Evaluating and Choosing a Private School

Evaluating and Choosing a Private School
How should parents evaluate and choose a private school? Read about some helpful tips regarding this important decision.

You have your reasons for thinking about sending your child to a private school. Perhaps she has special needs which you feel the public school system cannot remediate. Maybe you are less than satisfied with the academic achievements or the safety records of the public schools where you live. Perhaps you attended private school as a child and you want your children to enjoy the same experience.

No matter what the reasons are for deciding to enroll your child into private school, the fact remains that deciding which school to send your child to is a tough decision. With so many schools from which to choose, the matter of selecting a school is not simple by any standards. Several aspects of school and child must be considered before arriving at a final decision.

Let me help you work out a process with which you can evaluate and choose from private schools. First, you need to identify your needs. After you identify and prioritize your needs, then you can survey private schools. After you’ve narrowed your list, you’ll want to set up school visits and interviews. Deciding on that final school can be very much a two-way street between your family and the private school. After interviews, you’ll need to prioritize your school list again so that you can make that final decision as offers to enroll your child come in.

This video offers a video of Stuart Country Day School, Princeton, New Jersey.

Step I: Identify your needs

It’s important to look within your family and work out your child’s needs before you ever set foot on a private school’s campus. Why? Because comparing most private schools can be like comparing apples to oranges. They offer such different strengths that it doesn’t make sense to compare them in a vacuum. You need to consider instead which school is the best fit for you. An analogy would be that it makes more sense to figure out what you need a new car for before you step onto the car lot. Otherwise, you might end up with a beautiful car but it may not be practical for your current needs.

Everyone has varied requirements regarding schools and what they offer. While discussing your requirements, define every requirement on the basis of practical, desired, and extracurricular elements. This process will help you in making informed decisions. Focus on the following:

  • Practical requirements are those that you cannot budge from. These needs must be met. No matter how wonderful a private school may be in other aspects, if it cannot meet your practical requirements, then you must rule that school out as a possibility.
  • Desired requirements are those that you’re really focusing on while looking at schools. It’s important that you keep these requirements “front and center” so you don’t get swayed by other aspects of a private school. After you’ve ruled out any practical requirements, this is really how you’ll decide which schools are in your short-list.
  • Extracurricular requirements are those nice-to-have aspects that probably will be more important to your child than to you. They’ll help your child decide between two schools that made it through your practical requirements filter and have otherwise equal academic programs.

Practical Requirements of your Private School

When you start to weigh your options, you’ll come across several practical constraints. You may want to find a school close to your workplace or your home. If you have more than one child, you may want them to attend the same school.

For practical elements, consider:

  • How far must the child travel back and forth to school?
  • Will there be a need for transportation or does the school provide transportation?
  • Is there a need for before- or after-school care?
  • Does your child have any physical, emotional, linguistic, or learning needs that require special attention?
  • What about costs? How much does the school cost? What is your budget for a private school education?o If the school is too far for a daily commute, does it provide boarding?
  • On that note, are you looking for a boarding school or must the school be within daily driving range?
  • Must you have certain components in place at a private school before you’ll consider it? For example, are you looking for a military school? Do you want religion to be a part of your child’s education? Do you want a school where boys and girls are kept separate?

Practical elements will help you rule out schools efficiently. After you work through your practical elements, use them as a filter to come up with schools that would as least work on a practical level for your family.

Desired Requirements of your Private School

After you’ve filtered the schools, the next thing you need to do is look at the desired elements of your perfect private school. It is with these aspects that you’ll end up short-listing your private school list. For desired elements, consider:

  • Is college preparation a priority? Some parents look for a science curriculum and some want a top music program.
  • Are modern school facilities important to you?
  • Does your child need a small school environment or a large school?
  • Do you want a school with several grade levels, such as K-12, where your child can remain for several years?
  • Consider the instructional model. Do you want a traditional, back-to-basics program or an alternative approach to learning?
  • Do you want a school where parents are expected to be involved with activities and decisions?
  • How does the school communicate with parents?

