Private vs. Public School: It Isn’t What You Think


By Danielle Egan

Whenever someone hears that I used to attend San Francisco University High, a private and exceedingly rigorous school, the first thing they ask is why I left. Or, to put it in colloquial teenager terms: “So… what happened?”

The answer isn’t as simple as the question. It wasn’t because of the admittedly hefty tuition, or even the infamous “pressure cooker” culture. It was the long, annotated list of pros and cons I made weighing the individualized attention of private school against the free time afforded by public schools, the depth of learning at private schools to the opportunities afforded by public schools, the learning through competition of intellectual equals to learning through community-building in a culture of diversity.

The first reason I considered was the one that had drawn me to a private education in the first place: specialized attention. Biology, my largest freshman class, had 16 student and my Latin class had 7 students. Because of this and the large homework load, we were able to learn in greater breadth and depth.

On that same note, private school gave me a new appreciation for homework. I found African and Mexican history to be a lot more interesting when we were learning about all its little quirks and intricacies. It was like getting the chance to analyze each brushstroke of a painter, investigating for connections and patterns, getting to know the artist on a personal basis before putting the components together and watching how the pieces morphed in reaction to one another. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for me to get that interested in classes in a public school because we only have time to glance at the picture.

Attending University taught me how to make study guides, maximize my time, and prioritize. These are skills that can’t simply be taught in theory, they’re survival skills you need to learn in order to get more than five hours of sleep.

Clearly, I lacked time at private school. This severely limited my extracurricular activities. At University I was taking dance, interned second semester at Marinscope, and was an editor in the school newspaper that met once a week. In contrast, at Tam I am in a choir, The Tam News, CTE, Youth Court, and during sophomore year I also had an internship and was a member of Mock Trial. Still, I have much more free time at Tam than I ever did at University.

However, the dangers of having free time is the mindset it put me in. I used to be excited to have an hour or so of free time, but now I’m annoyed if I have more than three hours of homework. Although I’d like to say I spend all my free time learning and benefiting my mind, I have to admit that I waste a lot of it. So is that time better spent doing homework or spent possibly pursuing extracurriculars but possibly doing something else? I also get in the habit of procrastinating at public school because I have more time, which can lead me to last-minute scrambling to finish an assignment.

Another important part of assessing a school is the community. There’s so much diversity at Tam in viewpoints and aspirations, which encourages learning and accepting a wide array of opinions. The culture is much less competitive, which can reduce enthusiasm but also fosters a safe and friendly environment. Public school is more of a place where you have to “scream to be heard,” but the larger student body greatens your collective voices.

In terms of culture, the one at University was something you definitely had to get used to, but it was a lot easier acclimate to than you might think. A community of some of the most competitive students fostered competition, which added an edge to learning that made us want to improve and succeed, but also discouraged students who had trouble keeping up.

Personally, the previous issues weighed out evenly to me, so I only began to seriously consider switching schools when we had to submit our class choices for the next year, as well as prospective choices for the years after.  While looking through the course list I was struck by how few choices there were. It made sense, since there was only about 400 students.

This got me reconsidering what career I wanted to pursue, or at least what major. And I really didn’t know. I had so many different activities I was interested in and I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do because I had no time to explore my interests. So ultimately, my decision came down to extracurricular and class choices. I was interested in too many things, so I had to choose between dropping some and switching schools. It wasn’t an easy decision; before I committed to one or the other I contacted the drama department and the journalism advisor at Tam and looked through the Tam course list to make a plan of what classes I could take.

I’m really glad I transferred to Tam but I don’t regret my year at University High, since it taught me valuable skills that have helped me learn and manage my time more effectively. For me, spending freshman year at a private school and the rest of high school at a public school worked out perfectly.

So in determining whether a private or public education is best, I have to say that it depends on the person: for people who have a single-minded focus, private schools can help them hone that pursuit through individualized education, but what makes public school great is the diversity in student life, extracurriculars, and class choices, which help broaden perspectives and experiences in choosing one’s future.