Illustration by Luke Bott
When checking out schools, it’s easy to be wowed by gleaming science labs and well-stocked art studios, Olympic-caliber playing fields and Ivy League–worthy buildings. Neighbors, friends, and other parents will gladly offer opinions and glossy literature and direct you to fancy websites in an effort to sway you. Ignore all this, the experts say.
“It’s your family’s decision and shouldn’t be based on what neighbors or friends are doing,” says education consultant Barbara Levy, M.Ed., of Buckhead-based Education Connection Advisors. You have to focus on one thing: “if these schools will meet your child’s needs.” Levy and her partner, Fontaine Draper, previously admissions director at the Lovett School, say to trust your personal instincts, consider your checkbook, and “research all your options.”
Based on advice from education consultants and admissions officers—and a decade of interviewing parents and students—here are key considerations as you select a school.
Key questions to ask when looking at high schools: How many AP courses are offered, and are they in your child’s area of interest? What about facilities? A school’s amazing black box theater or exotic language AP offerings won’t be of interest to a kid focused on math and science.
Important considerations when looking at lower schools: When is foreign language first available, and which languages can students take? Be sure to ask about the school’s math program and whether changes are on the way; the ever-evolving curriculum in the state has influenced some independent schools, too.
What is the typical student-to-teacher ratio? In younger grades, how many teachers are in a classroom? Are there mixed-age classes—and would this be appealing or an aversion for your child?
Look beyond the sticker price. What else will you be asked to pay? Are there costs such as uniforms, books, class trips, or club fees? Are parents expected to pony up for the annual capital campaign?
Whether your child wants to play lacrosse or the saxophone, what are her options? Is there a robotics team for the budding engineer? How many sports are there? Which sports are no-cut?
It’s important to know how many teachers have advanced degrees and what the faculty retention rate is. But also ask about responsibilities outside of the classroom. In most private schools, teachers are also coaches or club mentors. It’s good they’re involved, but if teachers are asked to coach several sports and mentor several clubs, are they doing too much?
You may think you won’t mind making a forty-mile round-trip each morning and afternoon to a dreamy school on a pastoral campus. Talk to us again mid-semester. If you have your heart set on a school that is not nearby, find out what transportation options are available. Does the school offer bus service or help with carpools? Where do most of the students live? If everyone else lives near the school and your kid is one of the few making a major commute, it can be harder to foster relationships outside of class—whether playdates for the pre-K set or date-dates for high schoolers.
The school’s vision or mission statement should be spelled out. “There should be a clear message: ‘This is who we are. This is what we stand for and what we believe,’” says Draper. Do you like that message?
Find out the nuts and bolts of day-to-day issues. Is there a nurse on staff? How are emergencies handled? What about discipline? Are students allowed to carry cell phones? How do parents stay in touch with teachers, assignments, and grades?
How is it used in the classroom? Are students required to have laptops or tablets? Does the school use traditional or e-books? Check out the computer labs.
The principal or head of school sets the tone for the whole place. Teachers and other administrators follow his or her lead, so make sure you like what you see. What is the head of school’s background—academically and professionally—and has the school had consistent leadership or a lot of change?
This article originally appeared in our November 2013 issue.