'Four Weddings and a Funeral' Producer Jonathan Prince Compares L.A.'s Public and Private Schools

Beverly Hills High School-Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Subject

The Hulu executive producer says that he is an advocate of 'larger aquarium' public schools, but a 'spectacular podcasting station' and other private amenities can help sustain 'pointy kids.'

I’m a self-admitted public-school junkie. My mother, a retired L.A. County public school special education teacher, attended the Beverly Hills public schools, as did I and my four sisters. My son graduated in 2015 from Beverly Hills High School, so we’ve been a part of our community’s public schools for three generations. While my kid was in school, I served on the PTA (and as its chairman from 2011 to 2015) and helped raise significant donations for the Beverly Hills Education Foundation (a 501c3), funding such programs as college counseling, visual and performing arts, science fairs, library support, athletic equipment and sport-specific coaches, as well as foreign-language instruction and summer-school programs.  

I’ve also had a unique vantage point in comparing public and private education, because I have three stepkids who all attended private schools in Los Angeles, including one who went to Marymount High School (Catholic) and another at The Buckley School (private). Both got into their first choice colleges, yet their experiences were quite different from those of my public school child. (He, too, was fortunate enough to get into the college of his choice, having graduated from Duke this past spring.) At one point, my wife and I had four kids in four different schools, all between the ages of 14 to 18. I was watching real-time comparisons between the two experiences.

It’s true that public schools don’t cater as well as private schools to the individual needs of their students. That’s admittedly a challenge, but I also think that may be an upside of the public school system: Kids who thrive in public schools can thrive anywhere. I didn’t mind the fact that putting my son in a larger public school might mean that he’d have to struggle a bit more. Knowing my specific kid, I realized he was capable of either overcoming the challenges or, if not, that he could handle the accompanying sense of failure. Both can be excellent growth experiences. But everyone’s kid has different needs, in fact, as did my own three other children.  

Having been around both, I think that public schools are like a very large, crowded buffet, where diners have to fend for themselves and risk getting shut out of the prime rib if they don’t grab it right away. At private schools, students are given a menu of options, offered to them by a dedicated staff. And with that, private schools present an excellent option for many students and are quite seductive to all of us. When you tour an elite private school, they may show you a spectacular podcasting station or a selection of healthy food choices or an immaculate swimming pool, or all of those. You get the feeling that “if my kid is nestled among these great facilities, my kid will do great things.” And although you know, objectively, that’s not necessarily true; it’s how that tour makes you feel. And with that, private schools have a leg up. And the kids who go there often take advantage of those seductive offerings. Mine did.

Yet because many public high schools are larger than their private school competitors (and it is somewhat a competition), they often feature a wider array of offerings. At Beverly Hills High, for instance, there is a vast range of AP and enrichment classes along with extracurricular opportunities in theater, music, graphic arts and culinary arts, as well as on spots on the newspaper, radio station and even the school’s own TV station. These are the bonuses of a school with a larger student body.

And although the competition to excel in any of these areas might be greater at a large public school, there’s an upside to this as well. If a student/athlete/artist achieves in this larger aquarium. while swimming amongst myriad other fish, it says to both the student — and to the college that might have them — "Hey, I can make it here, and I can make it at your place, too." Again, my kids in private school had to swim upstream a few times as well, and their successes and failures were owned and felt just as deeply.

Speaking of a wide array of opportunities, what I’ve seen, anecdotally, is that private schools often want kids who are specialists. Rather than the well-rounded student, they want more “pointy” kids: students who have one thing they are truly passionate about — the reason why they wake up in the morning and go to school each day. Maybe it’s the school orchestra. Maybe it’s an accelerated math class or the volleyball team. Many of these private schools seem to want kids who devote themselves to a single pursuit and, with that, be excellent. That’s something that both pleases the student (and the families) and also helps the private schools fulfill their secondary mission of getting kids into elite colleges. They can say, “Look we graduated this kid who worked on and excelled at our private school digital newspaper and now they can work on your Duke Chronicle or Harvard Crimson.” And with more students accepted into elite colleges, the more a private school can rationalize the high costs of tuition. (Of course, much of the money that rests in private school endowments goes toward growing more programs or giving student scholarships, so as a parent, you don’t feel bad about those increased costs.)

But what if you are a kid who hasn’t yet — at the ripe old age of 14 — figured out what you want to do? Fourteen is awfully young to decide on “your thing.” What if you’re not a pointy kid, but a kid who’s more well-rounded? That student may want to go a larger school where they can try lots of things, where there are more offerings. The bigger aquarium. The whole buffet. (How’s that for mixing metaphors?) Yet, at the same time, at a giant public school, one has to accept that it’s also easier to get lost. Public schools may have more offerings, but there are fewer people paying attention to each student, fewer college counselors, large class sizes and less resources for tutoring in academics and extracurriculars. Teachers and administrators and counselors work in buildings that may lack cutting-edge educational and extracurricular tools.

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One last point. Having had four kids at four different schools, I’ve also experienced another, more subtle difference between public and private campuses. For us, private schools, not necessarily being neighborhood schools, meant that our children’s friends were often an Uber, Lyft or car ride away. Private schools draw from the entire city, so it’s not as easy for kids to hang out: to do homework together, to throw a ball, to be in a band. And that’s a significant loss. (Even if the band’s awful. Which they usually are.) Neighborhood (public) schools for us meant neighborhood friendships, especially at the elementary school levels, which means that our kids in these public schools could see their school friends on their own. They lived close enough that they could ride their bikes or walk to a friend’s house — which gave them a sense of independence that any kid needs during those first few weeks on a strange college campus in an even stranger city.

In addition, public schools are likely to have greater diversity. Public school students will often be in classes with kids who don’t look like them, kids who are in Special Ed, and kids who are on different ends of the socioeconomic scale — from children of families that live in what can only be called mansions to students who are on the free or reduced-priced lunch programs. Because public schools educate everyone, that’s their mandate.

That was our experience with our public schools and, to be fair, we saw our children’s private and parochial schools try to do the same thing in terms of reaching for a diverse student body. And I think, with the conversation we’re having amongst ourselves about what America is today and who we’ll be tomorrow, the more our children can experience life in an environment with people who aren’t like them, the better it is for our future.

Now that all of my own kids are out of high school and into college, I’m able to look back — and re-read this interview — with a bit of 20/20 hindsight. I realize, of course, that I have no special knowledge about school choice, even for my own children. We thought that we were choosing the right school for each kid, but really...who knows? I’m sure we screwed up along the way.

But I’ve learned what matters most is not where our children went to school, but the home they left from and returned to each day. We created a home in which we paid attention. Whether it was a child from a public, private or parochial school, we were there when there was a difficult homework assignment, a mid-term they hadn’t studied for, or even some sort of issue with a friend. We’d sit with them at the homework desk — yep, that’s what we call our dining room table — and quiz them on a test, talk them through an issue, or simply sit next to them, keeping them company when they had to write a lengthy AP English paper or pull an all-nighter.

It wasn’t the job of our public or private schools to provide the fertile soil in which our “seeds” might grow: that was on us. And that was the area I knew we could control. Whether our kids were at private or public schools, they’d come home to an environment in which they were encouraged to overcome challenges, take responsibility for failures and learn to love learning. Public, private, parochial — it’s really all about parenting. And if nothing else, we tried to be good soil.