After answering these questions, make sure you prioritize your desired elements. For example, if academic achievement is more important to you than the instructional model, make sure you note that.

After you’ve considered what is important to you in a school, you’ll need to survey your private school list and find out which schools offer what. You should be able to grade the schools on a weighted survey based on what was important to you in your desired elements list.

Extracurricular Requirements of your Private School

After you’ve worked out your practical requirements and considered your desired requirements, it’s time to put the icing on top of the cake. These requirements are what you’ll use to pick over two equally stellar programs. Don’t consider extracurricular requirements without your child.

For extracurricular elements, consider:

  • Which music and art programs are important to you?
  • Are sports important? Which ones?
  • What clubs would your child like to attend at school?

Step II: Survey Schools

Now that you’ve worked out what you’re looking for in a school, you need to go ahead and find out as much information about your short-listed private school as possible. For every aspect that is important to you, make sure you get all of your facts and numbers about each school on your list.

  • Read the underlying philosophy of the school; ask about the beliefs that guide the school’s program and teaching approaches.
  • Check the services available at the school such as counselors, an on-site nurse, librarian, and a secretary.
  • Look at the structure of the school year. Is it a year-round school or a more traditional school calendar?
  • What is the background and qualification of the teachers?
  • Examine the school discipline policy to see if the rules seem fair and consequences seem appropriate.
  • Look at the school curriculum. o Find out the homework and grading policies.
  • Find out about the facility in case of an emergency. How are parents notified in case of an emergency? What is the school’s policy on guns, knives, and other hazardous items, towards bullying?
  • Does the school have any special programs and policies related to parent involvement? What type of relationship does the school have with local businesses and community groups for guest speakers, financial support? This relationship can contribute to the quality of the school and the support that it enjoys in the community.
  • Is this school accredited? If so, how?

Step III: Visit the school

No written test or enquiring can take the place of visiting the school in person and forming one’s own opinion about the environment and quality of the school. While on campus, consider the following:

What is the ambiance of the school? How do adults interact with children? How does the school accommodate different learning styles, as well as students who have special needs?

While visiting, parents can look for student work on the walls and in display areas, including writing samples and other evidence of literacy projects and artwork. Displays that feature work samples of the students allow parents to see beyond test scores and decide what the children are learning and how they are learning. Has the school been recognized with any excellence awards or awards for dramatic recent improvements in achievement? During a visit, parents can ask about the turnover of staff and the rate of student transfers.

National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) recommends that parents consider the following when visiting a school; it will help them to observe the school more closely:

  • Look at the school’s facilities and infrastructure. Basic features which a school must have include a well-equipped library with a good collection of books and periodicals, a separate lunchroom, an auditorium or large classroom for meetings and presentations, and adequate physical education facilities.
  • How often are textbooks and classroom materials reviewed and updated?
  • What is the school homework policy? o What is the school's discipline policy? o What is the school’s safety policy? What are the rules for playground activities and strangers on school property?
  • What about school’s extracurricular activities. Does the school have a student council and clubs for special interests like music, drama, and chess? Make sure you ask about any activities with which your child is particularly interested.
  • How does the school communicate with parents? Ask for a schedule of events and plan to attend the first meeting.
  • How many applicants are typically received for how many open seats? Another way to ask this is what percentage of the applicant pool are offered enrollment? The higher the ratio, the more competitive enrollment will be at that school. This should help you decide how many schools you’ll need to apply to in order to get a spot for your child in the upcoming year.
  • What is their application policy? What selection criteria do they use?o To which colleges were last year's graduates accepted?
  • What is their student attrition like? This should give you a good idea of how happy other families were with this school.
  • What about faculty turnover? 10-20 % turnover will occur in most schools due to retirements and folks moving on. But telltale signs of potential problems would be a high rate of turnover (40% or higher). A school that treats its faculty well will have a low turnover rate.

