One in seven Southwestern Connecticut children attend private schools between kindergarten and 12th grades, placing the Bridgeport-Stamford Metropolitan Statistical Area in the top 20 percent of all metros in the nation, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
With 14.2 percent of children receiving their educations in private classrooms, Fairfield County has the 18th highest share of the 100 largest metro areas in the nation, and a significantly higher proportion than the national average of 10.4 percent.
As with many things, the breakdown shifts across the towns, ranging from 4 percent of the primary- and secondary-school aged children in Oxford to a whopping 29.1 percent in Greenwich.
The share in Greenwich is a true outlier, surpassing the 26 percent of students in the New Orleans Metro Area, which is the highest percentage of any metro area in the nation. But it’s nothing new, according to Greenwich Public Schools Spokeswoman Kim Eves, who noted that the percentage has hovered between 25 and 29 percent for the 13 years she has worked in the district.
The high rate is due to a confluence of wealthy families who have the means to pay for a private education and a town with a large number of private schools in close proximity, according to Eves.
The roughly one in three Greenwich children attending private schools in a town that woos perspective residents to pay top prices for real estate in part by boasting a highly respected public school system may come as a bit of a surprise. But it shouldn’t, according to Connecticut Association of Independent Schools Executive Director Doug Lyons.
“The public schools there are good public schools, but the independent schools there are deeply advantaged, and some of that is their long history,” he said this week. With independent schools dating back a century or more in Greenwich, some families have sent multiple generations to specific schools, creating legacies woven into the very fabric of a family’s identity.
“Connecticut has a uniquely strong tradition of independent schools. It’s amazing, traveling around the country you find that places like California do not. The better ones there are 30 or 40 years old,” he said. In contrast, Connecticut’s Hopkins School, located in New Haven, was founded 353 years ago – even before Yale.
“The people at Hopkins like to joke that Yale was founded so Hopkins graduates would have a place to go to college,” Lyons said.
In Southwestern Connecticut, schools like King in Stamford and Brunswick School and Greenwich Academy in Greenwich are well over 100 years old. Others, like Greenwich Country Day School and New Canaan Country School will celebrate their centennials in the coming years.
And demand is high for these schools, according to King’s Director of Admission and Financial Aid Carrie Salvatore.
“The demand has been increasing an increasing. On average we’ve seen in between five and seven applications for every open space,” she said. “This year, year-to-date, we are double the number of applications we had last year.”
That’s a trend that has been noticed across the state according to Lyons, who acknowledged a slip a few years ago when the recession took hold.
“We hit a bumpy patch after the stock market plunge in 2008, so in 2009 and 2010, we were a little bit down in enrollment – not a lot, but maybe 3 percent statewide,” he said. “But now it’s up to where it was in 2006, so the demand has recovered.”
At King, a little more than 45 percent of the 692 students are Stamford residents, with the next largest populations coming from Greenwich, Darien and New Canaan, according to Salvatore. Those towns have some of the highest rate of students in private schools in the area: New Canaan is second in Southwestern Connecticut, at 23.7 percent; Stamford is third at 17.8 percent; Darien is fifth at 15.3 percent, just behind Shelton, which sends 17.4 percent of students to private schools, according to census data.
In Stamford, Public Schools Superintendent Winifred Hamilton said the competition brought on by the large supply of private schools in the neighborhood is a good thing.
“I think it’s great that we have options,” she said. “There are reasons why families choose programs – for athletics, for scholarships, or they’re Catholic or Jewish and they choose a faith-based school.”
In her view, Stamford’s 20 public schools stand on their own, she said, pitching the system’s offering of 24 Advanced Placement courses as one of several ways the public schools continue to be competitive with local private schools (King only offer 19, according to Salvatore, who said the school makes that choice to favor quality of courses over quantity).
“You know, the biggest criticism we’ve received is sometimes classes are larger here, and that’s an issue in the budget we face all the time,” she said. It’s become incredibly relevant as of late as the city’s elementary school enrollment has ballooned, pushing several schools over their recommended capacity.
“I don’t look at this as a competition. I look at it as one of the most positive, viable options for a parent to select when they’re looking at the future of the education of their children,” Hamilton said. “Above all, parents know their children best and they need to decide what’s best for them.”
For John Hiemstra, it was a simple decision. When he and his wife were moving back to the East Coast after several years in San Diego, they chose to buy a house in Bethel, specifically because it was close to the Housatonic Valley Waldorf School, a private school in Newtown. They decided the philosophy behind the education at Waldorf School, which emphasizes experiential and artistic learning, was worth building their lives around.
It was an easy call for his family, though he said paying tuition for his 6- and 8-year-old children has its difficulties, especially since he and his wife are both self-employed and their income isn’t always tied to a predictable schedule.
“This education for our kids, it’s a high priority, and even though we’ve discussed it, it’s never really been on the block. We’ve been in the habit of giving up whatever you have to to keep things going,” he said. “It’s worth every effort I can make at this point in my life, even if I have to put everything else on the shelf.”