Enrolling your child in a private school is a major decision that will have an impact on their life and your own. Aside from rankings and tuition, there are other important considerations to weigh before you make your final selection.
Gray Carr Bridgers, director of admissions and indexed tuition for the Wakefield School in The Plains, guides you through the most important aspects of admissions and enrollment.
The Wakefield School is an independent day school that teaches Junior-K (starting at four years of age) through 12th grade, with 400 students presently enrolled. It’s ranked as one of the top independent day schools in Northern Virginia. Here, Bridgers explains how parents can choose the best private school for their child.
Scope and Sequence
After a school’s core subject matter (like STEM or, in Wakefield’s case, liberal arts), or choosing a religious or secular institution, the two most important parts of any private school’s curriculum are scope and sequence. These are the most important things you can ask the admissions staff about when you have an initial interview.
When it comes to scope, Bridgers says, “Independent schools do not teach to a test—we’re able to get a very good broad education on a particular subject, really going through the foundations of [a subject]. We do not limit ourselves to a test. Scope can be broad and [delve into] fundamentals that are so critical to the sequencing of the curriculum.”
Sequence is the order and progression of the subject matter in the curriculum. “You’re going from Algebra I to geometry,” says Bridgers. You want to make sure the prospective school builds the foundation for a student to move through their curriculum, that the curriculum is advanced enough, and that your student is getting the necessary building blocks to move from one grade to another.
Finding An Elementary School That Accommodates Your Child’s Needs
Determining whether or not a school will meet your child’s needs is based on an observation, typically 20 minutes or so. “It measures gross fine motor skills, ability to follow instruction, whether the child can leave their parents and have a conversation with a new person,” says Bridgers. “Can they concentrate? Can they hold a pencil? How high can they count? Do they know ABCs?”
Plenty of parents have questions prior to their child’s observation, says Bridgers. “Most questions come from parents who have junior kindergarteners, who want to prepare their student for the Early Screening Profile Observation.”
Her advice? “Don’t prepare them. Observers need to discern the difference between chronological age versus developmental age for every student who is applying. Then that information goes to the teacher, who [knows the] developmental age, and can differentiate [their manner of instruction] in the classroom based on the child’s needs. The observation helps the teacher because they already know the student, where they need help, and where they can progress.”
Why Class Size Matters
You might hear a lot about the importance of smaller class sizes, and Bridgers says that’s an important aspect of your student’s ability to get that instructional differentiation—or the teacher’s ability to cater to each child’s individual needs—based on the outcome of their pre-enrollment observation.
“In early-childhood programs, the ideal number of students in a class, per teacher, is lower (12-14 students per teacher in a class),” says Bridgers. “Our junior kindergarten max is 12, then we have aides that assist with a small group. You don’t want 4-year-olds in a classroom with 18 to 20 kids. It’s important to understand the maximum for each teacher.”
Things change a bit as kids get older. “In middle school, the class size is approximately 14 students average, but you also want the grade to be big enough to get the social [aspect of learning],” she says. “You want classes to be a little bit bigger as you get up in the middle and upper schools.”
Balancing Academics and Extracurriculars In High School
Your student’s educational journey ultimately prepares them for college and, later, a career. As colleges and universities continue to re-think the emphasis on entrance exams and testing, the idea of the “holistic” student has gained greater importance.
“What we’re hearing now from colleges is that they are looking for the holistic student,” says Bridgers. “More institutions are taking away entrance exams while more heavily weighing what the student has done and if they can prove they can take a college-level academic class. Institutions are now asking, ‘Are they going to be an engaged citizen on my campus?’”
When it comes to academics and extracurriculars, and ultimately helping your student become the well-rounded student that gets accepted into the college of their choice, Bridgers says, “You want to prep your high school student to find their passion and dive deeper into that passion. All of us have something to give. In my mind, a really good school develops that gift.”
“By the time they get into high school, they should have an idea about who they want to be. Their high school résumé should say that your student has carved out who they are,” continues Bridgers.
While the emphasis used to be on broad-based interest, Bridgers says that isn’t the case anymore. “They’re not being all things to all people. It used to be that the student would join every club, but today, when a college admissions person looks at your application, they need to know who your student is, not how much they’ve done.”
Becoming a parent trustee can be a tempting idea. You get access to the governing body of your child’s school, for one. What could be more important than being involved in the decision-making process that impacts your child’s education?
Independent School Management is a management support firm for independent schools. Here’s why they recommend treading carefully before you jump into the volunteer advisory role.
- Other parents’ perceptions of you will change—you will no longer be seen as just a parent. Every comment you make could be treated as the Board’s official opinion, according to ISM, and you can expect to be used by people on both sides of an issue.
- You must support the School Head. Your public assessment of the Head’s performance must always be positive, even if you don’t personally agree with their decisions or administrative actions.
- You are, above all, still a parent. You need to be able to advocate for your child and as a trustee, when talking to a teacher about your student, you must make sure to clarify your role in the situation. You’ll have to learn to automatically mention that you want to talk about your child’s performance “as their parent, not as a member of the Board of Trustees.”
Where To Find Grants & Scholarship Money
Private school tuition continues to increase every year, but there are grants and scholarship funding opportunities to help assist in some of the cost.
- Contact the school’s financial aid or administrative office. The admissions staff should be able to help you locate funding to be made available to its own students.
- Look to the Virginia Department of Education. They may provide vouchers or other types of financial assistance for independent schools.
- Hit the books. The Interactive Guide To School Choice Laws from the National Conference of State Legislators is one of the most up-to-date comparisons of voucher laws by state. The Ultimate Scholarship Book is a director of grants for K-12 students as well as those pursuing higher education. How To Find Scholarships and Free Financial Aid For Private High School is a guide specifically for high school tuition assistance.