Given the wealth of possibilities and considering the high stakes—academically, socially, emotionally and financially— it’s not surprising that many parents are overwhelmed by the weighty challenge of finding the private school that will best help their child be happy, thrive and excel.
“There are many wonderful private schools out there, each with a different philosophy and style,” says Emi Ithen, director of enrollment management at Far Brook School in Short Hills. “Before beginning your search, determine the approach you’re looking for and the kind of community you envision. Are rigorous academics your focus? Does your child thrive in a hands-on environment? Would you prefer a holistic approach?”
Here are some things to consider as you begin your search:
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
- Identify your priorities. Considering these areas will help you figure out what’s most important to you:
- Day versus boarding
- Co-ed versus single-sex
- Grade levels and school size
- Academic rigor and support
- Campus culture and community
- Language immersion
- Special needs
- Sports and extracurricular activities
- Cost and financial aid
“As no two students—and no two families—are alike, parents should consider a number of criteria, beginning with the school’s educational philosophy to see if it aligns with their own,” says Diana Stravoiu, director of admissions at Franklin School in Jersey City. “The philosophy translates into the school’s culture, values and environment. Parents will want to ensure their child will feel welcome, comfortable and thrive in the school community. Additionally, parents should consider the breadth and depth of the curriculum; expertise of faculty; student-teacher ratio; the level of academic, emotional and social support; skill development and college guidance. Beyond the classroom, what extracurricular, community and leadership opportunities are available that will enable their child to pursue their interests, explore new ones and have a well-rounded experience?”
There are many other things to think about, too, including whether a school can accommodate your child’s academic, extracurricular and social needs. “Consider how your child learns best—learning style and/or challenges—as well as practical issues such as scheduling, extracurricular activities and before-and-after care,” says Ana Younghusband, co-head of school program and education at Montclair Cooperative School in Montclair.
VISIT IN PERSON
Once you’ve researched and narrowed down the options, it’s all about “feeling” the right fit. Virtual tours and brochures are good initial resource tools, but nothing beats visiting and spending time at the school. Tour every school on your short list to see the classrooms and meet faculty and staff. Other things to be on the lookout for: class sizes/configurations, diversity, a school’s longevity, faculty composition and qualifications and membership organizations.
GET YOUR QUESTIONS READY
Before visiting, prepare your questions and have a checklist of what’s most important ready. “Ask lots of questions during open houses, student interviews, at events and via email,” Stravoiu says. The more information parents and students have, the more comfortable they’ll be when making their decision, she adds.
“Speak to a wide variety of community members including administrators, teachers, current parents and students, and make sure you ask the questions that matter to you,” Younghusband suggests. “Attend school functions whenever possible, arrange playdates ahead of attending, and most important, check in with your child on [their] feelings about the school.”
Connect with families at the school you’re interested in. “It’s important to talk to current parents to better understand what the everyday culture and warmth-level is for students,” says Saydi Callahan Keefe, director of admissions at Lacordaire Academy in Upper Montclair. “Talk openly to the admissions team about what you’re seeking for your child.”
Ask about post-graduation stats. Where are graduates attending college? What noteworthy accomplishments and/or fields of endeavor have former students achieved? Since health and safety have become front and center these days, ask what safeguards the school has in place to protect your child.
Parents of kids with special needs will need to evaluate more factors. According to Julie Mower, executive director of The Phoenix Center in Nutley, these include: How does the school help students uncover their gifts? Does the school lead from care and experience? Is there clear communication and different approaches based on a student’s individual needs? Does the school teach life-coping skills?
DIVE RIGHT IN
Connect with the curriculum and community to see where your child feels most comfortable. “Knowing your child’s optimal learning environment will help you to select a school that fits your child’s needs,” says Sara Zavorek, director of marketing and communications at Ranney School in Tinton Falls.
Your child is most important of all so make sure they’re involved from the beginning. That means “touring schools together, attending as many school events with your child that are offered, and meeting the faculty, staff and other families,” says Stravoiu.
Consider having your child spend a day at the school. “After parents take a tour and meet administration, it’s so helpful for students to then have their own experience immersing in the classroom to see what it really feels like to attend the school,” Keefe says. “For very young students, this might mean spending 30 minutes in the classroom. Older children can take part in a half- or full-day shadow experience.”
SEEK OUT SMILES
In the end, happiness matters most. “When you go on a school tour, take notice of the happiness meter of children as they learn in various classroom settings,” says Keefe. “While academics are very important, you also want to know that your child will be in a caring, safe and warm environment. As you walk through the hallways on your school tour, look for the smiles and waves from children that will verify this.”