Skip to main content

Mendo Lake Family Life

Making the Right School Choice

By Denise Yearian

There are a host of reasons why parents send their children to private schools. For some it is a smaller teacher-student ratio and more individualized attention. For others, it is the religious grounding their children receive. 

For still others, it is to better address their student’s needs and cater to his academic timetable—be it a late bloomer or one who is gifted in math or art. But since no two schools are alike, where do parents begin their search for the right academic setting? Consider these tips:

1. Get real with recommendations. Get input from other parents you know and trust. At the same time realize there is no perfect school or one-size-fits-all academic setting. Every school has a different flavor; one is not necessarily better than another. It’s that one may be a better fit for your child.

2. Consider your child’s individuality. Take into account strengths, weaknesses, interests, and talents. Also mull over what sort of learning environment he would be most comfortable in. A self-motivated learner, for example, may do well in a program where he gets to direct and carry out his own learning. But a child in need of constant direction might be more suited to a structured environment. 

3. Make a list. Write down what you are looking for in a school. Be specific about ambiance, class size, teaching style, curriculum, the role of art and music, homework, and the role of parents in the running of the school. Then prioritize your list. Some things, such as class size, a strong art program or religious affiliation, may be non-negotiable. Other things would be nice but not necessarily mandatory. 

4. Research options. Check out school’s websites that are potential candidates, or call and ask for more information. Consider each program, mission, services, faculty, and administration. What makes the school unique? What is its teaching philosophy? Is there a vision for the future? Is there anything the school does particularly well? What about the curriculum? Will it cater to your child’s talents and interests?

5. Don’t let cost limit you. Look at a school, even if you don’t think you can afford it. Most academic institutions offer scholarships or have financial aid based on need, so ask about it. 

6. Go the distance, if needed. A ride as far as 30 minutes may be worth it if the school has an environment where your child will be happy and thrive. Look for someone to carpool with. Or use that distance to let your child study or spend quality time together.

7. Schedule a visit. Arrange to visit schools that meet your initial criteria. This will give you a feel for the school’s academic and developmental philosophy. Note, however, that even schools which adhere to like-minded philosophies can be tremendously different. A school that seemed to be the perfect fit on the internet or phone may prove otherwise once you have visited. And the school you weren’t initially drawn to may be the “one.” That’s why it’s important that you go. Test it. Feel it. See what it is like.

8. Meet with authorities. While visiting, spend a few minutes talking with the principal or school administrator. Discuss your child’s needs and ask if the school can meet those needs. 

9. Make observations. If possible, sit in on classes and observe the teachers and students. Write down obvious facts such as school and class size, ambiance as a whole and within individual classrooms, absence or presence of a dress code, and general demeanor of the students and teachers. Also record the students’ reactions. Did they feel comfortable and relaxed, or anxious and uptight? 

10. Ask for references. If you haven’t already done so, get names of several parents whose children attend the school that would be willing to talk with you. Find out what they do and don’t like about the school. If you can, obtain a few names of parents who were not happy with the school and enrolled their children elsewhere. All schools have success stories, but no school works for every child. Find out about a child who did not thrive there so you can get a balanced perspective.

11. Get your child’s take. Return to the schools that meet your criteria and bring your child with you. Have him meet the teachers, and if possible, spend time in a classroom with the other students. What was his reaction? Did he seem comfortable with the school? The teacher? Other students?

12. Follow your intuition. You know your child better than anyone else. If you have done your homework, you’ll know if it’s the right school for your child.  Sometimes it’s not necessarily a specific program or academic feature that lets parents know it’s a good match. It’s that intangible feeling: This is where my child can grow and academically succeed. 

Questions To Ask When Considering A School

• What is the school’s philosophy on teaching reading?

• What kinds of books are the children expected to read? Who chooses them?

• How and when is writing and composition taught? Is there time for creative writing?

• Is the curriculum established or does it emerge from the students’ interests?

• How often do the children use textbooks? Workbooks? Worksheets?

• When do children start getting homework? How much at what grades?

• How are the children assessed?

• When does computer education start? How much exposure per week do they get?

• What extracurricular activities are offered? Is it open to all children?

• How much time is spent on art, music, and crafts?

• Are there many opportunities for cooperative learning?

• How is discipline for improper behavior carried out?

• What kind of qualifications do the teachers have?

• Who makes decisions about the school?

• What level of parental participation is allowed or required?

Denise Yearian is a former educator and editor of two parenting magazines, and the mother of three children and seven grandchildren.