Given the diversity of missions and educational philosophies among independent schools in the national capital region, opportunities abound for students looking to be challenged, inspired and supported. The private school landscape features more than 700 schools in Northern Virginia, Maryland’s Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Washington, D.C., according to the website Private School Review. Whether they be parochial, single-gender, special needs, Montessori, Waldorf, foreign-language based, day or boarding, area private schools seek to prepare students for the next step in their educational journeys. The following schools are representative of the wealth of offerings found in the region.

Brooksfield School, Grades Preschool - 4, McLean, VA

“Our mission is to provide a nurturing and loving learning environment that is dedicated to Montessori, the arts, mindfulness and outdoor education,” says Mary Anne Duffus, Brooksfield’s executive director. “We strive to focus on each individual child's development within the framework of creating a mindful community that respects the earth, community service and advanced learning.” The school’s setting, she adds, stimulates, fosters curiosity and instills self-confidence. Situated on five acres, Brooksfield features organic gardens, a Peace Garden, a state-of-the-art playground and walking trails. The school strives, both in the classroom and in nature, to connect students to an area of learning that delights them. “We believe kids who have found passion for learning are creating great skills to carry them through life,” says Duffus.

Barnesville School of Arts and Sciences, Grades Preschool - 8, Barnesville, MD

“Three key words – joy, support and excellence – drive everything we do, define our culture and frame the learning environment,” says Susanne Johnson, head of school. The 50-acre campus in the Montgomery County Agricultural Preserve sets the stage for “experiential learning that allows teachers to help students make connections to the real world,” she says. Character education is integral to the school’s mission and focuses on nine core values, including respect, which “at this time in our nation is incredibly important,” says Johnson. Partnerships with Black Hill Regional Park and BlackRock Center for the Arts provide students with opportunities for collaborative, hands-on learning. Barnesville’s emphasis on both arts and science “enables students to make connections across different subjects,” she says. “It’s those connections that spark inquiry and understanding.”

Nysmith School for the Gifted, Preschool-8, Herndon, VA

“We think school should be fun,” says Head of School Ken Nysmith. “It sounds like common sense, but it’s actually a radically different approach. We make academics fun by diversifying the curriculum to meet the needs of each student.” A low student-to-staff ratio allows the school to differentiate instruction so that children can accelerate up to four grade levels. Nysmith School is ideal for students who don’t need a lot of repetition. “Families often don’t realize their child’s talents until they see how bored the student is in a traditional program,” says Nysmith. “They come here and we make it fun to learn. That’s the magic.” The school integrates technology into the curriculum to both engage children in learning and teach them to present their ideas. Its character development program allows students to become confident, compassionate, global citizens.

Oneness Family School, Ages 2 - 14, Chevy Chase, MD

“Our mission is to foster young innovators, entrepreneurs and global citizens,” says Andrew Kutt, head of school. “We focus on developing 21st century skills, such as creativity, collaboration, resiliency, empathy, emotional intelligence, self-awareness and analysis.” As a Montessori school, Oneness Family encourages students “to take charge of their learning, self motivate, seek resources and become their own self advocate,” he says. “They gain a terrific amount of confidence doing that.” The school’s curriculum allows students to delve deeply into subjects and pursue projects and activities of interest to them. Oneness Family focuses on conflict resolution, teaching students to address situations proactively and communicate effectively. Diversity is celebrated. “We have the largest United Nations Day celebration in Washington, with 89 dignitaries in attendance this past October,” he says.

Gesher Jewish Day School, Grades K - 8, Fairfax, VA

Gesher’s tagline “nurturing individual excellence” captures the essence of the school’s mission, says Dan Finkel, head of school. “The reason for our existence is to prepare children for a meaningful, successful life beyond our walls and those three words are key.” Gesher’s mix of veteran, mid-career and new teachers allows for “a variety of approaches and enough structure so that those who need it get it,” says Finkel. “You won’t see kids sitting at desks all day. They are engaged and active.” Gesher Green, a signature program, strives to create a culture that combines environmental studies and Jewish values, preparing students to become stewards of the land. Music is integral to the Gesher culture. “It’s not uncommon at recess to find us singing or jamming,” says Finkel.

Edmund Burke School, Grades 6 - 12, Washington, D.C.

