What Do You Need To Know ?
By Susan Sheffloe Speer
Private school. Those two words conjure images of ivy-covered brick walls and well-mannered high-achievers in crisp uniforms. Are you considering private school for your kids? Maybe you’ve always known that your children would attend private school. Either way, there is one basic truth: Private — or independent — schools are not created equal. Each school offers to impart certain values and bears its own distinct personality.
How do you know which school is right for your child?
What’s the difference? Both private and independent schools are defined as nonpublic schools, funded by their own resources and not by tax dollars. The difference lies mostly in the legal structure. Independent schools are nonpublic schools with distinct missions and are supported by tuition, charitable contributions and endowments and led by an independent board of governors or trustees. A private school can be affiliated with another entity, such as a for-profit corporation or a not-for-profit organization such as a church or synagogue.Know what’s important to you and your family. What do you want your kids to learn and how do you want them to learn it? For most families, qualities like low student-to-teacher ratio, goal-oriented curriculum and academic achievement are high on the list.
Some typical questions require deeper probing. “Parents should ask why the school feels their student/teacher ratio is the right one; why are the classes as large or small as they are; what is the school’s philosophy about things like homework,” says Dorothy Tarbox, admissions director at St. Luke’s Episcopal School. “Until parents know why certain things happen at a school, the answers they receive are only words.”
For instance, Tarbox explains, class size is set for a variety of reasons beyond the level of attention teachers give to students. “Ask, ‘why is the class 20 students instead of 12?’ The answer could be anything from the physical size of the classroom, to accommodating students with learning difficulties, or perhaps the school creates larger classes in some cases to allow for more project and team-oriented work,” she says and continues, “The surface answer parents may get about the school’s approach to homework is that students can expect two hours of homework each night. A follow-up question can tell parents why homework is assigned in the first place. Is homework a continuation of the curriculum, or is it a reinforcement of what is learned in the classroom?”
“I am the primary educator of my children,” says Lisa Bastian. “I wanted to find schools that I could trust to follow through on our family’s values and beliefs.” Bastian and her husband, Ed, looked first to Catholic schools. “The blend of academic and spiritual teaching is important to our family,” she explains. Next, Bastian says they examined reputation and academic offerings. Their son, Nicholas, 19, graduated from Central Catholic High School in 2005. “We chose Central Catholic because it is consistently rated as one of the best private schools in the state and has a legacy of producing leaders in business, commerce and politics,” Bastian says.
Daughter Rachel, 14, enters Antonian College Preparatory High School as a ninth-grader this fall. Bastian credits the decision to Antonian’s curriculum and the ability to select a combination of honors and non-honors courses, blended with Catholic teaching. “Sending my kids to a blue-ribbon school is important, but the ability to authentically blend faith teachings with the natural world is key.”
What can parents expect to see right away, and what benefits lie further down the road for their children? A school’s organization around its stated mission is important. In other words, what does the school claim it will do for its students? Does the school walk the talk in academic achievement, classroom structure and accelerated or enriched curriculum? Smaller classes — one of the more recognizable attributes of nonpublic education — allow teachers to spend more time with each student. Education experts claim the result is better grades and test scores and a closer student-teacher relationship.
Short-term virtues that you should notice from day one include good parent-teacher communication, clearly defined goals for students and the Three As: A balance of academics, arts and athletics. Also, examine the faculty. How are teachers selected and hired? What’s the school’s faculty retention rate?
What About The Long Term?
Advocates say that private education in the primary years is an excellent foundation for later learning. “Values are formed and carried into the teen years and adulthood,” says Mary Wilde, admissions director at San Antonio Academy, which is open to boys from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Long characterized in popular culture as an arduous, even arbitrary process, acceptance into a private school is a process that, in real life, is driven by the school, the prospective student and parents. The basics involve completing an application for admission, an on-campus visit and an evaluation of records from the child’s current school. Many private schools also request written recommendations, which can come from current teachers, clergy or others who know the prospective student and the family well.
One of the most important factors, though, doesn’t involve paperwork and glowing referrals. It’s that simple-yet-complicated formula of fitting in.San Antonio Academy gives students the opportunity to “test drive” the school by placing a prospective student in a classroom setting for a period of time. “This gives the child a chance to see what the environment is like and gives the teacher a chance to see how the child fits in,” says Wilde.
Tarbox says that fitting in is a critical part of the equation. “Parents should always ask about approaches to discipline and how social relationships are fostered, from friendships and cliques, to birthdays and the school’s philosophy on dating,” she says. “Children should feel comfortable in and out of the classroom, and know that they are valued within the school community.”
While searching for the “right” school for your child can seem daunting, Tarbox reminds parents to listen to intuition and to find ways to enjoy the time spent looking at schools. “You are making decisions for your children that will create memories for them they will carry throughout their lives.” Any of the schools you visit should have abundant information on varying topics related to private education, but there is also a wealth of information online. Here are a few Web resources:
- The National Association of Independent Schools (www.nais.org)
- Independent Schools Association of the Southwest (www.isasw.org/independentschoolfaqs/index.asp)
- About Education: Private Schools (privateschool.about.com)
- Texas Education Agency (www.tea.state.tx.us/index.html)
- Texas Private School Accreditation Commission (www.tepsac.com)