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How to pick the perfect private school


When your child&s education is at stake, you want the facts ? and more.


How to pick the perfect private school

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Choose article section... Cast a wide net for possibilitiesConsider culture when narrowing the field

When your child's education is at stake, you want the facts—and more.

By Susan Harrington Preston

Then I got to Stanford, the classes weren't nearly as stimulating as they were at Woodberry Forest," says an alumnus of both. He counts his years at the Virginia boys' boarding school among the best of his life.

A private school can be like that for one kid, but a mistake for another, because the "quality" of a school has everything to do with your child. "The great school isn't the one that takes only the high-end prodigies," says Richard A. Hawley, headmaster of University School, a boys' boarding school in Hunting Valley, OH. "It's the one that moves your child as far along as he or she can go."

How can you find such a school? The first step is to decide, with your child, what you both want.

Some decisions are no-brainers. If your child loves horseback riding, you'll want a school with a riding program. If you're, say, Presbyterian, you'll want a Presbyterian or nondenominational school. But two other decisions aren't so easy:

Day or boarding? Lower cost is undoubtedly one reason why most private-school kids attend day schools. Day-school tuition for 12th graders averages almost $12,700 vs $20,500 (in the Midwest) to $25,900 (in New England) for boarding schools, according to the National Association of Independent Schools, which tracks tuition charged by its members. Day school is also easier on parents, who tend to feel the pain of separation more acutely than their kids, say experts.

If you're interested in boarding school but worry about loosening familial bonds, you could look for a school that accepts five-day boarders. But boarding school can actually strengthen parent-child bonds, says educational consultant Ann Crandall Sloan of Raleigh, NC. Ann S. Pollina, head of Westover School, a boarding school for girls in Middlebury, CT, agrees. "It helps to have someone else handle the nitty-gritty, keep-your-room-clean kinds of hassles," Pollina says.

Moreover, boarding schools have levers parents don't. Says Kenneth H. LaRocque, headmaster of Avon Old Farms School in Avon, CT, a boarding school for boys, "If a boy's room isn't clean when he leaves for the morning meeting, the dorm master might have all the boys get up early for breakfast the next day."

Coed or not? "In a girls' school, girls are not second-class citizens," says Whitney Ransome of The National Coalition of Girls' Schools, based in Concord, MA. "They come out of school confident and better equipped socially than they might otherwise have been."

Hawley is another single-gender advocate. "I strongly recommend single-sex schools," he says. "Boys and girls develop differently, at different tempos, and the teaching more sharply addresses the way the child is."

In 1999, Graham Able, headmaster of Dulwich College in London, found evidence that supports single-sex education. He learned that both boys and girls in single-gender schools scored higher on Britain's national exams than children from comparable coed schools. In coed schools, girls outperformed boys. Able also cites research suggesting that boys in boys' schools are much more likely to join in cultural activities.

Your child may have other ideas about single-gender schools, though. Notes Ransome, "Often it is the girls themselves who want to look into a girls' school. But if a child is adamantly opposed to a certain kind of school, it usually doesn't work."

She recommends a campus visit. "Many girls change their minds about single-sex schools once they've visited one," she says.

Cast a wide net for possibilities

Once you know what type of school you want, it's time to draw up a list of possibilities.

In the Department of Education's 29,000-school Private School Universe Survey, easily the most comprehensive guide around (nces.ed.gov/surveys/pss/locator), you can search by size, religious affiliation, educational style, city, county, and grade level. School descriptions also report ethnic mix, the number of boarding and day students (many boarding schools have both), and how many students are in each grade. The PSS doesn't include parochial schools per se, but it does list private Catholic schools that accept local students. It also covers special-needs and alternative schools. (For more on those, see "If your child needs something different .")

The National Association of Independent Schools is another excellent resource. Among the many helpful features of its Web site (www.nais.org) is a searchable database of member schools with hyperlinks to a school's profile in Petersons.com, the home site for the many Peterson's school guides. Check, too, the 1,200-school online database for The VincentCurtis Educational Register (www.vincentcurtis.com); the print version of the register is free on request. Finally, you can check The Handbook of Private Schools, from Porter Sargent ($95).

After you've identified promising schools, investigate their academic standards. Although no one measure provides a true gauge of those standards, several, in the aggregate, do:

• Entering test scores. The Secondary School Admission Test (www.ssat.org) is standard for both middle-school and high school applicants. Scores range from 230 to 350 each for verbal, math, and reading skills. "Most schools will be quite happy to tell you the average SSAT of entering students," says Hawley.

• Exiting SAT and AP scores. Hawley also recommends asking schools for SAT and advanced-placement test scores of graduates. SAT scores range from 200 to 800 each for math and verbal aptitude; AP scores, which test subject knowledge, range from 1 to 5.

• Advanced-placement classes. A broad selection of AP courses is generally a good sign—assuming that the subjects reflect your child's interests. Hawley warns, though, against relying on AP class lists too much. "The important thing isn't how many students take the classes," says Hawley. "It's how well they perform on the tests."

