What you should do now to get your kids ready for high school

Choosing a high school for your student can be a daunting task when faced with dozens of options, ranging from public to private, parochial to charter. And making the choice doesn’t start when your child is ending eighth grade. In reality, making decisions that will ultimately influence which high school you choose for your child starts in seventh grade — or even before.

What do I need to do?

Public and Private High School Search timeline

Early work

• Sixth grade: Visit one or two “high interest” schools to determine requirements for admission and enter seventh grade with a goal

• Seventh grade: Attend open houses, concentrate on schoolwork (standardized tests and school grades). Solidify relationships from potential recommendation providers

• Sixth- to eighth-grade families should attend the Hidden Gems High School Fair this month to widen the net of schools for


Eighth grade

• Early fall: Attend open houses, write essays and gather recommendations (if required)

• Late fall: Apply by deadline

• Winter: Take entrance exams (complete parochial and charter applications)

• Spring: High school notifications arrive

Source: ChiSchoolGPS

Like choosing the right college, it involves researching and visiting the school, as well as preparing your child academically, by helping them achieve good grades and encouraging them to get involved in community service activities.

Laying a good foundation for high school actually begins in elementary school.

Geoff Jones, GEMS World Academy-Chicago’s head of school, says academic instruction doesn’t work in isolation, and individual components of elementary school build upon each other, so what happens in the lower grades are as important as they are as they age.

“At GEMS World Academy-Chicago, our program has been carefully designed so that individual components are connected and each level builds upon the previous one. The result is that when our students reach high school, they’ll have the rich intellectual foundation needed to engage in high-level learning,” he says.

“Our interconnected lower- and middle-school programs add a deeper level of meaning to the departmental academic program typically found at the high-school level. When a GEMS student takes a high-school social-studies class, for example, the student will instinctively view the material through a variety of lenses – language, science, and art among them. Our students enter high school with an uncommonly fertile mix of knowledge, imagination and critical-thinking skills – all of which will help them be leaders not just in high school, but throughout their lives.”

It is important to do your due diligence as you look for a school, says Karen Fisher, director of admission and financial aid for the Francis W. Parker School.

“Get organized,” she says. “Do your due diligence by researching the websites of schools of interest. Listen to the educators who know your child about what kind of school environment best fits your child’s academic, social and emotional needs.”

Fisher advises looking into public, private, parochial, boarding and charter schools, focusing less on the name of the school and more on the concepts that work well with your child. Things to consider include school size, student activities away from academics, and what your family wants from a school community.

“How successful has each school been in launching high schoolers into college?” she says. “Visit the schools. A great deal of information is available through school visits and open houses that will not be apparent from school websites and print materials. Be sure to visit when students and faculty are present. There is an essential ‘vibe’ to each school that you can discern from your visit.”

Colin Lord, director of enrollment management at Latin School in Chicago, says the most important thing to consider is not the number of AP courses offered or how many students enroll at Ivy League colleges and universities.

“Rather, students should be attempting to find the right fit,” he says. “In other words, what school provides the best congruence based on your personal preferences, learning style and interest in extracurricular activities?”

Make a list of things that are important and things that might be potential “deal breakers,” he says. Those might include things like single sex versus a co-ed school, or schools that have a dress code versus those who have uniforms.

“Do you prefer small discussion-based classes versus large lecture style classes? Is it important to be able to develop a rapport with your teaches outside of class? Are your extracurricular interests supported at the school?” he says. “How far — and long — are you willing to travel to get to school, realizing this might impact your social reality and your ability to be involved in after-school activities.”

He recommends students make the list and use it as a guide to help them decide where they want to enroll.

“Choosing a high school, and eventually a college, is a very personal decision. A school that may be a perfect fit for one student may not be right for the next. Devoting some time to personal reflection will go a long way toward helping a student make an informed decision,” he says.

Michael Horton, headmaster of the British International School of Chicago South Loop, says it is important to be able to imagine your child in that school’s environment and look at how teachers are delivering each subject.

“Children have different learning styles. During your tour, are you taken into classes to observe how the teachers cater to this need? If not, ask yourself, “Why not?” he says. “The environment of a high school is also important. Is there a celebration of children’s work on display, so children feel proud of their achievements? As you walk around the school, there should be a buzz from both children and teachers as the excitement of their learning is shared.”

At the end of the day, you want your child to be happy in school and to know that the school knows your child and is therefore catering to their individual needs, Horton says.

“A high school should not be a factory churning out children for college, but rather a nurturing, caring establishment that meets your child’s needs by offering a curriculum that meets each child’s needs,” he says.

Isabel Gonzalez, director of admissions Grades 6-12 at St. Benedict Preparatory School in Chicago, says admissions officers at St. Benedict Prep seek solid, college-bound students with positive and creative energy, dynamic personalities, and who are driven to learn.

“Since we share a PK-12 campus, they also need to show that they can be positive leaders and role models for our younger students on campus. Our program provides a lot of opportunities for young people to grow in leadership,” she says.

When filling out applications, it is important to fill out an application completely, neatly and with correct grammar. It is also important to compile all materials in a timely fashion and reach out to the school if you have any questions, she says.

“Don’t leave the application process to the last minute. It is crucial to note the schools’ applications due dates,” she says. “Don’t turn in an incomplete application or assume a spot will be saved for your child.”

When it comes time to fill out high school applications, it is important for you and your child to highlight his or her unique qualities, says Andi Jones, director of institutional advancement at La Lumiere School in LaPorte, Ind.

“Admission committees will also want to see that applicants are active outside of the classroom so be sure to list all activities from school, church, and other organizations you are involved in,” she says. “Highlight anything that is unique about yourself so that the school’s admission committee remembers you. Things like hobbies and interests are good and anything out of the ordinary helps a student stand out. We had an applicant who loves birds so he described where his interest stemmed from and how he watches and studies birds every chance he gets. He hoped that our 190-acre wooded campus would allow him opportunities to see birds that he had never encountered before.”

Most importantly, remember that everyone applying is both excited and anxious, she says.

“Enrolling at a new school can be exciting but also may create some anxiety. Remember that other students feel like you do even if they don’t show it,” she says.

Part of Making the Grade, a special advertising education guide.

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