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Private High Schools: Fact and Fiction

American private high schools are often the subject of books, television shows and movies. Fictional depictions of private school life frequently focus on wealthy, socially cutthroat students. In reality, private school life isn't necessarily all limos and backstabbing, and the perks of attending can be beneficial. But there are some perils to attending private schools, and some new students may not realize how easy it can be for their enrollment to be terminated.

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Private Schools in Fiction

In your mind's eye, you can probably conjure a picture of what a stereotypical prep school kid looks like. Perhaps he or she is wearing a uniform that includes a navy blue blazer with some sort of patch on the chest. And the student might be doing just about anything but studying.

If you've watched television shows like Gossip Girl, you might think of private school as an exclusive place where wealthy students put social conniving first and academics last, but still manage to get into top schools, like Yale and Columbia. Even classic novels like The Catcher in the Rye depict private schools as a place where only the most privileged - and least bookish - can go. But these fictionalized accounts don't always paint a realistic picture.

Financial Reality

While private school costs are prohibitive for many students, it's not always impossible for young people from lower-income families to attend. High-achieving students may be able to earn academic or athletic scholarships to a private high school. Some schools offer sliding-scale tuition to families, allowing parents to pay what they can. There are also programs for students to work at the high school for a certain amount of hours in order to pay off their tuition. It is true that your average private school student likely comes from a financially privileged background, but this doesn't necessarily translate to the class-based exclusivity depicted in fiction.

However, financial hardship can pose a problem. In 2010, some parents in Washington, D.C., were informed that their children would be removed from private schools and placed in public or charter schools instead. These children were all disabled students who were attending private schools at the city's expense.

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Academic and Behavioral Standards

Many private schools have rigorous academic standards, and prospective students may need to take tests, submit references and take part in interviews before being admitted. In addition, many of these schools have zero tolerance policies. Students who violate school rules, like cheating on tests or abusing illicit substances, may be expelled.

But the academic and behavioral standards don't stop there. Each year, some private school students are denied continued enrollment. This removal process is referred to as 'counseling out', according to The New York Times. Unlike public schools, private schools are under no obligation to continue teaching students and may counsel out any student. Most often, students are counseled out because of poor academic performance or behavioral issues. This type of removal impacts students from all social strata.

Private schools usually don't publicize the number of students who are removed in this way. There is plenty of speculation as to why these numbers aren't made available. One theory is that private schools don't want to risk their good reputations by pointing out that not all of their students succeed. The theory suggests some students are kicked out because private schools want to maintain high numbers of graduates accepted to top-tier colleges. More likely than not, though, most students counseled out of private schools are not adhering to the school's standards for behavior or performance.

College Preparation and Better Learning Environments

Although private high schools have their flaws, they often do an excellent job of preparing students for college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 90% of high school students from private schools pursue postsecondary education; only about 60% of public high school graduates do the same. Private high school curricula often adhere to college-level requirements, and advanced placement (AP) courses are common.

In addition, private high schools often have small class sizes, allowing students to receive more individual attention. Many teachers at these schools are not only licensed - they also have advanced degrees in the subjects they teach. For all of these reasons, private high school students may be better prepared than their public high school peers for success in college.

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