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A Guide To Independent and Private Schools: When To Consider Private Education For Your Child

10:1 student-to-teacher ratio at Rowland Hall independent private school in Utah.

Choosing your child’s educational path can be a difficult decision. Read our parent guide to discover if an independent education is right for your child. 

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The student experience at Rowland Hall is still outstanding, even under the circumstances created by COVID-19. My children are excited about school and are actively engaged in their learning. —Lower School parent

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Winged Lions You Might Meet on a Tour

An eighth-grade Rowland Hall student in science class.

Teacher Sara Donnelly knows that the best way to help her eighth graders grasp scientific concepts is to connect their studies to authentic learning experiences. As a result, she’s always on the lookout for projects that transform science topics into “aha!” moments for students.

“I want them to see science as something that’s familiar, part of their lives, and useful—and not intimidating,” she said.

This year, she kicked off this approach by introducing students to the study of waves, or transfers of energy. An essential component of the study of physics, waves help scientists understand physical phenomena, and they can be found in many forms in our everyday lives, from the sounds we use to communicate to the lights we use to see.

“One of the reasons I start with waves is they offer a more qualitative experience and are more visual,” said Sara. This makes them especially useful for building scientific understanding and skills in middle schoolers: depending on students’ abilities, they can observe waves in a variety of ways, such as by listening to music or by observing colors made by light. These real-world practices, explained Sara, also help them learn to apply knowledge through unbiased observations, as well as practicing accurately recording data.

Eighth-grade science teacher Sara Donnelly with students in classroom.

Sara Donnelly with eighth-grade students in her classroom science lab.


The eighth-grade waves study is divided into three subunits (wave properties, sound waves, and light waves), and examines what waves are, the types of waves, how waves travel, and how, with different materials, waves can be sped up, slowed down, or amplified. The kids quickly picked up on the concept: during a Middle School dance that took place during the unit, Sara said students were commenting on the need for more absorbent walls in the gym. Students also discovered that waves were the reason behind some of their day-to-day experiences—eighth grader Sophia H., for instance, noted that the unit helped explain odd noises she’d heard: “I found out that sound waves traveled through vibrating particles, which definitely explained some of the weird sound phenomena that I have experienced in the past,” she said.

I want [students] to see science as something that’s familiar, part of their lives, and useful—and not intimidating.—Sara Donnelly, eighth-grade science teacher

The students also enjoyed opportunities to set waves’ paths in order to better understand them. In November, they demonstrated light behavior and the law of reflection via mirror mazes. And in December, in culmination of all they learned in the first unit of the year, they designed models of their ideal concert experiences, a project centered around how both light and sound waves can affect how a person experiences an arts event.

“They were really excited about it,” said Sara. “Eighth grade is a great opportunity for students to use their creativity, apply their understanding of something, and take it to a more abstract way of showing their understanding.”

For the project, students were divided into teams and tasked with designing 3D models of concert venues, complete with speakers and lights marked with the directions of their waves. Students had to think through how the movement of sound and light would affect the audience’s experience: Where should speakers be placed for optimal sound quality? How will sound travel around the venue? How does the shape of the stage, or the seating, affect sound? How do light and color mix? What building materials will produce the best results? How do you manage accessibility for all attendees? In addition to a writing papers outlining each choice and its scientific justification, students presented their models to their peers, incorporating 30-second clips of songs that complemented their venue designs—choices varied and included Offenbach’s “Can-Can,” 21 Pilots’ “Stressed Out,” and AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” It was a unique, and fun, way to tie together what they had learned.

View of "Thunderstruck" eighth-grade waves project.

Students illustrated directions of both sound and light waves in their venue models.


“It was an interesting unit and I expanded upon my knowledge of waves quite a bit,” commented student Kendra L.

The project was a great way to build students’ confidence as scientists while also preparing them for new challenges: since returning from winter break, the eighth graders have been immersed in a new unit around forces in motion—a more challenging topic that’s stretching their learning through studies around acceleration, friction, and inertia. And just like in the waves unit, Sara is incorporating activities—including one titled “How Slow Can You Roll?” in which students work to slow the movement of a ball—that bring learning to life while building skills like how to communicate effectively, how to work well with others, and how to use sound data to solve problems.

