Choosing a Private School
By Heidi Smith Luedtke, PhD
Choosing a private school can be challenging, but this three-step decision-making strategy can help:
Step 1: Assess Your Values
Start your school-selection process at home. “Ask yourself what you expect of a school and what you expect of your child, in terms of attitude, behavior, motivation and achievement,” says educational psychologist Jennifer Little, PhD, founder of Parents Teach Kids. You may want a school that has high cultural or ethnic diversity, or whose students and staff have religious values similar to those of your family. Clarifying your values will help you put schools’ marketing materials in context.
Acknowledge practical matters as well. Determine how far you’re willing to drive and how much tuition you can afford. Be honest with yourself about the level of involvement you will have in your child’s school. Many private schools require parents to volunteer a specified number of hours. Create a personal checklist of your requirements and limitations so you don’t overlook important factors.
Step 2: Seek Info
For each potential school, collect information on curriculum, student-teacher ratio and academic outcomes, paying particular attention to how many students graduate and what schools they attend next. Evaluate the curriculum in terms of both quality and choice. Kids are motivated to learn when they can pursue subjects of interest. Ask about the availability of special programs that interest your child, such as language immersion or music instruction.
Visit schools on your short list to evaluate the academic workload and environment. Ask students how much homework they do each night and attend classes to see how teachers affect learning. Do they use readings, lectures or group discussion? Do students do projects, community service or internships at local businesses or universities? A school’s instructional strategy should match up with its educational objectives and your child’s learning style, Little says. Highly competitive classes can undermine learning for some students. Others might be frustrated by a collaborative approach.
Keep in mind a school is more than its academic programs. It is a community of learners. Observe social dynamics among students and ask how teachers encourage cooperation and manage behavior problems. Kids can’t learn when they’re struggling with classroom chaos or feel left out of exclusive cliques.
Look at how adults are involved in the school. A strong parent-teacher association ensures that ideas and information flow both ways. Involvement from alumni suggests a strong sense of pride in the institution. Find out how long teachers have been at the school and whether they receive regular professional development. High turnover can create a poor climate for learning.
Step 3: Focus on Fit
“Ideally, you want to match the school to the learner,” says Faya Hoffman, founder of the learning concierge service, My Learning Springboard, which has offices in Washington, DC, and Bethesda, MD. “A school with a phenomenal reputation may not be the right fit for your child.” Be honest about whether an institution’s approach fits with your student’s interests and temperament.
If your child has an Individualized Educational Plan due to learning (or other) disabilities, find out what services are available to meet his needs. Speak directly with staff members who provide those services so you understand how your child will get help. Knowing what to expect sets everyone up for success.
Although it may be inconvenient, Hoffman says siblings may need different educational approaches – and different schools – to learn and thrive. Focus on each student as an individual to make the best educational decisions for your family.
Heidi Smith Luedtke is a personality psychologist and mom of two. She is also the author of Detachment Parenting.