Choosing Public vs. Private School in Brooklyn and NYC

An Interview with Joyce Szuflita

Welcome to the first of our blog posts where we ask some of the most trusted names in the education business their thoughts on schooling in New York.

Our first guest post is with Joyce Szuflita, Brooklyn's "long-established doyenne" of Brooklyn school consulting, according to the Wall Street Journal. Here, Joyce shares her perspectives on public vs. private school.

What has been the trend among parents you talk to about choosing public vs. private school in NYC?

The trend is that families want to be in Brooklyn. As they stay and support the talented educators here in both public and private schools, I see the schools grow. When more school-ready children attend, the scores and reputations go up. Each school is a different ecosystem and needs to be judged on its own merits. There are wildly more public and private options filled with successful kids than there was 20 years ago when my children were attending kindergarten. 

What are the most common reasons for choosing an independent school?

Smaller student-to-teacher-ratio is a big reason. But after that, the motivation is all over the map. Sometimes it is what the parents experienced in their own lives, the fact that you don't have to search for schools at a middle school or high school, the facility, the social mix of families, or the range of enrichments to name a few. 

What are the biggest perceived drawbacks of private school?

The cost and the "social bubble" are generally cited as big downsides. Many of the families that I talk to love the idea of a diverse public school and will go to great lengths to try and get it. They see the egalitarian model as a benefit to their children's education. The number of seats in those schools is definitely growing, but so is the population, and there are always too few seats. That is what keeps the momentum on both the public and private side moving forward.

How can a family tell if their local public school will provide a quality education?

Look at the leadership. My litmus test is "would I quit my job and work for them?" If so, then other talented people will as well. Understand leadership's tenure in the school and what they are trying to develop. Has that leader had enough time to gather a staff of happy, collegial, new and experienced teachers who are all pulling together for the same progressive goal? Black or white, rich or poor, are the parents placing education as their #1 priority? I am not as interested in the numbers as I am in the energy, inquiry and focus in the classroom. 

What is the secret to getting accepted to Gifted & Talented programs, and do they really provide a superior education?

Since the G&T test is first given at four years old, "the secret to getting in" is convincing your four-year-old to cooperate. Good luck with that. For the lengthy answer to the rest of this question, families can come to my Intro to Public School talks.

Cost aside, are high achieving students likely to do better at one of the NYC selective public schools, if they can get in, or at an independent school?

I suppose it depends on your definition of "doing better." In my life, "grit" is everything. It brings the success you want, because you have tenacity and ingenuity and courage and spirit. My barometer for my own children was, "It is the kid that makes the school, not the school that makes the kid." It worked well for us. 

What does it say that many families feel they need professional advice to navigate the public-school system?

No one needs me. Do you need a tax accountant or a personal trainer? No, but you may want both.

If you lived in a place where you went to the zoned school down the block, and then the same middle school and high school as all of your neighbors, I wouldn't have a job. But we live in NYC with multiple elementary school options, dozens of middle school choices, and hundreds of high school choices. You give up ease of use for the spectacular variety and opportunity that is available here.

If you are up for it, there are extraordinary schools here and the world’s greatest city is your child's playground. With choice sometimes comes paralysis or confusion. What I do is a little unlicensed psychology, couples counseling, mentoring, and a lot of organizing, translating and plain speaking. It is valuable, because everyone's mother thinks that they are insane to live here and she cannot or will not help you. She made her choices. You are not her. I can help you.

How is the choice between public and private different for parents whose children have learning disabilities?

I cover public and private through a general education lens. Having a child with learning or social-emotional challenges is a full-time job and not easy no matter where you go. 

How can parents who are believers in public education make these decisions if the school they are able to get into is clearly subpar?

If you consider your school unsafe or unacceptable for whatever reason (and parents' barometer of what is an acceptable school is not absolute or objective) and you have worked through the worthy schools in your neighborhood that have seats available for out of zone kids, or the G&T programs, or the un-zoned or charter schools that are on offer and you have come up empty, then you can move into the zone of the school that you want.

That is true in the suburbs too — you just don't have a wide range of options, you need to move to another town, you have a WAY longer commute to the city and your kids just might be driving drunk to the mall in high school. They won't do that in Brooklyn, because they won't find parking when they come home. I suppose that there are easier places to live, but you won't convince me that they are better. 

Joyce has a free email newsletter that comes out once a month that includes available school seats, tours and a variety of other info. She gives talks on each level of education preschool through high school and consults privately with Brooklyn families who are navigating the public and private search, nursery school through high school. 

MUSE Academy is an independent private school in Brooklyn. We make music & performing arts the foundation of our education to enhance cognitive development, confidence, and creativity. Our unique Pre-K and Kindergarten programs nurture a passion for learning from an early age. MUSE Academy's faculty comes from many of the leading universities and conservatories in the world.