- Visit the school. You cannot skip this step. Videos, the observations and comments of others and the opinion of your consultant provide only a glimpse of what a school is really like. You must visit it and see for yourself. There is no substitute for actually setting foot on the campus, meeting staff and students and observing how the community functions.
- Observe the grounds and facilities. Do they look cared for? If so, that indicates concern for appearances and first impressions. It also shows that the administration is allocating resources to get the job done. That teaches stewardship to young people.
Schools which are behind on their maintenance are probably in financial trouble elsewhere. Most schools will have a capital budget for large projects. Ask about it.
- Observe the students. What are they like? Are dress codes enforced? School dress codes run the gamut from casual to military. What you need to look for is whether the school enforces its dress code. If it can't enforce that very basic rule of conduct, it should make you wonder about other deeper issues.
If uniforms and dress codes are a major issue with you and your child, act accordingly. She will be miserable otherwise.
- Observe the faculty. What are they like? Are dress codes enforced? Faculty and staff should look the part. The way the faculty dresses should reflect its professionalism and seriousness of purpose. Nobody expects masters to dress like Mr. Chips anymore, but neither should a master look like he just performed in a Marilyn Manson show.
Faculty must be exemplars of academic achievement, behavior and morality. Do they pass muster?
- Ask about the ratio of applicants to acceptances. This helps determine how competitive the school is. Your child's chances of getting in to St. Swithin's may depend on that ratio. Your consultant can also help you assess that factor. But ask the question. It shows that you are on top of your game.
If your child is a legacy or has other siblings at the school, make sure that he in fact will get first preference over outside applicants. After all the school knows you.
- Ask where last year's graduating class was accepted. This gives you some idea of the intrinsic caliber of faculty and students. Harvard and Princeton are certainly impressive destinations for a school's graduates. However, they aren't the only good schools out there. Graduates should be accepted at a wide range of suitable schools.
On the other hand, if most of the graduates are going to third and fourth tier colleges, you need to know why.
- Ask what kind of faculty turnover the school has had. This usually indicates whether the staff is content or not. A happy teacher tends to stay put and will more than likely retire from the school rather than move around a lot.
Teachers enjoy teaching their subject. They yearn to grow and expand their horizons. How many of them have advanced degrees in their subject?
- Ask how long the head has been there. Several heads in recent years indicates some turmoil below the public facade. If that has to do with board or financial issues or both, beware.
Boards and heads do make mistakes. That's not the issue. It's how they handle those mistakes which is the point. If you sense something is amiss, probe.
- Ask about academic programs such as IB and AP. A good selection of courses under either syllabus indicates a substantial academic investment. Serious college preparation is the hallmark of any truly fine school. If your child needs that kind of stretching, then consider these course offerings carefully.
Ask how candidates did in their external examinations.
- Ask about the endowment. A large endowment provides a cushion against large tuition increases, while a small one affords little protection against tough economic times. Another factor is having sufficient assets to weather the inevitable lawsuit or two. A quick look at a school's Form 990 tax return will corroborate anything the school officials tell you.
Endowments are also a measure of how much the alumni and alumnae love their old school.
- Observe the willingness of staff to discuss these questions. Hesitancy or reluctance to disclose information is not a good sign. You and the school and your child are a triangle of partners in the education process. Trust is a key ingredient in this relationship.
If an answer is not available immediately, submit those questions in writing. But you need answers. Make that clear.
- Ask about the supervision of the students. Honor codes carry a lot of weight in private schools. The question you need to have answered is whether the honor code is enforced capriciously, equitably or not at all. Your child's happiness and safety depend on adequate supervision both by faculty and at times when faculty are not around.
The school functions in loco parentis. Does it take that important role seriously?
- Is the school diverse? If this is an issue which is important to you, then ask to see the current statistics and policies. I had one daughter who was perfectly miserable at the private school she attended because it was simply too homogeneous for her. She craved the variety of viewpoints and expression which comes with diversity.
- Does the school seem sincere and encouraging in setting your expectations? Or is it non-committal or discouraging? Read those tea-leaves carefully. Explore fully any negative reaction.
Attitudes generally are set by example from the top. If the administrative team is distant and cold, be aware of that tone. It may create misery for your child.
- Does the school have rolling admissions? Does it accept students into Grade 11 or possibly Grade 12? These factors may also be important to you depending on your situation.
Job transfers and postings to new locations occur throughout the year. You may need to get your child into a school in the middle of the year. It's not easy to do.
- Record the answers for comparison with other schools.
- Remember that you will be paying handsomely for the privilege of sending your child to the school. You have a right to make an informed decision.
- There is no ranking system for private schools. You have to evaluate each school on its own merits.
- Go with your gut. If you feel comfortable with the school, accept that good feeling. If something makes you feel uneasy, trust your intuition.