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The not-so-secret world of low-cost New York City private schools

March 3, 2023
Diversity & Inclusion

When we hear the term “New York City private school,” most of us likely think of the elite, urban prep schools with tuition price-tags of well over $50,000 a year. Those certainly exist, but they are outnumbered by an abundance of low-cost private schools throughout the city.

“A lot of New Yorkers don’t realize this diverse marketplace of relatively low-tuition private schools exists, but thousands of families have figured it out and voted with their feet,” said Darla Romfo, president and CEO of Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF), a nonprofit that provides low-income families with scholarships to attend these schools. Indeed, Romfo’s organization currently supports over 6,000 students who attend one of the more than 200 New York City private schools with an average annual tuition of just $6,065.

I had the recent opportunity to visit a few of these low-cost New York City private schools and observe the high-quality, nurturing learning environments their school founders have created. One such founder is A.B. Whitfield, a former running back in the National Football League (NFL) who in 1983 helped to launch the Trey Whitfield School in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, and who continues to be actively involved in school operations. After retiring from the NFL, Whitfield worked for a brief time as a public school teacher in Florida. “I believe all children can learn,” said Whitfield. “I left teaching in public schools because teachers didn’t want to teach. I knew we could do better.”

Over the past 40 years, Whitfield has shown what better can look like. Located in one of the most crime-ridden areas of New York City, the Trey Whitfield School offers nearly 200 pre-kindergarten to eighth grade students the chance to excel, with many of them going on to earn scholarships to prestigious high schools, attend world-class colleges, and have successful careers.

I asked Whitfield why his school, with a tuition of only $5,000 a year and serving a population of low-income, minority students, has been so successful. He explained: “When we’re hiring teachers, we ask them a simple question: ‘Do you like children?’ In other schools, they care about what’s best for themselves, not what’s best for the child. We focus on what’s going to be best for that particular child. Everyone in the building has this mindset, this sensitivity toward children.”

It’s that sensitivity toward children that 43 years ago drove Lois Gregory to launch her low-cost, preK-8 school, The Learning Tree, in the South Bronx. Gregory grew up in the Midwest during the Jim Crow era of enforced racial segregation. The dehumanizing experience of being taught in school that she was somehow less than others due to her skin color rightfully pained and angered her. She vowed to never let any child feel unworthy, and created The Learning Tree as a place to foster intellectual and creative growth and instill in children a deep sense of self-confidence—something Gregory admits to lacking to this day due to her early schooling experiences. “Every child is celebrated here,” Gregory told me when I visited. “Every piece of work is applauded.”

Their humble price-tags and charitable scholarship support help to make these schools more accessible to more families, but they still struggle financially, often losing students to nearby charter schools that are tuition-free. New York governor Kathy Hochul recently proposed lifting the limiting cap on New York City charter schools to enable more to open. This would create more education choices for families, but negatively harm many low-cost private schools that often find it difficult to compete with “free” schooling options. That is why organizations such as the New York State Catholic Conference vocally oppose Hochul’s proposal.

The New York City school founders I spoke with are in favor of more education choices for families, including more charter schools, but feel that a fairer education choice policy would be to allow families to have access to education funding to choose the best option for their children.

“I believe that parents should have the choice as to where their children go to school,” said Jasmin Hoyt who in 1993 founded Great Oaks, a private school in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn with an annual tuition of $5,600. While many of her nearly 100 students attend her K-8 school with partial scholarships from CSF, some families have reluctantly left to attend nearby tuition-free charter schools. “Had it not been for Children’s Scholarship Fund we would have crashed already,” Hoyt told me. Whitfield agreed: “We would be closed now if it wasn’t for CSF.”

When successful entrepreneurs and philanthropists, Ted Forstmann and John Walton, launched Children’s Scholarship Fund in 1998, they thought it would be a temporary solution. They believed that once policymakers saw the enormous demand from families for district schooling alternatives, a panoply of school choice policies would soon follow. While school choice policies have gotten a recent boost in several states, there are still many families who are unable to exit an assigned district school for another educational option. Since 1998, CSF has provided nearly $1 billion in scholarships to more than 200,000 low-income K-8 students across the country to provide greater education choice for families.

“We are grateful that Children’s Scholarship Fund can give parents the purchasing power they need to afford a tuition-based school,” said CSF’s Romfo. “However, so many more children could benefit if education dollars went to families, instead of systems, so all families could choose to customize their children’s education.”

As the appetite for greater school choice policies grows nationwide, advocates in New York are doing what they can to bring attention to the mounting demand for more learning options in their state. “Parents across the state are exercising what little educational freedom they have to give their children a better future, embracing everything from homeschooling to charter schools to creative options like microschools and education pods,” said Tim Hoefer, president and CEO of the Empire Center, which helps to support the expansion of school choice policies in New York. “It’s time for our politicians to catch up with New York families. Empowering New Yorkers to make the choices that are best for their families is just smart policy.”

For now, the scores of low-cost private schools in New York City do what they can to make their programs as accessible as possible to the low-income families that want that choice. In addition to relying on CSF student scholarships, school founders tirelessly seek out grants, host fundraisers, and cut as many costs as possible while retaining the high-quality academic standards that attract families to their schools. These founders are driven by a deep desire to expand educational opportunity to all children, especially to those who have been historically marginalized. As Hoyt of Great Oaks says, “I am here to give these scholars the best possible education they can have at this time.”

By Kerry McDonald


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