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Parenting Guide: Education

Many families are recognizing the benefits of private education for their children, and Central Florida has plenty of options to meet their needs.

With a career in private education that spans more than two decades and a range of positions at schools in five different states, Dr. Mitchell Salerno is somewhat of an authority on the subject. What most impresses him about Central Florida—an area he first moved to in 2008 and recently returned to after five years in California—is the sheer number of options available to parents who think this type of academic setting would best fit their children.

“I think the positive, and maybe I can even say the amazing thing about Central Florida is there’s really something for everyone,” says Salerno, the head of school at Windermere Prep since 2021. “There seems to be a school for everybody’s preference and choice, whether that’s a Christian school, a Jewish school, a Muslim school or an independent, non-sectarian school. The beauty of this area is there are so many choices.”

That variety seems to be drawing more and more families toward private education. Certainly, the pandemic has played a role, as private schools experienced rising enrollment as a result of offering more in-person instruction than their public school counterparts were able to. But the qualities that have traditionally set private schools apart, such as smaller class sizes, individualized attention and added amenities, have also been factors.

“I think those are all very valid and very accurate,” says Aaron Farrant, head of school at The Christ School. “Also, what we hear a lot is that people want a caring, loving culture where kids are known. That’s a big part of it, and also the learning environment. I think parents are losing confidence maybe in some other alternatives and they’re seeking a better learning environment for their children. We hear a lot about the alignment with what their beliefs are, what they’re feeling and what they’re desiring for their children to learn, and what our school teaches.”

The Christ School has experienced a 50% growth rate over the past five years, Farrant says, and he adds that many other private schools in the area now have waiting lists. “We’ve increased our capacity by several hundred children over the last two years, and we’re maxing that out again. When there’s that kind of demand, you’re going to see new schools being opened to meet that demand.”

Of course, many families that go down this path are seeking lessons tied to religion for their children. At The Christ School, a non-denominational Christian institution, every day starts at chapel and students attend Bible class.

“It’s a big part of who we are and something we prioritize,” Farrant says.

Salerno is quick to point out that there are also plenty of excellent public schools in the area, which may offer aspects that can’t be found at a smaller private school, like the opportunity to participate in a marching band, for example. But one reason he believes private education is appealing is because it is customized to meet specific needs.

“People want to be known, they want to be seen, they want to feel like part of a community,” he says. “That’s not to say our public schools can’t do that, some of them do it very well, but I think there’s something to being in a slightly smaller environment that has been tailored to you. That’s a real driver for people and people want their kids to be in those kinds of spaces.”

One of the unique facets of Windermere Prep is that it’s part of the Nord Anglia family of 82 international schools and welcomes students from all over the world. Children who attend school there get to make friends with kids from a number of different countries, learn about other cultures and develop a global perspective.

“That is one of the things as head of school that I am most happy about, and dare I say, in love with about our community,” Salerno says. “We just came through the celebration season with high school graduation and all the promotion ceremonies, and when you dive in you can see the amazing group of people we have here, and they are literally from everywhere around the globe. We don’t really have an option to not think globally here. … We see ourselves as Orlando’s international school—we are quite diverse and not just in our boarding program, but you can go into our 3-year-old program and you will experience the same incredible international flavor to our school. It’s something we take great pride in and we’re very thankful for.”

Salerno’s own twin daughters graduated from Windermere Prep and he is thrilled with the global mindset they are taking with them as they move on to Rollins College in the fall. Farrant, likewise, believes so strongly in his school’s mission that he sends his two sons there, one in eighth grade and the other in fifth. At The Christ School, they can experience a holistic education based on spiritual, physical and social development, and when they were younger they also benefited from what Farrant calls “the best reading instruction in Central Florida.”

“It’s been such a blessing for my family,” he says. “I can put the dad hat on and talk to you about how their teachers have invested in them and the kind of people they’re becoming. Sometimes I think about how they spend more time with their teachers and their classrooms than they do with me, so the kind of environment you put them in is so important. I consider it genuinely and truly been a blessing that my kids have been able to be here and be influenced by some of the great teachers here.”

Choosing a College Major

What do you want to be when you grow up?

That’s a question that most students hear for the first time in preschool or kindergarten, and at that point, coming up with an answer like “doctor,” “police officer,” or “professional baseball player” is usually pretty simple. As they grow older, however, and advance through high school, thinking about college and a possible major often becomes a real issue for many.

Here in Central Florida, students appear to be following the national trends and ultimately focusing on popular majors such as business, health-related fields, social sciences and engineering, according to a spokesperson from Orange County Public Schools (OCPS), who also adds that computer science is growing in interest due to the advancements in artificial intelligence.

“Typically, the driving factors for our students in determining a major tend to be earning potential followed by a particular area of interest,” the spokesperson says. “When working with students, school counselors try to educate and provide exposure to students on the various careers that can meet their goals for potential earnings but also align with their interests and strengths.”

Andrea Borowczak, who notes that teacher shortages are a major problem not just in Florida but across the country, is hoping more students can see the benefits of a career in education. The director of the School of Teacher Education at UCF and a professor in the university’s College of Community Innovation and Education, she says students often underestimate the earning potential and the multiple opportunities that come with the profession.

In addition to changing the narrative about the possibilities that come with teaching, she feels it’s important to create different pathways to employment in addition to the traditional four-year college program, and to create partnerships with school districts to fill teaching vacancies, like the one UCF has with OCPS. She is optimistic that if more people can view teaching as a helping profession like nursing, they will follow the calling.

“I have yet to ask someone, ‘Can you tell me about a favorite teacher you had growing up?’ and have them look at me blankly,” Borowczak says. “Everybody will have an answer. It could be kindergarten, it could be second grade, it could be eighth grade, it could be senior year, but everybody has a teacher who made an impact on them, and that’s at the heart of what we’re doing. We’re bringing people together who are interested in teaching and helping them to create the best of themselves to go back and make an impact on the students they work with.”