When Lisa Buban applied to law school, she thought she had endured the worst the admissions process could dole out.

And then she and husband Robert started to apply to private schools for their daughter Antonia. That’s when she discovered that private schools in the Dallas don’t pursue students; they let the students pursue them.

“There has to be a better way to do it, but I don’t know what it is,” says Lisa, an attorney-mediator who lives near White Rock Lake. “I know I spent more time on her applications than I did for law school.”

That’s because it’s still a seller’s market when it comes to private schools – something that too many parents learn too late in the process. It almost doesn’t matter if private schools are better than public schools, say the experts, since private schools are perceived as better. And as long as they are perceived that way, they won’t have to try too hard to attract students. The students will come flocking to them.

If anything, most private schools — which often have severe limits on their enrollment — don’t need a crush of students, says Lynne Magid, the author of “A Guide to Dallas Private Schools.”  What private schools do need is to market themselves to “continuously attract and get a wide variety of students to select from,”  she says.

So that’s where they aim what little marketing they do. Usually, the most private schools need to do is make parents aware of the school and its programs. Then, it’s up to the parents to find if it’s the correct school for their children.

“The ball is really in the parents’ court,” says Sara Zesser, an educational consultant who helps parents select private schools. “Some of these schools get inundated with applications. They can handpick who they want.”

That’s why parents and school administrators say that word-of-mouth rather than slick marketing campaigns tends to be the most efficient way to bring the necessary numbers of parents and students to their doorsteps.

It’s how, for example, Linda Wills found Dallas Academy for her dyslexic son, Shane. Armed with names of parents who had children attending Dallas Academy, Wills was working her way down the list to see if this might be the best school. One student told her: “Oh, I just love that school.”

“That was the turning point for us,” says Wills, recalling how strongly the teen-ager’s comments influenced her decision to send her boy there. This was, after all, a teen-ager professing to love school. Wills was impressed. Now her son, a ninth-grader who began attending Dallas Academy in the seventh grade, also loves it, she says.

It’s a method school officials are well familiar with. Sonya Darr, admissions/marketing director for First Baptist Academy, which has a campus Downtown and in East Dallas, says the school always asks parents how they learned of the school.

“I would say 95 to 97 percent of the time, it’s from neighbors, friends or coworkers who have children here and are happy with the school,” she says. “Our main way of marketing is (to have) happy parents.”

Still, that doesn’t mean word-of-mouth is all private schools do. All of them, and especially the less well-known schools, realize they occasionally have to sell themselves. All participate in the annual city-wide private school fair in September, and each makes sure it is listed in Magid’s book.

The book, now in its third edition, is the Bible of the Dallas private school community. It provides a general overview of each school, including a summary of admission policies, curriculum, school philosophy, accreditations and other information. Magid began putting the book’s information on the Internet in June (privateschools.com).

But there are other tools, too. First Baptist began marketing itself with flyers


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