Private and Independent Schools: A Snapshot of History and Curriculum

By Angela Lindsay

If asked which existed first in the U.S., public or private schools, most people would probably guess public schools. They would be wrong. Private schools were created first—not only to educate, but also to instill basic principles in students and to build and sustain the new nation. Schooling for students in the colonial days was provided by small, private schools where boys learned core subjects such as math and reading, while girls learned the domestic arts ( Only white children received an education until slavery was abolished, and most teachers were men who were “well-intentioned” but did not have much formal education themselves. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the government began to compel children to attend K-12 public schools (

In the 1840s, a uniform, organized system of public education began to take shape, along with the concept of public funding for schools at the local level—a model which still flourishes today ( Though 80 percent of American children are educated in the public system today, the other 20 percent find certain needs fulfilled in private schools that are not provided for in the public sector. Local private and independent schools offer such options through their curriculums.


The founders of Charlotte Latin School (CLS) wanted to establish a school which provided a traditional education with strong leadership training and an appreciation of western civilization. CLS models its academic program on the best practices of the early Latin schools, focusing on core academic mastery, including classical languages, critical thinking and a strong student-teacher relationship.

Latin’s curriculum is traditional in design yet innovative in implementation. Students are expected to work hard and stretch academically. They receive substantial support from their teachers. Elective courses and extracurricular activities are available on an age-appropriate basis, and students are encouraged to explore their interests in the arts and athletics, as well as master their academic subjects, to develop a balanced educational experience. Honors and Advanced

Placement courses are taught in the upper school. Middle school students who excel in a subject area may be placed in higher-level courses to engage their intellects.

“We encourage active learning through problem-solving techniques and worthwhile, relevant learning experiences in all areas of study, including cooperative and team-based learning. Charlotte Latin School is committed to an environment of inclusion, where everyone is treated with dignity and respect,” says CLS Associate Headmaster for Academic Affairs Dr. Rod

Chamberlain. “It is through our rigorous, creative curriculum that we deliver on our mission to encourage development and civility in our students by inspiring them to learn, by encouraging them to serve others and by offering them many growth-promoting opportunities.”


The Fletcher School grew from a group of parents frustrated by the lack of educational options for their children with learning disabilities. For more than 30 years, it has served the Charlotte region as the largest and most comprehensive program for students with specific learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders. The independent, K-12 school offers a college-preparatory curriculum and prepares students with learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to mainstream into elementary, secondary and post-secondary academic environments.

“Our bright, talented and often gifted students learn in small, structured classes with a 6:1 student-to-teacher ratio,” says Susie Culp, director of admissions.

The Fletcher School’s academic programs are based on the Orton-Gillingham method of instruction, which utilizes phonetics and emphasizes visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning styles. Instruction begins by focusing on the structure of language and gradually moves toward reading. The program provides students with immediate feedback and a predictable sequence that integrates reading, writing, and spelling. Content courses such as social studies, science and math are taught using the same multisensory techniques of instruction.

Culp explains, “Our comprehensive program is designed to build the academic, social and emotional competence of our students. Instruction is sequential, cumulative and repetitious in order for students to achieve mastery. Individual and prescriptive plans of instruction are developed for each student. Multisensory learning techniques are employed, and school-issued, 1:1 Apple® devices support 21st century learning and enhance students’ organizational skills.”


To support children and families in their educational journey, The John Crosland School utilizes methods such as: an educational management plan tailored to each child; Measure of Academic Progress (MAPS) testing to follow growth and set goals; social skills classes; exposure to the arts (physical education, music, traditional art and graphic arts); technology to support differentiated instruction; and a quality staff.

“The John Crosland School strives to be an innovative pioneer in the field of educating children with learning differences,” says Portia Eley, director of enrollment management and admissions.

“While offering personal attention, focusing on the needs of the child’s whole development, Crosland encourages creative thinking and exploration in an effort to foster a love of learning.”

While the school follows the N.C. Department of Instruction curriculum, it has an enhanced program using an integrated, multidisciplinary approach to teaching children with learning differences, dyslexia, Asperger’s Syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.  This approach involves enhancing classroom instruction by offering alternative instructional and assessment methods.  In addition to a rigorous curriculum in reading, writing, mathematics, science and social studies, the incorporation of technology and the arts helps to create new pathways in the brain and provides the opportunity for children to express themselves in new ways.


Charlotte Preparatory School, a non-religious independent school, was originally founded as Charlotte Montessori School and converted to a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit in 2012. Its educational approach consists of a hybrid program, which includes a Montessori early school and a traditional lower and middle school and is intentionally small in size because “students learn better in an intimately-scaled environment,” says Blair Fisher, head of school at Charlotte Preparatory.

Charlotte Prep’s course of study has three major philosophical bases: student-centered, research-based and success-oriented.

“That educational philosophy expresses itself in the creation of the curriculum that is based on research-proven best practice in all areas,” says Fisher.

Charlotte Prep implements the strongest curriculum available in all areas, including Montessori teaching principles in the early school and Math in Focus (a Singapore math approach), Columbia University’s language arts program, inquiry-based science and Total Physical Response for foreign language in the lower and middle schools.

