The Value of an Independent High School

The Value of
An Independent High School

Six Ways Independent High Schools Prepare Students for Future Success

October 2, 2018

How Independent High Schools Prepare Students for Success in College & Beyond

An independent high school education is a considerable financial investment. Parents naturally want the best education for their children, but many question the value of an independent education in light of free public and charter opportunities.​​​​​​​

Independent education is an investment in your child’s future. The value of an independent education extends far beyond a high school diploma. Independent high school graduates are uniquely prepared to succeed in college and their adult lives in comparison to graduates from public schools, other private schools, and homeschooling. (Independent School Graduates as College Freshman: 2015 Data from the Higher Education Research Institute)

Quality independent high schools teach past state benchmarks and standardized tests. Students learn academic and personal skills critical to becoming independent thinkers and voracious learners. Independent schools keep the well-being of each student at the heart of every conversation: students are encouraged to be their best selves in the present as well as be mindful of the adults they wish to become.

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What is an independent school?

  • Independent schools are private, pre-collegiate learning institutions, each with a unique mission.
  • Independent schools are governed by independent boards of trustees.
  • Independent schools are nonprofit institutions that are primarily supported through tuition, charitable contributions, and endowment income.
  • Independent schools uphold high standards of educational quality.
  • Independent schools are publicly accountable to parents, communities, and the agencies that accredit them.

The Waterford School is accredited by the Northwest Accreditation Commission (NWAC) and the Northwest Association of Independent Schools (NWAIS). Waterford School is also a member of the National Association of Independent Schools. Learn more at

Here are six ways independent high schools prepare their students for future success.

1. Individualized Attention

At Waterford, you will be known. Teachers personally know their students and provide individualized instruction. No matter what your passion, you will find a faculty member who is willing and ready to help you achieve your dreams.

Waterford’s small class sizes allow teachers to personally know and support their students.

High school is often a time adolescents want to disappear into a crowd, to be seen as just the same as all their peers, and to dismiss adults as out of touch. These issues are often magnified in large public schools that lack the financial resources and teaching faculty to address individual student needs. At independent high schools, students receive more personalized attention from teachers as a result of smaller class sizes. The average class size in public high schools is 24.2, whereas the average class size in private secondary schools is 10.8 (National Center for Education Statistics)

Small class sizes prevent students from slipping through the cracks; students are seen and known by teachers they respect and trust. Small classroom settings provide independent school teachers with the time and resources needed to assess the academic progress of each of their students on a daily basis. Teachers are able to provide differentiated instruction by identifying and supporting students who may struggle academically as well as extend and advance the material for students who may be ready to take on more rigorous coursework in a particular subject. This environment also gives teachers more time to dedicate to quality assignment feedback and detailed report cards so students and parents are fully informed of student progress and class expectations.

NAIS schools understand that students have multiple intelligences and different styles of learning that require close engagement at an individual level, and small classrooms provide every student with opportunities to set and accomplish big academic goals.

Study done by National Center for Education StatisticsValues Added: The Lifelong Retuns of an Independent School Education
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Small class sizes encourage students to develop meaningful relationships with their teachers. Research shows that small classrooms create more opportunities for direct student-teacher interaction (Public School Review). Through these interactions, teachers come to know each student individually and work to maximize their capacities through personalized instruction. The positive effect of small class sizes on student-teacher interactions is even more pronounced in independent school settings. In a study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), more independent school seniors reported asking teachers for advice after class and talking with their teachers outside of class compared to their public school graduate peers.

Waterford’s small class sizes allow for teachers to notice subtle and important details about every student. At Waterford, your child will be seen and known by teachers they will respect and trust. Waterford teachers make a daily practice of supporting individuals’ needs, and lighting the kind of intellectual fires that take students far beyondwhat they thought they could achieve. 

Waterford offers a unique structure in the Upper School. Every class has a Class Dean who has responsibility for tracking and supporting the academic progress of each member of their class. Class Deans work closely with the School Dean to coordinate strategy in supporting students. The School Dean, and the team of Class Deans, meet weekly to discuss individual students, and to plan efforts to solve problems and to have a positive influence on student life. Additionally, as a support and guide through the Upper School years, an Advisor is assigned to each student in Upper School. Seven to ten students meet regularly with the Advisor. The Advisor’s role is one of counselor for the student. The Advisor is involved in tracking the overall progress of the student, guiding him/her through the planning and process of registration, and distributing Term grades. The Advisor Group represents a small and informal community of support for each student.

2. Academic Rigor

Waterford’s liberal arts curriculum pushes students to excel beyond their expectations.

Independent high schools hold students to high standards of academic excellence. Teachers set high expectations that push students to reach their full potential. Independent schools provide a stimulating learning environment alongside a demanding curriculum, a combination that spurs academic achievement and personal growth amongst students.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), independent high schoolstypically have more demanding graduation requirements than public high schools and independent school graduates are more likely than their public school peers to have completed advanced-level courses in three academic subject areas. Independent school students also outperform their public school peers on standardized achievement tests. In 2015, independent school graduates entered college with higher SAT scores in critical reading (630 vs. 570), mathematics (653 vs. 600), and writing (640 vs. 570) and median ACT composite scores (28 vs. 21) than public school graduates (HERI).