• Admissions to the Ivies. Nowadays, prep schools downplay the lists of colleges that have accepted their students in the past few years. "You should look at the college lists," says Pollina. "But you should also look at how schools match kids to colleges, because no matter how bright your child is, an Ivy League school may not necessarily be the best place for him or her."

Still, "college admissions is the bottom line for many parents," says Hawley. "Prep school is an enormous after-tax investment."

• Class size and student-teacher ratio. The median class size for NAIS schools is about 16 students, and the median student-teacher ratio is about 9-1. But don't take low ratios too seriously. "Some schools have wonderful ratios, but they don't pay high-end salaries, so they don't have great staff," says Hawley.

• Acceptance of legacy students. Check, too, the school's policy on applicants whose relatives attended the school. "A school should never accept legacy students who are not academically qualified," says Pollina.

• Tiered courses. If your child isn't academically driven, a school offering tiered courses may be a good choice. The Grier School, a girls' boarding school in Tyrone, PA, for instance, offers "A" and "B" level courses.

• NAIS membership. If you're considering a nontraditional school, check for basic academic quality by making sure it's an NAIS member. Nearly 97 percent of NAIS-school students apply to college, according to federal statistics.

Consider culture when narrowing the field

After you've weeded out institutions with disappointing academic standards, learn what you can about the cultures of schools that remain on your list. Here's where to look:

• Web sites and student guides. These can help you compare schools and get a sense of their atmosphere. For example, Woodberry Forest describes its student-administered honor system as the core of the school's values; at Christ School in Arden, NC, an Episcopal boarding school for boys, students attend chapel four times a week.

• School visits. Getting on campus yourself, with your child, is essential, and Pollina recommends spending the better part of a day. "Parents say they get a good sense of the cultural climate of a school by talking to the students," says Pollina. "If you're in a school where kids go out of their way to make a visitor feel welcome and faculty model the same kind of behavior with parents, that tells you more than all the research studies in the world."

Before you go, you can check out the NAIS Web site, as well as petersons.com/private/visit.htmand www.schoolwisepress.com/smart/browse/cfes.html , all of which offer good advice on making the most of the visit.

• School administrators. Don't hesitate to ask about the school's social atmosphere. "You could say, 'One of the things that I care about most is that my daughter is not in a school where students are exclusionary,' " says Pollina. "Ask, 'Are there cliques here? How do kids fit in?' "

You can also ask about school outings during which income differences become stark, such as ski weekends. "There's a reason why private schools don't organize outside trips as often as they used to," says Sloan.

Another reasonable question: How does the school communicate with parents? "Most schools can give you names of people who know about the well-being of your daughter," says Pollina. "We tell parents that they can call those people when they need to talk."

• Other parents and students. Parents may give candid answers to questions that make school officials flinch. For example, says Hawley, "Good luck asking a dean of students about the rate of unwanted pregnancies."

Of course, parents may not know any more about marijuana and smuggled liquor than you do. In that case, save your questions for a school open house, when you can quiz students.

The author is a former Senior Editor of Medical Economics.

If your child needs something different

Educational consultant Lon Woodbury splits the universe of beleaguered and troublesome kids into two categories: special-needs kids, who have learning disabilities or other physiologically based problems; and kids who just need help growing up.

"The much broader category is the kid who's smoking pot, skipping school, and rebelling against parents," says Woodbury, who's based in Bonners Ferry, ID, and publishes a newsletter that appears on his Web site, www.strugglingteens.com. "There may be a learning disability in there too, but the immediate problem is the behavior."

For either category, Vincent-Curtis' The Educational Register, available free in print and online, is valuable. For instance, its capsule description for the Forman School of Litchfield, CT, says it's a "coeducational college preparatory school for students diagnosed with learning differences, with above average intelligence, having a history of stable emotional development," while the Cummington [MA] Academy at Swift River offers a "proven emotional growth curriculum emphasizing the development of effective communication skills and the clarification of values." Another good resource, one that includes publicly funded facilities, is the Porter Sargent Directory for Exceptional Children ($75).

The more complex your child's situation, the more you should consider going to an educational consultant who focuses on special-needs schools and is listed as such by the Independent Educational Consultants Association (www.educationalconsultants.org).

"A lot of our kids have serial diagnoses, some of which contradict each other," says Benjamin L. Mason of Charlotte, VT, one of those consultants, who is also among 63 consultants cited on www.specialneedschildren.com, the Web site of The Friends of Special Schools. Fees run $1,500 to $4,000, Mason says; in Idaho, Woodbury estimates the cost at $500 to $3,000. That's about what traditional-school consultants charge, Woodbury says.

Woodbury Reports' $40 Places for Struggling Teens also lists about 100 schools that work effectively with wayward kids, as well as roughly 100 educational consultants who steer stressed-out families toward appropriate schools.


Sue Preston. How to pick the perfect private school. Medical Economics Dec. 3, 2001;78:36.

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