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what to do when your neighborhood school stops working

Sometimes parents near the end of the academic year at their local public school, and it becomes clear that – despite the best efforts of student, teacher, and parents alike – things just aren’t working. In those cases, sometimes a change to independent school is the right answer.

Here is one example from a few years back:

Madeline’s (whose name has been changed) mom called St. Paul’s during the spring of her first grade year. Could she and her husband come in for a tour? Well, yes. Of course. But even before coming to campus, I wanted to understand this situation a little better, so we began to talk about Madeline. She is in a class of 28 at the local public school. She has a great work ethic, and mom is helping her with organization and homework. She has friends and likes getting together with them. She even likes her teacher. So why would you want to move her?

Madeline’s mom explained that Madeline was working hard, on top of which, she was receiving outside tutoring in reading, but was just not solidly on pace with her classmates. As hard as she tried, she could not stay ahead, and her teacher was not able to give her what she needed with 27 other students in the class. Mom was worried about Madeline’s confidence, as well as her ability to stay in first grade with her peers, if this were not addressed.

This situation is something we see now and then in independent school admissions. Parents move to a neighborhood with a good school, all their plans are based on the premise that their child will attend this local elementary school, and then maybe they’ll look at private school for 6th grade. If they like the local public middle school and all is well, maybe they can wait until 9th grade before biting the bullet and paying for their child’s education. Nowhere in these plans have parents factored in independent school during the elementary years. But, as anyone can tell you, children don’t always follow our plans.

Fast forward to the following fall, Madeline has enrolled in second grade, shown herself to be a great girl, an asset to the classroom, and not so far behind that a little individualized attention won’t get her on firmer footing. Half a year later, Madeline is thriving. She is now in the middle of the pack in second grade, she works as hard as ever, and she is making great progress. She finally feels she is “getting it” and has actually started to love reading. To hear her mom, Madeline is floating on air, feeling successful, and seeing her hard work pay off.

Susan Faint, second grade teacher at St. Paul’s described Madeline's transition. “We knew from the minute we met Madeline that we were going to adore her. Her easy-going nature and happy demeanor made her transition to the St. Paul’s community seamless.  She made friends easily and by the end of her first week in the Lower School, it was like she had always been here with us.  Due to our small class sizes, we were able to really get to know and understand Madeline’s learner profile.  We celebrated and taught to her strengths while identifying and supporting the areas in which she needed support.  We were able to identify those areas, partner with her parents and create a joint, home-school action plan that emphasized her strengths.  We also quickly gave Madeline the one-on-one support she needed. Where she got lost in a class of 28; she thrived in a class of 13.  This action plan translated to the confident student we see in third grade today.  I think everyone is happy that Madeline’s family chose a switch, but no one is more excited than Madeline herself.  She truly is part of the St. Paul’s family!”

There are just times when we, as parents, have to think beyond our five or ten year plans. We have to advocate for our children in the best ways we can, and ask the experts when things stop working.

I loved seeing Madeline at school, happy and successful. I know that she was originally set up for success, her public school could not give her what she needed, and her parents knew that there was a better choice, a better plan, to help Madeline be successful.

Martha Donovan

Mrs. Donovan is the Associate Director of Lower School Admissions at St. Paul’s. She previously spent ten years in Middle and Upper School Admissions at the Key School in Annapolis, where her three children graduated. Since coming to St. Paul’s, she and her husband have moved to Baltimore and love it. Mrs. Donovan also has experience as a national news editor with NBC Radio and Mutual News, and spent a year as a Press Secretary on Capitol Hill. You will often find her in the Kindergarten classrooms or on the early carpool line, anywhere she can see the kids in action. She can be reached at


St. Paul’s School
11152 Falls Road 
P.O. Box 8100 
Brooklandville, Maryland 21022
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