Choosing a School: 5 Must Haves

Choosing a School: 5 Must Haves
Whether you are just beginning the process of choosing a private school or several months into it, make sure that you keep these five 'must haves' front and center in your thinking.

Perhaps you are just starting to think about private high school for your middle schooler. Or maybe you have started the process of choosing the right private school and had some questions about how to proceed. These five 'must haves' will hopefully help you focus on the things which are truly important when it comes to choosing a private school.

1. The best fit

Always number one on my list is the fit. Fit trumps everything else simply because the fit is all about how your child and the school mesh. If the fit and the school are not in synch, your child will be unhappy. Keep this in mind as you visit schools on your short list. Your child will know instinctively whether or not she likes the school.

Now, having pointed out how important fit is, it makes good sense to organize the visits so that she likes all the schools on your short list. How do you do that? The most efficient way is to hire an educational consultant who will identify schools which will be a good fit. That is what an educational consultant does. Consultants take the time to get to know you and your child. They know their schools too. Accordingly, the list of schools which a consultant presents you will be on target. Any or all of the schools will potentially be a good fit. One will be the best fit. Visiting schools on a list of schools carefully selected with your needs and requirements in mind will be a pleasure because almost all of them will meet with your approval.

Now that you know your child will be happy, focus on basic must haves such as your budget. Is the school affordable? If you need financial aid, will the school offer enough?

What about your religious and spiritual philosophy? Non-Catholics can attend a Catholic school. But be aware that religious observances such as attendance at Mass and other services will be mandatory. If that will be a deal-breaker, explore your other options. Many private schools are non-sectarian and non-denominational. That means that their religious observances will be broad enough to accommodate most middle of the road religious views.

Your educational approach matters. After all, you have spent many years laying the foundation for your child's growth. Sending her to private school should be a time for her to build on the educational foundation which you have so carefully laid. Where am I going with this? If you sent your child to a progressive school for her primary and middle school years, it might make sense to explore progressive high schools simply because the transition will be smoother for her.

The location of the school matters. Do you want her to go to school locally or at a distance as a boarder? Make the decision according to what works best for your lifestyle. The last thing busy professional parents need to be worrying about is where their high school-aged children are and what they are doing. If you don't have time to supervise your children properly, then you ought to consider boarding school. Remember to be practical when you consider schools which require flying to get to them. A trip requiring a couple of connections is more complicated these days than a hop from one major airport to another.

My first 'must have' is all about fit. Get that right and you will have a happy child.

2. The academic programs your child needs

Once you get the fit right, then you can focus on the academics. Don't do it the other way around. If she is unhappy, she will not do well academically.

Some parents dream of their child going to Harvard, Yale or Princeton. If that is your dream and the dream stands a chance of actually becoming a reality, then you will need to review the schools' course lists very carefully. Schools which offer plenty of Advanced Placement courses or the International Baccalaureate Program should be at the top of your list as a general rule. Check out the list of colleges and universities to which recent classes have matriculated.

Next step is to ensure that the school has the skilled, experienced faculty to teach those courses. Since most private schools pride themselves on academic achievement, most of the time you will find highly credentialed and experienced teachers in the classroom. Most schools list their faculty together with their credentials on their web sites. Review those lists when you review the curriculum or catalog of academic courses which the school offers. Make a note of any missing information so that you can ask about it during your visit to the school.

3. The athletic programs your child needs

Each child is different. Not every child is a gifted athlete. But every private school incorporates athletics into its weekly schedule. Athletics are not optional. Everybody participates. The idea is that exercise is good for you, teamwork is good for you and a little competition is also good for you. Mens sana in corpore sano.

If, however, you have a gifted athlete in your family, then you must find schools for your short list which can develop your child's abilities and take her to the next level. Visit the coach of the sport in question. Ask pointed questions. Understand what they currently offer. Review their past achievements. Seek the advice and opinion of a professional in that sport.

4. The extracurricular activities your child needs

Like the athletic programs, extracurricular activities are not optional in a private school. Sports and extracurriculars are part of the DNA of any good private school. Extracurricular activities develop artistic abilities in musical ensembles. They build self-confidence in dramatics and forensics. They promote global awareness with travel and national clubs. They teach respect for the environment around us. Extracurricular activities are often called clubs.

Extracurricular activities are directed by a member of staff. Take time to ask about the specific activities which you know your child will want to be a part of. A good experience in a club in private school could be a major factor in later career choices. Group activities such as these foster teamwork and build your child's confidence in her abilities.

5. A nurturing community

This last 'must have' is closely linked with the first 'must have'. You know that your child will be happy if she feels accepted and appreciated as a member of her new school community. Most private schools make a point of fostering community. Teachers and other members of staff keep a watchful eye on their community. They also shape their community with workshops on a wide range of teenage issues. The school assumes nothing. It is constantly teaching by example which is how children learn so many important life lessons. Technically the school acts in your stead while your child is in its care. The term in loco parentis means in place of a parent. Private schools take that responsibility very seriously.

I am not trying to paint a perfect picture here. Having managed a private school, I know that things are not always perfect. But my point simply is that private schools make a point of fostering community. It is part of their missions. Encouraging young people to respect others is part of the larger lesson in living which private schools pride themselves in teaching.

The other factor which binds a private school community together is that it has a common purpose: to learn. Students attend private school because they want to learn. Indeed, as I have mentioned in previous articles, learning is cool in private school. That goes a long way towards eliminating factions and cliques. A caring community builds self-esteem and character. It does not destroy confidence and self-respect by mocking and ridiculing academic achievement and brilliance.

These five 'must haves' will help you settle on the right school for your child. Good luck.

Questions? Contact me via Twitter. @privateschl

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