An independent school is a place where students can spark inquiry, build connections and forge a love of learning to last a lifetime. But what is an independent school? And how can it make a difference in a child’s education?
“An independent school has the autonomy and freedom to create a curriculum that helps children build agency. It gives them the chance to explore and think critically,” says David Feldman, head of school at The Roeper School, an independent preschool through grade 12 school for gifted students in Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills.
In its most fundamental sense, an independent school is not under government regulation and it relies solely on independent funding. “No tax dollars fund the independent school. Tuition or philanthropy is how it pays its bills,” Feldman says. Typically, a board of trustees sets legal and financial policies and establishes the mission of the school.
“At Roeper, within the mission are the guidelines for who we serve and what type of school we are. Some independent schools have specialties and Roeper focuses on gifted students,” he says.
During that important stage of their lives when children are engaged in formal education, the experience can be very good, even excellent. Or it can be transformative. When a child is in just the right environment, the experience can be life changing. By design, an independent school is poised to provide that transformative experience.
Independent schools are not required to follow the guidelines that states mandate for public schools. They create their own curriculum and standards for educational content.
“That said, we follow best practices and belong to organizations to accredit us. In Michigan, independent schools are part of the Independent Schools Association for the Central States (ISACS), which has an accreditation process that makes sure we stay fresh and current on best practices. They have visiting teams that come to campus and standards to maintain accreditation,” Feldman explains.
With this autonomy comes the freedom to create a curriculum that supports the student body. “This gives our teachers a chance to be autonomous in developing a curriculum that allows even our youngest students to make choices, to explore and think critically,” Feldman says. “Our administrators hold them to high standards.”
Experiential and relational
Independent schools are commonplace on the coasts, but less so in the Midwest, says Feldman, adding that most parents have their own public school backgrounds for comparison.
“At an independent school, parents are paying tuition and that’s new to them. To them, it might feel transactional,” he explains. “They ask if they are buying an outcome or an experience for their children.”
The independent school experience is not transactional, Feldman says. “Rather, the experience the children will have is transformational. It’s very different from the public school experience. We are smaller and students develop strong relationships and connections with teachers and other students. At Roeper, a child will not get lost in large numbers. They will be known.”
Roeper’s end-of-semester progress reports are narrative summaries of the experiences a child has had, the strengths they exhibited and the areas they will continue to develop. The narrative details how the student engages with peers and how they work to discover new concepts and ideas, Feldman says. It also means parents are never left wondering if their child is thriving.
Small by design
An independent school is small enough to be able to offer a personalized learning experience for each student. When children show interest in a particular subject, the teacher has the freedom to take the time for exhaustive exploration.
“At a public school, teachers move at the same pace through the curriculum and they teach to the middle cluster of students. At Roeper, the experience can be more personalized,” Feldman says. “Our teachers have small class sizes and that allows them to individualize the learning and channel the exploration that allows children to stretch and discover things they hadn’t thought about before. It’s a completely different climate.”
Through strong relationships, teachers and students explore concepts together, allowing students to become increasingly invested in their educational experiences. “When we hire new teachers, it’s something we talk with them about. They don’t have to have all the answers. Actually, a great response to a child who asks you a question you don’t have the answer to is let’s find out together,” Feldman says. “An independent school education is all about learning how to learn and modeling that is something that good teachers do.”
The drive to discovery is important because so many jobs today’s students will eventually have don’t yet exist. “They need to be able to problem solve, deal with unknowns and be curious,” Feldman says. “Good teachers create a climate of curiosity and learning and build partnership in that learning.”
Instruction geared toward the gifted child
Students at Roeper engage with teachers who understand the needs of the gifted child, and this is something that simply can’t be guaranteed in the typical educational environment.
Gifted students may hit developmental milestones earlier and faster and demonstrate a precocity that means they are capable of engaging in more sophisticated reading and mathematical concepts or carry on conversations with a richer vocabulary or deeper sense of humor than is typical for their age. Or, the gifted student may show complexity of thought, which indicates they will thrive when they are able to dive deeper into topics of study. A third measure involves intensity and passion for learning that engages emotional levels the student can’t necessarily control. A gifted child could fit into any and all of these descriptive categories.
Teachers at Roeper understand gifted children and can help them get the academic and social-emotional support they need to succeed.
In a typical school, the gifted student might skip a grade or two, which can disrupt social connections for children who are still their chronological age in all other ways. “If their environment doesn’t advance them, they become bored or exhibit behavioral issues because they don’t know what to do with themselves or they stop challenging themselves,” Feldman says. “They dislike school because it’s not challenging to them.”
Students at Roeper are able to dig more deeply into subjects of passion and do research over a period of time, even talk with experts in the field to gain insight.
Parents of gifted children are always looking for ways to feed their child’s intellectual hunger, and when their child enrolls at Roeper, both parent and child find community.
“Parents say that their child has finally found their people, that they have friends and can connect and be themselves,” Feldman says. “When a child is struggling at their current school, I ask parents to tell me about teachers who knew them well and connected with them. A lot of times, they don’t have any, but we know that these connections are foundational to wellness. There’s nothing more heartwarming than to know a child feels a sense of comfort at school.”
Founded in 1941, Roeper was established on the concept that resilience, emotional intelligence and collaboration are the foundations of a productive life. The school began its focus on gifted children in 1956 and it’s the oldest independent school for gifted kids in the country. A new history website details Roeper’s rich past for parents to discover.
Learn more about The Roeper School, an independent school for gifted children, preschool to grade 12, in Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills, by visiting roeper.org.