How to Pick a Great (Independent) School For Your Child

In a recent entry in The Washington Post, Jay Mathews highlights nine ways to choose a great school for a child. The advice ranges from attending a PTA meeting to not worry if you hear that a middle school has problems. I particularly like the suggestions Mr. Mathews has for parents to engage with other parents in the school community, whether it’s the PTA meeting or looking up blogs and websites for parents in the community.

As an educator and administrator at a K-8 independent school, there are many things about independent schools that I would highlight for prospective parents, but here are nine I would add to Mr. Mathews’ list:

  1. Mr. Mathews suggests you talk to the principal (in an independent school, this can be either the division head of the grades you are looking at for your child, or the head of school). I would add that you also ask to speak with some of the teachers. It’s the quality of teaching and teachers that retains parents at any given school, and it’s the memories of a class or a teacher that draw alumni back to visit their alma mater. At Alexandria Country Day School (ACDS), we ask 2-3 of our teachers at each open house to participate in a Q&A with the prospective parents; it lends more authenticity to the whole interaction.
  2. Ask for a sample schedule of the classes your child would have if he or she were enrolled there. Then look for both the structured times (classes) as well as the unstructured times (recess, lunch, other breaks). Research has shown over the past several years that for strong development of their ethical sensibilities as well as independence, children need some unstructured time to engage in play with one another unfettered by lesson plans or other adult-directed activity. At ACDS in the middle school, we allot 30 minutes of recess and another 30 minutes of lunch every day, along with a 30 minute advisory period in the morning at 10:30.
  3. On the schedule, look for times allotted to the arts and PE. What importance does the school give to the development of the whole child? Does the school walk the talk as well? Many schools talk about holistic education and the whole child, but if the arts and PE are not given prominent time on the schedule to develop creativity, nurture musical talents or appreciation for the arts, or fine-tune gross motor skills, then the school’s commitment to the whole child is questionable. At ACDS, we are on a 7-day rotation of which the arts and PE meet 5 of the 7 days in the middle school.
  4. Ask questions of the admissions director, principal, and teachers about childhood and child development – I know it might sound strange to ask this of yourself after your visit to the school, but do it anyway: “Does this school get children?” Or, “Can I see my child here, happy, successful, and supported by his teachers and administrators through the difficult times?”
  5. Ask questions about the teaching and learning. What’s a typical lesson? How does the school work with its struggling students? How does the school define success for its students? At the end of the nine-years from K through 8th grade at my school, we promise our families that the ACDS Graduate will exhibit the following attributes: independence in learning, effective communication skills, a community-oriented mindset, and a balanced work ethic. What is the Portrait of a Graduate at the school you are considering?
  6. Technology has become a necessary part of our adult lives, and increasingly, our children’s lives too. How does the school integrate 21st century technology (Web 2.0 tools, iDevices, etc.) into the classroom? How does it promote safe and appropriate use of technology at school? Do they have any tips for you to do the same at home?
  7. Now ask yourself, even though you are not the expert: What does a great education look like for your child? Do you remember the teachers you had, especially the exceptional ones that made learning fun and engaging? Unless you are an educator yourself, remember that you are not the expert and your child is not you and will probably learn differently than you did. But asking these questions is an important step towards developing your own awareness and understanding of a great education versus a mediocre one.
  8. Talk to other parents who already attend the school and ask why they chose this school for their family. Also ask the administration or parents about the frequency and range of topics covered at parent education events.
  9. Finally, remember that choosing a great school is about the fit, and it’s a two-way street. The reputation or ranking of a school and the quality of its teachers and facilities won’t matter if its philosophy and practices are not a good match for your family or your child!

Do you have other suggestions on how to pick a great independent school? What has worked for you as an educator or as a parent at an independent school? Please use the comments section to add your thoughts!

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