Five Things to Consider When Considering a Private School

Students play outside Friends Community School, during its annual Fall Fair. Photo: Sharon Natoli

Choosing a private school is a lot like finding a mate. There are the must-haves -- a good personality match, a mutual attraction, and then there are the ideal extras. There are the things you know you want, and then there are unexpected qualities that are surprisingly appealing.

The courting process is also similar. You find a potential mate, get to know each other, and hope that there’s a mutual attraction. There are even like paths toward meeting interesting prospects.

There’s the bar scene, the school fair. Prospects, schools in this case, stand around with their marketing material while you visit with them and determine if you like what they have to offer. This can be a quick way of ruling in, or out, multiple options.

There’s also the blind date. Your friends wax poetic about a particular school and set you up. Perhaps it’s a social event or a musical performance. You go, you are interested or you’re not.

Or else you can make a date for yourself. Most schools offer open houses and scheduled tours that give you an opportunity to check them out without declaring your undying devotion. Have handy your list of questions and desires (more on that later), listen to the school officials, observe the ambiance and people, and decide if you want to enter into a more formal relationship.

There’s also the cyber-stalking, more appropriately known as the cyber-research approach. Check out the schools’ websites, online reviews and press, and local blogs. Watch out for the reviews of a lover scorned -- take the information as a whole rather than getting caught up in one particularly enthusiastic or scathing review.

But what should you be looking for in your search? It might not be terribly romantic, but you should make a list of questions that you need answered and have a good idea of what you need those answers to be. This relationship could last for years and you need to go into it having most of your desires met, or at least being fully aware of the shortcomings before you get started. So start early so you’re not rushed in your decision-making, and have a clear sense of what you would like, or at least what you definitely don’t want. Here are five top considerations to get you started.

Number One: Availability

Getting a sense of how competitive a school is, how many open seats there will be in your chosen year, and whether your child is likely to be a good candidate for those seats is a crucial first step. Don’t be afraid to shoot high, but be prepared to be shot down. Be optimistic, but realistic.

Know what a school is looking for in terms of successful applicants and determine if your child fits those criteria. Entrance tests, sports prowess, strong interviewing skills, fantastic grades, lots of extracurriculars, the “right” feeder school -- find out what the school is looking for and whether your child has it.

Have a backup plan, or two, or three. Applying to four or five schools is a good idea. Have one or two most competitive ones if that’s of interest to you and then pick two to three more that are more realistic. Often these schools are just as good; they might just lack the reputation (or students of famous parents) of your top choice.

Do you have champagne tastes but a beer budget? Can you afford these schools? Is a $40,000 per year school out of reach, but a $30,000 school doable? Will you need financial aid and if so, how much. A $15,000 school might serve you just as well and still allow you to do all those little extras like eating out and paying your electric bill.

Don’t let the price tag take a school off your list initially, but do be realistic about what you can afford and whether you can sustain that over a number of years. Find out about financial aid and what income levels they offer it to. Don’t forget to ask about additional fees for things such as books and activities and to factor in aftercare and summer camps as necessary.

Number Two: Location, location, location.

As with a house or a job, finding a school that is in a location that works for you is extremely important. Your mad love affair with a school across town will likely quickly fizzle after the first few months of undertaking a harrowing commute. Hours of transit time can cut into extracurricular and homework time, as well as family time and, perhaps most importantly, a child’s sleep.

The availability of before and aftercare can help make a school work better for your commute. After school enrichment programs can really make a difference in your total family’s time balance. Being able to knock out any tutoring, piano lessons, dance classes, and sports right there before your child even leaves school will make weeknights and evenings easier on the whole family.

Number Three: The Right Fit

Finding the so-called right fit is a much-discussed element of the school search process because it’s so important! There are so many types of educational models out there; research and know whether Montessori or language immersion, expeditionary or religious education is right for your family.

Allow the admissions process (and possibly an educational consultant) to help with this. When you visit a classroom, does it seem like a place where your child would prosper?  What is your child’s personality, learning style, and academic ability? What are your child’s strengths and weaknesses and how might they be best served?

Think about school size and class size, grades served, teacher training, diversity, amount of homework, and, most of all, overall philosophy of a school. Admissions officers are there to explain their school’s philosophy and to help you figure out the right fit. Does the school make you excited? Do you find yourself wanting to tell everyone about it? Let the process guide you into finding what works for your child.

Number Four: Facilities, extracurriculars, etc.

Most parents expect a private school to provide better facilities and resources than their neighborhood public school. Sports fields and gymnasiums, state-of-the-art auditoriums, art students, science labs, computers, and well-stocked libraries can greatly expand a school’s offerings. Environmentally-friendly materials, shady trees, light sensors, and all-natural playground equipment can improve the appearance and quality of a school while reducing its environmental impact.

However, good looks aren’t everything. What does the school do with them and what opportunities will your child have to participate? How is technology used, how do arts fit into the curriculum, what sports are offered? Do all students have an opportunity to participate or is it by selection or grade level? Do the kids get plenty of chances to play on the fancy playground or swim in the pool?

Number Five: That certain je ne sais quoi

Now on to the less objective measures. How does the school make a relationship that works? How does it continue wooing its community once that initial courtship period has passed? Are there resources such as a parent association? Are there regular meetings and celebrations among the students as a whole? Are relationships such as reading buddies fostered between grade levels?

The attrition rate for both students and teachers can provide a good barometer of the overall happiness level at the school. Happy people stay put! Recess and social time for the kids and planning and collaborative time for the teachers are important. Systematic support for students who might need extra help academically or behaviorally makes for a better environment for everyone.

Issues such as bullying and violence, as well as overall security should have a systematic approach and that approach, and any problems, should be communicated effectively to the parents. A safe, supportive neighborhood with plenty of ties to the school can also help foster a sense of security. Seeing a school as a greater community of administrators, teachers, students, parents, and community members gives a better sense of the school being part of something larger than itself.

Marriage?

So you’ve fallen in love. How do you secure the relationship? If you’ve done your homework and your legwork, chosen a school that’s a good fit for your child and your family, chances are good that a match will be made. It’s important to express your interest -- everyone wants to feel desired!

Make their jobs as easy as possible. Get your paperwork in on time and clearly articulate why you want the school and why they should want you. Make sure your child is on the same page. An unenthusiastic candidate is easy to spot, and reject.

Be cool and calm, but don’t play hard to get. If a school is your top choice, let them know. You’ve done the work, shown them why your child is the right choice for them. Now you just have to sit back and hope to receive that wonderful thick envelope at the beginning of March. Good luck!


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