“I want them to be able to reason through different theories as to what a possible solution might be, and to avoid jumping to conclusions,” said Sara. “The unit is building up their skills to be good scientists and good observers who ask questions and design solutions.”

We can’t wait to see what they come up with.

STEM

Jodi Spiro's third graders are making an environmental difference at Salt Lake City private school Rowland Hall.

Change may be slow, but it’s worth the wait.

This life truth was recently made clear to Jodi Spiro’s third graders, a group of students passionate about doing their part to save the earth—particularly when it comes to limiting the amount of garbage that’s dumped into the environment, a topic they’ve discussed often this year.

“We knew there was a problem, then we watched this video of how much trash ends up in rivers and oceans, and we thought it was really sad,” said class member Helena A. “We saw this island made out of trash—it’s bigger than Texas.”

“It feels like people don’t really care about what they’re throwing out,” added classmate Declan M.

And it really bothered the third graders to imagine Rowland Hall contributing to the problem—especially in one specific way: even though the school had returned to a traditional serving line at lunch (during the pandemic, individually packaged meals were delivered to classrooms), the dining hall hadn’t shifted back to using metal cutlery. The students knew the use of plastic utensils had to be creating a lot of waste, so in October they visited the dining hall to get an idea of just how much. The third graders began by counting the number of plastic utensils that fit into the dining hall’s cutlery dispenser, then determined how many times that dispenser was filled. They were shocked to learn that the McCarthey Campus was tossing around 900 plastic forks, knives, and spoons each week.

We realized how much we were throwing away and we wanted to know why, and we wanted to change it.—Third grader Declan M.

“We realized how much we were throwing away, and we wanted to know why, and we wanted to change it,” said Declan.

And though the students were anxious to make those changes right away, Jodi knew they would need the support of campus partners, including SAGE Dining Services, Rowland Hall’s lunch provider, which she knew was probably using plastic cutlery for a reason. Jodi saw the moment as an opportunity for her class to not only understand the reasoning behind that decision, but to learn how to respectfully present their request to reverse it.

“The way you go about something is the way you’ll get lasting change,” she told the class. “You’re going to get better buy-in from everybody if you’re respectful.”

So the class began by writing persuasive letters to explain their concerns and to propose their solution, which they sent to Julia Simonsen, food service director for SAGE, in November. They received a prompt response explaining that there was indeed a reason behind the use of plastic cutlery: students had been throwing away the dining hall’s metal cutlery, as well as reusable cups and even lunch trays. This was its own problem—the dining hall simply couldn’t afford to keep replacing these items. The third graders realized that, in order to address their cutlery concerns, they would first have to tackle another waste issue. So they made Julia an offer: they would teach lower schoolers how to properly use lunchroom materials if SAGE agreed to bring them back. Julia agreed.

With their end goal in mind, the third graders jumped into making plans for educating fellow students both on the proper use of cafeteria materials and on limiting what they sent to the landfill. They knew they would have to talk to every Lower School class, so they divided into teams, with each team choosing the grades they wanted to present to and the approach they thought best for that age group, such as a slideshow, a game of Kahoot!, or a Book Creator story. They also teamed up with staff and faculty members Emily Clawson, Mary Anne Wetzel, and Collin Wolfe to create a TikTok video demonstrating these skills, which they played for every class.

@rowlandhall1867

Jodi Spiro's third-grade class is on a crusade to make our school more environmentally friendly, and their first stop is the dining hall. After seeing how many plastic utensils were being thrown away, the students knew they had to take action. They urged the school to bring back metal cutlery, reusable cups, and compost buckets. Even at such a young age, these students are authentically learning and making a difference not only for our school, but for the world. Great job, third graders!

♬ original sound - Rowland Hall

Rowland Hall third graders demonstrate where to discard leftover milk, how to separate trash from compostable materials (which are then used by the Lower School’s Garden Club), and where to return utensils, cups, and trays.


