Independent Schools’ Success Based On Rigorous Academics, Innovation

By Michael Waddell

Independent schools in the Memphis area are recording strong enrollment numbers as parents seek rigorous academics, small class sizes and educational approaches that prepare their children for the highly competitive college entrance process.

Westminster Academy touts its classical Christian education. “If you’re looking for a Christian environment, you're not going to get that in a public school,” says Elizabeth Perkins, director of admissions and marketing. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

With freedom to implement academic and extracurricular programs that are not restricted by state mandates, independent schools can create innovative curriculums that meet the ever-changing needs of students and use the latest teaching strategies.

“Independent Schools are highly responsive with a unique degree of local control over curriculum, staffing and other educational decisions,” Memphis Association of Independent Schools, or MAIS, officials wrote in a memo recently. “The autonomy that every member school enjoys enables each school to develop programs, map curriculum, and hire teachers and administrators who are aligned with its own unique mission.”

St. George’s Independent School, a K-12 school whose high school tuition is about $20,000 annually, is an example of that autonomy.

“While we have state-of-the-art facilities and many of the other amenities you might expect from a quality school, we prefer to focus on our pedagogy, that is, the way that we approach learning,” said Sarah Cowan, St. George’s director of communications. “Rather than simply filling students up with knowledge, at St. George's we teach traditional content in an innovative, hands-on way that capitalizes on the latest research about learning.

“We do this because we know this approach better prepares students for the types of problem-solving they will encounter in our global economy.”

Likewise, Hutchison, a PK2-12 all-girls school in East Memphis with 870 students and an annual high school tuition of $21,000, is able to focus on innovative teaching.

“Academic rigor has become a bit of a buzzword, and people often mean very different things when they discuss that term,” said Kristen Ring, head of school at Hutchison. “For a student to really thrive in a college of her choice, she needs to have been challenged inside and outside of the classroom.”

Hutchison begins college counseling in ninth grade, working with each student to map out a challenging course load and an experience outside the classroom that showcases her unique passions and interests – in service, the arts, athletics, etc.

Individual attention is a hallmark of independent schools, whose smaller size enables them to foster a variety of learning opportunities inside and outside the classroom that are difficult to replicate in a larger school setting, MAIS officials say.

A recent survey by the National Center for Education Statistics found that independent high schools average 398 students, compared to 1,083 for public schools, providing students more opportunities to form relationships with their teachers, which often leads to greater academic success.

That strategy has been successful at Lausanne Collegiate School in East Memphis, which has about 870 students in K-12, including 400 in the high school. The co-ed school, which has no religious affiliation, boasts students from 58 countries, including 47 percent students of color and 31 percent foreign nationals.

“We’re maxed out on enrollment right now,” said Drew Smith, Lausanne director of strategic communications.

Lausanne’s tuition is among the highest in the area at nearly $22,745 per year for high school students, but the school prides itself on strong academics, small class sizes and a global mission.

“We’re the only International School in the state, and we have an (International Baccalaureate) program that’s about to expand to be a full IB from pre-K through 12th grade,” Smith said. “We’ll be only the 19th school in the country to do that.”

Nearby, Memphis University School, a grades 7-12 all-boys school with 631 students, also touts its academic rigor and a student-teacher ratio of eight to one.

“What's important is that we have the critical mass to provide the programs we want and also allow for so much of what we like about the atmosphere of the school: the small classes, the positive contact that goes on between coaches and students, and the learning environment that is impacted by size,” said MUS headmaster Pete Sanders.

Another advantage of independent schools is the freedom to serve distinct missions.

“For the families that want a classical Christian education for their children, they want what we have because it’s a completely different curriculum,” said Elizabeth Perkins, director of admissions and marketing at Westminster Academy in East Memphis.

Westminster’s enrollment, which includes students from junior kindergarten to 12th grade, is 320. High school tuition averages $13,000 annually.

“If you’re looking for a Christian environment, you’re not going to get that in a public school,” Perkins said.

Similarly, St. Benedict at Auburndale, with an enrollment of about 750 students and an annual high school tuition of $11,000, is managed by the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, which is one of its strongest selling points, said school director of communications Sharon Masterson.

"People look for that type of education, and our uniqueness as compared to other Catholic schools and high schools in Memphis is that we're co-ed, which is the environment that most students are going to walk into for college and careers," Masterson said.

Briarcrest Christian School in Eads, whose high school tuition averages $15,000 annually, touts strong academics, including its newly implemented STEM program and its fine arts department.

“We have a lot to offer, and our campus is very secure and safe,” said Beth Rooks, Briarcrest’s director of communications. “That’s how we have been able to stay very competitive in this marketplace.”

By not being bound by state-mandated testing, curriculum choices, federal initiatives or schedules, MAIS officials say independent schools provide educational environments parents think are best for their own children.

“The right fit, great teachers, an involved community, academic achievement, success in college – these are all measures that must be considered,” MAIS says. “Most importantly, parents choose independent schools because they understand that the best education is a value-added experience.”