Committed to diversity, equity, inclusion, service and leadership, Burke “brings together students who are different from one another, gives them power and responsibility and teaches them to think independently and step forward to make positive contributions to the world,” says Alison Merow, the school’s director of communications and marketing. “Our teaching is based on discussion, collaboration, research and discovery – student engagement and interest is key to the way lessons are presented.” Burke’s students learn good citizenship and to pursue social justice. “We don’t tolerate behaviors that demean or marginalize others,” says Merow. “Students at Burke feel safe, known and appreciated for all talents.” A no-cut extracurricular policy, a rotating schedule so classes don’t meet at the same time every day and student-led family conferences distinguish the school.

McLean School, Grades K - 12, Potomac, MD

From the outside McLean looks a lot like a traditional college preparatory school except that it serves students with mild to moderate learning differences, including those who are dyslexic or have attention or anxiety issues, says head of school Michael Saxenian. “Highly trained, super-committed teachers and small class sizes are key to student success.” McLean focuses more on delivering differentiated instruction and less on pulling students out of class to work with a specialist. Its curriculum is extensive, featuring advanced placement and honors classes in the upper school. Students have the option of taking online courses or classes at American University. “We also have a rich set of extracurricular programs – theater productions, visual art, athletics and robotics, to name a few,” says Saxenian.

Maret School, Grades K - 12, Washington, D.C.

“We ignite our students’ potential and foster their academic, artistic and athletic talents. We develop the mind, nurture curiosity, welcome challenge, embrace joy and build community that is equitable and inclusive.” Maret’s mission, while long, acknowledges that preparing students is a balancing act, says Marjo Talbott, head of school. In-school counseling and parent partnerships are key to student success at Maret, which has students from 48 countries. Service learning is an integral part of the curriculum. “It’s not noblesse oblige but getting into the community and working with organizations to make a difference,” she says. The school’s sustainability model, she notes, has reduced tuition so that it is now $5,000-$6,000 less than other schools. Known for its athletics, Maret’s football team is ranked 20th in the region.

Bishop McNamara High School, Grades 9 - 12, Forestville, MD

“We pride ourselves on our personal touch and the Holy Cross mission of educating both minds and hearts,” says Patricia Norris Garber, the school’s director of enrollment management. “We prepare our students to transform society and make the world a better place.” Bishop McNamara welcomes students from diverse backgrounds, exposing them to a variety of traditions and instilling in them a respect for the cultures and values of others. Roughly half of the student body is Catholic, according to Garber. The school focuses on the liberal arts. “We give students a well-rounded education so they can find their niches when they go out into the world,” she says. “High school students shouldn’t be put on a specific track. Here they are able to explore options they may not have considered before.”

Madeira, Grades 9 - 12, McLean, VA

“Madeira’s mission is to launch women who will change the world,” says Karen Joostema, the school’s director of communications and marketing. “Our innovative academic program includes a modular schedule, where girls take three classes over five weeks to allow for deeper learning and greater balance,” she says. Each year, students spend one of their “mods” in a college-style internship. “Sophomores work in community service, juniors experience Capitol Hill and seniors pursue a career interest or passion,” says Joostema. “By the end of four years, all Madeira students have developed an impressive resume.” Madeira, which has both day and boarding students, creates “a culture of achievement in which academic progress is of great importance and the discovery and development of a girl’s individual potential is paramount.”

Nora School, Grades 9 - 12, Silver Spring, MD

Nora provides a home for “kids who are bright but find school frustrating; kids who are curious, playful and need to be in a place where various learning styles are taken into account,” says Dave Mullen, head of school. While not a special education school, Nora embraces students with mild learning challenges, those dealing with family or school disruptions and others who struggle with the hyper-competitiveness of area schools, he says. “On the one hand, we provide rigor and get kids ready for college; on the other hand, we are nurturing.” Nora is distinguished by a schoolwide mindfulness program, monthly all-school, off-campus community service and no-cut sports teams. It’s newly renovated facility is just a five-minute walk to Metro, allowing the school to use the community as a learning laboratory.

For other great and diverse private schools in the DMV check out our Private Schools & Educational Resources Directory.


Karen Finucan Clarkson is a Bethesda freelance writer and the mother of three sons.