These class presentations were another chance for the third graders to tap into their respectful dialogue skills: they had to present their material in ways that didn’t place blame on anyone and inspired students to want to help. “We wanted to make sure everyone understood the problem,” explained Helena. “We showed them what’s been happening and what they can do.”

And the presentations made an impact. From first to fifth grade, students expressed a desire to help fix the dining hall’s dual waste problems through their daily actions. “I didn’t really know that I could actually convince people this well of what's been happening in the cafeteria,” said Declan. “It felt really good.” Fellow third graders in Matthew Collins’ and Katie Schwab’s classes even created posters to help remind students to pay attention when disposing of items on their lunch trays, which are helpful resources as students continue to build these habits.

From her perspective, Jodi was thrilled to see not only how other classes responded to her students’ hard work, but how the experience also built the students’ confidence. She said her class loved being seen as experts on a subject and answering their peers’ questions; after each presentation, they returned to the classroom beaming and asking to talk to more people. “I think it brought out parts of themselves that they probably didn’t even expect,” she said.

They learned change is slow, but change is possible, and to be persistent: just because you want something to change doesn’t mean it’s going to follow your timeline.—Jodi Spiro, third-grade teacher

It also showed them that hard work on a cause you believe in is worth it. When the reusable cutlery and cups returned to the dining hall after April break, the moment was more than just the culmination of a nearly school-year-long goal; it was a strong reminder of how young learners can help address problems that seem insurmountable—such as waste in the environment—and truly make a difference.

“It’s so easy to get overwhelmed with the bigness of it,” said Jodi, “but the students learned you can start with something small and in your control, like what’s happening in our school. They learned change is slow, but change is possible, and to be persistent. Just because you want something to change doesn’t mean it’s going to follow your timeline.”

They also learned that making good choices add up and that, often, being the change you wish to see in the world starts by simply making a small decision to do something.

“Don’t be a problem starter,” summarized Jodi. “Be a problem solver.”

Ethical Education

Rowland Hall's 2021–2022 debate team after winning their second consecutive 3A state championship.

For this year’s debate team, there may be one thing that feels better than claiming Rowland Hall’s second consecutive region and state titles.

Doing it in person.

After two years of online-only competition, debaters from across the state were able to gather in person once again for the 2022 regional and state tournaments. After numerous Zoom-room competitions, said Mike Shackelford, Rowland Hall debate coach, these in-person gatherings were a welcome change.

"A return to in-person debate was rejuvenating,” said Mike. “Sure, it meant more planning and earlier mornings—but it also meant pep talks and motivational speeches, real-time collaboration, bonding and playing together between rounds, and supporting one another by watching final rounds as a group. It allowed our students to be truly seen and heard by their opponents, judges, and teammates." And it was especially exciting for the team members who hadn’t yet experienced in-person debate events. “They didn't even know what they were missing,” said Mike.

Sophomore Zac Bahna was one of these students. He experienced his first year of competition—where he placed third in Foreign Extemporaneous Speaking at state—on Zoom, and now understands the contrast between the two settings.

We were able to foster an environment in which everyone was willing to help each other out and push each other to succeed.—Zac Bahna, class of 2024

“The in-person experience is a lot different but more fun,” said Zac, who, with fellow sophomore and partner Harris Matheson, took third place in this year’s Public Forum event. “You get to talk to debaters from other schools and hang out with your teammates between rounds. Although last year’s debate season was still a great experience, the team felt more isolated and disconnected when we were all debating from our own homes. The state tournament was one of the first times that I could really feel the good energy of a team environment.”

That energy makes a difference for Rowland Hall not only because the team plays up a division into the 3A classification, pitting them against larger schools, but also because they had to spend a lot of time preparing for individual speech events—an area they don't practice during the regular season—to be competitive.

“It was so awesome to see so many Rowland Hall debaters come together and push themselves to compete in different events than they normally would and work together to achieve a common goal,” said Zac. “We were able to foster an environment in which everyone was willing to help each other out and push each other to succeed.”

