How to pick the perfect school for your family

Whether you’re looking for the perfect preschool or a rigorous academic program for your high schooler, choosing the right school can be a daunting experience.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what questions to ask: Even if a school looks great on paper, it still might not be the right “fit” for your child. Chicagoland educational experts say that fit and feel are just as important as class offerings and student-teacher ratios.

Cortney Stark Cope, director of admissions for Chicago Jewish Day School, says you know that accredited private schools are going to provide a sound education for your child, so it’s important to look beyond that.

“The biggest thing really is finding the right fit,” she says. “You might hear what your friends are doing and where their children are going, but the school really needs to feel right for you and your child.”

She suggests visiting several schools during the day to observe the teachers in the classrooms and talk to as many people as possible.

“The most important question you should ask is, ‘How are you going to meet my child’s unique needs?’

Each child has a unique combination of strengths and challenges to work through. A good school with good teachers will take the needs of each individual and individualize their learning,” she says.

Parents also should ask questions that apply to their child’s specific needs, says Amanda Davey, director of enrollment management for Quest Academy in Palatine.

“Parents should ask questions such as, ‘I have discovered that my child learns best in a classroom with hands-on exploration instead of a teacher at the front of the room dictating the approach. What’s your school’s classroom learning environment?’” she says. “Or, ‘My child has had trouble making meaningful friendships. How does your school support the social-emotional needs of the individual child?’”

Holly Scholz, executive director at Prairieland Montessori in Chicago, says observing student-teacher interactions is something that you should focus on even at the preschool level.

She suggests being cautious of schools where teachers are constantly interrupting students to correct them or talking loudly across the classroom.

Parent should ask whether the classroom is teacher-led or child-focused, and whether students can work at their own pace or if they must follow a schedule, and whether they are required to participate in group work or whether they can work independently if they choose.

“Building a trusting, respectful, caring relationship between the children and the adults is the foundation of a quality early childhood program,” Scholz says. “Parents (should) observe how the teachers talk and interact with the children. Are they gently guiding the children to problem-solve daily challenges and modeling social behavior?”

It is also important to ask questions about how parents can get involved, as well as how they deal with behavior challenges, Davey says.

It’s also a good idea to ask what happens with students after they graduate.

“Parents with 3-and 4-year-olds are worried about high school, and I get that,” says Stark Cope. “But you don’t need to focus completely at that age about your preschooler getting into high school.”

It is OK, however, to ask about outcomes.

“How are kids followed once they leave? What feedback does the school have with high schools? How many students get into their first-choice high school,” she says.

“You don’t need to ask, ‘Will my child get into Harvard?’ Instead, ask ‘How do I know my child is getting the education they need to succeed?’”

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