How to choose the right high school for your child

When the time comes to choose a high school for your child, the seemingly limitless options can feel daunting. However, experts have suggestions on things to keep in mind while sifting through the possibilities – and surprising ideas on things that shouldn’t deter you.

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 consideration.

Eighth grade

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

• Late fall: Apply by deadline and register for any entrance exams

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

• Spring: High school notifications arrive

Source: ChiSchoolGPS



Whether your child learns best through project-based learning, listening to lectures or real-world experiences, it’s best to find a school whose atmosphere allows your student to thrive.

“What gets your kid really excited during the day? Is it a teacher who does one-on-one learning, or do they love art class, or do projects get them really excited?” asks Kate Klein, head of school for GCE Lab School in Chicago. “That’s what you should look for in their next school. It might not necessarily be the cornerstone of their curriculum or process, but you need to make sure it’s there.”

Karen Fisher, director of admission and financial aid for the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago, says it’s important to make sure the school meshes with your family’s values and educational aspirations. It’s also important to examine your own motivations for looking at certain schools.

“Are you seeking to live out an unfulfilled dream of your own, or are you thinking clearly about your child’s strengths and challenges,” Fisher asks.

It’s important to consider everything from your child’s interests and abilities and your goals for their education as well as things like the history and legacy of the schools and what level of involvement you want in their school community, she says.

Grace Lee Sawin, founder of Chicago School GPS, says it’s important to not get caught up with the “big name schools” that attract all of the attention.

“I like to emphasize that you should look past the name on the door,” she says. “The marquee high schools might not be a good fit, even if you can get into them. If (your children are) at a school for four years and it doesn’t meet what their passions are, it could make for a really difficult four years.”

Whether your child is interested in fine arts or culinary arts, broadcast journalism or video game design, there are schools that cater to unique interests, Sawin emphasizes.

Attending open houses and sporting events, visiting the websites and shadowing a student are all great ways to get to know the school and its students.

“After you’ve done online research and talked with families in your neighborhood who might have kids at the school, getting a first-hand experience and insight through a visit is a great next step,” says Carolyn Gorowski, dean of admission at Lake Forest Academy. “(Your child) can walk on campus and look at the students and envision themselves interacting with the kids and making friends with them. They can sit in a class and see the interactions between students and teachers, and see what teaching and learning styles are there. That’s the most critical piece to determining if the school is a good fit.”

While you’re shadowing at the school, you’ll have the opportunity to get to know a little bit about what kind of community there is within the school’s campus, Klein says.

“Does the school have a 15-minute meeting every morning? We have people from all over the city and suburbs who have come together to form an intentional community,” she says. “The socio-emotional environment and student support are very important.”

The location of the school in relation to your home doesn’t necessarily have to be a deterrent, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind, the experts agree.

“Sometimes kids travel 90 minutes and pass by two or three good schools on the way to their own school,” Sawin says. “You have to think really hard about making that commuting sacrifice, especially if you’re overlooking something that’s closer to you.”

If your child falls in love with a school and carpooling or shuttles aren’t viable options for a daily commute, some schools, like Lake Forest Academy, offer a boarding option.

“They can attend school during the week and come home on the weekends,” Gorowski says. Lake Forest Academy is the largest boarding school in the Chicago area, with 210 of the school’s 430 students living on campus. “We have students from all over the world, including 25 percent international students, to give a diverse population for students to interact and share with. Living on campus can be a rich opportunity to encounter in high school.”

However, Klein cautions that if you are going to be responsible for the day-to-day transportation and promptness is an issue, you might want to stay within a more reasonable distance from home.

“If your child has a passion for the school and an hour doesn’t seem daunting, that’s great,” she says. “But you have to set your child up for success. If you know you’re not going to be able to get there on time, you might want to think about it first.”

And while sometimes parents get “sticker shock” when they first see what private schools can cost, it’s important to look beyond the initial numbers and ask questions about financial aid.

“There is a lot of financial aid that might be available, whether it be merit-based or need-based. Ask the school what their average financial aid package is. It’s unfortunate when sometimes parents see the sticker price but don’t take the next step and ask questions” Gorowski says.

Sometimes when you consider the cost of the school, you have to think about your child’s education as a long-range investment.

“Many parents try to save for the college years at the expense of the primary and secondary years,” Fisher says. “What is important to you? A strong start? A strong finish? Graduate school? Look at the here and now, and plan, consider and discuss.”

No matter what school your child ultimately chooses, it’s important to start the selection process early, Sawin says.

“Start the whole process in the middle school years, because you learn a lot each year,” she says. “In sixth grade kids start to get an inkling what their interests are. Seventh grade you can start looking at schools and narrowing down a list of schools to visit and seriously pursue. You don’t want to get overwhelmed. It’s better to start early.”

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