How to Choose the Right Private School
What to know when searching for the right independent school
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Maybe your child thrives in small classes with lots of personal attention. Perhaps you’re looking to get away from a competitive, test-prep culture. Or maybe private schooling is a beloved, formative family tradition, one you want your child to share in. Whatever your reasons, you’ve made the decision to go private—that’s a big first step. But with so much academically, emotionally and financially at stake, how can you avoid missteps in search of a school that’s a first-rate fit?
Start by considering logistics and can’t-budge requirements. Commute time, access to aftercare, cost (and potential for scholarships), transportation and accessibility for kids with special needs will swiftly cull your list to schools that are doable. That’s an effortless first edit—but the rest will require a bit more research and soul-searching.
UNDERSTAND YOUR CHILD’S NEEDS AND WANTS
Based on his interests, personality and temperament, would he thrive in a progressive space that fosters creativity over grades, or relish a competitive, academics-focused environment? Would a close-knit community foster his growth, or would a larger school better suit his learning and social style? Is an intense STEM curriculum a must? Does your child have special needs? Let the person your child is—or wants to be— inform your decision.
“You have to know your child,” says Bobbi Hannmann, a Morristown-based educational consultant. “Although it’s hard to be objective, you have to say, ‘okay, what is it that he or she isn’t getting in public school?’ For older children, it’s easier since you already have a sense of the child’s learning style,” says Carole Everett, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools. Fledgling students require a bit more sleuthing and an open mind. “For younger children, it’s important for parents to avoid hearsay about a school and look for themselves,” Everett adds. Also, keep in mind that what’s good for one sibling may not be good for the other.
WEIGH YOUR OPTIONS
“New Jersey is fortunate to have such a wide range of independent schools,” says Everett. From Waldorf and Montessori to single-sex and religiously-affiliated programs, there’s no shortage of options. Of course, more choices means more vetting. Before you cut categories in an attempt to prune your list, do a little research on things like the pros of single-sex education or the ways a traditional private school could benefit a child with special needs. If a certain type of school checks all your boxes, don’t enroll your kid before you’ve seen it in person.
GET THE FACTS
To get a sense of a school’s orientation and offerings, you’ll need to take a deep dive into local groups and school literature and websites. “Request a profile and ask about the school’s educational philosophy,” says Hannmann. “Do they offer AP classes or an IB curriculum? For a top academic student, some publics are top-notch—especially in terms of what they can offer.
If it’s a small private, make sure the child can get all the courses they need.” Also check out the statistics. “Where [are] their graduates going to college? That’s a biggie,” Hannmann says, adding that K-8 parents can ask schools to share information on college acceptances. Class size is key, too, as is the demography of a school in an increasingly global world. “Some parents want a diverse place, while for some it’s not a deciding factor,” says Everett. Numbers may not tell the complete story, but they can put claims into context (such as “we value diversity,” or “we’re committed to personal attention”).
SEE THE SCHOOL FOR YOURSELF
Glossy brochures and glowing recommendations only tell part of the story. Open houses and tours are meant to naturally showcase a school’s vision and best attributes, yet a discerning observer can pick up on subtle details, too. “Keep your eyes and ears open and trust your gut,” says Everett. “Is the building well maintained? How are teachers communicating with kids and colleagues? Do the children seem happy, engaged and involved? Is their work displayed on the walls and what’s the quality? Are the rooms well equipped with what the kids need for their learning?” It often comes down to a hard-to-verbalize vibe. “You should see this school as a place your child could grow and thrive.”
Also, don’t let the school staffers talk at you—be an active participant by asking lots of questions. Here are a few topics worth raising your hand for:
The Interview: Who conducts it and what will be asked? What does the school look for in an ideal student? A good fit goes both ways.
Formality: Is there a dress code? Are teachers called by their first names? “Parents need to feel comfortable with [the] formality or informality of the school,” says Everett.
Teachers and staff: Are they highly qualified, fairly compensated and committed to sticking around? Frequent turnover is a sign of poor leadership.
Academic support: In what ways does the school provide help to children with difficulties? On the flip side, what enrichment is available to challenge advanced students? A school that teaches to the middle may not be right for exceptional kids.
Competition: What’s the school’s philosophy on competition? Some kids thrive when the pressure’s on, while others require a kinder, gentler education.
Homework: What’s the school’s stance? Some really set a limit, while others pile it on. If it’s the latter, do they have a reason for the heavy workload?
Discipline: How does the school handle behavioral missteps? Are they viewed as teachable moments? Strict and punitive isn’t for everyone (though some kids need firm boundaries).
The fun stuff: What’s the role of arts, music, drama and athletics? Can you speak with a coach or art teacher? “Look for the level that matches your child,” says Everett, but give the most weight to academics. Passions can be pursued outside of school.
Sports: What’s the philosophy of the athletic department— character building or in it to win it? If it’s the latter, how do they reconcile academic demands?
Parental expectations: How much involvement is expected and in what way? A hands-on school simply won’t work for hands-off parents. Likewise, barriers to entry will frustrate highly-involved parents.
Advisory program: Does one exist, and what role does it serve—to help in course selection and college applications, or for routine check-ins? “One of the things that distinguishes independent schools is that its kids don’t fall through the cracks—there’s always someone paying attention,” says Everett.
Safety: What measures does the school take to safeguard its charges? Observe protocols on your visit, as well.
Bottom line? You need to know your child and get to know the school before committing. “Focus on the academics, but look collectively at what a school has to offer,” says Hannmann. Independent schools may differ in terms of mission, philosophy, facilities, offerings and vibe, but the good ones all do the same thing right: “They instill a love of learning,” Hannmann says. And that’s what we all want for our kids.
Jennifer Kantor is a parenting and lifestyle writer. She lives in Maplewood with her husband and two kids.