Choosing a High School
Public vs. private vs. boarding vs. parochial, the options are abundant.
Public vs. private vs. boarding vs. parochial: When it comes to your child’s high school education, the options may seem as daunting as selecting a college. In fact, some of the same variables—and costs—do apply. But while a particular school may appear to have much to offer, you’ll want to consider whether those offerings are right for your child.
To help focus your search, look honestly at your child’s academic strengths and weaknesses, extracurricular interests, level of personal independence and social skills, and long- and short-term educational goals. Consider whether she would benefit more from a large school with a breadth of activities and opportunities, or a smaller one that focuses on the community and perhaps has more individual attention.
See "Where to begin" on the next page.
Where to begin
To start your search, make a list of the schools you’re considering. Then request information packets from the schools and review them thoroughly. Visit each school’s website to view pictures, see what students and graduates are up to, and learn about the faculty.
Bear in mind that there’s no substitute for visiting the campus, says Andrew Webster, headmaster of the Wardlaw-Hartridge School in Edison. Most promotional materials from schools address the same issues, so touring a school, sitting in on classes, and meeting students, teachers, and staff can prove invaluable. Be sure to take notes during your visit.
As you evaluate the information you collect, pay attention to each school’s mission statement, Webster says. This is where the school emphasizes its core values; you and your child can decide whether they’re in line with what you hope to gain from a private-school education.
Talk with your child after each visit to gauge her level of enthusiasm. Make sure she sees herself as fitting into the school’s social and academic fabrics. Find out if the school nurtures personal growth and encourages interaction between students and faculty. Building school-wide relationships and learning the benefits of self-advocacy are essential tools for a student transitioning to college.
Once you’ve narrowed your list to the top contenders, apply as soon as you can. Each school has individual procedures and requirements, and your child likely will need to take the Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE), a three-hour test that’s offered only at certain times of year. Go to erblearn.org to find dates, locations, and other details about the test.
See "Independent Day Schools vs. Boarding School" on the next page.
Independent Day School vs. Boarding School
Don’t think in terms of categories like day vs. boarding, Wardlaw-Hartridge’s headmaster Webster says. Rather, think about how each school addresses your child’s specific needs. There’s no “one-size-fits-all approach,” he says.
If you’re not quite ready to contemplate an empty nest, boarding school may not be the right choice. Yet, there are some big pluses to boarding school, which has shed its reputation as a destination for children of wealth, or academic exiles, or students who need a “second chance.” Rather, it’s more like a second family, according to Barbara Haase, former dean of admissions at Blair Academy in Blairstown. “What is different between day school and boarding school is what happens after the class day,” she says. “These children live with us under the guidance of their classroom teachers. There is a melding of the academic, extra-curricular, and residential components that creates a pseudo-family. In a good boarding school, the sense of family is key to the experience.”
Further, Haase says, boarding-school students develop self-reliance because they have to manage their own laundry, as well as their finances and scheduling. And living in a diverse population teaches them to cope with “the subtleties of group interaction,” she says.
One college graduate from New Jersey, who chose a boarding-school experience for high school, agrees with Haase’s assessment. “I had a leg up on so many other people [at college] in that I had done the ‘living away from home’ thing for three years already and was totally comfortable with it,” she says. “Because I didn’t have to get used to the communal living environment, I had more time and energy to devote to getting adjusted to the academic and social environment.”
If you’d like to learn more about boarding schools, the website of the Association of Boarding Schools offers a school finder and tips for applying. But there’s no quick checklist of characteristics to look for in a school. Rather, according to Haase, “It’s something you as a family develop as you visit various schools.” However, she adds, if your child “loves ownership of his own daily schedule and the diversity of summer camp, he might be a good boarding-school candidate."
Boarding school isn’t the right choice for everyone, but indeed, is there anything that’s the right choice for everyone? Haase concludes, “You have to listen to your child. There’s an indefinable, intangible ‘feel’ that a school transmits that is different for every child.”