Finding a Private School

If you are searching for a private school, weknow you’re looking for more than just a good school: you’relooking for the right school for your child. We hope you will find the following information provided bythe National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) useful inmaking an informed decision about your child’s education, tomake the right choice for your child’s future. 

Why Attend an Independent or Private School? 

The reasons cited over and over again by thefamilies who send their children to independent or private schoolsinclude individual attention, small classes, teacher excellence,and high academic standards. But the main motive for families looking into independentor private schools can be summarized in one word: Quality. These families want their children to be part of aneducational community with high expectations of every student. They want, quite simply, the best for their sons anddaughters. 

Ensuring Quality 

How do independent or private schools ensurethe standards of quality and excellence that you want for yourchild?  Though schoolsdiffer from each other in philosophy and approach, they must allgo through an approved accreditation process to become members ofa national association such as NAIS. The accreditation process ensures that certain standards ofeducational quality, operation, and staff competence are met andmaintained.  Therequirements for accreditation are different in variousorganizations. 

School Accountability 

Private and independent schools are directlyaccountable to parents; this influences both structure andservices.  Time andagain, exceptional teaching, emphasis on ethics, andindividualized instruction, are cited by families as thecharacteristics they value most. Parents are often pleased to discover that these schoolteachers studied in college the discipline they teach, rather thanmajoring in teaching.  Thisallows for greater depth of knowledge in the classroom, anddedication to on-going learning in the teacher’s chosen subjectmatter.  Also, becausemost private schools offer small classes, teachers know theirstudents as individuals, allowing deep relationships to develop. 

Narrowing the Choices 

With your “wish list” in hand, you areready to start narrowing your school choices. If you haven’t done so already, contact each potentialschool for materials dealing with philosophy, curriculum,extracurricular offerings, admission process, and financingoptions.  Compare eachschool’s literature with the items on your list; this shouldgive you a preliminary sense of which schools are a good match. Take into account what type of environment would be bestfor your child and consider his or her individual strengths as youexamine each school’s program. Eliminate any school that doesn’t meet a fundamentalrequirement: for instance, if your child wishes to study Japanesebut the school doesn’t offer this course, you may need to lookfurther. 

Here are some questions to start with as youlook through each school’s materials:

  • Is the school accredited and bywhom?

  • What is the school’s mission anddoes its philosophy appeal to you? 

  • Does a school have a special orparticular educational focus?

  • Is the atmosphere competitive? Nurturing? 

  • Does the school meet your child’sneeds? 

  • How large is the school and its studentbody? 

  • Where is the school located and what areyour transportation options? 

  • What varieties of learning experiencesare available at the school: in class, on the playing field, inextracurricular activities, and in community service? 

  • Does the school seem to have a diversestudent body and faculty?

  • Do the school materials discuss parentalinvolvement? 

  • For high schools, what are the graduation requirements? 

  • What percentage of students enterscolleges? 

  • What kind of colleges do they attend?

  • What is the tuition and how flexible are theschool’s financing options?

  • What is the school’s applicationprocess? 

  • Are deadlines drawing near?

On your own, write down additional questionsand notes.  Considerstarting one sheet of paper per school. That way, you will be able to easily look up questions thatare pertinent to the school you are visiting. You might even want to set up a questionnaire you can copyand use for each school. 

The Visit and Interview 

Though independent and private schools allmeet rigorous standards, the differences among them are great. Admission materials are useful but they don’t alwaysconvey a school’s atmosphere. That’s why a campus visit and personal interview arecrucial.  When youschedule your visit, allow enough time to get a feel for eachschool.  (Ask how muchtime you’ll need for a complete tour.) Bring your wish list and notes to the interview and don’tbe afraid to ask lots of questions! Remember, the interview is a two-way process allowing youto find out more about the school, and helping admission officersto better understand your child. During the interview, take time to honestly discuss yourchild’s candidacy as well as to ask any unanswered questionsthat may be lingering in your mind. Here are a few to get youstarted:

  • Is the school willing and eager to involve parents?

  • How, and how often, does the school communicate with thefamily?

  • Do the students you see seem productive, engaged, andhappy?

  • How do the teachers interact with their students?

  • What will students at your child’s age be expected tostudy?

  • What are the backgrounds and experiences of the faculty?

  • Does the school provide its teachers with opportunities forcontinuing professional development?

  • How does the school measure individual achievement andprogress?

  • Is the campus clean, well lighted, secure?

  • What kind of leadership and governance does the schoolhave?

  • Are faculty and staff involved in decision-making andcurriculum development?

  • Does what you see reflect the school’s stated mission?

  • What kind of counseling and support services are offered?

  • Does the school feel like a community? Are studentsinteracting with teachers outside as well as inside.

  • Can you picture your child growing in this environment?

Before you leave each school, consider askingfor a list of parents you can call for personal referrals. You may feel more comfortable if you can talk to familiesexperiencing the school now. As you visit schools, keep notes on responses to yourconcerns.  Also, writedown any additional thoughts on the day you visit, whileimpressions are fresh in your mind. 

