When you begin comparing schools on your short list, it is important to at least be aware of certain important aspects of the school and its operation. While you can certainly tell whether a school is well-run just by visiting it and observing the condition of the grounds and facilities, it is worth asking a few detailed questions. The answers to these questions can be found online as a rule, so explore the school's website thoroughly before asking the admissions staff.
How long has the head of school/principal been in office?
This question speaks to the stability of the school. If the headmaster or headmistress (also called head and occasionally director) has been there for a couple of years, that's a good sign. Private school heads will stay forever if they are doing a good job and the trustees are satisfied with his job performance. Nowadays a private school head is the de facto CEO of the school. But his major responsibility is going to be in the area of fundraising. Public relations is another part of his brief.
If the door to the headmaster's office has become a revolving one with several heads coming and going over a period of a few years, you might want to find out why they didn't stay. Most private schools conduct national searches for a head of school and involve the school community in the process. So it would be unusual for a school to get the fit wrong.
Is there a strategic plan in place?
Granted, a strategic plan is not a critical item on your check list. However, the fact that the school has a strategic pland and mentions it on its web site indicates that the board of trustees are thinking about the future of their school. Resting on a rich legacy of tradition, achievement and financial reserves is simply not enough these days. Any good school is going to be concerned about its future. Demographics change. Even missions can change. Good managers will study what needs fixing and what needs to be adapted to the current market conditions. Private schools are really no different. So, find out if a strategic plan is in place. You might even ask what has been accomplished so far. Here's a brief overview of strategic planning:
When was the school last accredited?
Some people think that accreditation is not a relevant metric. I disagree. For me the accreditation process indicates that the school community is willing to submit to both and internal and an external review process. The kind of accreditation processes set forth by the various regional accrediting associations in the United States are both exhaustive and rigorous. From our perspective as parents high academic standards are a critical component. For many of us the academics trump almost everything else. Accreditation is a seal of approval which allays any questions and concerns most of us might have.
How large is the endowment?
The size of a private school's endowment is another measure of the school's financial stability. Think of an endowment as the school's savings account. The endowment acts as a cushion in tough times. If the headmaster and fundraising staff are doing their jobs properly, the endowment should be growing steadily as grateful alumni and friends of the school remember the school with bequests and special gifts. Endowments also contribute significantly to the financial aid programs of most schools. Financial aid awards allow students who could not otherwise afford to attend receive a private school education.
The endowment will be small or non-existent in a new school. There's nothing wrong with that. Just be prepared to contribute to help get the school on the proper financial footing. On the other hand if the school has been around for decades and has burned through its endowment, that is probably not a good thing. Prudent management of school resources is always a good thing.
Financial condition of school
You can make your own judgement about a private school's financial condition by reading its Form 990. All private schools which are non-profit entities are required to file a Form 990 which is their tax return. These Forms 990 can be found online in several places on the web including The Foundation Center and Charity Navigator.
If the school is living off tuition income, that will be apparent in those financial documents. An endowment gives a school another source of income, meaning that tuition doesn't have to cover all expenses. Most private schools operate as not-for-profit businesses. Here are some of the characteristics of sound fiscal management of a not-for-profit private school:
Most private schools have a skilled financial professional running operations on the back end. The federal, state and local reporting requirements in addition to the financial management duties require experienced, capable people to run the school efficiently.
Number of faculty with advanced degrees
Most private schools pride themselves on attracting and retaining well-qualified teachers. As you peruse the faculty listings, you will inevitably feel the pride as the school describes the degrees held and so on. You expect your child to be taught by somebody who knows his subject. The schools understand that and work very hard to attract and retain faculty who will measure up to your expectations. You can expect to see 70-80% of faculty with advanced degrees. Often those degrees will be in their subject.
As with the headmasters, many private school teachers tend to stay forever if they like what they are doing and feel appreciated. So, if you see teachers coming and going, find out why that has happened. An unhappy teaching staff is not a good sign in a private school. Jeff Kortes explains how employee retention works in this short video:
Choosing a school is a lot of work. You must do your due diligence. Don't be shy about asking questions and gathering the information which you need to make an informed decision. A lot is at stake besides the huge expense. Your child's happiness and well-being are of paramount importance.
The advantage of using a checklist such as this one is that you can keep track of your visits to the three or four schools on your short list. A checklist will help you focus on similarities and differences. A checklist properly used will give you the facts which you need in order to make the decision about which school is best for your child.