What Is An Independent School?

By Eric Peters

It’s likely that you’ve heard of an independent school, but you may have found yourself asking, what is an independent school? What is the difference between independent schools and public schools? What does the term “independent school” mean? These are very common questions that we get asked a lot from visiting families. While all schools may share a common goal of educating students, their methods for achieving that goal are very different.

A student gets one-on-one instruction during class.

For starters, independent schools differ from public or parochial schools in four key areas:

  • Governance and finance
  • Mission and curricula
  • Standards for teacher credentials and performance
  • Admission

Governance and Finance

Independent schools are typically governed by a board of trustees who oversee the head of school, which allows for independent schools to pivot quickly. If an independent school wants to change its curricula, build or renovate a building, or implement new technology, it can do so without needing voter approval or taxpayer support. Parochial or private schools are typically governed by the religious institutions that fund them, while public schools are governed by elected members of the community.

An important consideration to make when evaluating an independent school is whether or not it is accredited. USM, while governed by an independent board of trustees, is fully accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS) and undergoes a reaccreditation cycle every seven years. This means the school must adhere to membership standards established by ISACS and demonstrate its ability to deliver on its mission. Being evaluated by an accrediting body provides parents with an external validation of school quality, ensures a school’s adherence to membership standards, and indicates the school’s desire to be held professionally accountable. 

Mission and Curricula

Because independent schools define their mission and curricula, they are able to focus on what they teach and how they teach it. Independent school faculty are encouraged to employ different techniques and models in the classroom, such as project-based, flipped classrooms, simulations, and more, which differentiate the learning experience. Furthermore, independent school faculty have the freedom to design new ways of reaching today’s learner, ensuring that the school remains responsive to the needs of the student as well as the broader society. 

While USM may be able to define its mission and curricula as an independent school, it does so with input from nationally-recognized organizations. In addition to its ISACS accreditation, USM is a member of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), and both organizations help guide our practices, report on trends, and ensure we are benchmarking with our peer organizations nation-wide. 

Standards for Teacher Credentials and Performance

Independent schools typically do not require teachers to have the same licensures and certifications that public schools do. That means that independent schools are able to hire faculty who are experts in their fields, often with master’s or doctorate-level degrees. USM, for example, employs several former college professors who don’t have a teaching license, but have deep subject-matter knowledge in what they’re teaching. While many of our faculty do possess a degree or licensure in an education-related field, a vast majority also hold a master’s or other terminal degree in their area of expertise.

Admission

Finally, independent school students must apply for admission, which manifests itself in many ways. “At some of the bigger schools, the kids own the culture and the culture can be toxic,” said Patrick Bassett, former president of the National Association of Independent Schools. “At independent schools, we own the culture.” USM’s application process helps us—and our applicants—determine if they will be successful here. We want to ensure accepted students will be valued community members who, along with their families, abide by our values-based education. 

As an independent school, we at USM can “cast a wider net” with our student body. We have students from nearly 60 different zip codes, making our school quite diverse. There are only a handful of independent schools in Wisconsin, which makes accessing these types of educational institutions rare in many parts of the state. 

As you begin to better understand independent schools, we hope you will see that they can be an accessible and valuable alternative.

About Eric Peters

Eric Peters is the director of enrollment management at University School of Milwaukee. He holds a degree from St. Norbert College, coaches middle school basketball, and is one of the biggest Bon Jovi fans you will meet.

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