I, Kevin Nguyen, grew up in America and would always dread putting on my uniform. I’d have to put on the itchy polos and the baggy khakis, not to mention the poorly knitted sweatshirt that would tear every couple of months. It made life a lot easier for my parents though, as they didn’t have to buy me new clothes very often. I had to stand outside every day for morning prayer and the knitted sweatshirt would provide little to no warmth. They were strict about the dress code and other clothing outside of the uniform was not permitted. It was awful.
I attended Saint Raphael School, a Catholic private K-8 school. My parents had to pay for tuition which was about $9,000. Even though they could’ve saved money and sent me to a public school, they believed that a Catholic private school would be more beneficial to me. The classes were quite small. I was a part of a class of 11 kids at one point. My parents loved the smaller class sizes because it allowed teachers to help the students more effectively. Teachers would check in on kids weekly to make sure they were doing ok. They gave extra attention to those who needed it and gave harder material to those who excelled. They made sure everybody thrived and thrived I did.
I was reminded constantly to do well in school and to try my best because I would just be throwing away my parents’ money if I didn’t. This guilted me into doing well and added unnecessary stress to succeed. Many kids that attend private schools tend to feel the same way. Neha Menom, a Marin Academy senior admitted, “For me personally, a lot of my pressure was more about wanting to make sure that I wasn’t wasting my family’s money in a way. I was only able to attend MA because I got a scholarship, and even that didn’t cover the entire cost, so I wanted to make sure that I was getting the most of this opportunity.” With a tuition of $50,800, many students can’t afford to go to MA, even if they were accepted. Hence, those that do get accepted feel an added pressure to succeed.
There was a competitive atmosphere at St. Raphael School. Kids compared test scores and service hours were a huge deal. St. Raphael’s was a smaller school and everybody knew everybody else. Parents knew who the best kids were and who the competition was. My parents made sure that I stayed at the top of my class and I was punished if I didn’t.
I had a lot of pressure put on me at a young age. I was taught that if I don’t get into a good high school, then I wouldn’t get into a good college, and if I didn’t get into a good college, then I couldn’t get a good job. They treated the high school admissions process as if it were college. They made sure that I maintained a 4.0 GPA and had plenty of service hours to build my resume. I ended up with over 300 service hours my 8th-grade year. Achieving 4.0 was a lot harder at St. Raphael’s than at other schools because an A was 96% and above, as opposed to the usual 94%. I spent countless nights studying until I achieved perfection. I stayed up late to memorize flashcards and woke up early in the morning to review once more. I was still only in middle school, but my parents expected nothing less.
Students nationwide are pressured into getting a good education at an elite college. There’s this notion that you won’t be able to get a good job without getting into a good college. Parents will push their children to do well in the hopes that they will be able to get into a more prestigious college. This puts tremendous pressure on the child to strive for the perfect resume in order to compete with other students. Even then, that won’t guarantee them admission into the school. Gary Angel, a father of two states, “The level of competition and the obsession that people have around getting into a university is pretty insane. I think you see kids resume building from a very young age.” It’s sad to see parents forcing their kids to play sports or to pick up an instrument, not because they are genuinely interested, but because it’ll bolster their college application.
In a study we found online conducted at a private school, more than one-third of the 40 juniors surveyed identified “getting into a good college” as more important than “being a good person,” and nearly one-half of students said that it was more important to their parents that they get into a good college than that they are good people.
After looking at how much private schools cost, and the additional pressure students feel, our minds diverted to what extent will the parents go to ensure their children get into an elite school. With the recent news about Marin Academy parents bribing their children into college, we realized it wasn’t very different from what parents were doing to get their kids in legally. Paying thousands of dollars on tutors, for the perfect essay, or a high SAT score.
“I remember when I was trying to find a kindergarten, a K-6, to put my daughter in, and they literally had a presentation showing the test scores of graduates to get into junior high schools, and they had their college admission results,” says Gary. “I was like are you kidding me? People are kind of insane on this subject of elite universities.” And Gary’s right. Parents are so insane that they will do anything to get an advantage for their child, even by illegal means.
Recently, Marin Academy saw a huge scandal where two families were caught bribing schools and creating fake athletic profiles to receive sports scholarships. People were outraged, parents and students alike. But it’s understandable. We live in a day and age where college is so ridiculously competitive and students are worked to the bone to achieve a perfect GPA, SAT scores, and a well-rounded resume. Ilise Angel, an MA alumni and freshman at Northwestern University states, “I think a lot of parents just want what’s best for their kid and they’ll pretty much do anything to fit the vision that they see. In the same ways a lot of parents would invest in education or a tutor, they just did it in a more illegal way and took it to a new level.”
The college system can be corrupt and there’s no doubt that there are problems within the institution. Gary acknowledged, “Given that scholarships are worth a lot of money to people, it’s no surprise that people cheat on it, and I think people have been cheating on it for a long time. The system sucks, it really does. It’s very arbitrary, it’s very subjective, there are a lot of ins and outs and people will take advantage of a system like that whenever they can. It’s one of those systems that is so fundamentally broken and it hardly surprises me that people cheat when they can.” Marin Academy’s college counselor, Robert Awkward sees the brighter side of things and notes, “In some ways, it’s good to see that the scandal happened because it means that people are starting to pay attention to what’s wrong and what’s right in this field.”
After graduating from Saint Raphael School, my parents wanted me to continue to Marin Catholic, a private Catholic high school. They hated the public school system and believed in the stereotypes that public schools had garnered. They believed that there was gang affiliation, drug use, and just a bad education overall. Although tuition was steep, around $20,000, they were more than willing to pay the price to ensure that I did not fall into the wrong crowd. After finally being admitted into Marin Catholic, my parents not completing the financial aid would be the downfall of that plan.