Key elements of an independent high school education are a challenging and engaging curriculum and teachers who are given the freedom to develop a rigorous curriculum that challenges students to meet high academic expectations as well as develops their critical thinking skills. Independent school graduates report having spent more time during their last year in high school than public school students integrating skills and knowledge from different sources and experiences and seeking solutions to problems and explaining them to others (HERI). Students who attend independent schools are encouraged to seek connections between their courses and draw on their curricular knowledge when crafting solutions to new problems.

A Waterford experience is not just about learning difficult material — it’s about embracing each challenge as an opportunity to set your expectations higher and to enjoy the self-discovery and confidence that comes with doing difficult things.

Casey O’MalleyWaterford Academic Dean
Waterford students draw on their science,math, engineering, and creative problem solving skills in Robotics.
College Entrance Exams 2020

In Waterford’s Upper School, students reap the benefits and value of a liberal arts education as they move into advanced courses in English, history, math, science, world language, physical education, and fine arts – including a wide selection of 17 AP courses. Every course, regardless of subject, is infused with passion, clarity, insight, and critical thinking. The classroom experience is defined by the hallmarks of excellent teaching: effective classroom decorum, a well-rounded curriculum, clear expectations, thorough preparation, careful evaluation, and meaningful dialogue with students. These elements come together to create a unified and fulfilling educational experience that expands intellectual boundaries, creates good habits, builds confidence, and—ultimately—prepares students for college and for life.

3. Personalized College Counseling

Waterford’s college counselors work one-on-one with students through every step of the college process.
Waterford’s liberal arts curriculum pushes students to excel beyond their expectations.

Independent high school students are motivated to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Higher learning is deeply valued at independent schools, and most independent school graduates will matriculate to a four-year college or university. According to a report released in 2014 by the National Center for Education Statistics, tenth graders in private high schools in 2002 were nearly twice as likely as their public school counterparts to receive a bachelor’s degree or higher by 2012 (CAPE).

An independent high school is uniquely able to offer its students personalized college counseling. Many public high school counselors are overwhelmed by huge caseloads and lack sufficient time to address the college-specific needs of their students. A recent survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling revealed that, on average, public school counselors spent 22 percent of their time on post secondary counseling in 2014, while their private school counterparts spent 55 percent of their time on college counseling. The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-student counselor ratio of 250:1. According to the most recent data, the national average is  491:1, with only three states meeting that recommendation.

When it comes time to apply to college, students who are insufficiently counseled can easily stumble into making poor decisions…They might “undermatch,” for example, by applying just to nearby schools they have heard of, rather than to the best institution they are qualified to attend. They might not fully understand the financial aid process, and skip over schools with high ticket prices, even if they are eligible for a free ride.

Little College Guidance:500 High School Students Per Counselor, NY Times
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Independent schools employ full-time college counselors who are dedicated to helping students gain admission to colleges aligned with their individual interests and needs. Counselors work closely with students and parents to ensure families are informed of every step in the college process.

The Waterford School College Counseling Office guides, supports, and serves as an advocate for our students as they consider an exciting variety of undergraduate options. Recognizing that this transition is important both for students and their families, the Waterford School has college counselors who have extensive experience in both secondary education and in college admissions and have developed a program to guide, educate, and encourage students to take responsibility for meeting deadlines and making important decisions. Waterford employs two dedicated and highly-experienced College Counselors who serve graduating classes that average 70 students annually. This 1:35 counselor-to-student ratio allows for counselors to meet weekly with juniors and seniors. Waterford’s college counselors work with students to select appropriate colleges, build application elements, write application essays, and assist with application submissions and interviews.

In 2014, 30 percent of public schools reported employing at least one counselor (full- or part-time) whose exclusive responsibility was to provide college counseling, compared to 73 percent of private schools.

American School Counselor Association
College Counseling 2021

4. Whole Education

Waterford believes in the importance of educating the whole child. Upper School students are required to take six terms of performing art, six terms of visual art, and six terms of P.E., dance, or athletics to graduate.

Independent schools are invested in educating the whole child. Independent schools believe a rich educational experience is the product of a rigorous core curriculum interwoven with the fine arts, athletics, extracurricular activities, and social development. Students are allowed and expected to find new interests and deeply explore their passions within a broad, liberal arts program.

It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’stechnology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.

Steve Jobs,on releasing the iPad
View Wired Article

As public schools continue to face budget cuts inthe wake of the recession, many have chosen to reduce or eliminate their arts and extracurricular programs (USA News). These programs, however, play a critical role in strengthening young minds. Studies have shown exposure to music, foreign language, and physical exercise boosts brain development and has lasting impacts on cognitive, concentration, and communication skills. 

Fareed Zakaria, author of In Defense of a Liberal Education, argues, “as we work with computers (which is really the future of all work), the most valuable skills will be the ones that are uniquely human, that computers cannot quite figure out—yet. And for those jobs, and that life, you could not do better than to follow your passion, engage with a breadth of material in both science and the humanities, and perhaps above all, study the human condition.” (Washington Post

The Arts at Waterford are an integral part of a rigorous liberal arts curriculum.

