In the early stages of identifying private high schools for your child, reading the catalogs and scanning school web sites will give you a lot of information. Just be aware that this is the information which the schools want to present. Marketing if you will. While there is certainly nothing wrong with putting your best foot forward, the reality is that you need to lift the hood and see what's inside. These five basic questions should be part of your due diligence as you sort through schools and begin to determine which one is the best fit for your child.
Get the answers to your questions two ways: by reading the materials offered and by asking in person. Incidentally, if you have decided to use the services of an educational consultant, these are questions which she can answer for you. Then all you have to do is follow up when you visit the schools and affirm what you already know.
1. What are they teaching?
For most parents this is the first question on the list. Priority #1. It plays to our concern about what kind of college or university our child will ultimately attend. Preparing for that next step is a huge undertaking and we know that we have to get it right. College preparation is a 3-4 year project.
So do your research carefully. This is where you need to get granular and actually review the various components of the school's curriculum and determine if they meet your objectives. If they offer Advanced Placement, how many courses do they offer? What has been their success rate in previous years? Do they offer the International Baccalaureate diploma preparation? That program is very tightly controlled by the IB organization so the standards should be high. Both AP and IB will stretch your child. The question in your mind has to be just how much stretching do you want her to undergo.
Many parents want a more progressive approach to the high school years. Less emphasis on tests and test preparation. If that is what you have in mind, then focus on schools which offer that approach. Between the AP and IB schools and the progressive schools is a whole lot of middle ground with schools offer basic AP courses, for example, and a mix of what they like to call experiential education. Each private school is unique. The differences can be subtle. They can also be very marked. It's up to you to figure out which school offers the most appropriate curriculum for your child's needs.
2. How are they teaching?
Like curricula, teaching styles are all over the map. You will see everything from small groups of students sitting around a Harkness table to students sitting at desks lined up in traditional fashion. And in some schools you won't find any desks at all.
Obviously the lab subjects require students to be hands on. Examine those facilities and ask about the teaching. Are the students learning by doing? Are they exploring? Discovering? The humanities and languages can be taught in many different ways. Are the students engaged? Are they just regurgitating information? Are they learning how to think critically?
Review the sports and extracurricular activities programs. Since private school teachers generally are required to coach a sport or direct an activity, it's one more way students will be taught. While it's hard to gauge the effectiveness or the influence of teachers in those settings, you will get a sense of how things are going by the popularity of the activity/sport and its resulting reputation. If that's not clear, then ask the pointed questions.
3. Why are they teaching that curriculum?
Never be embarrassed about asking why the school uses a particular course of studies or approach. That goes to the heart of why you want your child to attend a private school. If you don't agree with one school's approach, you simply move on and find one which fits the bill. It will be out there.
The manner in which the school answers your questions also is important. If they are proactively, enthusiastically trying to draw new parents in rather than using a more passive 'take it or leave it' attitude, they will be happy to explain. After they are experts at what they do. You and I may know what we want them to achieve. But they know how to accomplish it.
4. Where do their graduates matriculate?
Schools usually publish that information on their web sites. What matters to you is whether their graduates go to the the kinds of colleges and universities which you have in mind for your child. If the information is not available, ask the school for it. Or ask your consultant.
5. How qualified are their teachers?
Once again, you should be able to find this information on a school's web site. Private school teachers generally will have a first degree in their subject. The advanced or terminal degrees may or may not be in that subject depending on the career path a particular teacher has chosen to follow. That matters a great deal to us parents as we want our children to be taught by teachers who are at a minimum proficient in their field and preferably distinguished.