrollment: 500

+ Pupils: Coed

+ Grades: Pre-K--9

+ Full-time teaching faculty: 24

+ Full-day tuition: $1,980-$2,300

+ Accreditation: Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools

Hillel School of Tampa

2020 W. Fletcher Avenue, Carrollwood

963-2242

+ Established: 1970

+ Religion: Jewish

+ Enrollment: 194

+ Pupils: Coed

+ Grades: K-8

+ Full-time teaching faculty: 18

+ Full-day tuition: $5,535-$5,960

+ Accreditation: FCIS; FKC

Independent Day School

12015 Orange Grove Drive, Carrollwood

961-3087

+ Established: 1968

+ Religion: Nonreligious

+ Enrollment: 312

+ Pupils: Coed

+ Grades: Pre-K--8

+ Full-time teaching faculty: (xx)

+ Full-day tuition: $5,100-$5,600

+ Accreditation: FCIS; FKC

Montessori House Day School

7010 Hanley Road, Town 'N Country

5117 Ehrlich Road, Carrollwood

961-9295

+ Established: 1970

+ Religion: Nonreligious

+ Enrollment: 200

+ Pupils: Coed

+ Grades: Pre-K--6

+ Full-time teaching faculty: 18

+ Full-day tuition: $2,860-$4,610

+ Accreditation: FCIS; FKC; American Montessori Society

St. Mary's Episcopal Day School

2101 South Hubert Avenue, Tampa

289-8966

+ Established: 1953

+ Religion: Episcopal

+ Enrollment: 384

+ Pupils: Coed

+ Grades: Pre-K--8

+ Full-time teaching faculty: 34

+ Full-day tuition: $3,200-$5,100

+ Accreditation: FCIS

Tampa Catholic High School

4630 N. Rome Avenue, Tampa

870-0860

+ Established: 1962

+ Religion: Catholic

+ Enrollment: 628

+ Pupils: Coed

+ Grades: 9-12

+ Full-time teaching faculty: 40

+ Full-day tuition: $4,630-$5,615

+ Accreditation: SACS

Tampa Preparatory School

625 N. Boulevard, Tampa

251-8481

+ Established: 1974

+ Type: Nonreligious

+ Enrollment: 450

+ Pupils: Coed

+ Grades: 7-12

+ Full-time teaching faculty: 46

+ Full-day tuition: $7,435-$8,295

+ Accreditation: FCIS; SACS

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