A broad-based, liberal arts education is key to fostering innovation, creativity, and critical thinking — skills that allow high school graduates to succeed in college and the workforce. Independent school graduates learn the technical skills needed for 21st century success, but they also learn lessons about tenacity, empathy, generosity, self-advocacy, willpower, wit, and wisdom. These lessons prepare students to excel in a rapidly changing workplace that demands mental agility, historical consciousness, and relentless curiosity (Fast Company).

The Waterford School understands the importance of educating the whole child. At Waterford, a range of programs both broad and deep – from music, theater, visual arts and dance, to international travel and competitive sports – enables students to explore their interests, form lifelong friendships, and discover new opportunities. These elements combine to create an environment where learning becomes an adventure. Where academic excellence becomes a natural byproduct of a deep passion for knowledge and understanding. And where academics, fine arts, sports, and social development become parts of a unified and meaningful educational experience. Learn more about Waterford’s athleticsarts, and extracurriculars

Sample of Waterford Clubs & Activities: 

  • Community Service 
  • Student Government 
  • Yearbook 
  • Debate Team 
  • Ethics Bowl Team 
  • Literary Magazine 
  • Math Team 
  • Robotics Team 
  • Chess Team 
  • History & Science Clubs 
  • Outdoor Program 
  • Dance Academy 
  • Summer Term 
  • Ultimate Frisbee 

5. Character Development

Waterford students develop close relationships with their teachers and peers during their time in Upper School.

High school students spend a large portion of their days at school, interacting with peers,teachers, coaches, and other adults. School culture largely influences the nature of theseinteractions — a school’s values shape the relationships within its community and have thepower to positively impact students’ character development (School Culture and the Moral Development of Children). 

Character education needs to be relevant. It needs to be woven into the curriculum, not tacked on.

Dr. Michele BorbaThe Atlantic
View Article

Independent schools believe they are responsible for the personal growth and character development of their students. Independent schools highly value teachers capable of developing strong relationships with students (On Teacher Quality in Independent Schools). Strong teacher-student relationships are critical to positive student character development. Teens learn moral values from adults they respect, and “when they feel cared about and respected, students are more likely to develop key emotional and social capacities” (NSCC). Independent school teachers also serve as advisors, coaches, and extracurricular leaders, uniquely enabling them to cultivate strong relationships with their students across a variety of activities. 

Dr. Thomas Armstrong, author of The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middleand High School Students, explains, “The adolescent brain is extraordinarily sensitive to its surroundings…Teens are primed to be positivelyinfluenced by role models, dynamic classroom strategies, school-wide innovations, and a rich learning environment at home.” Independent school teachers are expected to model, teach, and reinforce moral, ethical, and social behavior; character development is taught alongside, not independently of core subjects. Faculty intentionally create opportunities for students to work with their peers and practice skills like empathy and conflict resolution. Studies show independent school graduates are more likely than public school peers to identify the following as a major area of strength: being tolerant of others with different beliefs, seeing the world from someone else’s perspective, and working cooperatively with diverse people (HERI).

Fareed Zakaria, author of In Defense of a Liberal Education, argues, “as we work with computers (which is really the future of all work), the most valuable skills will be the ones that are uniquely human, that computers cannot quite figure out—yet. And for those jobs, and that life, you could not do better than to follow your passion, engage with a breadth of material in both science and the humanities, and perhaps above all, study the human condition.” (Washington Post

Character development is central to the Waterford mission. Over the course of their Waterford journey, Waterford students discover the joys of learning and the importance of service to others; they develop into poised and passionate young adults who are equipped to lead meaningful lives. Students develop strong relationships with teachers, mentors, and coaches who are invested in the growth and development of their students.Waterford students have opportunities to practice personal skills in and outside the classroom–the school day is designed to foster healthy peer and adult interactions across a variety of activities. In addition to Waterford’s talented teaching faculty, every student has access to a Class Dean, advisor, and school counselor; students have multiple adults, who are truly people of influence, in their lives who exhibit a growth mindset and model healthy behaviors.

The Waterford school day is designed to foster healthy peer and adult interactions across a variety of activities.

6. College Ready Graduates

Waterford students develop close relationships with their teachers and peers during their time in Upper School.

Independent schools understand quality high school education is much more than a high SAT score or good grades. They understand that an exceptional education prepares students for success in all areas of life. Independent school students are pushed to excel beyond what they thought was possible and to see their failings as opportunities for reflection, revision, regrouping and growth. Teachers develop strong and lasting relationships with their students and serve as positive adult role models. Students graduate from independent schools with a strong sense of self and compassion for others as they go on to some of the top colleges and universities in the nation to pursue their dreams.

Preparing leaders for society is one of the greatest contributions of private independent schools. They are successful in doing this because they go beyond academics to address the development of the whole person.

Ronald Wolk, Founding Editor and PublisherEducation Week and Teacher Magazine

Next Steps

Enroll your child in a high quality independent school.

We would be delighted for you join us on campus and invite you to schedule a visit to Waterford School. Come see for yourself why Waterford is a leader in High School education.