Private schools: Choosing the right one

Choosing a private school can be one of a parent's most difficult decisions.

Choosing a private school can be one of a parent’s most difficult decisions. For our parents, the choice was simple: Most of us attended neighborhood, public schools.

Today, many parents are opting for private education. Once you’ve made that decision, how do you select a school?

In the Dallas area, there are more than 100 private schools. The schools fall into categories such as college preparatory, strong academic, parochial, Montessori, fine arts and language. The schools are either same-sex or coed.

Many schools offer classes from preschool through 12th grade, while others consist only of the lower grades (K-6 or K-8) or high school (9-12).

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Depending on grade level, tuition can range from $1,100 to $9.500 annually. Most schools offer some kind of financial aid and scholarship programs.

“For most parents, school reputation, location, tuition and curriculum are the primary factors when considering a private school,” says Lynn Magid, author of “As Guide to Dallas Private Schools”.

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The school selection process should begin at least one year before the student plans to attend the school, Magid says.

“What I try to tell parents is to have about three or four schools in mind when their research begins,” Magid says.

“Many parents have only one school in mind and are then devastated if, for some reason, their child isn’t able to attend. There are so many great schools in the area, and they all offer something unique to the child.”

Once parents have narrowed their choices to three or four schools, the next step would be to contact the school to arrange a school visit.

“The school visit is vital in the decision-making process,” Magid says. “Parents can really get a feel for the school by seeing the school classrooms and facilities and by talking with administrators, faculty and most important, other students.”

For parents of students entering a private school at the kindergarten or preschool level, there are many considerations.

First, parents must decide what type of learning environment best suits their child and family. It may be a school that stresses academic achievement or one that focuses more on social and emotional development. It could be a school that offers programs for children with learning disabilities or one for children who excel in different areas.

“It’s important to look at your child as an individual,” Magid says. “Take into account his strengths, talents and special needs. The school his siblings attend may not be the right one for him.”

Magid’s book is an excellent tool for narrowing choices. With each listing in the book, the schools cite their educational philosophy and offer a detailed look at the curriculum.

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SELECTING A PRIMARY SCHOOL

When selecting a primary-grade school, there are other factors to consider:

• What are faculty credentials and degrees?
• Does the school offer special courses such as religion, foreign language, music or fine arts?
• What type of extra-curricular activities are offered?
• Is the sports program competitive or relaxed?
• Are uniforms required and/or is there a dress code?
• Is testing required for acceptance into the school? What type of tests are required?
• Is testing required for grade placement? What type of tests are required?
• How old must a child be to enter first grade? (Some private schools require children to be 6 years old by Jan. 1 prior to entering 1st grade in September.)
• Class size (18 and under is ideal).
• Are children grouped by age or by ability?
• Review the school’s grading system.
• How is discipline handled?
• What type of counseling is available?
• How many teacher/parent conferences are held each year?
• What level of parent participation is expected?
• Is there after-school or before-school care?
• Is transportation provided?
• Is a nurse on-site? How are emergencies handled?
• What type of financial aid or scholarship programs are offered?
• Are additional fees (books, lunch, uniforms) or club dues required? If so, how much?
• Is tuition cancellation insurance offered?
• Does the school offer a discount for siblings?
• Does the school have a waiting list?

SELECTING A SECONDARY SCHOOL

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Many of the same considerations involved in selecting a primary school apply when selecting a secondary school, says Sue Ann Gillman, vice-principal of Bishop Lynch High School.

But Gillman recommends asking additional questions, including the following:

• What special courses are offered outside of basic curriculum?
• Are study-abroad or foreign exchange programs offered?
• What courses are required for graduation?
• Are college placement courses offered?
• What is the student-teacher ratio?
• What is the school’s total enrollment?
• What percentage of graduating students attend college? Which colleges do they attend?
• What are the students’ average SAT scores?
• How many scholarships are awarded?
• Does the school typically have national merit finalists? How many?
• What is the student body’s demographic profile?
• What type of scholastic, sports or fine arts awards are offered?
• Are individual, as well as group sports, offered?
• Does the school require community service as a condition for graduation? What type of service is required?
• How is the school accredited?

