Unequal Footing? Public Versus Private High Schools

by Jacob Maguire | 10/25/17 2:20am

by Adrian Russian / The Dartmouth

In recent history, universal education has been considered to be one of America’s greatest equalizers. The idea that education provides a gateway to opportunity drove the development of universal public education in the U.S. during the 19th and 20th centuries, leading to the creation of many policies that support a more egalitarian system.

During the 21st century, however, many disparities and educational inequities still exist in America. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, nearly 52 percent of American children in K – 12 public schools are eligible for free and reduced lunch, which is a common indicator of poverty in the U.S. Many American students also attend racially segregated schools, which tend to have fewer resources than other public school districts.

Overall, data from the U.S. Department of Education indicates that about 88 percent of American students in grades K – 12 attend public schools, while about 2 percent are homeschooled and about 9.7 percent attend private or religious schools.

The Office of Admissions’ website provides several statistics about the educational backgrounds of Dartmouth students. Fifty-seven percent of students in the Class of 2020 attended public high schools, 30 percent of students attended secular private high schools or and 13 percent attended religious private high schools. Director of admissions Paul Sunde declined to comment.

Although students come from various educational backgrounds, perceptions about stereotypes about public versus private school graduates vary.

“I don’t think that Dartmouth has any specific stereotypes about public versus private schools,” Giavanna La Gamba ’21 said. “It hasn’t been an issue for me.”

La Gamba grew up in Austintown, Ohio, and attended Austintown Fitch High School, a public school. According to U.S. News and World Report, Austintown Fitch has an enrollment of about 1,600 students, and about 54 percent of the school’s students received free or reduced-price lunch.

Although La Gamba said she appreciates where she came from, she acknowledged that her educational background did not prepare her as well for Dartmouth as she had hoped.

“I don’t think the school I attended prepared me very well for college,” La Gamba, a first-generation college student, said. “But I think that’s because everyone from my school went on to attend state schools, so a lot of the focus of high school was on preparation for a different kind of school from Dartmouth.”

La Gamba was involved in debate, drama club, choir and the National Honor Society at her high school.

“Academic opportunities were pretty sparse because we only offered two [Advanced Placement] courses,” she said.

Daniel Lee ’18, who was born in South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. when he was a child, grew up in Los Angeles and attended public schools there. He went to the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, a public magnet school for students in grades six to 12 in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Although Lee’s school offered many AP courses and other academic opportunities, he said that budget cuts during the recession of the late 2000s and early 2010s and its subsequent recovery period negatively affected his educational experience.

“Going to a public school in Los Angeles amidst the great recession and its recovery was tough,” Lee said. “LAUSD tried to cut ‘non-essential programs,’ such as supplies and school librarian positions, that, in hindsight, were essential.”

Lee also pointed out that Dartmouth’s socioeconomic environment is different than the atmosphere in which he grew up.

“I think that Dartmouth has been a whole new world for me in terms of where people come from,” he said. “It has always been very surprising to me, even now as a senior.”

Lee, an economics major, attained his U.S. citizenship earlier this year.

“I’m proud of where I came from,” Lee said. “It’s helped me to build the work ethic that I have and continue to stay motivated. I don’t think that my high school prepared me particularly well academically because it’s difficult to get students fully ready for college, but I think that they did the best that they could.”

Abby Bresler ’21 attended Concord Academy, a private, independent boarding and day school in Concord, Massachusetts. Concord Academy has an enrollment of about 400 students in grades nine through 12.

Bresler, who lives in Lexington, Massachusetts and had previously attended public schools in the area, said she loved her high school experience. She believes that Concord Academy has shaped who she has become in a meaningful way.

“I wouldn’t necessarily be who I am if I hadn’t gone there,” Bresler said. “Because Concord is a smaller school than some others, it provided me with many opportunities that I would not have otherwise had. Students and teachers were focused on academic growth, and it had a less competitive environment than the public schools in Lexington.”

At Concord Academy, class sizes were small and students got to know their teachers well, Bresler said. For this reason, Bresler has adjusted to Dartmouth, which is known for its emphasis on undergraduate teaching, more smoothly than she had expected. Although she noted that time management has been a difficult skill for her to learn, Bresler is thankful that she knows how to interact with teachers.

“My school definitely prepared me for going to office hours and meeting with professors at Dartmouth,” she said. “I had positive relationships with my teachers in high school. I’m definitely prepared to ask for help and advocate for myself.”

Delilah Forrest ’21 grew up in the San Diego area and attended San Dieguito Academy, a magnet high school in Encinitas, California.

“Dartmouth has a similar vibe to that of my high school,” Forrest said. “Dartmouth is so accepting of everyone. I feel really comfortable here, and I’m accustomed to this kind of community. People would come into my high school in weird costumes, and, similarly, Dartmouth really embraces ‘flair.’”

Forrest believes that stereotypes exist at Dartmouth about students’ educational backgrounds, but she has not been impacted negatively by them.

“Stereotypes haven’t really contributed to how I see other people or the way that they see me,” she said.

Like Bresler and La Gamba, Forrest is excited to take advantage of all of the opportunities that Dartmouth has to offer. In addition, Forrest hopes to have a more balanced life at Dartmouth than she did in high school.

“High school was a good experience, but I was so focused on studying and achievement in order to get into college that I didn’t really have a social life,” she said. “I’m hoping to have a balanced experience, both academically and socially, here at Dartmouth.”

Lee is a former staff member of The Dartmouth.

Correction Appended (Oct. 26, 2017)

The Oct. 25, 2017 article "Unequal Footing? Public Versus Private High Schools" was corrected to remove a statement that Lee is a first-generation college student. Lee's parents attended college in South Korea. Lee's remarks were also clarified elsewhere to match the interview record.