As a result, the team walked away from the state tournament with their second consecutive 3A state title (their total score, 108, was 33 points higher than the second-place team) and an impressive list of performances:

  • Senior Samantha Lehman took first place in National Extemporaneous Speaking, an event in which debaters are given a domestic affairs question and have 30 minutes to research, write, and deliver seven-minute speeches.
  • Senior teammates Ella Houden and Kit Stevens took first place in Public Forum, an event that includes short speeches interspersed with three-minute crossfire sections, on the topic of the pros and cons of organic agriculture. Senior Samantha Lehman and junior Micah Sheinberg as well as sophomores Zac Bahna and Harris Matheson closed out the top three spots, giving them a co-championship.
  • Junior Layla Hijjawi and sophomore Joey Lieskovan took first place in Policy, an event in which teams advocate for or against a policy change resolution, for their take on the best proposals for water resource protection. Juniors Ruchi Agarwal and Julia Summerfield also went undefeated in this event, giving them the co-championship, while senior George Drakos and sophomore Gabe Andrus, as well as sophomores Marina Peng and Logan Fang, tied for third place—a clean sweep of the top four spots! (Learn more about how debaters across the state, including Rowland Hall students, prepared for this topic in The Salt Lake Tribune.)
  • Freshman Aiden Gandhi took fifth place in Lincoln-Douglas, a solo debate event, for his speech on journalistic ethics.
  • Junior Zachary Klein took third place in Foreign Extemporaneous Speaking, an event in which debaters are given a foreign affairs question and have 30 minutes to research, write, and deliver seven-minute speeches.
  • Freshman Andrew Murphy took fifth place in Student Congress, a competition in which students lead and participate in a simulation where they debate different pieces of national legislation.
  • Junior Micah Sheinberg took fourth place in Impromptu Speaking, an event in which debaters are required to prepare and deliver speeches on a random topic, with only one to two minutes to prepare.

Samantha Lehman also made school history by being the first Rowland Hall student to win an individual state championship in three different debate events over her high school career. The senior said the accomplishment showed her that she can successfully debate on both national and state levels—and reminded her of what she’s learned over four years.

Debate has made me more confident in my voice.—Samantha Lehman, class of 2022

“Debate has made me a more confident person,” said Samantha. “I’ve always been willing to put myself out there, but debate has made me more confident in my voice, in my ability to convey ideas. I know how to speak to a specific audience, to use my research skills and cater arguments to different groups. I know how to speak efficiently and clearly, in a way that’s not pedantic. I know more about the world: criminal justice issues, arms sales, international relations, water, climate change—subjects you would never find out just in school and reading the news.”

This perspective was echoed by ninth grader Aiden Gandhi, who emerged as a team phenom in his novice season, taking fifth place in Lincoln-Douglas at his first state tournament.

“The season allowed me to grow and learn about topics and ideas that I never would have explored otherwise,” said Aiden. And though he is thrilled about the accomplishments of this year, he’s even more excited about his personal growth. “I think I am most proud of achieving the growth that I did this year in debate. It means that I will be better equipped for next year and future debates.”

It’s this kind of attitude, found across the team, that promises continued excellence for Rowland Hall Debate. Even after graduation, said Samantha, she’ll be keeping an eye on the team—she’s that excited about what lies ahead. Zac and Aiden, also looking forward to what's in the team’s future, have already promised to contribute to ongoing success by challenging themselves and their teammates, cultivating a positive and fun environment, and building community.

“I am excited for the opportunity that next year's season brings to connect, grow, and improve,” said Aiden.

Debate

Rowland Hall Director of Equity and Inclusion Dr. Chandani Patel with students in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Dr. Chandani Patel wasn’t looking for a new job when she learned that Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City was searching for its first director of equity and inclusion. But when a recruiter sent her the posting, she found her interest piqued.

At the time, Chandani was director for global diversity education at New York University, a challenging and rewarding role that she had no immediate plans to vacate. However, as she read Rowland Hall’s position statement, Chandani was surprised to find herself contemplating a move: not only did Rowland Hall demonstrate a long-term commitment to the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work she’s dedicated her career to, but the school greatly emphasized community—a value that had risen in importance to her family after nearly a year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the New Jersey/New York area, we did not have much community at all, really, because we were far from our workplaces—everyone commutes,” explained Chandani. “The pandemic really shifted our priorities. We didn't feel embedded in a community, and we really wanted that.”