Student and parent references for a school also are important, Gillman says.

“Many of our students came on the recommendation of friends who are students,” she says.

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“It’s important for parents considering a school to talk to other school parents. Fine out why their child attends that particular school. Talk to as many people as possible. You cannot have too much information for a decision this important,” she says.

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“It’s also a good idea to check the accreditation. Most of the well-known schools are viably accredited, but some of the newer schools have not yet attained accreditation.

“This isn’t always important to the parent, but it ensures accountability in the school,” she says.

ACCREDITATION: WHAT IS IT?

The Texas Private School Accreditation Commission (TEPSAC) helps ensure quality in private schools by monitoring and approving organizations that accredit the various private elementary and secondary educational institutions in Texas, author Magid says.

TEPSAC, which began operating in 1986, is not an accrediting organization. Instead TEPSAC is a confederation of accrediting associations whose primary purpose is to maintain standards of accreditation among its membership, Magid says.

Individual schools may seek accreditation from a TEPSAC associate member. Accrediting organizations monitor the quality of the accredited schools through on-site visits at least once every five years, Magid says.

The following organizations have been recognized by TEPSAC and the Texas Commissioner of Education:

• Accreditation Commission of the Texas Association of Baptist Schools (ACTABS): Texas Southern Baptist elementary and secondary schools, with affiliation available to schools of other denominations.
• Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI): Protestant evangelical elementary and secondary schools.
• Independent Schools Association of the Southwest (ISAS): Elementary and secondary schools that emphasize college preparatory programs.
• Lutheran Schools Accreditation Commission (LSAC): Elementary and secondary schools operated by congregations of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.
• National Christian Schools Association of America (NCSA): Elementary and secondary schools operated by members of the Churches of Christ.
• Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS): Traditional and non-traditional elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities.
• Southwestern Association of Episcopal Schools (SAES): Episcopal elementary and secondary schools in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
• Texas Alliance of Affiliated Private Schools (TAAP): Traditional and specialized elementary schools.
• Texas Catholic Conference Educational Department (TCCED): Elementary and secondary schools operated by the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Texas.
• Texas Seventh-Day Adventist School System (TCSA): Seventh-Day Adventist elementary and secondary schools located in Texas.

Magid’s book is the only private school directory focusing on schools in the Dallas area. The schools listed in her book have provided summaries of their philosophy, curriculum and policies. Magid’s book also includes school locations and a list of accreditation organizations. The book is available in local bookstores ($19.95) and at the Dallas Public Library.

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For information concerning schools outside of our neighborhoods, look for these books at local bookstores and the Dallas Public Library: “The Handbook of Private Schools” (Porter Sargent Publishers; $50), a reference book for identifying the independent boarding and day schools in any particular city or region; “Peterson’s Guide to Independent Secondary Schools” ($18.95), a state-by-state listing and description of each school; and “The Bunting & Lyon Blue Book: Private Independent Schools” ($65).

HIRING A CONSULTANT

For parents overwhelmed by the decision-making process, education consultants offer a fee-based alternative to help select a school.

An education consultant is not affiliated with any school, but instead works directly with the family. Fee structures vary considerably. Parents may pay $50 to $100 for one visit, or $500 or more for a consultant to help identify a child’s strengths and problems, suggest schools to visit and help with the application process.

Some consultants charge as much as $2,000 for a boarding school placement. Others have a sliding scale fee.

The Independent Educational Consultant Association membership directory is free from IECA, P.O. Box 125, Forestdale, Mass. 02644, 508-477-2127; the directory lists educational consultants who are members of the organization.

You can also contact a school’s admissions director and ask the director to recommend an education consultant. Other tips for hiring a consultant include:

• Check references, and talk with other parents who have used the consultant. Were they happy with the school suggested?
• Ask for the names of schools where the consultant has placed children. Call the schools for a performance analysis.
• Evaluate the consultant’s degrees and credentials.
• How are the consultant’s fees structured?
• Before spending any money, obtain the consultant’s responsibilities and fees – in writing.
• If you hire a consultant, but later decide to terminate the agreement, how much will you owe as a “cancellation fee”?


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