From the State Newspaper
By JIM HAYNES – Guest Columnist
Four years ago, my wife and I toured W.W. King Academy near Batesburg. As we walked the hall with the headmaster, an oddity caught my eye.
“Honey,” I said, “do you notice something different?” She was stumped. “There aren’t any locks on the lockers,” I told her.
“We don’t need them,” the headmaster said. That sold me.
I can’t remember any of the sales pitch we got – just the lockers. Two of my sons and my daughter now attend this unique school, and we couldn’t be happier. Like many independent schools in South Carolina, W.W. King Academy does things a little differently.
Sadly, independent schools are often lumped into one big group by the media and politicians. They call them “private” schools. “Private” as in elitist. “Private” as in doctors and lawyers only. “Private” as in if you aren’t just like us, don’t apply.
The reality of the typical independent school experience is far different. Most of the schools in the S.C. Independent Schools Association have a K-12 enrollment of less than 300 students. The families of middle-class working folks far outnumber the rich folks. King Academy has a current enrollment of 250 students and could comfortably handle 300. This hardly presents a threat to replace even the smallest public school. So why are independent schools pummeled in the press during the big debate on school choice?
Parents of independent school children choose these venues to educate their children for a variety of reasons. Many parents who have enrolled their children in independent schools make significant financial sacrifices to make this experience possible. For many families, an independent school education means choosing between a vacation and an education. Is it worth the sacrifice to know that your children will start the day with a group devotion led by a caring member of the staff? How about smaller classrooms with curriculums free from bureaucratic restraints? Is it comforting to know that practically every adult at a school can call your child by name? How about giving your child the opportunity to be a part of whatever sports team he or she wants to try?
Is it reassuring to know that the possibility of exposure to drugs and alcohol is greatly diminished? Is it nice to have all of your children on one campus? Is it inspiring to know that your child is surrounded by other children who have been sent to the same place with the same goals?
I spoke with a teacher at our school last year who had just joined the staff after working at a public school. She said the behavior of the students was so different she felt like she was on a vacation. Doesn’t everyone desire this kind of environment for his or her child? The problem is that in many cases, the government can no longer provide the alternative that parents seek.
The current tussle over vouchers will play out eventually. Independent schools will continue to grow and prosper regardless, because they provide something that people want and need.
Would it help independent schools if parents were given control of their tax dollars and empowered to choose a school that can fit their goals for their children’s education? Sure it would. The failures of public schools, especially in disadvantaged areas, are well documented. Clearly, given the opportunity, parents would choose another option.
As for the argument that public money shouldn’t be given to independent schools because the government could not monitor their progress — that’s just laughable. Quite simply, independent schools have to perform. If they don’t, their customers leave. Independent schools could do twice the job with half the money. They are already doing it.
My oldest son graduated from a terrific public high school, Lexington High School. It’s really like a small college. Frankly, I think some small colleges would be jealous. We drive right past Lexington High School these days, though. It’s too big for us. We drive by to join the other 170 families who comprise our independent school family. It is a journey rooted in faith, commitment and teamwork. Funds are always tight.
If we need to build something, we raise the money and likely do the work ourselves. If it breaks, we fix it. If the students need something, we find a way. It’s hard work sometimes. Independent school families take full ownership and provide all of the time and money to make our schools successful. So spare us the elitist tag. It’s a labor of love to send a child to an independent school. Lots of labor, and lots of love, but it’s worth it. I wish more people who don’t currently have the money could have the opportunity. One good thing so far though: We haven’t had to buy any locks.
Mr. Haynes is a Lexington business owner and parent of three independent school students.