Scott Nelson Rye Country Day School

Interview with Rye Country Day School’s Headmaster Scott Nelson

If you have been following school rankings, you know that Rye Country Day School is ranked as one of the best schools in the United States. According to’s 2020 rankings, Rye Country Day School is ranked #1 Best Private K-12 School in Westchester County and #13 Best Private K-12 School in America. I had the privilege of interviewing Scott Nelson, Rye Country Day School’s headmaster. He gives advice to families looking into private schools and tells us what sets Rye Country Day School apart.

You grew up attending both public schools and private schools. From your personal experience, what would you say to families deciding between private schools and public schools?

I grew up in Yonkers and attended the Yonkers public school. This was in the 1960s and the neighborhood schools were quite strong. Then I was offered a scholarship to attend Hackley School for high school.

In Westchester and Fairfield counties, independent schools are competing with very strong public schools. For families deciding between public schools and independent schools, I’d say in general, independent schools are smaller in size, which facilitates personalized experiences. For example, Rye Country Day School has 410 Upper School students while some local public high schools have 1500 students. The smaller class size gives students more opportunities to participate in activities. There is also more of an effort to meet individual student’s needs and interests. For example, we have one student enrolled in Ancient Greek 3. Some public schools may not support a class with one student because they require a minimum class size in order to offer the course. Independent schools also have the advantage of selecting students through their admissions process. Each school has their unique aspects- there are single-sex and co-ed schools; some independent
schools have an emphasis on performing arts or technology. And you may find that some independent schools are more diverse school communities because they draw students from a broader area.

Rye Country Day School
Photo Credit: Sue Smith

For families looking into Private schools, what should they be looking for at open houses and tours? What questions should they be asking?

I always say that parents looking into independent schools need to be anthropologists. They need to do their homework- to learn about the school’s offerings and the school’s culture. How do you get that info? Admissions offices and open houses give general information about a school. Recent alumni parents, current parents, and young alumni are good sources for getting this information. And you should also visit schools while it is in session (not during summer and not after school when few students are around). For prospective Middle School and High School students, you should have the student spend the day at school. Also, watch the videos on the school’s website as these give you some insights into school life.

Photo Credit: Sue Smith

How do you know if a school is a good fit?

As parents, you have to think about where your child will be most successful in terms of a particular school’s academic requirements and extracurricular offerings. It is really about knowing your child and finding the academic, social, and extracurricular environment in which they can thrive in.

What are the top reasons to go to Rye Country Day School?

Rye Country Day School has a strong academic program that can challenge the strongest students. We meet the needs of students who can do that level of work. And at the same time, we work at making it a supportive environment so students can reach their maximum potential. We also have broad offerings in terms of arts and athletics, and our school culture allows students to do both. It’s not a place where students are either athletes or artists. The school also has a focus on technology as RCDS has been a laptop school (all students in grades 7-12 have laptops) for almost 20 years now.

Where do you draw your student population?

Our students come from 38-40 school districts- 25% from Connecticut and the rest from Westchester and New York City.

Photo Credit: Sue Smith

Of the 27 years you’ve been headmaster at Rye Country Day School, what accomplishments are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of the faculty we have been able to hire. While the campus has been expanded and rebuilt during these past 27 year period, ultimately it is not the building that makes the school– it is the faculty and staff. I’ve had the opportunity to hire 97% of our faculty and staff. I also believe schools need to be evolving institutions, and engaged faculty and staff are key to successful school change and evolution. Our faculty and staff are committed to professional development, and our school is fortunate to have the resources to fund their professional development. We are also fortunate to have a Board that is extremely supportive and an extremely generous school community, which makes so much possible from extensive financial aid to our first-rate facility and competitive salaries.

Rye Country Day School
Photo Credit: Sue Smith

What’s the most important thing that you want families to know about Rye Country Day School?

What is most important is our goal of preparing students, ultimately, to be life-long learners and contributing leaders of their communities. Of course, as a college preparatory school, we do prepare students for college and help them gain entrance to college, but at Rye Country Day School, we seek to prepare students for their adult lives in an ever-changing world.

Rye Country Day School is a co-ed PK-12 Independent School in Rye, NY (Westchester County)

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