There are many reasons for desiring a private school education. Your personal reasons will determine how difficult the choice is for you. There might be, for instance only one Christian school in your area that has special education teachers. Your transportation possibilities could limit your options. If you have a number of options, though, it pays to do a lot of information gathering before you make the big move. It is a big decision and one that will forever leave its mark on your child’s life.
There are some things you might want to find out that are difficult to directly discern. It is common for there to be a display of dissonance between a school’s policies and its practices. Promotional literature is typically written to accomplish marketing objectives. Practices are usually driven by both attitudes and practical considerations such as finances, staffing, schedules and feasibility.
The founders and governing bodies of a school might have a specific philosophy when they open the school. This is probably conveyed in the school’s mission statement. As a school ages the governing body gets more experience, it might drift toward a different philosophy of education.
How is the school funded? Is it supported by tuition alone, by grants, by a founder’s personal estate, by a church or other non-profit, or by some combination of these? Is it funded mostly by a small group of parent-donors? If its funding depends only upon tuition, there is a strong motive to favor students from wealthier families. How can a child be expelled from school, if the school’s existence depends upon that child’s tuition money? If the school cannot afford to lose a trouble-making student, the rest of the school is stuck with the problem.
Stipulations of grants may change from year-to-year, requiring the school to adapt its operations to change accordingly. If the school is owned or funded by a church or other non-profit, that organization’s beliefs and its leadership may hold the reins behind the scenes. Did the present administrator found the school? Is his salary for this position his only income? Is she working pro bono?
Generally we expect that teachers will have the appropriate education and experience whether or not they are licensed. If they are underpaid, this may not be so. Some may be altruistic enough or love teaching so much that it doesn’t matter, but that motivation is likely to wane when the teacher’s personal circumstances change.
The maxim that parents are a child’s first teachers is true. The implication that anyone who can parent well can also teach is true. Teaching one-on-one, however is very, very different than teaching a group who all come to the class with different aptitudes, personalities, learning styles and backgrounds.
It is also critical that the administrator have adequate experience and education of the right kind. You might be surprised at how many private school administrators don’t have a college degree and have never before worked in a school. The administrator often signs the teachers’ paychecks and has the authority to hire and fire at will in some states. Do you want your child’s education to be controlled by someone who does not have the proper training?
The role of a school principal is very different than that of a manager in any other profession. A school administrator is managing both children and adults. He also must deal with outside political pressures. Discipline and politics are inevitably stumbling blocks if the school has more than five or six students.
What about the administrator’s motivation for being in that position? If funding is inadequate, it could be that the board couldn’t get anyone more qualified. I once worked under an administrator who started the school primarily to direct students into a career that she favored. That could be alright if parents know that all along. However children shouldn’t be pressured into selecting a career too early. They will need internal vision about the career to persevere.
Business Model and Structure
If the school is incorporated, it will have a board. Who chooses the board? Does it get actively involved or just rubber-stamp all the administrator’s decisions? If the school exists to make a profit that has other implications. Has it in fact been operating at a profit?
Getting the Answers
One way to get some answers is to find out whether or not the school is accredited and what entity grants the accreditation. See what you can learn from that entity’s web site. Learn about its history. Schools are typically not accredited when they are new. It takes time for a school to prove itself. Being new does not necessarily say much about a school’s quality. Being old without accreditation does tend to signify one of two things, however. Either the school is not very good, or it is so unique that it does not fit under any accrediting organization’s guidelines.
Another way to probe for information is to find out what the affiliations of the administrator, board and faculty are. Talk to staff and parents, but also to others who know the leadership and staff.
When you do talk with parents ask open-ended questions that don’t reveal your own biases or priorities:
1. How many other parents do you know with children in this school?
2. How did you make the decision to select this school over others?
3. How long have you been with this school?
4. What do you like most about the school?
5. How did the adjustment period go when your child was new there?
If possible, make it seem like just a social conversation. You might do this before you even inform them that you are considering the school for your own child. To come across this way, you probably won’t want to sound like you’re interviewing them. You can direct some of the questions to the child if he is around at the time. Parents are often proud to have their children included in adult conversations.
How do you meet a variety of parents before you are already in the school? That will take some creative thinking, but find a way to do it.
It would be a good idea to do almost all your fact-finding before your child visits the school with you. That way you’ll spare him the yo-yo emotional experience of wondering what your decision will be. You will know you are ready for that when you have no more questions and can confidently present the idea to your child well before he first visits the school.