As Chandani and her husband, English teacher Dr. Brady Smith, discussed the Rowland Hall opportunity, they realized that Salt Lake City may be just the place to grow the community connections they craved, both for themselves and for their young daughter, Aashna, then four years old. The location worked both personally—Chandani already had a sister in Salt Lake, her parents were willing to relocate, and Brady’s parents live in nearby Colorado—and professionally: Salt Lake’s size and growth opportunities, including the ability to build partnerships in the DEI space, greatly appealed to the two academics-turned-educators. Furthermore, Rowland Hall serves a student population that, after more than a decade in higher education, Chandani felt pulled toward.

“I had been thinking about transitioning to PreK–12 education for a couple of years,” she said, “because I was starting to see key challenges in higher education: a lot of the unlearning that folks were engaged in as adult learners needed to have happened a little earlier in their lives.” In other words, Chandani had been observing students entering college classrooms with little to no experience engaging with those whose backgrounds or beliefs differ from their own, and it had become clear to her that students need earlier opportunities to practice navigating conflict and building trust across their differences.

“The world is, in many ways, super interconnected, yet we continue to be siloed; we continue to see patterns of kids only hanging out with kids who look like them or like the same things,” explained Chandani. “Research backs this up, even from—or maybe especially from—a racial identity standpoint.”

School Today: What’s It For?

As Rowland Hall’s inaugural director of equity and inclusion, Chandani is now playing a role in building the collaboration skills that today’s students will need in college classrooms and beyond. But even though preparing students to respectfully handle tough conversations, particularly with those who have differing opinions, in today’s world is of vital importance, she explained, it still often isn’t a priority in PreK–12 schools.

“In many schools, those are not the skills educators are explicitly talking about or helping students learn,” said Chandani, “yet in every single industry, the first thing that any hiring committee will ask about is collaboration skills or a time you encountered and navigated a conflict.”

And employers need staff members who work well with others. Many cite so-called soft skills—such as teamwork and collaboration, leadership, critical thinking, and communication—as areas they most desire in new hires. And it isn’t just day-to-day business tasks that benefit from these skills; the most pressing problems we now face—the ones today’s students will help find solutions to, including inequality, climate change, and a global pandemic—can only be solved by coming together.

“Students have inherited a whole lot of problems that require really creative and out-of-the-box solutions; we have to imagine different possibilities to build a different and better world,” said Chandani. PreK–12 schools offer ideal environments in which students can safely learn how to build relationships, practice collaboration, and navigate conflict—which, Chandani pointed out, is a helpful life tool.

Schools are now the places where students should acquire and practice human-centered skills that machines can’t replicate—like teamwork, curiosity, judgment, and creativity—and where they learn what to do with all the information available at their fingertips.

“We need to help students understand that when conflict arises, you don't back away from it but embrace it, so that you can learn something new—maybe about yourself, maybe about the other person, maybe about that issue, maybe about the world,” she explained. “If that process can happen at a younger age, then we have many more opportunities for students to practice, and to understand how to work across their differences.”

For some, this can be an unfamiliar perspective: we haven’t often thought of PreK–12 schools in that way. But just as twenty-first century employers have been rethinking the skills employees need to succeed, so too should educators be rethinking the role twenty-first century schools play in student success.

“School is no longer a place to just learn facts and information—we have that available to us on the internet,” said Chandani. Instead, she explained, schools are now the places where students should acquire and practice human-centered skills that machines can’t replicate—like teamwork, curiosity, judgment, and creativity—and where they learn what to do with all the information available at their fingertips.

Dr. Chandani Patel with a student in her Salt Lake City Lincoln Street Campus office.

Chandani's role allows her to focus on helping Rowland Hall students learn how to thrive and connect in our rapidly changing and diverse world. “We need to embrace our differences and know that we're not always going to agree exactly on an issue,” she said. “But, together, we can make the world a different place, a better place for all of us.”

