What Is An Independent School? (It’s Different Than Standard Private School)

By Ann Dolin | Private Schools

Nov 16

what is an independent school image 1Given that there are so many “non-public” schools in our area, you might be wondering:

What is an independent school?

And how is it different than traditional private school?

We’ll break this down explore the differences between independent and other private schools in this post.

Understanding The Terms: Private vs. Independent

To start, let’s examine the terms private and independent, which are often used interchangeably when we think of schools outside of the public realm. It’s important to understand the difference. A private school refers to any learning institution that does not receive public funding from its state government. Independent schools are private schools that are overseen by a board of governors or trustees. In my book, A Guide to Private Schools: The Washington DC, Northern Virginia and Maryland Edition, I used the term independent because it’s more commonly used by the schools themselves. Although these two terms are similar, schools that fall into either or both categories are not all the same. Within the private school world, there are several subcategories:

What is an Independent School?

All independent schools are under the umbrella of private schools. They have a board of governors or trustees that is truly independent of any other organization, whereas a different private school can technically be governed by any outside entity, from nonprofit organizations to churches to for-profit corporations.

The important distinction is that while both are non-public, independent schools have stricter rules for governance. Tuition is higher as well. Schools in this category have larger endowments and many have impressive facilities, from state-of-the-art science labs to stadium football fields. They may or may not have a religious affiliation. For a thorough list of 82 independent schools in the DC metro area that make up the association called Independent Education, visit.

Different Types of Independent Private Schools

When you boil it down even more, there are many subcategories within independent schools

Independent Catholic Holy Order Schools

These schools are also independent, but they are run by an order of the Catholic Church, such as Jesuits. They do not have to follow strict curriculum guidelines set forth by the Catholic Church. They have the highest level of autonomy. Because they do not receive funding from the local diocese, their tuition is higher than Catholic diocesan schools. Class sizes are smaller, too.

Catholic Diocesan School

These schools are linked directly to a Catholic diocese and can offer lower tuition for members of the diocese. Even without a reduced fee, these parochial schools have a much lower price tag than independent schools. One drawback is that the class sizes are typically larger. These schools are not governed by a board of directors—they follow regulations created by the diocese or bishop. Catholic diocesan schools are the most common type of Catholic school.

Non-Catholic Religious Schools

There are other religious schools, ranging from Episcopalian to Jewish to non-denominational Christian, which are tied to their local church or other house of worship. These schools follow their own guidelines and some receive funding from their affiliated religious institution.

All-Boys Schools

These are schools that serve only boys, typically beginning in the third or fourth grade. Most faculty and coaches are males as well.

All-Girls Schools

Just as the name states, these schools serve only girls, also typically beginning in third or fourth grade.

Learning Difference Schools

There are varying degrees of support services to serve a wide range of students, from those with severe learning disabilities to those with very mild issues who simply require a few accommodations. According to Rich Weinfeld and Jennifer Fisher of Weinfeld Education Group, schools can be categorized into distinct groups. “The first category of schools serves students with significant special needs. These schools are certified by the state and receive state funding. When the local school district is unable to educate the child, they may pay for an alternative placement. Many of these schools also have a good amount of private pay students. Schools such as Chelsea and Kingsbury are in this category. The second category of schools has chosen not to receive funding. As with the other schools, they too have small classes, trained staff, and learning specialists who work with students and consult with teachers. These schools serve bright students who need some remediation and accommodations. Siena, Commonwealth, and Nora School are examples within this group.”

Finally, there are schools that support students with very mild learning issues, but the majority of their students do not have a learning disability or an ADHD diagnosis. These schools primarily serve the general student population; however, they employ learning specialists to work with those who need support. Nonetheless, students are expected to keep up with the general curriculum. This type of support is very typical in even the most exacting schools.

International Schools

These schools seek to provide students with an international experience and to prepare them for future schooling overseas. For younger students, these schools provide a global perspective and an emphasis on foreign language and cultures. Older students are prepared specifically for the option of attending a university outside of the United States by means of the International Baccalaureate program.

Boarding Schools

At boarding schools, students live on campus in dormitories, similar to college. Most faculty members also live on campus and there is a significant amount of structure in terms of oversight and planned activities. In our area, there are a handful of schools that have boarding options and one school, Episcopal, which serves only boarding students.

Finding the right Private School for your child

Certainly, there are a host of other categories, but this should give you a broad overview to get you started. It’s my sincere hope that A Guide to Private Schools: The Washington DC, Northern Virginia and Maryland Edition, will make your school search easier and enable your child to find the school of his or her dreams. I wish you all the best on your journey in education.

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