Multiple Choices

How to best prepare for the test of picking the right type of school for your child

Public school? Independent school? Catholic school? Christian school? Making decisions about our children’s schooling is a daunting task. If you’re thinking about fall now, congratulations.

Now is the time to do your homework for the next school year. Even if your child is entering preschool or kindergarten, if you’re considering a private school, don’t focus only on the early years. If the school works for your family, he or she may continue and graduate. On the other hand, keep in mind that you’re making a decision for one year at a time—you can always switch if you need to. If your child is bored in school, he or she may need more rigorous academics. 

“If your child is now in seventh grade and is doing excellent in every class, maybe he or she needs to be in a school that is going to be more challenging,” says Kristen N. Cooper, director of advancement for the StoneBridge School, a classical Christian school in Chesapeake.

If rigorous academics, earning college credits in high school, and then getting into an elite university, are critical, start there. When school representatives—public or private—tell you their school is college prep, make sure they walk the talk.

Ask about AP credits, but don’t stop there.

Also ask for scores students make on the AP exams. AP tests are scored 1–5 with 5 being the highest score. With a 5, and sometimes a 4 or even a 3, students can earn college credits.

Speaking of college, most public and private schools have lists available of the universities where graduates have been accepted and scholarship dollars earned.

Ask for the lists.

Plan to ask in person—a school visit is critical.

“Visit the school,” says Peter Mertz, headmaster of Hampton Roads Academy in Newport News. “So much of what you see there will tell you whether the school is right or wrong. It’s so much a matter of culture and feel. You want to know it’s going to be a right fit for your child.”

Students third grade and older will appreciate a chance to spend a day with a student at the school, a practice called shadowing. Your child will see things a parent won’t see, Mertz says. They’ll notice how students interact both with each other and with teachers. “Their vantage point is different,” he says.

The guidance department is a critical factor for students planning to attend college. Guidance counselors and secretaries know the ropes to get applications and recommendation letters where they need to go. Guidance departments at some schools have programs in place for each year of high school to help students prepare for college applications. Spend some time in guidance.

If an elite education is your highest priority, don’t rule out public schools. 

Investigate AP and college prep classes at your local public school. Take all the steps listed above. And keep in mind that regional public schools, such as the Governor’s School, offer programs that help prepare high school students in the arts, computers, engineering, science and technology.

If your child has learning problems that aren’t being addressed, it’s time to evaluate if his or her needs are being met, Cooper says. Many private schools do offer extra help for children with learning problems. For example, at StoneBridge, a staff member works with students who are weak in reading and math. But if your child has an individual education plan and many special needs, private school may not work. For example, an autistic child or one with serious learning disabilities wouldn’t be a good fit at StoneBridge, Cooper says.

If sports are important to your family and to your child, make sports part of the equation. Many private schools offer sports, although not all offer every sport.

“What are your child’s goals—to get into Ivy League schools? To be a football star? To be involved in the arts? At StoneBridge, we really focus on college prep. If your child likes the arts, maybe he or she should be in a school taking dance and theater classes,” Cooper says.

If you’re considering a faith-based school, “You have to decide as a family what is a priority for you in teaching faith,” she says.

Many Christian families send their children to non-Christian private schools, and many non-Christian families choose faithbased schools for good reasons. Don’t reject any of your options without further consideration.

Religious schools take different approaches. Some have a ‘missionary’ viewpoint where parents and students don’t necessarily have to profess faith or even go to church but just acknowledge that the school teaches the Bible and Christian principles, Cooper says. Others are ‘disciplining’ Christian schools where parents and older students must show a personal testimony of faith and may need references from a pastor, Cooper says.

The bottom line: “What are your child’s individual needs and what kind of preparation are you giving your child for the future?” Cooper says.