School Choices: Finding the Right Fit is a Family Investment

Originally published in print and online by Washington Parent in January 2016. 

Searching for a private school in the DMV may feel a bit like that age-old adage of finding the needle in the haystack. Over 100 private education options in the area all claim the District’s best and brightest, making the search process ever more difficult. But with proper planning, well-defined areas of importance and a willingness to do your homework, finding a school that fits your family’s needs can be easier than you ever imagined.

The private school search should actually begin in the fall before you begin to apply to schools with a look at your neighborhood public schools, according to Kathy Herman, the former Director of Admission and Financial Aid at Washington Episcopal School in Bethesda.

“Parents shouldn’t make their lives complicated by searching all over the city,” Herman says. “They really want to make a good choice, and if they’re spending that much money to make the decision to go the independent school route, then they really should be well informed. Looking at their neighborhood public school will help them do that.”

In fact, Montgomery and Fairfax Counties boast some of the best public elementary and high schools in Maryland and Virginia. Schools in these areas are known for strong academics, a variety of extra curricular programs and graduation rates that exceed state averages. Herman suggests attending public school open houses first to determine whether you are really looking for something you cannot find in your neighborhood school.

This is why Herman says it is crucial to know what your family needs and wants from a school. Then, you can compare aspects of public and private schools and decide which make the most sense for your family.

Be sure to consider the educational philosophy and culture of the school, its curriculum, its student-to-teacher ratio and the ways in which it uses its resources. Before and after school activities or childcare programs, the school’s distance from your home and support for learning challenges are also important elements to keep in mind.

When they first start looking at schools, Herman says parents are also usually concerned about tuition and religious affiliation. However, she says, parents should never rule out a school based solely on either of these factors. Instead, they should look into financial aid packages and then talk to school administrators about how children of other faiths are welcomed into the school.

“A lot of times, these schools that have high tuition also offer generous financial aid, and parents should not be shy about asking questions about financial aid,” says Herman.

After you have narrowed down the type of private school you’re looking for, the next step is to begin visiting schools during open houses. Herman also recommends visiting on a weekday, if possible, to observe the school in action. Look for friendly and warm interactions between teachers, students and other professionals, she says. If you are in a classroom setting, take note of how often the teacher calls on boys compared to girls, ensure the teacher has good crowd control and try to get a feel for whether the students feel happy and safe within the school environment.

Once you have a handful of schools in mind, begin gathering feedback from parents whose children currently attend the school.

“Start by calling the school and ask for the name and contact information of the president of the Parent’s Association,” Herman says. “That’s a good way to start if you don’t know anybody already at the school.”

There are a number of public resources that can also aid this stage of the search process. Herman suggests purchasing a copy of “Georgia Irvin’s Guide to Schools,” which gives basic information, such as enrollment, tuition and admission procedures, on hundreds of private schools in the area.

While this book is a great resource in narrowing your search, online sources, like “The Washingtonian Guide to Private Schools” or Greatschools.org can give you a more in-depth look at particular schools. On Greatschools.org, simply enter your ZIP code to find a plethora of schools in the area, and then use the website’s various filters to customize the search.

Overall, Herman says that finding the right fit for your child is critical, but it may be even more important to find the right fit for your entire family. This means considering the daily commute time, how schools work with parents and whether it is really worth it to enroll your children of different genders in single-sex schools.

Enrolling children in a private school is a huge investment for a family, so be sure to do your research and start early to ensure this educational experience will benefit both your child and your family as a whole.

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