Choosing a school is a project. A major project. You need to execute this project to the very best of your ability.
Have you ever begun a project only to realize after a while that you really didn't know what you were doing? It's kind of like the guy who opens the box with 100 parts. Some assembly required. Does he read the directions? Probably only when he gets stuck.
When you set out to choose a private school for your child, you need a clear road-map for the process. You also need to understand that this is a major project which will consume a substantial amount of your valuable time.
How much time will it take?
* Researching schools online: 20-30 hours spread out over 4-6 weeks. This task can be done in the comfort of your own home on your own time.
* Visiting out of town schools: 36-60 hours spread out over 3 or 4 visits. The amount of time consumed by travel is the wild card here. The actual campus visit will usually include an interview with the admissions staff. Allow about an hour for testing.
* Visiting local schools: 10-15 hours spread out over 2 or 3 visits. Interviews and any testing which the schools require will add an hour or two.
Signs that you may be doing it wrong
As you can see choosing a private school is a project. A major project. Get it wrong and you will have a very unhappy child who hates her school. It's also possible that your child won't even get into a school. So, before you get that sinking feeling that you are doing it all wrong, let's look at some of the signs that point to that conclusion.
1. Not using an educational consultant.
You are not using the services of an educational consultant? I know they are not cheap. But you need expert advice for such a major decision. It's like buying a house or writing a will. You wouldn't make those kinds of decisions and sign contracts without an attorney's advice, would you?
The difference between you and the consultant is that she knows her schools. She knows the admissions staff. She knows the schools' reputations. She's connected and knows what's going on. That's what she does for a living. You may think that a certain school is a great fit for your child. Indeed it might well be. But what happens when you discover that you are missing several important aspects. Your consultant will be aware of what the school offers but even more importantly she will have your requirements in mind. She will highlight the doable schools on your list and the ones which she doesn't think are a good fit.
Selecting schools when you use a consultant becomes less a game of chance and more precise. The three or four schools which will be on your short list will be excellent matches. One of the schools, possibly two, will be schools which will admit your child. Others will be a bit of a reach but doable nonetheless.
Now contrast your consultant's short list with the one you will have drawn up by yourself. Without a consultant. You will probably have a couple of very competitive schools on your list. You know, the kinds of schools which have 2,000 applicants for 200 places. They're like Harvard or Princeton. Lots of people want to go to those great schools. But they have limited places. Fortunately Harvard and Princeton are not the only games in town. The same thing is true of private schools. There are hundreds of excellent private schools which are not household names. You may never have heard of them. But they are well-known to your consultant. So, spend the money on an educational consultant. You will not regret it.
2. Leaving things to the last minute.
The next thing which many people get wrong is leaving the project until the last minute. Choosing a school can take as long as 18 months from the day you begin looking until the first day of school. Most families will begin the process in the spring of the year before they expect their child to begin school. If you leave things until late fall, then the entire project becomes a scheduling nightmare, unless it is the only thing on your agenda. But even then you really should start no later than summer. Visiting schools takes time. The logistics and scheduling can be complicated. Allow yourself plenty of time.
3. Making assumptions about what is taught and how it is taught.
Another thing which folks get wrong is assuming that what the school teaches and the way in which it teaches is in harmony with their beliefs and philosophy. While it is true that every school is basically teaching the same subject matter, the philosophy of teaching and the approach will vary from school to school. Why don't they all teach the same way? Because they are private schools. They legally can do their own thing. Each school is independent and unique. That's the essence of a private school. Here is a quick look at The Blake School.
To avoid any issues and disagreements take time to observe a class. Read the academic course catalog carefully. Review the list of schools to which their graduates matriculated. Read the school's mission statement carefully. Listen to the admission's staff carefully. They will be justifiably proud of their school's philosophy. Is what you are reading and hearing in accord with your personal beliefs? Remember: once you sign the contract there's no turning back. At least not easily and certainly not without penalties. Assume nothing. "Trust but verify."
4. Verifying that the non-academic programs meet your requirements.
Finally many parents don't bother to check out the sports and extracurricular activities carefully. Well-funded and properly organized athletic programs and extracurriculars are an important part of your child's private school experience. They build character and teach teamwork. They instill confidence and strengthen the bonds of friendship. Private school classmates tend to stick together and keep in touch long after graduation. A lot of that bonding occurs on the playing fields and on the theater stage. Don't stint on inspecting the athletics and extracurriculars.
5. Not investigating all your financial options.
Some families will have no difficulty funding $30,000 for day school or $60,000 for boarding school. More power to them. But the rest of us have to carefully weigh our options when it comes to paying for our children's private school educations. If you have sufficient income and just need to spread the payments out over 10 or 12 months there are tuition payment plans which will make that possible. If you need to borrow to pay those tuition bills, there are banks and financial organizations which will make loans for that purpose.
If you need financial aid, don't hesitate to ask. Start the financial aid application process as soon as you meet with the schools. Be honest with the schools. Have your documentation in order so that when you complete your PFS (Parents Financial Statement) you will have everything you need.
Most private schools have generous financial aid programs in place. The reason for this is that they want a student body which is as diverse as it can be. Private schools are not just for rich families any more. Indeed several private schools will waive tuition for familes meeting certain income benchmarks. Again, ask. Get the details for each school. Do not assume that school B's financial aid program will be the same as school A's. Each private school is independent and unique.
A handle of scholarships for private school educations exist. Ask. Always ask. There are also several free private schools. Investigate these and determine if you meet the criteria for admission.
The bottom line is that choosing a private school is a major project. Much of your success in finding the best private school for your child will hinge on your managing this project efficiently and effectively.
Questions? Contact me on Twitter. @privateschl