The Admission Process 

Independent and private schools are asconcerned about their students’ welfare and success as you are. They want to be sure that the match between your child andthe school is a good one.  Afteryou visit several schools, create a “short list” of those wishto pursue.  Completeeach selected school’s application form, triggering the rest ofthe admission process.  Mostschools require a complete application file before making adecision.  Thefollowing items are typically required:

  • a completedapplication form

  • the mostrecent academic transcript with grades

  • past standardized testing results

  • teacher recommendations

  • results of a standardized admission test and/or a school-administered   entrance exam

  •  notes from a formal interviewwith your child*

Depending on the applicant’s age, someindependent or private schools may ask for other materials, suchas:

  • parent statements

  • student writing samples

  • student artwork/portfolios

  • specialized testing (e.g. results of Wechsler Intelligence Scale forChildren)

Remember, all independent and private schoolshave slightly different admission procedures, so review eachschool’s requirements carefully. Do not miss individual school application deadlines, but ifyou do, don’t panic.  Thereare many fine schools that continue to admit students throughoutthe academic year and during the summer months. 

Standardized Test Services  (forentrance into grades 6-12) 

Below are two of the most commonly usedstandardized admission tests; however many schools prefer usingtheir own entrance exams. 

The Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE)

Educational Records Bureau

Lincoln Center

140 West 65th Street

New York, New York 10023


The Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT)

The Secondary School Admission Test Board

12 Stockton Street

Princeton, New Jersey 08540

(609) 683-4440

*Elementary schools often require other formsof evaluation, such as teacher observations, school administeredgroup tests, and/or individual diagnostic tests for youngchildren.  Thesemethods offer a more useful measurement of a child’s readiness,intelligence, and developmental abilities. 

Financial Facts 

In recent years, independent and privateschools have successfully opened their doors to students of manyeconomic backgrounds.  Whilefinancing a child’s education is still considered primarily thefamily’s responsibility, schools have increasingly providedvarious options to help make an education more affordable. Schools are glad to include financial aid information intheir first mailing, so be sure to ask for it. When you visit, ask any remaining questions. And be careful to watch for financial aid applicationdeadlines, just as you watch for admission and testing deadlines! 

Most independent and private schools use theSchool and Student Service for Financial Aid (SSS) to assess afamily’s ability to contribute to their child’s education. Many also request some certification of family finances,usually federal tax returns. Schools use the difference between their tuition and feesand your resources to determine financial need. Grants can rangefrom small amounts up to full tuition, depending on theavailability of funds. 

Many schools also offer payment plans andloan programs to help families balance tuition and other financialobligations.  Indeed,in recent years, a greater number of families are financingtuition through a combination of financial aid, monthly paymentplans, and loans.  If you do not qualify for direct financial aid, or if theschool grant does not meet your needs, consider one of these otheroptions. 

While most assistance comes in the form ofneed-based aid, some schools also offer merit awards.  Quite often, these awards are offered to studentsdemonstrating a certain skill or talent desired by the school. Information about merit awards is available through theadmission office.  Remember,the school’s financial aid officer is there to help. Don’t hesitate to ask as many questions and explore asmany options as necessary. 

The Decision

Admission officers take many factors into considerationbefore making a decision on each applicant. Among the factors influencing your child’s candidacy are:

  • results of standardized tests

  • personal insights from your child’sessay

  • impressions gathered from the formal interview with yourchild

  • your alumni connections to theschool

  • your sibling or other connections tothe school

  • your child’s potential contribution to the life of the school

  • number of applicants and number ofspacesavailable

  • pastacademic performance and previous school records

  • recommendations from teachers/counselors

  • special strengths and talents (academic, artistic, etc.) 

Keep in mind that no independent or privateschool weighs factors in the same way, or follows the exact listprinted above.  Whileone school may highly value your child’s achievement record,another might be impressed by his or her theatrical talents. It is a good idea to ask about the most important factorsinfluencing the school’s admission decisions during your visits. 

While some schools notify all families onMarch 10, others offer rolling admission and will give you adecision once your child’s application file is complete. Whenyou receive word about your child’s acceptance, you should alsolearn about financial aid awards. If the grant you receive does not meet your needs, or ifyou are not awarded any aid, contact the school’s financial aidofficer to learn about other options. 

Your Choice 

With each school’s decision in hand, it istime to make your choice. While there are no hard and fast rulesto guarantee your child and an individual school will be theperfect match, most families advise the following: Follow yourheart.  Discuss yourdecision as a family and revisit your wish list one last time toensure your priorities have been met. In the end, you must feel assured that your child will notonly develop but thrive in the independent or private schoolcommunity he or she joins.  Ifyou aren’t entirely sure, consider a second visit to the school,meeting a few teachers, or talking to current families or alumni. 

Whatever you decide, do make your decisionwithin the time frame set by the schools and inform all schools ofyour final decision. Often, other candidates are on waiting lists,anxious to learn whether a space will become available. Therefore, prompt responses are not only polite butimportant.  Once youreturn a signed enrollment contract together with a tuitiondeposit, your family will be considered part of the schoolcommunity.  Manyschools offer “big brother and big sister” programs forincoming students who would like to communicate with currentlyenrolled peers; some schedule special gatherings in order tointroduce new families to currently enrolled ones.  

****If you are searching for a private schoolfor your child, be sure to check out the Private SchoolDIRECTORY which can be found on this Web site.****

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