Creating Student Leaders

For a DEI professional like Chandani, refocusing the role schools play as we look to the future is important in enhancing students’ learning experiences, especially as they participate in current conversations around equity and inclusion. By emphasizing human-centered skills alongside traditional academic subjects, students are better able to see the humanity behind their studies, building a stronger understanding of our collective history and how it shaped, and shapes, our daily lives. Examining diverse lived experiences in an English class, for instance, or learning about the contributions of historically underrepresented groups to the sciences helps students understand cultural contexts, while engaging in classroom discussions helps students learn to express themselves, make connections, and practice respectful disagreement.

By emphasizing human-centered skills alongside traditional academic subjects, students are better able to see the humanity behind their studies, building a stronger understanding of our collective history and how it shaped, and shapes, our daily lives.

“It’s important for them to recognize that even if we have a lot of shared experiences and shared identities, we're still not going to always agree—and that's not a bad thing: that means you always have something to learn from each other,” said Chandani. This applies to educators, too, who help solidify these skills by modeling what it means to learn from others. “My goal,” said Chandani, “is to help students learn how to facilitate conversations, navigate conflict, and build a collaborative process.”

Importantly, this focus on building human-centered skills in the classroom should be viewed as an enhancement to learning—not something that comes at the expense of the academic rigor we expect from schools—because it enriches learning, helping to develop lifelong thinkers who can ask thoughtful questions to build their understanding of the world, their place in it, and their role in creating knowledge and change.

“Our students want to have hard conversations, and we want them to have the tools to ask questions of the world,” explained Chandani. “We're not in the business of making any student feel bad or responsible for something that's way bigger than them—that is not how learning happens. The goal is to give students tools to ask questions around why things are the way they are and how they might be different in the future so that everyone can thrive.”

These actions benefit students in other ways too: as we emphasize human-centered skills, we show the value of all lived experiences, giving students a deeper sense of belonging to their school communities. And as they feel that belonging—and their confidence grows—students are more likely to speak up, to take action, and to believe in their own ability to make change.

“I'm really invested in the idea that every single one of our students is a leader,” said Chandani. “And we need to cultivate that sense of leadership.”

Dr. Chandani Patel with a group of Salt Lake City high school students.

Chandani's office on the Lincoln Street Campus supports student growth too: she views it as a community space where students can gather to practice connection and leadership skills, or simply hang out or do homework. “Space is really important, especially for students who don't feel well-represented,” she explained. “It's a huge part of how they come to think about school.” 

Looking Ahead

For Chandani, building leaders doesn’t stop at students—in fact, she said, one of the most exciting things about joining Rowland Hall is discovering the community’s collective commitment toward lifelong learning and making the school a welcoming place for all.

Rowland Hall has been doing this for over a decade. This is a community that really does care for each other, that really does want to do the hard work, because everyone is in the space of wanting to learn.—Dr. Chandani Patel, director of equity and inclusion

“Rowland Hall has been doing this for over a decade,” said Chandani. “This is a community that really does care for each other, that really does want to do the hard work, because everyone is in the space of wanting to learn.”

As she continues to settle into the school community—now her family’s community—Chandani is committed to involving all stakeholders, including families, in supporting their students as well as in navigating their own learning journeys, and she’ll be engaging various groups in conversation to identify the top challenges, opportunities, and questions that will inform Rowland Hall’s DEI work in the coming years.

“I'm invested in learning from a diverse array of folks,” she said.

And because Chandani knows that it will take time to get to know the entire community, she’s also committed to providing ongoing updates on what she’s learning and what families can expect from her, beginning with a community forum tentatively scheduled for February.

“I want to talk with the community about what I'm learning, answer questions, and really make sure the work that I'm doing is transparent. This is not work done in secret; it’s shared work that is always going to be important to talk about and make visible,” said Chandani with a smile. “There is a lot of excitement and enthusiasm, and we have a really great opportunity to build on that momentum.”

Equity & Inclusion

You Belong at Rowland Hall