Get good grades, attend a prestigious college, have a successful career, the series of events leading up to the American dream are all determined by our performance in elementary and middle school.
“The early years set a pattern for future school behavior,” says Emily Di Martino, English Professor and former Chair of the Education Department at Baruch College. “In these elementary years, the type of setting needs to be a match for the child. Some kids need an academic setting and others need a Neo-Humanist setting, which is why parents and teachers need to work together to provide a loving environment for each child.”
Di Martino and several other experts agree that elementary and middle school are crucial years of development, and the teaching methods children are exposed to in these years can either positively or negatively affect their ability to learn. For this reason, several educational philosophies have emerged in private schools that disagree with the standard teachings of New York State public schools.
One such school is The Progressive School of Long Island in Merrick. For twenty-five years, Progressive School has been practicing Neo-Humanist education, a philosophy based on the belief that everyone in the world should be seen as your family, with animals, plants and elements included in this embrace. “Neo-Humanism affects the content, the method and the goal of our school,” says Eric Jacobsen, Founder and Director of Progressive School. “It’s not about grades and test scores. It’s about the people that we graduate. Our number one priority is graduating students with value.”
Jacobsen argues that due to regulations, public schools lack flexibility and programs at Progressive School, such as the student volunteer program, are a crucial part of interactive learning which are not found at public schools. “People have nine types of intelligence, but public schools only evaluate two types, the linguistic and the mathematical,” says Jacobsen. “The first thing that gets cut when there are budget problems are those other types of intelligence, like the artistic or kinesthetic, which is related to sports, and then the other types are just completely ignored.”
This theory seems to be confirmed by the North Merrick Union Free School District’s website, which states that extending the elementary mathematics program is one of the District Goals. However, the site does not mention the extension of any artistic or kinesthetic programs. Still, several parents insist that public schools present a larger variety of programs than private schools.
“I prefer public schools,” says Bobbee Brancaccio, former physical education teacher at Long Island Lutheran High School. Brancaccio’s own children have been to both public and private middle schools and, despite teaching at a private school herself, she feels public schools have more to offer. “There are definitely more choices and academic programs. It gets kids more comfortable.”
According to Brancaccio, public schools provide a real world atmosphere due to their big classes, but Jacobsen disagrees. “They’re too big,” he says. “I think you lose a personal touch when you get above a certain size.”
Despite the problems he has with the public school system, Jacobsen says he’s not knocking the people that work there. “There’s too much emphasis on tests, which forces them to do a lot of preparation and I think they are unable to use the full potential of their teaching staff,” says Jacobsen.
With arguments to support both public and private, many parents say the deciding factor is the long-term effect on their children. For this reason, Jacobsen has compi1ed 150 interviews with graduates of Progressive School to explore the results of a private school education. Not only are several Progressive School graduates vegetarians, due to their love of animals, but many of them are still engaged in community service and have a life-long passion for learning. “They’re very broad-minded. They think of themselves as global citizens, not just as Americans,” says Jacobsen.
Through these interviews, Jacobsen hopes to spread the word about the positive effects of private schools and possibly change the way public schools approach education. “I think it’s good for the public schools to have schools like this around that can experiment,” he says. “It they were open-minded, they could learn from schools that have the freedom to experiment more.”