Questions for Parents to Ask When Comparing Independent Schools

Oct 24 2017


Deciding what your child’s education is going to look like is one of the most important decisions for any parent to make and requires you to ask a lot of questions. Should your child attend a public school or an independent school? What are the pros and cons of each option? What makes a private school education different than a public school education? 

To help you frame your thinking while evaluating your options, we’ve gathered together some of the most important questions that you should ask when comparing independent schools for your child.

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You might think that the hard work is over once you’ve decided that an independent school offers the most promise for your child’s education, but the truth is that at that point, it only shifts. After all, now you have to weigh all of your private school options to determine which school is the best fit for your child. Depending on how many options you are evaluating, this could be an overwhelming proposition.

Luckily, the secret to finding the best independent school for your child ultimately boils down to one thing: Asking the right questions so that you are able to collect the information you need to make your decision.

Questions About the School’s Fundamentals

  • How big are the classes/what is the student-to-teacher ratio? (In addition to knowing the “average” class size, you should also know what your child’s largest and smallest classes will be.
  • How often do teachers meet with students outside of class? Not all learning happens during official class time: It often happens during free blocks or before or after school when teachers offer one-on-one or small group sessions.
  • How much homework is assigned? Though homework is an important part of the educational process, reinforcing concepts, teaching responsibility, and creating a drive to excel, it can also be “busy” work or excessive, threatening an important school/life balance.
  • Does the school offer honors classes? It is important that the school you select offers classes that will challenge your child. Access to innovative, higher-level coursework keeps kids engaged and growing.
  • What does the arts/music/theatre program look like? Arts, music and theater are all areas where many students shine. Science is also telling us that exposure and experience in the arts builds both cognitive skills and self-confidence.

Questions About the School’s Culture

  • What is the school’s mission? Most independent schools will have a specific mission that percolates throughout their curriculum and educational philosophy. Understanding what this is will help you find a school that matches your own “parental mission.”
  • What are the school’s values? In order for your child to thrive, it is important for the school’s values to align with the values you espouse at home.
  • What leadership opportunities are available? Opportunities should be varied, from sports, to mock trial, the literary magazine, or student government. it is important for your child to have opportunities to become a leader and develop leadership skills. Openness to listening for students’ own ideas about creating new opportunities is a particularly healthy sign.
  • What extracurricular activities exist? Extracurricular activities like clubs and after school activities are excellent ways for your child to explore and maybe even discover a new passion. They also allow kids to become more well rounded. Long term extra-curricular interests can also help kids stand out on college applications.
  • What is it like to be a scientist, a drama kid, a STEM kid, an athlete at the school? Are kids friends across their interests? This is a great sign that a school is not too cliquish.

Questions About Student Outcome

  • What is college placement like? What percentage of graduates are admitted to their top school choices? How many graduates are admitted to highly selective schools, and to high-level specialty schools (like Tisch)? If percentages are high, you  can expect similar results for your child.
  • How are students supported through the college application process? Is college counseling available? Can they get help with their essay? What sort of support is offered to graduating seniors?

Questions to Ask During a Visit

  • Are the students sitting in rows or in a circle? This might seem like an odd question to ask, but it is actually a very important one. How the students interact with one another and with their teachers is an important piece of the educational equation. Whereas sitting in rows often dictates a top down approach, where information is only passed from instructor to student, sitting in circles often dictates a more collaborative, multi directional exchange of knowledge between students and teachers and among students.
  • When your tour enters a classroom, do the students appear engaged? Are they participating? The best way for you to get a sense of the dynamic at the school is to observe actual students interacting with the coursework and instructors. If the students are engaged during your tour, then there is a good chance that they are always engaged.  
  • Do the students look happy? Student wellbeing is important! Do the students look happy? Are they engaging with each other as a part of a friendly community, or do they stay to themselves or in small groups? Seeing how the students interact with each other will help you understand the kind of student culture that your child would entering.

Asking the Right Questions

Making sure that you ultimately select the right independent school for your child all boils down to asking the right questions so that you have all of the information that you need to make an informed decision. These questions are a great place to start but are by no means exhaustive. Remember to follow your parental intuition when making your decision, and adjust these questions as needed to fit your situation and the schools you are visiting.

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