My parents started panicking. They reached out to every single member of the Marin Catholic admissions committee, but no one could help. There was only one option left and they made the dreaded decision to send me to San Rafael High School.
I, Acer Cristea, grew up in England, and would always run by the private elementary school as I sprinted to get to my public school class on time, and would think to myself, “Thank God I don’t need to wear that uniform or those uncomfortable shoes.” Even though the schools were 400 meters apart, the experiences I might have had going to the other school would have been completely different.
I attended WIX, a bilingual primary school, meaning half the year was in English, and the other half in French. It was just like any other primary school, having a mini playground, a small field and mediocre technology. There were 28 students in my class and around 400 students in total. At the time I didn’t realize how different I was experiencing school, compared to my neighbor who attended the local private school.
For example, Marin Academy college counselor Robert Awkward’s 6th grade graduation ceremony, consisted of six people.
I can’t begin to imagine what going to a school with so few students feels like. What happens if you end up not liking one of your classmates. There aren’t enough students to create separate groups so is it just awkward until you graduate?
Class size is one of the biggest differences between a public school and private school, and it all comes down to personal preference and home circumstances. Somebody in the family might have a learning disability or organizational challenges, where their parents say “I really think my child would benefit by being in a classroom with only 10-15 students.”
“From a broader perspective there is a privilege factor of being able to say, ‘My daughter has a learning disability and I feel she would do well with all this extra support,’” explains Awkward. “If you have the money to do that, awesome, but in most cases that’s not an option.”
That leads us to the other big difference between public schools and private schools, money. To go to Marin Academy, it costs $50,800 a year. With that money, you could buy yourself a Tesla Model Y, a large house, or if you saved up over the 4 years, a Lamborghini.
“Unless you have either a really big scholarship and the schools paying for you, or your family has lots and lots of money and paying for it doesn’t really matter,” explains Awkward. “Your family gets stuck in the middle, and is put in a tough position.”
He refers to this as the “Middle Squeeze”, when families get stuck in between socioeconomic classes, while child care, higher education, health care, housing, and retirement rise by more than $10,000 in the 12 years from 2000 to 2012, essentially trapping you.
When asked if he thought Marin Academy was worth the tuition price, Gary Angel laughs and says, “No. It’s staggering how expensive they are. From the tuition perspective, they’re in the same ballpark as elite universities, and frankly I don’t think they’re remotely as good.”
MA alumni, Ilise Angel explains some of the benefits, like, “Personalized college counselors, rigorous courses, and had a good reputation, giving us lots of counseling help.” She continues, “We actually got to focus on writing and learning and being able to present our ideas in a clear way, which for me was more valuable than memorizing a bunch of dates for history.”
However, Ilise adds “I know there are people in my school who did not try, they did not take advantage of anything and I guarantee you there are people who went to public schools who got a better education then they did.”
After graduating from primary school, I made the natural decision and moved to the local public secondary school. All my friends, however, decided to take the private school route, attending the private french school 30 minutes away, meaning I was the only kid attending this new school.
It was a culture shock to say the least. I went from a bilingual primary school where the biggest ethnic diversity was whether you were French or English, to a state comprehensive school where I was an ethnic minority. I was the only white player on my school soccer team, and knew no “South London” slang whatsoever. I quickly learned the rules after seeing someone get beaten up because they stepped on somebody else’s shoes. There was a fight everyday, sometimes my friends getting involved, but that was just the norm.
Gary Angel, who grew up in Indiana, had a similar experience, “The high school and junior high school I went to were flat out dangerous,” he says. “There was quite a bit of crime, and teachers were mostly charged with trying to keep order, keep students from beating each other up.”
From my experience and talking to my friends, sometimes parents want their children to experience this type of environment.
This was the case for Mr. Awkward his parents wanting a larger “student body, social dynamics and student diversity,” decided to enroll both him and his sister into public high schools after going through all private school education.
“They wanted me to have a different type of experience. Be around more diverse groups, different socio-economic groups, racial groups.”
Mr. Awkward takes some time to remember and reflect on his public high school experience and in the end says, “Reflecting on it, I felt a sense of freedom, being able to be in this public school.” “The social culture and wealth culture in the private school I was in was very intense.”
Much like Mr. Awkward, I feel that through experiencing public school, I grew more accustomed to the outside world. I started to recognize more things walking around in public and how to act in situations. I learned about gangs and the does and do not, when walking around at night.
Mr. Baird, an English teacher for Marin Academy, explains his view from teaching in a public school, “If anything they have a resilience and resourcefulness that comes from finding one’s way through a large urban school. They showed they could navigate a more complex environment–one that looks more like the world we live in.”
I have only attended public schools and so even after moving to America, and attending Davidson Middle School as an 8th grader, the environment felt the same and I fit in naturally.
After graduating from Davidson, I continue along the path of local public schools and starting attending San Rafael High School.
It’s only a 20-minute walk to get from San Rafael’s private high school, Marin Academy, and San Rafael’s public high school, San Rafael High. It’s a straight line walk between both schools, as you walk underneath the dirty freeway and pass the homeless monk wandering around until you reach MA’s grounds.
For only being 1.5 miles apart, the difference in education style is staggering, one consisting of AP courses and large classes, while the other zeroes in on the individual offering personal help whenever it’s needed.
Both however show that in high school education is mostly what you make of it. There is no clear winner or loser in the battle between public and private schools, but the battle against yourself to push yourself and do well in school.
Students can get a good education, do well in classes, go to a college or university they are excited about, get a great education there, and eventually get a good job starting from both a public and private school.
One of us came from across the world, the other entered a new world from within the same town, both ending up crossing paths at a public school, San Rafael High School, writing an article on our unique yet similar journey through education.