The Education Review: April 2005


Top-Rated Private Schools

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Great High Schools:
What Makes a Great High School? The Back Fence Survey took community nominations and looks at these 30 area schools.
The Price Is Right
Finding Classes With Class
Why Online Teaching Turned Me Off spacer
___ Transcript___
High Schools That Work: Jay Mathews was online to answer questions about top-notch high schools in the Washington area.
We asked readers which local high schools had impressed them and why. More than 300 people responded to The Washington Post Magazine's Back Fence Survey, nominating high schools and explaining what made them worthy of praise. Those who weighed in included parents, teachers, principals, students, alumni and community leaders.

In addition to the Back Fence responses, we talked to education experts, visited schools and examined the numbers. Then we compiled a list of 30 exceptional public and private high schools from across the region.

Bishop O'Connell High School
Arlington, Va.

About This School:
  • Location: Arlington, Va.
  • Population: 1,429 students (62 percent white, 6 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian)
  • Tuition: $6,900 to $9,970
  • Test scores: Average SAT 1128
  • Challenge Index rating: 2.105
  • Teachers: 58 percent of teachers have master's or PhD
  • College-bound: 94 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges
  • School Guide profile: No profile available

For many students and parents in Northern Virginia, this school provides a vibrant center of academic achievement, social service and fun. Its AP test participation rate matches that of some of the best public schools in the country, and its community activities -- such as the annual 12-hour SuperDance to raise money to fight cystic fibrosis -- are warmly embraced by students and parents.

Timothy R. Esterheld says he is looking forward to his fifth reunion, part of a very active alumni program. "The school presses for excellence with great teachers who push the students who are having a difficult time, making them understand the material better," he says.


Dematha Catholic High School
Hyattsville, Md.



Chris Echard takes a breather with his bass during band practice. DeMatha is known for aesthetics, athletics and academics. (Pilar Vergara - For The Washington Post)
About This School:
  • Location: Hyattsville, Md.
  • Population: 1,016 students
  • Tuition: $7,500
  • School declined to provide other information
  • School Guide profile: No profile available

This boys' school is renowned for its successful athletic programs, but it also boasts one of the region's most literary principals, Daniel McMahon, who teaches a literature course and writes reviews for The Post's Book World section.

That combination of athletics and aesthetics came up in many e-mails from DeMatha admirers. "Although DeMatha is well known for its athletic programs, its real emphasis is on academics," says parent Claire Goebeler. "My son usually has three or four hours of homework per night, and he works hard over the weekends as well. He is tested frequently, writes and reads a good amount for his courses also, and is well challenged."

Parent Gillian Carty-Roper says she likes the whole package: "the variety of courses offered, the teachers' skills, the administration's responsiveness to parent concerns, the Christian service component to the education of young men and the preparation of each student to be productive members of our society."


Elizabeth Seton High School
Bladensburg, Md.

About This School:
  • Location: Bladensburg, Md.
  • Population: 550 students (35 percent white, 51 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian)
  • Tuition: $7,200
  • Test scores: Average SAT: 1055
  • Challenge Index rating: 1.000
  • Teachers: 70 percent of teachers have master's or PhD
  • College-bound: 90 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges
  • School Guide profile: No profile available

This girls' school appears to have had the kind of success that many Catholic schools strive for, combining academics, athletics and the arts, while keeping tuition low enough to attract families that cannot afford the $20,000-a-year price tag of the area's best-known private schools.

Candy Cage, who graduated from Seton in 1981 and coaches women's basketball at Loyola College in Baltimore, says, "I have recruited several student athletes from Seton, and they have always been very well prepared for college and life." It is important, she says, that it is one of the last all-girls schools in the area, and instills values that "stress community service and reaching out to those less fortunate in our country."

The Field School
Washington, D.C.

About This School:
  • Location: Washington, D.C.
  • Population: 296 students in seventh through 12th grades
  • Tuition: $23,250
  • School declined to provide other information
  • School Guide profile: No profile available

The school on Foxhall Road NW is tiny but has a lovely campus and many admirers. One parent complimented its "very small classes, bright teachers, students who are for the most part bright and artistic, but not too much of a 'purple hair' place. I know something about Washington-area private schools, and, of all of them, Field is the least snobbish and cliquey, which to me is important."

Judy James, a 1982 graduate who has kept in touch, says the school "does a great job teaching children with learning disabilities as well as those without."

Georgetown Day School
Washington, D.C.

About This School:
  • Location: Washington, D.C.
  • Population: 450 students
  • Tuition: $23,475
  • School declined to provide other information
  • School Guide profile: No profile available

GDS is always mentioned among the most sparkling of the Northwest Washington independent schools, even if it doesn't place quite as many graduates at Harvard as some others. It is a school where traditions seem to be felt more deeply than at other places, and parents express unusual enthusiasm for its openness to all kinds of students and teachers.

Barbara Atkin, whose son graduated in 2000, says GDS "has a long tradition of being welcoming to minority students," and, in fact, was established largely to provide an integrated private education in what was then a very segregated city. It cooperates with city public schools on several ventures, and has a public policy debate team led by volunteer coach Jim Gentile. Joel Kanter, a McLean resident who sends three children to the school, says: "Real magic transpires in the classroom. The result is kids that not only do learn, but want to. It results in kids that know how to think and collaborate in doing so."

