Chicago parents who want to send their children to a private school have lots of options. Whether your child is just starting out in preschool or junior kindergarten or they are making the all-important move at the beginning of middle school or high school, you want to make an informed choice. What are questions to ask admissions officers?
Different families are looking for different qualities in their child’s school, says Meg Steele, Head of School at Sacred Heart Schools, a Catholic, independent PK-8 school for students of all faiths in Chicago.
“What’s really important is that parents match their value systems with the school they select for their child,” says Steele, who has a long history with Sacred Heart Schools and at Woodlands Academy, the Sacred Heart girls high school in Lake Forest, where she served as Head of School until June 2021.
You can learn a lot about a school by trusting your instincts, Steele says. Absolutely do your homework, but also recognize your own ability to discern a good fit. “Do not underestimate that feeling you get standing in a school,” she says. “When you walk in the door, do you feel comfortable or ill at ease?”
By communicating with your prospective school’s admissions counselors and administrators, you have a wonderful opportunity to gather information and ask questions. To get you started, Steele shares her insight on questions to ask admissions officers.
Academics and beyond
All private schools have strong academic offerings, but exactly how they approach instruction will vary widely on the individual school. As you gather test scores, high school or college placement information and other statistics that may be important to you, remember to think broadly when crafting questions about academics, suggests Steele.
“It’s very interesting to listen to the school talk about teaching versus learning,” she says. “You want to hear how the school’s students are learning. Teaching is a part of that, but do they talk only about classrooms and grades? Or are they sharing information about community service experiences, social-emotional learning and friendships? Are they talking about meeting kids where they are and what supports they have in place for kids who need them?”
If your child has an exceptionality, be prepared to share this information openly and honestly so you can assess whether or not the school can meet your child’s needs.
How will they know your child?
A big question that seems obvious — but is often overlooked — relates to how the school endeavors to get to know your child and how they maintain that ongoing knowledge. “At Sacred Heart Schools, we actively say ‘who is the child in front of me and how can we provide a holistic experience to best meet their needs?’” Steele explains. And being known in turn helps a child know themselves, which is critical to a social awareness that compels each individual to action.
“Sacred Heart recognizes that each child has a responsibility to the rest of the world to know who you are so you can do what’s best for the world,” Steele says. “This involves a strong value system and that comes from knowing each child really well.”
As you visit your prospective schools, be prepared to watch how teachers interact with students and how grownups are talking with each other. Ask about how the school works with you as a parent. Is it a partnership? “How you get to know kids is by knowing their parents and what’s important to them and their family,” Steele adds.
Support for what’s next?
Because your child’s education never happens in a vacuum and your goals likely involve preparing for high school and postsecondary education, be sure to ask how the school matches students based on good fit, not just Ivy League names.
“What is their process? That is a service that the school can and should offer and it should reflect their understanding of how they view their students in their next schools,” Steele says.
As your child moves on to high school or college, how does the school recognize the parent’s role in these decisions? “Parents have a long view of what they want for their children, but they might forget that they do know what is best for their child. I’m all for parents maintaining a strong vote in school placements,” she says.
Think about your family’s values and philosophies regarding faith. This will help open your mind to a broader range of independent school choices. For example, Sacred Heart’s student body is about 65% Catholic, and are joined by Muslim and Jewish families and a lot of different Christian denominations.
“We pride ourselves on being a Catholic school for people of all faiths because our value system is not just a Catholic value system,” Steele explains. “We recognize that a student’s spiritual and faith life is important and is intertwined in their academic life.”
The founding Goals and Criteria shared by all Sacred Heart Schools recognize that God is a loving God and that is expressed in the world not by making everyone Catholic, but by helping individuals deepen their sense of religion, spirituality or faith. “What brings us to the same end is that all have a responsibility to be loving, and that’s what we talk about during parts of our days,” Steele explains. “Whatever faith kids come in with, we hope when they leave it’s stronger and more personal.”
Finally, don’t rule out a school because of money, Steele says. “Most, if not all, schools want a socioeconomically diverse student body and have mechanisms in place to afford that. Sometimes people don’t even look at a school because they think they can’t afford it. It’s still worth looking at. A lot of schools have plenty of financial aid budgets, so don’t completely close the doors to a school at the outset.”
Content brought to you by Sacred Heart Schools Chicago. Learn more at shschicago.org.