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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

How to Pick a Private Middle or High School

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 students’ needs—be they late bloomers or 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, and one is not necessarily better than another. It’s that one may be a better fit for your child than another.

2. Consider your child’s individuality. Take into account your children’s strengths, weaknesses, interests, and talents. Also mull over what sort of learning environment they would be most comfortable in. A self-motivated learner, for example, may do well in a program where she gets to direct and carry out her 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 where parents fit in the running of the school. Then prioritize your list. Some things may be non-negotiable while other things would be nice but not necessarily mandatory.

4. Research options. Check out schools’ websites or call and ask for more information. See our Private School Guide (page 13). Consider each school’s 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 with you.

7. Schedule a visit. This will give you a feel for the school’s academic and developmental philosophy. Note that 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.”

8. Meet with authorities. Spend a few minutes talking with the principal or school administrators. Discuss your child’s needs and ask if the school can meet them.

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. Finding out about a child who did not thrive there can give you a balanced perspective.

11. Get your child’s take. Return to the schools that meet your criteria and bring your children with you. Have them meet the teacher, and if possible, spend time in the classroom with the other students. What was their reaction? Did they 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. 

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