What is Really Important in Choosing a School?
As you begin exploring schools for your child, you begin to realize that you have dozens of options. And they are all a little different. It's rather bewildering looking at all these web sites especially if you have never visited a private school before. They are all so different. How can you ever decide which one is best for your daughter? Start with a very basic strategy, a game plan if you will. Let's look at what really matters when it comes to choosing a private school for your child.
Start with your requirements. Your requirements trump everything. So have a family discussion. Be relaxed and open-minded because your requirements as a parent are going to be different from your daughter's. You are thinking the best educational experience. She's thinking about her life and her friends and the reality that she will have a whole new situation to deal with. That's scary for a young person. But you can make it an adventure and get her to buy into going to private school if you are patient, informative and, above all, a listener. Dictating to your child will probably get you nowhere in a hurry.
So, what's really important? Ponder these questions and then develop some answers after having that family discussion.
- Are you looking for a traditional college prep school experience or something else?
- Is your religion a major determining factor?
- What about sports? Arts programs? Extracurricular activities?
What about a school such as Midland School in Los Olivos, California? Videos posted by schools will give you an overview of their programs and mission. Subscribe to schools which interest you. You can always cull the list later for schools which you feel merit a closer inspection.
If college preparation is your goal, think about the kind of college your daughter is likely to attend. Note that I said "likely to attend" as the dream you may have of her attending on of the Ivies simply may not be realistic. I know that four or five years in the future seems like an eternity but try to project your thinking and expectations as far ahead as you can. Then focus on the quality of the academic curriculum at the private schools you are researching.
Look at the faculty. Do they have degrees in their subjects? Masters or doctorates? Is there breadth and depth in the course offerings? Do you require strong sciences? A rich array of languages and humanities? What about the enrichment programs offered?
If you are looking for a military education or a progressive approach, that will narrow the field considerably as there are far fewer military and progressive schools out there. Ditto with regard to your religion. If you have very specific requirements, that too will narrow the field of choices. Other considerations are arts and sports programs. If your child is really good at a particular sport, then inspect schools closely to see if they fit your needs. A strong inter-school athletic program will probably be a requirement for most sports. Plenty of performing opportunities in the music program would be a requirement on the arts side. The important thing is not to take these for granted. Inspect and verify. Now you are beginning to see how your organizational skills fit into the school search process.
Use our checklists to help you keep the details in order.
- Checklist For Comparing Schools
- Checklist for Comparing Schools: Administration and Faculty
- Checklist for Comparing Schools - Curriculum and Instruction
Your comfort factor
Now we start to get into more nebulous territory. This is where you have to trust your instincts. What do I mean? After looking at all those school web sites and filtering out schools based on your requirements, you will probably end up with several schools which meet your requirements fairly well. This is where you will fine tune those choices. The way you do that is by visiting the schools. Remember: it is not enough to rely on what you are seeing online. You actually must set foot on the campuses of schools which interest you and see how they work for you and your child.
For example, The Putney School might not make your first list because it doesn't teach Advanced Placement courses or issue traditional report cards. But look under the hood and you might just discover that a progressive school is the perfect fit for your child.
If financial aid is a factor in your school choice, work that component in at this stage. The amount of financial aid a school offers could possibly eliminate some of the schools on your list. Are you discounting the idea of a private education for your child simply because you think you cannot afford it? I suggest that you ask about financial aid first. Then make your decision based on the facts which may pleasantly surprise you.
Setting and location
Private schools come in two main locations: urban/suburban and in the middle of nowhere. If the location and setting matter greatly to you - and it should - look closely at this and determine which schools are most practical for you. The difference between a two hour ride in the car and a one hour plane trip is considerable especially in an emergency. Bear that in mind as you select the right school for your child.
You looked at the school's philosophy when you were discussing your requirements. But educational philosophy is such a subtle thing that you need to circle back and examine each school on your short list very closely with regards to educational philosophy. After all, the school is pretty much casting the die for your child in those critical high school years. Make absolutely sure that the school's educational philosophy meshes with your own. If you are not sure about what is being taught, read the text books and understand their point of view. Ask questions.
Visiting the school
I have said many times in previous articles on choosing schools that the process is is much like buying a house. You wouldn't buy a house sight unseen. Same thing with choosing a private school. Visit every school on your short list. Satisfy yourself firsthand that it meets your requirements. Don't forget that there are private schools which are free. Perhaps a school such as Milton Hershey School would suit your needs and requirements.
What's not important
In education, rankings are not important. What your child learns is the only thing besides her happiness which matters. First of all, there are no private school rankings. You can safely ignore beauty contest listings of private schools which appear in the press. I don't recall ever seeing one article which purported to rank private schools that made any sense. Titillating reading, possibly. Sensible information? No. If you want to know where one school fits in relative to another, ask your educational consultant. She will point out important facts and data to consider. But even she will not rank schools except in a casual, anecdotal way. Ranks are not important. The fit with your requirements is. Find a couple of schools which are good fits and you will have a happy child. That's all that matters.
Have questions? You may contact me via Twitter. @privateschl