Look for schools policies regarding students:

  • How are students graded?
  • What is the class size? Smaller class-size is better, especially in the primary grades. o Is the library/media center well equipped and organized? Can children regularly check out books and use the center's resources?
  • What is their teaching methodology? Do teachers work by themselves with students in small groups or do they work in teams to teach larger groups?
  • How does this school encourage and monitor students' progress toward meeting academic standards? How does this school use technology to support teaching and learning?
  • How does this school support students with academic, social or emotional difficulties?
  • What is this school’s policy for students who speak English as a second language? What strategies do they use to teach students who are not fluent in English?

Look for school’s achievements:

  • What professional development opportunities do teachers have? In what ways do teachers collaborate?
  • What are some of the school's greatest accomplishments? What are some of the biggest challenges this school faces?

While reviewing Elementary Schools find out:

  • How does the school determine student placement in classes? o How does this school inform parents of school information and activities?
  • Is there an active Parent Teacher Association (PTA)? What other types of parent involvement take place at this school?
  • Is childcare available before or after school?

In case you are looking for Middle Schools:

  • How do the school guide and prepare students for academic decisions which define their options in high school and beyond?
  • Can students take foreign language classes, i.e., French and Spanish?

If you are looking for High Schools:

  • Does this school have a particular academic focus, such as science or humanities?
  • Does this school have any school-to-work programs or specialized academies?
  • How much does the school emphasize college preparation?
  • Does the school have a good selection of Advanced Placement classes?
  • What percentage of students take the SAT? What is the average SAT scores of students there?
  • Where do students go after they graduate? Are counselors available to help students make important decisions about classes and post-graduation plans?
  • What percentage of students who start at the school in ninth-grade graduate?

While on campus, you may have an interview with the administration and teachers. If your campus visit does not include an admissions interview, make sure you set up a preliminary interview for your sake so that you can:

  • Get a better feel for the staff there.
  • Get any lagging questions answered before you head home.

This video offers an overview of Cincinnati Country Day School.

Step IV: Make your Decision

After you’ve visited the private schools, you’ve hopefully gathered all the information you need to make a decision about which school to enroll your child in. After you’ve filtered out any schools that didn’t meet your practical requirements, you should be left with a shortlist of schools that you researched. Careful research should have ranked these schools at which point you’d want to look at the extracurricular activities as well as scheduled campus visits.

Now you should prioritize the schools that you want your child to attend and then apply to as many as you feel you need to in order to safely get your child into at least one of them for the following year. Many parents will apply to more than one private school so that they can reserve a spot at that school in case they should want to go. It doesn’t hurt to apply to your top three choices with the plan that if your first two don’t accept you or run out of seats, you can always enroll your child into your third school.

Some helpful tips:

Don't forget to plan ahead because most private schools make admission decisions for the following school year by January of the current year. The most important advice you will ever hear is to start early. Start your search early, plan your visits early, and put in your applications early. Each school has its own requirements, and some of the required documentation may take a while to gather. Pay attention to admission requirements and deadlines.

Be sure to get references from any school you are seriously considering. Some of your best information will come from parents with students already enrolled at the school. What do they see as strengths and concerns at the school and in the community?

Get financial aid information early in the process. Each school has its own programs and policies. You cannot actually apply for financial aid until you apply for admission. However, tuition and other costs may be a factor in whether or not you choose a particular school; likewise the likelihood that your family will receive financial aid may fill in the big picture of whether a school fits your practical requirements or not.


You can successfully sail through selecting the best school when you do your own homework early. Prioritize your needs. Remember you must do this first or otherwise you’ll have a tough time picking one private school over another. Learn as much as you can about your candidate's private schools. As long as you’ve prioritized your needs, you should be able to rank the candidate in private schools. There’s nothing like seeing a school in person. Informative visits will definitely help you get a good feel for the school’s milieu, both academically and when the kids are out of class. The last thing we can leave you with is to start early! Give yourself plenty of time so that you don’t end up letting full enrollments make your private school selection for you.

Questions? Contact us on Facebook. @privateschoolreview

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Choosing a Private School