Many years ago I had no clue what a private school was, much less how to get into one. I can remember one of my public school classmates announcing that he was going to be attending a private school beginning the next academic year. Indeed about three of my classmates ended up going to what is still a prestigious old Montreal private school, Lower Canada College. I also had a few friends who had transferred in from a boarding school in the Eastern Townships. As I learned a little later, they had been asked to leave the school. In any case, I am trying to make the point that you are not the only person who isn't really sure how private schools work, how to get your child in and so on. So let's keep this really simple. You won't get too stressed. You might actually find it enjoyable finding the right private school for your child.
The first step in the process is to find schools which you can explore and investigate as part of your personal due diligence. Sending your child to private school is a major commitment both financially and in terms of your investment of your personal time and energy as a parent. So it is important that we get it right.
Fortunately for us just about every private school has some kind of web site. You will find all levels of web sites ranging from embarrassingly amateurish to extremely professional. Don't let a school's web site turn you off. What is important is the content. Look for a statement of the school's philosophy about educating young people. Does it match yours? If so, add it to your list. List? We are going to make a list of any and all schools which appeal to you for one reason or another. Don't worry about how many schools are on this list. 10, 30, 50, even more. It does not matter. What matters is that you are seeing what's out there. We shall refine our list later using several filters.
I mentioned filters earlier. The list below contains the most commonly used filters we parents will use to reduce our initial large list of schools to a more manageable list of three to five schools.
- Boarding or day school?
- Religious affiliation or non-sectarian?
- Progressive or traditional?
- Special needs or special emphasis?
Make the decision about whether or not you want to send your child away to boarding school or have her attend a local day school. Filter out either boarding or day schools.
Is having your child attend a school which teaches and practises the same religion as you do a 'must have'? Filter out all the schools which don't meet your personal religious requirements. There are religious schools adhering to just about any faith you can think of. As well there are non-sectarian schools which do not adhere to any faith in particular but do teach an awareness of a greater being.
The next filter is also an important one. Traditional schools use some kind of a marking or grading system. The high schools offer AP courses or are part of the International Baccalaureate program. Progressive schools, on the other hand, typically do not grade or mark their students' work. They have other ways of assessing your child's progress. Which approach works for you?
Special emphasis schools are schools which have programs in place which are not commonly found in other private schools. For example, military schools, schools for the arts and sports schools offer the facilities and training to satisfy your requirements in those disciplines. Several private schools offer programs to remediate learning differences. If you have not considered those schools, take time to circle back and review them before you move on to actual site visits.
Visiting schools is the next step in the process. We started with a large list of schools. We filtered out all the schools which didn't meet our requirements. Now we must visit the three to five schools on our short list. Why do you have to visit the schools? They look great on their web sites. Everybody you have spoken with about the schools speaks highly of them. Why is it necessary to spend all that time and money schlepping around to schools you are pretty sure are a good fit? You wouldn't buy a house without inspecting it, would you? Don't you always test drive a car before buying it? It is the same thing with selecting a private school. You must set foot on the campus, experience the vibe of the community and get a good feel for the school and how it operates.
Why are visits so important? Because your child's happiness is at stake. Get the fit wrong and she will be miserable. You both can tell when the fit is right. The school will have all the activities and things she feels are important. You, of course, are looking at the academics and the quality of the teaching. So experiencing each school on your short list is not optional. This is one of the reasons why I always recommend that parents start the school search process at least 18 months before their children will begin classes in their new school. There is much to get done. Visiting schools in particular is a time-consuming project.
Finding schools and visiting them is the fun part of the process. Applying to schools requires all of your organizational skills. Honestly, it will take you a couple of hours to draft, review and submit a private school admissions application. Precisely how much time depends on several variables. Many schools use online admissions applications. Use them wherever you can to save time. Otherwise you will have to download and print all the forms. All the forms? Yes, there are several forms. The application, the Candidate's Statement, the Parent's Statement, Principal or Head or Counselor Recommendation form, English teacher and math teacher recommendation forms. If you are an International Student, you will need to work with the school you have chosen to obtain an I-20 so that you can apply for a student visa in order to come to the United States to study. Finally, if you require financial aid, there is another set of forms and documentation to submit.
Stay organized. Be aware of the various application and testing deadlines. Never leave your private school admissions applications to the last minute. Start them early. You can save your work as you go. Just remember that the application is not complete until you click submit.
One final recommendation: look into hiring an educational consultant to guide you through the process of choosing a school. These professionals know their schools. They will save you much time as well as preventing you from doing something many parents don't even think about, i.e., applying only to highly selective schools. Your consultant will advise you if she thinks your child has the right stuff to get into a highly selective school. But she will also advise you to apply to several less competitive schools. You child will get into one of those. And since you visited the schools, you know they will be a good fit.