Choosing the Right Private School for Your Child
Advice for open house season and beyond
So, you’ve decided to consider sending your child to a private or independent school for the next academic year. Great news! Our area is full of fantastic private schools offering a broad variety of programs fit for every learning style and interest. But the wealth of choices makes the process of finding the right fit that much more difficult for your family.
Choosing a school for your child may be one of the most important decisions you’ll make as a parent. How do you know you’re making the best choice? It starts by visiting open houses at local schools and discovering what makes each unique.
We spoke with local educators about making the most of your open house experience and what to do next. Whether you’re choosing your child’s first school, transitioning from public school, or moving on to middle or high school, read on for what the experts say on finding the right fit.
An important first step in choosing a school is to make a plan of action. First, decide what kind of schools you want to visit and which to start with. Jennifer Rose, Director of Enrollment Management at Villa Maria Academy High School, recommends casting a wide net. “Visit various types of schools. Whether you’re interested in single-sex, coed or don’t know, investigate them all.”
Once you’ve made your picks, it’s time to create a schedule. The spring open house season starts in February, but many schools continue hosting events throughout the school year (see our “Guide to Private & Independent Schools” on the following pages for scheduled open houses and other events).
Each school handles open houses differently — some take place during the school day, others are on nights or weekends, and some are hosted virtually (online). With proper planning, you should be able to schedule a visit to all the schools on your list.
Finally, be sure to do your homework before coming to campus. “Come prepared,” says Rose. She advises families to take a careful look at schools’ websites, which will answer many of your preliminary questions — about academics, sports and activities, as well as whether the school is faith-based or offers service opportunities. Your research is also likely to raise more specific questions relating to your child or family. Prepare a list of these questions to ask at each school’s open house.
At the Open House
During the open house, plan a long enough visit to allow time to get a feel for that particular school. Pay close attention to how students and faculty interact, and how students interact with each other. What’s the overall feeling you get in the halls? Is there student art on the walls? Do students seem happy, friendly and engaged? Try to envision your child at the school — is this a place where they could thrive?
And of course, talk to as many people as you can — staff, students, other parents. At Sacred Heart Academy in Bryn Mawr, “We tell [families] not to leave campus until all their questions are answered,” says Tammy Hart, Director of Enrollment Management.
Sacred Heart’s open house, called Red & White Breakfast on the Hill, takes place while school is in session. “We’re literally opening up our house,” Hart says. The event starts with breakfast in the mansion, with administrators on hand to greet families and answer preliminary questions. Families get a tour from student ambassadors, and teachers welcome them into their classrooms.
At St. Aloysius Academy, families get a glimpse into life at the school. “Visiting the campus … offers prospective parents and students the opportunity to see firsthand the resources and facilities available, as well as engage with current students and parents to understand what sets the academy apart,” says Michael Paolucci, Director of Enrollment Managing and Marketing.
The same is true at Riverstone United Christian Academy “We invite families to learn how students’ lives are being transformed by a Christ-centered, supportive learning environment, where students are able to focus on developing their talents and purpose,” says Assistant Principal Eileen Roche.
Other schools host virtual open house sessions. Though the format is different, the philosophy is the same. “The virtual open house is a great first pass as families get to know our school and community,” says Angela DiMaria, Associate Head of School and Director of Admissions & Program at Media-Providence Friends School. “During the virtual tour I essentially give a campus tour, peeking into many classrooms, interacting with students and teachers as I walk around. I am always joined by some current and alum parent helpers who can field questions from our attendees as well as share their unique perspectives on what life is like for their children and their families here at MPFS.”
For students with learning differences, the process might look a little different. Instead of a traditional open house, Center School offers personalized tours. Tiffany Getz, Director of Admissions, believes this is “the best way to get to know Center School.” It’s also especially important to make sure your questions are being answered. “We recommend parents create a list of questions to ask the schools that they are considering so that they can equally compare and see what services and programs each school can provide their child and their unique learning style,” Getz says.
If you like what you see (and hear) at the open house, it’s time to follow up with your top-choice schools as you narrow your list. Sacred Heart Academy’s Hart recommends revisiting the school’s website: “It makes more sense after you’ve been here.”
This is also the time to talk to current parents and students. Ask around to friends and family, whose day-to-day experiences can paint a fuller picture of what the school is like. If you don’t have any personal connections, schools are happy to put you in touch with parents. For instance, Tatnall School’s website has a feature that helps put prospective families in touch with Tatnall parents. “We often find the deciding factor for a parent is connecting directly with other parents about their personal experience and engaging with our students,” says Alissa McGrisken, Director of Enrollment & Financial Assistance. “The ‘Connect with a Parent’ offers them an outlet without feeling like they have to go through us. It makes it feel more authentic.”
Your next step is often to return to campus. Beyond open houses, many schools offer more opportunities to get to know them better. Kimberton-Waldorf School opens up their classrooms for Discover events. These “are the best ways for students and families to see classes in action, meet teachers and dive into the philosophy of Waldorf education with administrators,” says Lilli Foster, Director of Enrollment. In addition to admissions events, Foster says, “Attending events like our school musical, winter fair or basketball games is a great way to get to know our lively campus and community.”
At Media-Providence Friends School, DiMaria gives in-person campus tours. “I truly love showing families around our school campus and answering questions,” she says. And like many schools, a student visit is a required part of the admissions process. “Our student visits look different depending on the grade of the child, anywhere from one-on-one with the teacher or a Saturday preschool playdate to two consecutive visit days for our grades 3 to 8 applicants,” DiMaria says.
In addition, many schools host information sessions for specific groups. Sacred Heart Academy holds MAC Mondays, which gives parents of children entering grades 1 to 4 insight into their multi-age classrooms. And Villa Maria Academy has special programming for students transitioning from public to private school. Ultimately, making the most of these experiences will help you make the best choice for your family. “The more events and opportunities you attend, the more you’ll get out of it,” says Hart.
Finally, take note of application deadlines and requirements. These deadlines vary greatly from school to school, so you may have to complete certain schools’ applications before you finish visiting all the others. In addition, many schools require recommendations, interviews, and admission or scholarship tests. Make sure to prepare these materials as early as possible to ensure the admission process goes smoothly.
Finding the right private school for your child is a long process. From researching to attending events to applying and finally making a decision, there are many factors to consider. Yet at the end of the day, it often comes down to a gut feeling about a school. And the only way to get that feeling is by walking the halls and seeing the school community for yourself.
So, it’s time to explore the many excellent schools in the region during the open house season. We wish you the best of luck with your school search!
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