We parents are in a rather difficult position when it comes to finding out information about private schools. Because they are private schools, they are not subject to the usual sunshine or freedom of information laws. They are just like a privately-held company. They are under no legal obligation to tell you or the general public anything. You need to know exactly what is lurking behind those gorgeous web photos and enthusiastic classroom shots. You need to know the condition of the school from reliable sources. That's where hiring an educational consultant comes in. These professionals know their schools from the arts curriculum to the vintage of the Zamboni machine used on the hockey rink. This is information which you need in order to permit you to make the informed decisions you need to make about finding the right private school for your child.
One caveat, and it is a major one: there are educational consultants who claim to be able to get you into a school. Be careful. The sign of the genuine article is an educational consultant who will offer to help you find the best match for you and your child's requirements. Just be aware.
The following questions are ones you might want to ask but probably feel uncomfortable asking. That's why it's a good thing to hire an educational consultant. She can ask such questions with relative impunity. Plus she will think of dozens of other questions and raise many other issues about schools which will factor into your choice of schools.
1. Why did those five seniors get expelled just before graduation?
Perhaps there was an article in the local press or an item on the local news. It doesn't matter. Social media makes unwelcome publicity widely available in minutes. Naturally you want to know what happened just in case the situation is symptomatic of something more serious. You will probably learn a lot about how the school enforces its code of conduct which you and your child could be signing if you decide to go there. Your consultant probably knows the answer to the question or can provide a more detailed account of what actually transpired. While a professional consultant would never speak ill of a school, what she leaves unsaid or unanswered will give you a clue to her feelings. This news clip brings up the issue of what school staff might have known and when. This is the kind of thing your consultant can find out effectively for you in most cases.
2. Is it true that the school is having financial difficulties?
There are plenty of signals that a school is in trouble. Declining enrolments and staff turnover are just two of the more obvious signs. No sense in sending your child to a school which is having problems. Your consultant will have made discreet inquiries and also will have checked the school's Form 990 which is the tax return not-for-profit organizations must file annually. The 990 will reveal more about the financial background of the institutions in which you are interested. In these tough economic times with endowment funds decimated by financial turmoil, sound financial management is critical to the school's ability to survive and be sustainable. Here is an example of a typical fund-raising activity at Chatham Hall. The entire community gets involved.
In football Hail Mary passes are a desperate act with not much chance of success. When it comes to school finances, slow and steady is the best policy with fund-raising efforts spread across several fronts. Your consultant will know what's really going on. She might even have just heard through the grapevine that Miss Molly Sprotfelt, Class of '55 recently left the school her estate worth about $50 million. That changes the picture entirely, doesn't it? Or does it? Your consultant will know. Look at the case of New York Military Academy to get an idea of how important it is to understand a school's financial condition and how complicated such situations can be.
3. How many places are still available?
A professional educational consultant can find out the answer to that question in a heartbeat. Private school admissions offices rely on their networks of consultants as an important means of filling places. Last minute vacancies do occur. This situation is particularly important at moderately or less-competitive schools. We all know that the very competitive schools will have long waiting lists. The moderately competitive schools will have shorter waiting lists. Your chances of getting in improve the less competitive the school is. Your educational consultant will be in a good position to assess what is going on at a particular school for you.
4. My child was expelled from Shady Grove Country Day School. Does she stand a chance of getting in?
Before you spend a lot of time, effort and money applying to a specific school, you need to know whether you are wasting your time or not. Since your educational consultant knows your child and has reviewed the circumstances of her unfortunate dismissal from SGCDS, he can make the discreet inquiries necessary and test the waters for you. It will not be easy to pull off, but it can be done. There are far too many variables in play here for your consultant to know for sure what your chances are, but he will give it his best shot. And, no, don't even think of writing a check for $100,000 in an attempt to win favor for your cause. Get your child accepted, settled and flourishing like the rock star you know she is. Then, after a year or so, quietly, without fanfare, send that check to the head of school with a simple "Thank you!" Graciousness is never out of fashion.
5. One of your teachers was arrested in an FBI child pornography sting. How do I know that the other teachers are suitable?
One teacher's transgressions can certainly cloud a school's reputation. But the truth is that the school has probably bent over backwards to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again. Too much is at stake. Your consultant can confirm that for you and reassure you that all is well in the faculty lounge. She can also provide details of the preventative measures which the school has taken. The problem with applying to a school which has had its reputation dragged through the mud in the local and national media, not to mention social media, is that friends and family may well look askance at you. Reassure them that the cancer has been excised and that you have that on very good authority. The following clip illustrates how sensationally the popular media treats even the hint of scandal in a private school.
Hiring an educational consultant is always a good use of your money and time. These professionals know their schools and have excellent networks through which they can find out just about anything you need to know. After all you are investing significant sums of money in your child's high school education. Due diligence is a must. Leave it to the professional to ask the tough questions which you can't ask.
Questions? You may contact me on Twitter. @privateschl