Private School Explainer: Which type should you choose?

If public school isn’t right for your child, another list of options opens up for you. How to navigate the sea of choices?

For contact info, please check out our complete directory of Richmond-area private schools. Not into the idea of a private school? There are a whole bunch of interesting public options to choose from as well.

Parochial schools

Schools supported by religious bodies–particularly Catholic ones–are still very present in the private education world. Beginning in the mid-20th century, parochial schools began to hire secular teachers after facing criticism about quality of education for the price (public schools were becoming bigger and better at the time). The majority of private schools are still parochial, but their curriculums have gotten less and less so. In Richmond, parochial schools abound but don’t necessarily incorporate religion into their teaching. The majority are, by far, Catholic, Episcopal, and general “Christian,” although Southside Baptist Christian School, Rudlin Torah Academy (Jewish), Luther Memorial School (Lutheran), Ephesus Adventist Junior Academy (Seventh-Day Adventist), and Iqra Academy of Virginia (Muslim) are other options.

College Prep

Does a prep school, which “prepares students for college” mean all that much anymore, particularly in a private school setting where the goal of every high school is to mold wonderful college applicants? Nowadays, the term doesn’t hold much weight, even though it might refer to a school who has a history of sending kids to elite colleges. This article goes into more detail about what it means, what it doesn’t mean, and what to look for in a “prep” school.


Based on the educational philosophy created by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori, her namesake educational model encourages independence, discovery, and lots of movement. Because it’s a philosophy, not a brand, Montessori schools are all different, yet operate within the same basic framework. Classrooms are multi-age, there’s a lot of nature involved, and kids get to choose what they want to work on that day. More on the Montessori philosophy. Richmond has a handful of Montessori schools that cover different age ranges, start at different times, and run at different times of year.


Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian and all around smart fellow, created this humanistic approach. Waldorf schools emphasize imagination and integration of different areas of development–there’s a lot of creativity in how lessons and ideas are presented. Throughout a Waldorf education, a student (and every child, according to the Waldorf folks) goes through three major phases of development: early childhood (0-7), elementary (7-14), and secondary (14-18). Nature plays a big role at furst, performing and visual arts pop up during elementary phase, and independent, creative thinking becomes the focus later on.

Reggio Emilia

Reggio Emilia (named after the town in Italy whence it came) puts a child in the driver’s seat (not literally–that would be awful) of his or her own experiences. For the most part. Like Montessori and Waldorf, they embrace more of an active day, allowing the student to direct his or her own learning and experience. There are many ways in which this philosophy manifests–we recommend visiting schools with alternative philosophies so that you can get a more expert rundown of how it all works–but one thing you can be sure of is that if your child goes to a Reggio Emilia school, he or she will not spend all day sitting in a desk being talked at. Sabot at Stony Point is the only Reggio Emilia school in Richmond that goes from preschool to eighth grade (see Bon Air Presbyterian Preschool and Weinstein Jewish Community Center for Reggio Emilia options for preschoolers).

Secular, Independent Schools

Usually small schools with their own philosophies (i.e. not based on a larger accepted model), these schools are really only categorizable on granular levels. And to be clear, parochial schools could very well adopt a specialized philosophy such as Reggio Emilia (see Bon Air Presbyterian Preschool and Weinstein JCC above). The Academy of Excellence and Lynnhaven Academy are some-but not all–of the examples. As with all schools, they should be judged on an individual basis. Talking to families, visiting campuses, reading as much as you can will give you an idea as to whether or not your child will be a good fit.

Emotional/Behavioral Challenges

A micro-school with an enrollment cap of 50, Brook Road Academy on Brook Road (it’s not just a clever name) uses a “conversational approach” with its students, who might suffer from ADHD, depression, Aspberger’s or other emotional or behavorial challenges. The idea is that communication is key, and faculty here demonstrate eye contact, voice opinions, and talk about how they’ve arrived at this point. Ideally, everyone is represented, made more confident, and capable of civil discourse. It’s almost like Brook Road Academy’s goal is to produce good citizens who will not write Angry Internet Comments.

Dooley School, which is also run by St. Joseph’s Villa, the organization behind Brook Road Academy, educates kids with emotional disabilities, some learning disabilities, autism, and other impairments. The Faison School centers solely on autism–having extended their early childhood care to school-aged children since their inception in 1998. It’s licensed as a day school.

Various other options exist, but make sure you know the difference between a “center,” which will be an excellent resource for all sorts of things, and an actual accredited school, which is approved by governing bodies to provide education.


Having a language-based learning disability makes learning in traditional environments difficult to say the least. Schools like Riverside School in Bon Air and the New Community School on Northside offer fully accredited education from teachers trained in teaching dyslexic kids. Riverside goes from kindergarten through eighth grade, and New Community starts at fifth grade and goes through high school.

Single-sex education

Single-sex education–you either love it or you hate it. Or, I suppose, you don’t know much about it and haven’t formed an opinion. Or, you feel like it works well for some kids and not for others. I went to an all women’s college and have varying opinions. So I guess “single-sex education–you probably have mixed feelings” is more accurate. Anyway, many argue that it’s perhaps most effective and helpful for adolescent kids versus in a college setting. St. Catherine’s, St. Christopher’s , St. Gertrude’s, Benedictine, Orchard House, and Seven Hills are all keeping the tradition alive. If you visit any of the above, they will explain to you what the benefits are, but, more importantly, they will want to be viewed not as part of a genre but as individual schools with individual strengths.

The classical model

A “classical” education uses a three-step approach: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. As they grow, students will pass through each of those phases in succession. The idea is that using these three lenses–in order–to explore subject matter will help them tackle anything in their lives. It’s a method that’s centuries old. The classical model is often used in tandem with Christian education, such as at Veritas Christian Academy and Hunter Country Day School.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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