“Curriculum isn’t a ‘thing’ or a simple methodology,” Fisher explains. “Instead, curriculum is a holistic process which derives from a school’s core values and educational philosophy and, thus, shapes the school’s mission. Curriculum, both written and unwritten, builds over time in a cumulative manner, and students derive the greatest value of the steady application of these forces in their lives over time.”


Celebrating its 75th year on Sept. 22, Charlotte Country Day School is Charlotte’s first independent school and, fittingly, has led the way with several other “firsts” throughout the years, including the first International Baccalaureate Diploma Program in North Carolina (1992), the first Office of International Studies (1988), the first Office of Diversity Planning (1998), the first sports medicine program (1987), the first high school Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program (2002), the first high school in North Carolina to have students traveling to Cuba (2015).

In every CCDS classroom—from junior kindergarten to its most rigorous advanced placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses—students gain the practical skills they need to succeed as scholars: how to break large problems into small parts, how to conduct research and how to express their ideas. Beginning in lower school, students are immersed in math, science, social studies and language arts, as well as modern and classical languages, public speaking, physical education, research, technology and the arts. By the time middle school students complete the eighth grade, they have the skills and confidence to thrive in upper school, where they can choose from a wide course catalogue that includes IB, AP and honors courses in every discipline, explains Scott Waybright, assistant head of school at CCDS.

“The most important aspect of our curriculum is bringing relevance to the educational experience of our students,” he says. “By fulfilling our mission, we will facilitate the development of young adults that are ready to not only impact their community, but also learn from the experiences that await them in the world. The adaptability and humility that comes from a curriculum that continuously challenges the student’s understandings and perceptions will provide a foundation that will serve the individual and the greater good.”


“As a collaborative, experiential and process-focused school, Trinity follows the structure of the workshop model as a means of giving voice and choice to students, building ownership and responsibility for their own learning,” says Chris Weiss, head of lower school at Trinity Episcopal School. “Also known as ‘constructivist,’ our educational philosophy redefines academic rigor by placing more emphasis on the students’ ability to construct their own knowledge and understanding.”

Trinity’s academic program brings all members of the school community to a richer intellectual, spiritual, social, physical and aesthetic awareness through an interdisciplinary and progressive approach to instruction. As students make connections across subject areas, they expand their creativity, enhance their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, sharpen their communication and leadership dexterity and develop their independence.

“The school’s founding educators believed strongly in a balanced literacy approach to the teaching of reading and writing, and continues to model the workshop instructional method in those subjects, as well as in mathematics and science. Our authentic and formative assessment—including student work, observations and tests—is seen as a tool to inform instruction, where the process is as important as the product,” she says.

In addition, its Service Learning program, one of the most important aspects of its curriculum, encapsulates its three core values of creating scholars, nurturing spirituality and embracing diversity.


Providence Day School was the first school in the nation to offer a separate and distinct Global Studies Diploma, which has its own curricular and co-curricular requirements. Originally designed to meet N.C. public school standards, its course of study has evolved significantly over 45 years. The current version is informed not only by roots in traditional literacies (science, math, English, science, arts, physical education) that are meant to produce a college-ready graduate, but also by a set of core competencies it feels students need to thrive in a global marketplace.

“Independent schools like PDS have the ability to treat curriculum development as a more fluid process, rather than adopting a uniform product issued by a government agency or religious entity.  We empower our grade team leaders and subject-area department chairs to establish our standards, then analyze and change curriculum to meet the needs of our students.  So, envision a process where there are many experienced leaders involved in a continuous process of improvement to produce our curriculum,” says Derrick Willard, assistant head of school for academic affairs at PDS.

Its their most current curricular TK (Transitional Kindergarten) -12 framework known as the PD Passport, and it dictates the content knowledge, essential skills and character dispositions that a PDS graduate should acquire by completing the entire course of study.  The graduate should appreciate and value cultural diversity and achieve a high level of proficiency in a language other than English.  At PDS, leaders envision a graduate being prepared to be an active global citizen—someone who can help create and lead peaceful, thriving and sustainable communities in the future.

“At Providence Day School, our commitment to diversity and inclusion is central to our identity as a community and is emphasized in our core values,” says Nadia Johnson, PhD, executive director of diversity and multicultural education at PDS. “It is not only reflected in the composition of our student body, faculty and administration, but also in our curriculum, which mirrors the diversity of Providence Day and the world. In addition, faculty embrace a culturally responsive approach to classroom instruction, experiential learning and social responsibility, as well as to the socio-emotional development of our students.”



Brisbane Academy Preparatory School’s course of study is foundationally aligned with North Carolina’s Common Core State Standard. Its individualized plans use a variety of resources and educational strategies to ensure mastery of grade level skills, allowing scholars to be challenged at their level of learning and encouraging their continued academic success.

“Our curriculum focuses on allowing each scholar to fully express themselves as individuals, with genuine respect for themselves and others. Our program also teaches overall wellness and development from the inside out. Healthy, happy scholars are successful citizens who contribute to our communities,” says Christopher Crooks, executive director at Brisbane.

Diversity is essential to Brisbane’s learning community, and has been integral throughout its 25-year history. It embraces a “come one, come all” approach to learning, says Crooks, and instills the same in its scholars. Brisbane currently has two sister schools in South Africa and several partnerships throughout the communities and country, including school outreach projects with senior citizen programs, homeless shelters and International House.