Shopping around for the “right” private school for your child can be a chore, but it’s a chore in which many parents take pride. And well they should, particularly if they have gone through the process in an informed manner. When you find the “right” private school for your child, you know it’s a good fit and often, you don’t want him or her to go anywhere else.
But how do you know when a private school is a good fit?
Look at the present. What is the mission and population of the school itself? Is it better suited for advanced learners, special needs, or a mix? Do they offer special education? What services, if any, does your child need? Is it affiliated with a particular religion or denomination? Is it single sex or co-ed? Does the school’s demographic match with what you and your family seek? Is the school new or does it have an established history? How is the campus/facilities? Are there afterschool programs that your child would enjoy? Do you need early morning drop-off if both parents work outside the home?
Look at the future. How may a particular private school continue to benefit your child in the future? Is it nursery only? Is it K-8, N-8, K-12, N-12, etc.? If you choose single sex or co-ed, will that continue to match your child’s development and needs? What is the approach to learning and development as a child matures? Will it help to develop your child’s study habits? Will it prepare her for ongoing school, middle school, high school or college and beyond? Does the school plan to move if/when it expands? While the location may be convenient now, will it be in the future? Are there additional children you hope to send there? What is their sibling policy?
Look at the school’s exmissions/matriculation data. Does the school hide it or is it prominently displayed on their website? Where do its graduates go? Which ongoing schools? Which high schools? When you look at the list of colleges that graduates of the school attend, do you imagine your child going to those same colleges? It is not advised to focus closely on college data when you are making a choice about kindergarten, since a child’s developmental trajectory and interests may change in 1, 5, 7 or 10 years. But, it becomes more relevant when you are looking for middle or high school. You can gain a more informed perspective if you look at the exmissions/matriculation data for the past few years. If a school does not have that data readily available, it is important to understand why.
What are the classes like? Are they large or small? What is the educational philosophy upon which that private school is based? How do teachers approach the lesson plans within that framework? Can you articulate a concrete example of how that lesson plan varies across different philosophies (Montessori, progressive, traditional, etc.) and what might work best for your child and family?
How does the school work with families regarding financial aid? What percentage of the student body receives some form of aid? What is the average aid package?
Be sure to brainstorm on lots of questions and then find the best way to get your answers (parent info. session, tour, staff, books, websites, message boards, consultants, workshops, seminars, fairs, other parents, listserves, etc.). Vary your sources of data and look for consistency or outliers.
When you and your child visit the school, do you get a good feel for the facilities/campus, the teachers, and the support staff? Visit the school at drop off and pick up to get a sense of what happens and the school culture. Primarily nannies, parents, bus, SUVs with drivers, etc.? How easy will pickup/drop off be for your family?
Are there any recent lawsuits involving the school (e.g., use Google Scholar (look at legal opinions/NY courts), PACER, or search The Supreme Court Records On-Line Library (SCROLL) by putting in the name of the school as a plaintiff or defendant)? Although there may be few data points/sources, look at the history of school to determine the types of lawsuits that have been brought against it and from whom (staff, families, discrimination, negligence, abuse, construction, etc.)? What type of unwanted media attention (“scandals”) have been associated with the school? How were they handled or resolved? Are there patterns in the school’s history?
You’ll also want to look at publications and annual reports of the school. If not readily available on the website, then request them. Does the private school appear to be in a good financial state? If the school is a nonprofit institution, get an account at Guidestar.com to look at the school’s most recent 990 Forms (particularly last 3 years). If it is a forprofit school, have there been any recent Form Ds (Form Ds are used by growing companies and startups when they raise money; e.g., Avenues World Holdings, LLC Form D)? What are the patterns in the school’s financial history? If a school’s finances are not in good shape, is it at risk for closure in the near future? What is the size of the school’s endowment? How much have they lost/earned on investments? If you are willing to pay at least $40,000/year for 13 years at a NYC private school, understand why you do or don’t choose to look at a school’s financial history, especially when it is easily available.
The that last thing you want is to learn that a school might be closed due to financial difficulties and you would have to go through the process all over again. You will regret not having done your homework.
Who are members of the board of directors? Are these people who have the experience necessary to run the school? Are the names of directors listed on the school’s website? If not, why not? What types of conflicts are listed on their Form 990s (Schedule L -“Transactions with Interested Persons”)? If it is forprofit, who owns the school? Is it part of a chain, single owner, family, private equity firms, etc? Is it at risk to be sold? How could that impact the school’s mission? If you do not know who the board of directors are or the owners of a particular private school, why do you choose not to know it?
We STRONGLY advise that you learn who are the actual/final decision makers at the school (e.g, board of directors, owner(s), etc.), since they are often not the public people who you see or meet (e.g., Head of School, Admissions Director, etc.). Ultimately, they are the one(s) who fire/hire the Head of School and make the most important decisions regarding the direction and health of a school.
What is the school’s policy on transparency? Do they provide you with data to make informed choices as a consumer? What types of data do they make available? Do they list their board members? Do they list these member’s qualifications? Do they list exmissions data? Do they list any financial info.? Do they list admissions data? If a school is not forthcoming with its data, what does this say about the school’s values and culture? Does this match with your family’s values regarding transparency?
How does the school approach critical thinking? Does the school encourage critical thinking and questioning by ALL members of the community, including parents, or do they prefer that parents pay and remain quiet? Are parents viewed as partners or funders? Which role(s) do you prefer and at which points in your child’s education?
Not all private schools are created equal. Some are a better fit for certain families or children, while others are not. Just because one school is not a good fit for your child, does not make it a bad school; the good fit for your child may be a bad fit for someone else’s child.
So, do your homework/due diligence, make fair comparisons, and make informed choices. This will ultimately contribute to a “good” or “right” fit for your child and your family.
About the Author: Shamir A. Khan, Ph.D., is the Founder & Publisher of the NYC Private Schools Blog.