When public school does not work

Finding an independent school to fit your child’s needs


Monica Ginsburg

If you grew up attending neighborhood public schools, chances are you thought your children would follow in your footsteps. But if you find yourself researching private schools, you’re not alone.

"For many families who apply to our school, in their hearts they wish they could be at a public school but they can’t deal with feeling that their child is disappearing in a large classroom," says Deirdre Harrison, director of admissions at The Catherine Cook School, an independent, nondenominational preparatory school in Chicago, where middle school tuition runs $11,700 year.

"We also see lots of families who would love to be in a public school, and we are located near several great magnet schools, but the lottery system for certain demographic groups has become more competitive. They just can’t get in," she says.

Families send their children to private, independent schools for a variety of reasons including smaller class size, less pressure to "perform" on standardized testing, enhanced curriculum or religious affiliation. Some families move their children from public to private schools because they believe children with special needs or talents will be better served there. And with the addition of several new high-performing, selective-enrollment public high schools, it’s no longer unusual for private school students to return to the public school system for high school.

"Just because you’re in a private school doesn’t mean you don’t believe in public schools and it doesn’t mean your children won’t return [to the public system]," says Harrison.

Finding the right fit

Private schools can generally be grouped by religious affiliation, educational philosophy, university affiliation, child-directed learning, a gifted focus or a specialized curriculum such as science, math or the arts. Tuitions range from $6,000 to $20,000 per year.

If you have decided to send your child to an independent school—or are thinking about it—here are some things to consider as you begin your search:

 Think about the learning needs of your child—and your family’s expectations. Sara Salzman of Chicago grew up attending a small private school in Miami where learning both inside and outside the classroom was encouraged and the faculty knew every family. Salzman wanted a school that would provide the same learning style and sense of community for her daughter, Emily, now a fourth-grader at the Latin School of Chicago.

"I knew Emily would do well in an environment that allowed her to find her own personality but that also stayed focused on reading, writing and arithmetic," says Salzman. "When we went to visit Latin, we felt at home."

 Do your research. If you already have some schools in mind, contact them and ask for a brochure and application. If you are just starting your search, talk with friends, family and colleagues and ask for recommendations. Several online resources provide lists of independent member schools including the Lake Michigan Association of Independent Schools, www.independentschools.net; the Independent Schools Association of the Central States, www.isacs.org; and the National Association of Independent Schools, www.nais.org. Most larger independent schools also have Web sites where you can get basic information such as tuition, size and philosophy.

Admissions deadlines range from Dec. 1 through March 1, depending on the school and grade level. Be sure to find out the exact application deadline and the dates of open houses for the schools you are interested in—many open houses are in November, December and January.

 Explore different options. "Given the number of people applying to some schools, I think the best strategy is to cast a wide net and explore a lot of different options, and even explore schools that may not jump out at you at first," says Salzman. "You might be pleasantly surprised."

Salzman also is a strong believer in working the wait list. "When Emily was on a wait list for preschool, I was persistent and stayed in touch with the school. People move or get into multiple schools. We are proof that you can get into a school from a wait list."

 Visit. Parents need to see teachers and children interact, says Margaret Carroll, an education professor at Saint Xavier University in Chicago. She suggests observing several classes at different grade levels, or at least seeing different teachers in the same grade level at work.

"Most parents cannot articulate what they are looking for in a school, but they do have a lot of information on their kid," says Carroll, who also is a consultant for special needs student integration. "You need to put yourself in your kids’ learning shoes. ... In general, you know your kid and know how they learn."

When you observe a school in operation, you should ask whether it is, in most ways, a match for your child. "Ask yourself: ‘Is what I’m seeing going to foster learning in my child?’ " Carroll says.

 See the mission in action. Many schools talk about their mission and values. But educators say it’s important to see what that looks like in the classroom.

When North Park Elementary, an independent elementary school, opened in Chicago in 1980, a state evaluator visited the school. "He wanted to see our mission in action," says Principal Lynn Lawrence. "That’s what I want prospective parents to see. Are we doing what we say we’re doing and does this fit with what you believe in?"

For example, many schools say they value diversity. But you can look at diversity in many ways, says Rick Belding, president of the Independent Schools Association of the Central States, the accrediting body of 227 independent schools in 13 Midwestern states, including 36 in Illinois.

"There’s statistical diversity, which you can see on paper, and there’s cultural diversity which show up in the curriculum, in the reading lists, in what holidays a school celebrates and honors," he says. "Come in to the school and see it and feel it. Ask the kids what they think."

Belding notes that several independent schools are following a trend across the United States by expanding their foreign language classes to include Chinese. He cites the University of Chicago Lab School, North Shore Country Day School, Latin School and Lake Forest Academy, along with Louisa May Alcott, a Chicago public school on the North Side, as examples.

"Independent schools have strived for years to become multicultural communities," he says. "This is a great thing to be able to expand language offerings to reflect our country’s international business environment."

 Ask questions—lots of them. What is the school’s mission and curriculum? How stimulating is the environment? Does the school welcome parent participation and volunteering? Seek out information on class size, student-to-teacher ratio, accreditation, extracurricular activities, advanced placement courses, college placement, before- and after-school options and the availability of any curriculum extras such as foreign language, music and art.

It’s also a good idea to talk to parents whose kids go to the schools you are considering—they may have a different perspective than the administrators.

 Consider applying for financial aid. For most families, tuition is a huge part of the equation. Belding encourages parents to ask about financial aid.

"It is very difficult for some families to request, but there is a lot of financial aid available in schools," he says. "Most admissions are done on a needs-blind basis. The larger, academically elite schools are the most expensive but also may have a larger endowment or a bigger financial aid budget," he says. "The broad middle class probably can find a way to attend these schools."

Monica Ginsburg is a Chicago writer and the mom of two girls.

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