Saturday, October 24, 2009

Choosing Among Private Schools: Are You Asking The 12 Questions Most Parents Neglect To Ask?

By Tamara Andreas

How do you get past superficial differences and find out which private school will give your child the best foundation for a happy, full life? Most parents--including us--really don't know what questions to ask the private schools to decide which is best for them. When we chose a private school in Boulder, Colorado, we were lucky. Even though we didn't know about many important differences between private schools, we have been thrilled with our choice. From our experience and from conversations with other parents and teachers, we've gained a better understanding of how private schools are different, and how parents can find out those differences before making their choice.

1. Does this school teach academics to the exclusion of crucial areas like the arts, physical development and foreign language classes? Most parents agree that academic achievement is crucial for success in today's world. However, for many of us, a complete education includes music, art, drama, physical activity, and language learning. Does a school have to limit their curriculum to the "Three R's" to support academic achievement? Fortunately, you don't have to settle for a restricted academics-only curriculum to produce good college entrance exam scores. Actually, some well-rounded approaches can show evidence of yielding superior results measured by future academic achievement.

2. How well are your graduates prepared for college and for "real life"? Do you instill in your graduates a life-long love of learning? The main purpose of school is to give our children the foundation they need for a happy, successful, fulfilling life. To find out whether a school is producing good results, the achievements and life skills held by the school's graduates will tell you more than first grade test scores.

3. Are this school's graduates pleased with the education they received here? If we parents make sacrifices to send our children to a quality private school, we hope that one day they will be glad we did so. The long-term benefits of a school program may take some time to sink in. A revealing question is: how likely are graduates to give their own children the same type of education they received?

4. How does this school approach discipline, and what conduct do they accept from students? Ideally, a school will have policies that clarify the conduct they allow, as well as what they do not allow. Optimally, discipline will be administered with respect as well as firmness. The school's disciplinary policy will have a significant effect on your child's school experience. Too strict, and it can stifle a child's normal exploration. Too lax, and it can allow chaos to reign in the classroom or on the playground.

5. How do you assess how well students are learning? This is an important aspect of education. Does the school focus on testing, or on other types of observation? Does the school only evaluate academic skills such as reading and math, or does it also take into account abilities such as social and artistic skills? You may also be interested in the ways in which the school communicates these assessments with parents.

6. Does this school's curriculum and approach fit with a child's developmental stages? Because of the importance of learning to read, many educators are pushing the envelope with introducing reading skills at younger and younger ages, with the assumption that younger is always better. But what if that assumption is false? A young child does not have the same mind that an older child or an adult has. A great deal is known today about the developmental stages children go through. To us, it is important for a school's philosophy to take these developmental stages into account, rather than simply pushing academics earlier and earlier.

7. What is this private school's approach to spirituality? You may prefer a school with or without a spiritual grounding. In any event, you probably want to understand how teachers will address spiritual subjects.

8. What expectations or requirements does this school have of parents? You know that the way you raise your own child makes a difference in his or her behavior. For better or worse, the same is true for the parents of the other children in the classroom. Their parenting will end up strongly effecting your child's learning. If you are willing to make the effort to be the best parent you possibly can be, wouldn't you want the other parents to be doing so, too? It can be greatly to your child's benefit if a school gives some guidance to parents, and this will also attract conscientious parents to the school.

For instance, the detrimental effects of TV watching on learning is now well-documented. Even just an hour of TV or more per day is associated with a poor attitude toward school and underachievement, according to a study of 14 year olds. The more TV kids watch, the worse it gets. Kids watching three hours or more have a higher rate of attention and learning difficulties. The problem is, this effects not only the child who is watching excessive television but if it leads to behavioral issues, it also effects everyone else in the classroom. Teachers who are struggling with all kinds of problem behaviors don't have as much time and energy for teaching. For these reasons, I believe my child learns best in a class with other children who have restricted TV viewing. It's to my benefit for the school to have some guidelines for this.

9. How does the private school help kids develop socially and emotionally? A child who learns to cooperate and communicate well has an important skill that can lead to a happy, successful life. Children can really benefit from a school that supports emotional and social development.

10. What kinds of play do you offer to young children? Young children have an innate capacity for imagination, and a need for physically active play. Does the school provide the maximum opportunities for imaginative play and physical activity, or does the school put them in computer lab and reading lessons in kindergarten or preschool?

11. Does your school go beyond rote learning and memorization to actually developing cognitive skills? There's nothing wrong with memorizing facts. It's actually useful and necessary. The problem comes when that's all students are taught. The best people in any field can apply their reasoning and creativity to further develop our knowledge in that field.

12. What else do I need to know that makes this school unique? A school may have some unique approach that would never occur to you to ask about it. So it's good to ask an open-ended question, to give the school administrator an opportunity to highlight their areas of uniqueness.

I hope you find some or all of these questions useful to add to your list as you interview private schools in your area. I wish you the best as you make this important decision!

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