Examining Private Middle Schools in Philadelphia
By Glen Justice
Philadelphia-area parents may remember their time in middle school, traditionally grades 6-8, as difficult years on the path to adolescence. Education experts say that’s one thing that has not changed much.
“I used to argue that there’s more change – developmental, intellectual, physical – in those three or four middle school years than there is any comparable period in a child’s life, except maybe infancy,” says Jody Dobson, an educational consultant in Philadelphia who spent decades as an educator and administrator, including leading several private middle schools. “There are huge changes.”
Dobson and others say that private middle schools can sometimes help students in that transition, providing smaller classes, deeper relationships, more personalized instruction and support of all kinds. In a city like Philadelphia, parents have many private options to explore – and Dobson says parents should look for a school that’s attentive to the specific needs of this age group.
“It can’t just be a junior version of high school, with rigorous academics and preparation,” he says. “It has to be attuned to experiential learning and very attuned to the relationships between teachers and students. Middle school kids, their radar is exquisite for teachers who are fakes.”
Class Size Matters
The major barrier to private middle school education, as it is in other grades, is cost. Nationwide, the median tuition for middle school is about $15,200 a year, according to the Education Data Initiative, but in Philadelphia and other big cities, prices can be twice that or more.
At The Philadelphia School, a well-known school serving kindergarten through eighth grade, tuition in seventh and eighth grade is $30,000 a year, according to the school. Of course, many schools offer financial aid and The Philadelphia School is no different, providing about $1.9 million in annual assistance to 29% of the families who attend.
The school also provides a student-to-teacher of 8-to-1 and an overall student population of about 400 students, ensuring that students in middle school will get the attention they need.
Caryn Rivers, an educational consultant and owner of Pathfinder Placement in Philadelphia, says class size is a major attraction for middle school parents who are looking at private options.
“The smaller class size can make or break somebody at that age, because being in a smaller setting lets the child be known as they’re growing into their adolescent selves,” she says. “The child is seen and recognized and can’t really hide.”
Support for Different Stages
Like other grades, private middle schools often offer better campus facilities; additional programming in areas like music, sports and theater; and special features like religious education or a single-gender environment.
Yet, more than other grades, middle school can mix children who are at very different stages in their lives. “Sometimes in the same seventh grade classroom, you’ll be looking at young women and little boys, because the developmental differences are so acute,” Dobson says.
This is another reason that many experts point to private school options as beneficial. Middle school is a time when students are growing socially.
“Middle school can be very difficult,” says Ayanna Hill-Gill, president of the Association of Delaware Valley Independent Schools. “Being at an independent school allows you to have that community of support through those times when you’re testing and you’re trying to figure out who you are.”
Hill-Gill says that one thing laid bare by the pandemic was the importance of social-emotional learning, much of which takes place in middle school and is difficult to access in a virtual classroom.
“That’s critical in building identity and building confidence, self awareness and self esteem,” she says. “To have that in a really supportive environment, that can allow you to figure those things out.”
Private Middle Schools in Philadelphia
For parents who are interested in exploring private middle schools in the Philadelphia area, here are some examples:
The Haverford School is an all-boys school serving about 940 students in grades PK-12, including about 240 in middle school. In 2020, the school opened a 32,000 square foot facility solely for middle schoolers.