Gonzaga College High School
Washington, D.C.

About This School:
  • Location: Washington, D.C.
  • Population: 890 students
  • Tuition: $11,500
  • College-bound: School declined to provide other information.
  • School Guide profile: No profile available

Back Fence conversations about this Catholic boys' school focus on the influence of the Jesuits, on its unusual emphasis on public service and on how it makes room for low-income, inner-city students. Gonzaga provides more than $1 million a year in tuition assistance and helped create a middle school, the Washington Jesuit Academy, that is pioneering ways to prepare disadvantaged children for the challenge of a tough college prep high school.

"Students learn they have a responsibility to others less fortunate," says parent Kirk Willison. "There is a homeless shelter right on campus where students feed the needy. Students spend weeks in the summer helping the underprivileged in places as near as Emmitsburg, Md., and as far away as the Dominican Republic."

Timothy Ebner, a 2004 Gonzaga graduate, praises the "entirely new school facilities, including computer labs, state-of-the-art science labs and a collegiate-like urban campus."

The New School of Northern Virginia
Fairfax, Va.

About This School:
  • Location: Fairfax, Va.
  • Population: 100 students (80 percent white, 5 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic)
  • Test scores: Average SAT 25th to 75th percentile 950 to 1200
  • Challenge Index rating: 1.636
  • Teachers: 60 percent of teachers have master's or PhD
  • Tuition: $19,000
  • College-bound: Nearly 100 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges
  • School Guide profile: No profile available

Many private school educators talk about freeing their students from the tyranny of memorization and multiple-choice exams. Back Fencers say the New School actually does it.

With only 100 students, it is one of the smallest high schools in the region, but parents say that means it can make learning a very individual experience. Grading is done mostly through exhibitions, projects and essays. Its AP test participation rate would put it among the top 3 percent of schools in the country, but parents enthuse over quarterly electives that are nothing like the broad-gauged AP classes. Where else can you find courses on Vietnamese history, American literature from 1810 to 1875, or the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist?

In that environment, says parent Joan Bardee, "the students themselves welcome all different types of kids." Susan Mink, another parent, says the school helps students, like her child, who had trouble socially at larger and more impersonal schools.

The Potomac School
McLean, Va.

About This School:
  • Location: McLean, Va.
  • Population: 300 students
  • Tuition: More than $22,000
  • School declined to provide other information
  • School Guide profile: No profile available

The independent school's campus on a hill just off Chain Bridge Road is one of the prettiest in the area, as befits an expensive school with many affluent, well-connected parents. Some families like it because it seems less hostile to conservatives than the well-known private schools along Wisconsin Avenue. Former independent counsel Kenneth Starr's daughter is a recent graduate, and students who speak favorably of President Bush are less likely to be hazed than at, say, Sidwell Friends.

But Potomac's admirers don't emphasize the politics as much as the small-school charms. The school provides "lots of opportunities for kids to find what they are genuinely good at, and with less competition by the fact of fewer students," says Kathleen Nawaz, who has two daughters at Potomac.

St. Anslem's Abbey School
Washington, D.C.

About This School:
  • Location: Washington, D.C.
  • Population: 253 students
  • Test scores: Average SAT 1380
  • Challenge Index rating: 7.382
  • Tuition: $16,250 to $16,750
  • Teachers: 68 percent of teachers have master's or PhD
  • College-bound: Nearly 100 percent of seniors go to four-year colleges
  • School Guide profile: No profile available

The quiet little campus for boys looks like it is from a bygone era, but it is light-years ahead in the modern movement to make high school a challenging experience for all students. St. Anselm's AP test participation rate was much higher than any other private school in the area that provided data, higher even than public supermagnet Thomas Jefferson in Fairfax County.

Father Peter Weigand, the headmaster, appears to enjoy contradicting the usual high-performing private school attitude toward AP as a necessary evil, and sees St. Anselm's academic standards as part of the 1,500-year-old Benedictine tradition. "The gentle but inquisitive spirit of the monks pervades the educational process," says Frank Henneburg, whose son is a freshman. "The boys are asked to study very hard but always with the message that their knowledge will contribute to the betterment of society."

Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart
Bethesda, Md.


Customers browse the 36th Annual Used Book Sale at the Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart. Those who speak well of the girls-only school emphasize the focus on academics. (Hyosub Shin - For The Washington Post)
About This School:
  • Location:Bethesda, Md.
  • Population: 342 students
  • Ttuition: $18,355
  • School declined to provide other information
  • School Guide profile: No profile available

Those who speak well of Stone Ridge emphasize the advantages of a school that has uniforms and admits only girls. Andrea Muniz, who graduated 11 years ago, says: High school "is typically a self-conscious age. Those factors help minimize insecurities, allowing you to focus on academics and having a good time with your friends."

The campus on Rockville Pike is lovely and pastoral, but it is the classes, and the emphasis on writing and thoughtful work, that impressed Anna Tiedeman, another alumna. She is studying for a master's degree at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and she credits Stone Ridge for "my intellectual curiosity and my dedication to the pursuit of academic excellence."


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