Finding the right school for their children is one of the most critical decisions a parent will make. The ideal learning environment provides a balance of challenge, support, structure, and encouragement that nurtures and stretches students so that they grow into competent, confident, collaborative, caring adults. As an educator who has attended and worked in several independent schools, I have observed the transformative effect that intimate classes, passionate teachers, and strong community can have on a student’s ability to succeed broadly in school and in life.
As an admissions professional, I believe strongly that any school can be the best school for the right student—but finding that best school is no easy task. I never take for granted how disorienting and confusing the independent school search process can be. Not only is the process itself complex, the outcome is also beyond one’s control in ways that can feel jarring for families who enter this process in earnest, wanting the best for their children. Where does one even start figuring out how to enter the vast landscape of private schools? If you are new to independent schools, navigating the search process is not unlike navigating any other unfamiliar terrain: you must survey the landscape, identify your North Star, and develop the roadmap that will help you traverse the path ahead.
Survey the Landscape
Coeducational or single-sex? Nonsectarian or religiously-affiliated? Early childhood focused? K-8? K-12? 6-12? Urban or suburban campus? Day or boarding? The good news is that families have more choices than ever when it comes to choosing the right school for their children. Of course, the abundance of choice also makes those decisions complicated. I’ve included some resources below that might help you begin identifying some of the guideposts that can direct your school search.
Remember that independent schools require families to go through an application process, so part of your decision may indeed be driven by your appetite (or lack thereof) for searching for a new school every two to five years. That said, your child’s education is a journey in itself, so be prepared for a little adventure as you explore what might be best for them and your family.
Find Your North Star
Once you have given some consideration to the types of schools to explore, make a list of schools you actually might visit. Each school offers its own unique culture, course offerings, extracurricular opportunities, traditions, and programs. The most important factors in a school will be different for each family, and the great value in visiting many schools is exploring them for yourself beyond what any website can tell you.
In addition to these factors, I would throw one more consideration into the mix: the gut check. That is, what is the feeling you have—and, even more importantly, the feeling your child has—during your visit to a school? What is the feeling you are striving for your child to have every time they go to school? At the end of the day, students at all kinds of schools are developing the mechanics of intellectual learning. Additionally, keep in mind that their sense of belonging in the community will be a big driver of their success at school and beyond. So take time for—and take note of—the gut check as you identify your North Star that will guide you in the direction of a school that is a right fit for your child and your family.
Develop the Roadmap
Some objective research and subjective soul-searching will get you quite a long way in the school search process. Now, all you need to do is apply (and get in)!
Each independent school has its unique requirements in the admissions process, but there are a few components you can expect at every school. There is the application itself, of course, which typically consists of a few written questions for parents and, depending on the age of your child, some questions for students. But the application itself is just one way in which schools get to know your child. There are other material components taken into account such as progress/grade reports from your child’s current school, written recommendations from one or more of your child’s teachers, and usually some type of admissions testing which varies by age and by school type.
Many families will identify a number of schools to which they will apply, and this is something I encourage strongly given the competitive nature of our independent school market. Managing the application process at several schools simultaneously is a vast organizational task. Some online application portals such as Ravenna—which hosts the application for Georgetown Day School and several other schools in our area—simplify this task greatly by making visible the exact steps in the application process specific to each school and each grade level you are exploring. In addition, nothing beats a good spreadsheet for keeping track of the important tasks, dates, events, and deadlines related to each school’s admissions process.
There is much to consider as you explore the right school for your child and family, and perhaps the scope seems a bit daunting before you’ve even begun. But I encourage you to anchor yourself in the most important consideration of all: your child. Children have a way of leading us with their example—and if you follow your child with curiosity and encouragement, they will lead you to exactly the place they need to be.
Stay tuned for my next blog post, which will tackle the $64,000 question (well, not quite!): affording a private school education by exploring financial aid.
To learn more about Georgetown Day School’s application process, visit our Admissions page.