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Finding the Right Private School for You

Someone standing on a chalkboard covered in question marks.

You’ve decided to send your child to a private school, often called an independent school. But when you start looking, you may find that it can be hard to know which to choose. Where do you start? How can you find the right match for your family?

Resources for Finding the Right School

First, consider visiting Niche, which ranks schools based on a variety of factors. Filter your search results by grade level, religious affiliation, and tuition. Make sure to read the Niche profile for each school, and pay special attention to the reviews. Take notes on each school, with a focus on how well they align with the priorities you have already determined.

Next, visit schools’ websites to look at their curriculum, resources, and self-description. Check other sources, such as your local paper or a neighborhood social media site, to find stories or other reviews of the school. Once you’ve got a good sense of all the schools that interest you, make a shortlist of those that are the best match for your child.

You should also keep your eyes and ears open for other, more subtle indicators of a school’s quality. For example:

  • Pay special attention to the facilities and on-site resources
  • Look at student work that is displayed on walls or in hallways to evaluate its quality
  • See how administrators, faculty, staff, and students interact
  • Ask about how parents can be involved with the school
  • Evaluate the student retention rate and the faculty turnover rate

Once you have the beginnings of a list, you can start digging deeper. Below, we’ve made a list of some of the most important factors to consider in finding the right independent school.

Important Factors in Choosing a Private School

Understanding what you and your child want out of a private school is the first step to finding the perfect match. As you research, keep the following factors in mind. Some of them are more relevant to some schools than others, but all will be addressed in some form.

Furthermore, you should not only evaluate schools on these factors but also make sure you know which factors should influence your decision the most strongly. Ask your child: which of these factors is most important to you? Which are less essential? Knowing what matters most to you and your child will be hugely helpful in narrowing down your choices.

Day Versus Boarding

Arguably, the first decision you need to make is whether your child should attend a day or boarding school. While some families are fortunate to live within driving distance of multiple excellent private schools, others will find their options very limited by just day schools. Being open to boarding schools will certainly increase your possibilities.

For schools that have both boarding and day students, it’s important to consider how your student’s academic and social life will be affected if they do not board. Are there many evening activities? Will your child have time to keep up with their peers if they’re commuting? At these schools, learn what life is really like for both boarders and day students.

School Size

If you’re considering private school over a public school, there’s a good chance that size is on your mind. Private schools mean smaller classes, lower student-to-teacher ratios, and more personalized attention. However, private schools also vary in size themselves, so it’s worth thinking about what size you want.

Extremely small schools tend to mean ample individualized attention from teachers and staff; however, they can also support fewer extracurricular activities and elective courses. A larger private school may sacrifice some of that intimacy, but it can often provide more for students to do, particularly outside the classroom. Here, too, it’s important to figure out what matters most to your child so you know whether to apply to larger or smaller schools.

Educational Philosophy

Private schools can all start to seem the same when you’re researching them at the same time, but the reality is that many of them have hugely different educational philosophies and want to attract different types of students. It’s important to understand what approach works best for your child so you can find the right fit in a private school.

As you research schools, pay close attention to the structure of their lessons and their approach to learning. Do they emphasize academic flexibility and exploration? Intensive rigor? Project-based or experiential learning? Understanding what a typical classroom looks like, which you can also see on your visit, will help you find the best match for your child.

Extracurricular Opportunities

Finding intellectual and social enrichment outside the classroom is crucial, so you’ll want to make sure you choose schools where your child can thrive in clubs, teams, and other extracurricular activities. Do the schools you’re researching have a lot of clubs? Do they have athletic teams in sports your child plays or would want to play?

Extracurricular activities are also critical for college applications. Competitive clubs like Math Team and Model UN can be great for students’ leadership profiles. Community service clubs can ensure volunteer work is part of your child’s admissions profile. Regardless, you’ll want to ensure some diversity of clubs and activities so your child can grow into new opportunities.

Academic Support

One of the major advantages of private schools over public schools is the increased level of academic support for individual students. As you choose schools to which to apply, however, it’s worth digging a little more deeply into what “support” really means at different schools.

Particularly if you know your child will need some additional assistance with his or her academics, be sure to ask a lot of questions about this topic. Do students have designated academic advisors? What kinds of resources exist if students are struggling in class? Are teachers available to meet outside of the classroom? Knowing specifics will help you better compare schools.

Religion and Values

Of course, many private and independent schools have a religious affiliation. This affiliation might translate to designated theology classes or specific extracurricular opportunities in some cases, and it often affects the school experience in different ways. If you’re interested in a religious school, be sure to find out what that really means in practice so you can find the right fit for your child.

At the same time, many schools are also guided by values that may not be religious. As you learn about schools, listen to the kinds of values they want to instill in their students and see if those align with your own and what you envision for your son or daughter.

Campus Culture

As you begin planning visits with your child to each of the schools on your shortlist, keep track of the admissions requirements and process for each school. Find out when prospective students can visit and whether they can do so during a regular school day (which is the best opportunity to interact with students and sit in on a class).

Keep in mind that at some schools a visit is actually part of the admissions process. In those situations, you and your child should be prepared to complete any interviews or assessments while you are on campus. Aim to speak with current students, teachers, administrators, and parents of current students. This approach to the visit will provide you with a more well-rounded impression of the school.

Cost and Financial Aid

Naturally, the cost of tuition and living expenses will arise during the course of your research. In addition to very different prices across schools, you’re also likely to find varying policies on financial aid packages and other kinds of scholarships.

While cost may not matter more than some of these other factors, it’s still worth keeping in mind. Do the schools that cost more really offer more of what matters most to you? Are they worth the additional expense?

Final Thoughts

Once you’ve talked with your child about the answers to these questions and considered your own views on these topics, make sure to write down which qualities are most important in a private school. Ask lots of questions while you’re touring the campus and talking to people. If anything seems confusing or unclear, don’t hesitate to follow up until you’re satisfied with the information you’ve gotten. With these steps, the process of finding the best private school for your child should be much less daunting!

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