A typical private school comes with a high price tag attached. However, parents can find private options for their kids that offer small class sizes, lots of individual attention and specialized coursework -- for minimal tuition or even for free. The key is knowing which private schools to choose.
The Milton Hershey School
Chocolate heir Milton Hershey was as sweet as his product, donating his entire fortune and his controlling interest in the company to establish a free coed boarding school in Hershey, Pennsylvania that serves grades pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade students. Admission is need-based. Academics are rigorous, facilities are well maintained and class sizes are small. The 2,000 students at the school live in groups of eight to 13; each group is supervised by a married houseparent couple. Additionally, each house has its own computer room and playroom. Seniors graduate with industry-specific certifications.
Located near Land-o-Lakes, Wisconsin, the Conserve School offers a one-semester academic opportunity for high school juniors and advanced sophomores on a 1,200-acre wilderness campus. The emphasis is on inspiring environmental stewardship. In addition to standard high school academic subjects, the school offers outdoor, hands-on learning. Conserve strives to embody five core values: compassion, honesty, justice, respect and responsibility. Academics are equivalent to honors, AP or accelerated courses in traditional schools. The school charges a $200 fee for the semester, but that's the only cost; all accepted students are covered by the Lowenstine Honors Scholarship established by its founder.
Girard College is a coeducational boarding school in Philadelphia that serves students in first through 12th grades. Students are from single-parent households or foster families, or they are raised by non-parental relatives. Income guidelines are based on those used by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The school offers classes in 10 core subject areas, including art, computer science, health and physical education. Classes are no larger than 20 students, and many electives are offered in the high school grades. The school focuses on college preparation, and the Girard Foundation makes financial aid available all the way through graduate school.
Cristo Rey Network Schools
The Cristo Rey Network operates 28 Catholic high schools in 18 states where low-income students get a rigorous college-preparatory education. Schools are funded through partnerships with neighboring corporations, hospitals and universities. Students spend one day a week at a work-study assignment in a professional setting. Only students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are admitted; the average family income is $34,000. Cristo Rey says that 100 percent of its graduates are accepted at either two- or four-year colleges.
Several states have established tuition-free boarding schools for residents; although publicly funded, these small, selective institutions are charter or magnet schools with a private-school feel. Illinois students, for example, can attend the Illinois Math and Science Academy starting in 10th grade. Eleventh- and 12th-graders from Mississippi can study at the Mississippi School of the Arts; admission requires an audition process, and the only cost is $1,000 a year for room and board. Talented South Carolinians can attend the Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities, where they'll be apprenticed to a faculty member who's a working artist. There's a minimal processing and meal plan fee.