As the world’s reigning experts on their children, parents are uniquely qualified to determine what academic environment will help their offspring thrive. And if you’ve chosen to forgo the public education route in favor of a private one, there is still some work to be done in determining the best fit for your child. “Even among schools that may appear similar on the surface,” says Blair Talcott Orloff, director of admissions and financial aid at The Elisabeth Morrow School in Englewood, N.J., “they can be quite different. Each school has its own culture, educational philosophy and community of families.”
While playing matchmaker between your child and a private school may seem daunting, knowing what to look for and what questions to ask will get the process off to a successful start and ensure a happy, long-lasting relationship.
Log-on and Look Around
First things first: Check out school websites. You can gather important information online, everything from how tech-savvy a school is (as evidenced by the quality of the website) to what academic and extracurricular programs it offers. Perusing sites gives you a feel for the different schools before you ever step foot inside.Issues to consider as you browse, Orloff suggests, include, “Do you want a large school or small school? Are athletics important to your family? Would you like your child’s school to have a religious component? Or maybe you feel that your child would learn better attending school with only his or her own gender.” Narrow the list down to your top three or so preferred schools, and then set up a time to visit the campuses in person.
The Campus Visit
While you can learn a lot about an institution through its online information and persona, an in-person visit is essential, says James A. Williams, executive director of the National Independent Private Schools Association. “There may be a number of concerns that are particular to the school,” he explains, “so parents should try to get the views of other parents, visit classes in session and spend at least a few hours at the school during a normal school day.”
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Observe how students and teachers interact with one another as well as how students behave among themselves. Is there respect, kindness and camaraderie? Examine the buildings and landscaping. Are they well cared for? Does the environment seem safe and secure? Soak in the atmosphere as you tour the campus. Does it feel focused? Relaxed? Tense? Energetic? Boring? Engaged?
Your initial responses to a school are important. “Parents obviously want a school where they feel most comfortable,” Orloff says. “They want a school where their child will be intellectually stimulated and where his or her social and emotional needs are understood and met.” Record your impressions and keep notes on each school you visit so that you can weigh the pros and cons when you get home.
Questions to Ask
Every educational institution has a mission statement or stated goals. Some schools focus on catering to students’ particular learning styles or behavioral needs, while others may emphasize college or vocational preparation. “Every school has a place where they are coming from,” say Williams, “‘missions’ that direct the educational purpose and create the school climate and policies. Parents may sense this indirectly even from the name of the school, but it is wise to look at this aspect a little more carefully.” Ask about the school’s philosophy or for a copy of its written statement of purpose, both of which are helpful in determining whether your goals for your child and the school’s goals are in line with one another.
In addition, proof of accreditation by a legitimate organization is a must, says Williams. The accrediting process is rigorous, and ensures that the school is operating in a transparent and accountable way. “All of these documents should be available for the parent’s perusal,” he says. “Certificates [of accreditation] should be prominently displayed.”
Jot down answers as you question a school representative about faculty qualifications (do all faculty have teaching degrees? Graduate degrees?), student programs of study, typical class work load, financial aid, and any additional academic or social concerns that may apply to your child. Comparing the notes you take for each school you visit will help determine the best match for your student and for your family.