Evaluating Schools: Check All The Boxes

Evaluating Schools: Check All The Boxes
We help you keep the focus and stay organized as you evaluate schools on your shortlist.

It's very easy to get side-tracked as you work your way through the process of choosing the right private school for your child. That's because there are so many considerations for you to ponder. Consequently, you can detour into many sidebars as you explore schools online. Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with getting side-tracked. Indeed, you may find answers several levels down from the top page. Just make sure that you get yourself back on track after scanning that granular information. So, I will show you how to stay focused and organized while you look at schools.

First, develop a shortlist of three to five schools for you to explore in-depth and visit to confirm your findings. This shortlist will generate lots of observations, evaluations, assessments, and questions. So, make sure that you have checked all the boxes listed below.

1. Location

The location of the schools on your list is essential simply because travel these days is never easy. For example, getting your child to school can involve driving her to school and picking her up at the end of the school day. Or you may be able to contract with a transportation service to handle that. Or you might want to carpool with another family.

Review the logistics involved carefully. Ideally, you don't want to be more than a 20-30 minute drive from the school. So draw a circle 3-5 miles out from your residence. Use the search engine on this website to find schools within that radius. In the example below, I set the filter to 5 miles from the classical music radio station I have worked with for many years. The studio is located in Wake Forest, 10 miles northeast of Raleigh, North Carolina. The area is not densely populated. Notwithstanding that, my search still yielded a couple of schools I could research. If you live in an urban area, you will find many more schools to evaluate.

This video offers a look at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatury School in Indianapolis, Indiana.

2. Academics

Once you have more or less decided where you are looking for schools, then you can begin to find out more about that very important item on your checklist: academics. Each school's academic program is unique. No state or federal government is telling a private school what to teach or how to teach it. Yes, there are state-mandated minimums in core subjects. But the reality is that 99.9% of private schools meet or exceed those minimums. Why is that? Because you and I, their clients, demand a rigorous academic component in our children's education. That, after all, is one of the things for which we are paying. In most cases, it is our main reason for sending our children to private school.

The primary decision you have to make is whether you want to stay with a traditional approach to academics or go for a more progressive approach. "Traditional" refers to a full-fledged college preparatory academic curriculum replete with Advanced Placement courses and SAT/ACT test preparation. If the traditional academic curriculum implies boxing your child in somehow or that it smacks of teaching to the test, that's true to a certain extent. However, private school teachers don't just teach the required academic materials. They do that very well and very efficiently. But because private school class sizes are small and all the students are there to learn, the teachers can take most of the subject matter to the next level and, in some cases, the level above that. I know this from my own experience. My eldest daughter loved English literature. When I asked which Shakespeare play she was reading at Kent School, she exclaimed, "Oh Dad! This semester we are reading Julius Caesar. Next semester Hamlet is on the list. And I think we'll do King Lear in the spring." Her former public school was hard-pressed to get through one Shakespeare play a year.

This brief video illustrates the Harkness Method of teaching.

Hindsight assures me that I would probably push for the progressive option if we were sending children to school now. I personally feel that letting a child's imagination run as far as it can is very important these days. Successful people seem to be the ones who think outside the box. That works for me. Progressive schools understand how to guide young people's imaginations. They do that very well.

3. Athletics

The third item on your checklist is just as important as the previous one. Mostprivate schools offer a wide range of athletic activities. Indeed, many schools have athletic facilities which rival and, in many cases, are better than those at many colleges. You will find some combination of hockey arenas, soccer, football, field hockey, and lacrosse fields, natatoria, badminton and squash courts, golf courses, equestrian facilities, and workout rooms at most schools on your list.

Why are athletics so important to private schools? Simply because they have made it their mission to educate the whole child. As the Roman satirist, Juvenal stated centuries ago: mens sana in corpore sano. That translates as "a healthy mind in a healthy body." That is why athletics are compulsory in private schools. Everybody participates. That doesn't mean that your daughter has to play varsity lacrosse. It simply means that she chooses an athletic activity that she enjoys. The sports vary according to the seasons, so there is always something fresh on your child's plate.

Furthermore, if you and your child decide that you need an advanced level of training and coaching in a particular sport, then add that item to your checklist. For example, if your child is a brilliant field hockey player, then be sure to find out more about the various schools' field hockey programs. Be aware that they will vary from school to school. Do your due diligence very carefully to ensure that your child will receive the expert guidance you both expect.

This video shows some of the activities at The Madeira School in McLean, Virginia.

4. Extracurriculars

This fourth item on your checklist is just as essential as the previous two items. Once again, private boarding schools insist on a robust extracurricular activity component in their programs because they aim to educate the whole child.

Confirm that the schools in which you are interested offer the activities your child wants. For example, if your son plays trumpet and wants to perform in a jazz ensemble, confirm that he will be able to do that. Extracurricular activities, just like sports, are coached by members of the faculty. In some cases, the school will bring in professionals from the outside when circumstances warrant.

The school will probably have included rehearsal rooms, theaters, and auditoria in its tour when you visit. Be sure to explore these in-depth to confirm that they suit your needs and requirements.

5. Intangibles

The last item on your checklist can be the most important one. After taking care of items one through four, look at the intangibles of which the major one is the answer to the question: "Is this school the best fit?" It's is a question you and your child must both answer affirmatively. You might be thrilled with the academics, sport, and extracurriculars. They are everything she needs and even rather likes. But your child's experience at school will come off the rails if she doesn't like the school.

Take time to assess the school community and how its members interact. Are the warmth and friendliness you observe superficial or the real thing? In private schools, you will see clear signs of leadership both from the top and in the dormitories and residences. There is always an adult around. That presence is vital. If you don't see it, that raises a red flag.

You won't have to worry about nasties such as drug abuse, hazing, and bullying most of the time. There is zero tolerance for the kind of things with which teens love to experiment. Honor codes and discipline policies are explained and are part of everyday life at school.

Tolerance for others is a primary focus in most private schools. They try to teach important life lessons about respecting others and their differing ideas and viewpoints, cultures, and so on. Schools try very hard to teach their students that they are members of a global community. What they say and do matters. It matters a lot. Good luck with finding the best boarding school for your child.

Questions? Contact us on Facebook. @privateschoolreview

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