Spoiled for Choice
It feels like one of the most important parenting decisions we will ever make, and it probably is. Where will I send my child to school? Every community has a public school system, but for some parents, the public school system is not an option. Mom of two, Rene F. shares, “Public school services in our area are "D" rated schools, with the exception of the magnet school that Aubrey (their oldest daughter) is in, which requires testing to get in. We didn’t feel that public school was even an option education-wise for the little one.” Lack of access to quality public schools, religious education, small class sizes, and access to individualized services are just some of the reasons why parents may choose to educate their children in private schools.
Where Do I Begin?
“Most parents come to us through word-of-mouth referrals, so it’s always a good idea to talk to family, friends, or co-workers and ask them to share their opinions and experiences,” shares Michelle Pricer, Director of Enrollment at The Dunham School. “Many families also begin with a web search to narrow down their options, familiarize themselves with the admissions process, and decide which schools they’d like to visit. Once parents have determined the schools they’d like to consider, scheduling a personal tour should be the next step. Nothing can replace experiencing a school firsthand.”
Head of School at St. Lillian Academy, Elissa McKenzie, agrees and shares, “I think most parents begin their search, like most things now, with a Google search.”
I certainly remember doing this when I was looking for a school for our oldest daughter. I made a spreadsheet of all of the things that were important to me and my husband when it came to finding the right school. Then, I searched the websites for the answers to my questions before he and I sat down to discuss all of our options.
What is Important to Us?
“Start by examining what factors are most important for the family such as world language learning, a spiritual program, music, athletics, etcetera.” Elena McPeak, Director of Admission at Episcopal School of Baton Rouge recommends. “Having this information can help identify schools with the right set of academic and co-curricular opportunities.”
Other factors that may be important are exposure to the arts, rigorous STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) programming, leadership opportunities, or a particular emphasis on a chosen sport. If your child has unique learning or medical needs, this should also be part of the decision making process.
What Questions Do I Ask?
McPeak from Episcopal School of Baton Rouge and Linda Stone from Greater Baton Rouge Hope Academy share some of their most frequently asked questions: What is the student to teacher ratio? What curriculum is offered by the school? What supports are available for students who are academically advanced or academically challenged? What is the school’s educational philosophy and method of discipline?
After having these questions answered, parents should ask the questions that are important to them personally: What types of financial assistance are available? If it is a faith-based school, and how does the school support families of similar or different faith values? Where do students typically go to college after graduating from the school? Are the class sizes small enough to provide individualized care the child requires in order to blossom?
What About Special Student Services?
For students with special needs, additional questions may need to be asked, points out Stone and McKenzie, both Heads of Schools at schools which educate students with special needs. Does the school complete diagnostic assessments to assure proper placement and determine strengths and growth opportunities? Is the school capable of creating a program to fit the child rather than forcing the child to fit a program? Does the school provide a variety of educational programs and extracurricular opportunities such as daily living skills, a high school diploma and or vocational training, sports, dancing, music, and technology? Are there opportunities for interaction with typically developing peers? Are therapies such as speech, occupational, physical, and adapted physical education provided on campus? What is the school’s behavior philosophy, and is there a full-time school counselor or behavioral expert on staff? Are teachers experienced in working with children with exceptionalities?
Should I Take a Tour?
“I think visiting schools is the best way to determine if a school is the right fit for a family,” shares McPeak. “While on the tour, be sure to pause and really observe what is going on around you–are the students engaged; are the teachers engaged; has the tour guide only brought you to the shiny or pretty parts of campus, or did you get to see all parts of the school?
One of the best indicators for school success is how strong and positive the school community is. It can be hard to 'quantify' a school’s community, but you should be able to feel it when you are touring a school.”
Are There Tips for Tuition?
Most of our area’s private schools include their tuition and fees on their websites, or you can find them in Baton Rouge Parents Magazine's Private School Listing in this issue, but as Pricer points out, “When comparing the cost, it’s important to look at each school’s tuition and fees to get a better picture of the total cost to attend.”
However, there may be additional fees included with the tuition. McPeak adds, “Fees might include the enrollment fee, lunch fee, technology and/or book fees.”
It's important for you to look at all fees and then see if there are fees that aren't obvious right away or not available on the website. For instance, are there going to be additional participation fees for class trips or fees for activities that will be taking place after school?
When comparing the true cost of enrollment for different area schools, it is important to know what fees are assessed up-front and which fees will be added on later during the school year.
How Can Future Students Get Involved?
Students are almost always welcomed to visit the school they are interesting in learning more about, either with their parents or at a later scheduled time.
McKenzie with St. Lillian shares her school’s unique perspective on including children. “Following the parent visit, we schedule a student visit for the child to spend time in our classrooms and at recess, sometimes through lunch as well. This gives the student a chance to provide feedback to his/her family as they make their decisions and gives our team a chance to decide on initial classroom placement.”
Many of our area private schools offer some version of a try before you buy experience, so it is important to ask about these opportunities for your child. After the visit, listen carefully to what your child has to share about his or her day at the potential new school. Write down their questions to have them answered by school personnel and thank your child for her help in the decision.
Gaining your child's perspective on the school will be a crucial step in the decision making process. The student is the one who will be spending his or her days there the most, so it's important that, as a family, you are a choosing an environment that your child is not only comfortable in, but an environment that your child can excel in, and one that she enjoys is always positive.