Choosing a School for your Child

“Parents are grasping at every straw to maximize their children’s chances to do well in the world.”
-Malcolm Gladwell

If you have been on a play-date or attended a student athletic event; if your child is nearing or is of matriculation age and you have spent considerable time at Preschool or been on an Elementary, Middle or High School Campus and chatted with other parents in Southern California you have likely been exposed to the anxiety surrounding the private school admission season among us.

This season, while it begins at any time in the calendar year (depending on who you consult and the institutions for which you are interested) typically heats-up each January of your child’s application year, usually beginning with early education. Acceptance, wait-pool and regret letters begin the distribution cycle and responses are expected from parents thus the question and cycle begins “where should I send my child to school?”

The admission series again rises-up in March with the independent school admissions announcements informing students of their future with each institution. This process does not wind down  until spring when the wait-pool is exhausted. Again, parents are introspective, digging deep, looking inward and as Gladwell quotes “grasping at every straw to maximize their children’s chances to do well in the world.”

Applying for an independent school where the best, brightest and top students are selected in a highly-competitive environment such as Los Angeles, or other competitive areas in Southern California where demand is high and supply is low can be a jarring journey. If accepted then parents ask now what? Where is the best place for my child? Where should I send my student? How do I make this decision?

Choosing a school is selecting a course that sets your little one on the route of life-long learning. So how do you select the right school for your child amidst the pressure and anxiety of this season?

 Tips on Selecting the Right School for Your Child

 Let Go of the Name and Recreate the Image

I have worked with hundreds of parents who came into my office hoping and dreaming their child would attend “INSERT NAME OF SCHOOL HERE”. I want “THIS” for my child and I want my child to go “THERE”. For years, from cradle to Kindergarten I have heard parent’s dream.

If  I could help parents focus their dream- just slightly- by not concentrating as much on the address of one ideal school.  Instead recreate a broader image of what they wanted educationally for their child. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong at all with having a dream and going for the gold, I am all about dreaming and encourage the vision 100%.

But, I have experienced many times parents getting wrapped up in titleslabels and what is most popular and never starting from the beginning to ask the most important questions about what their student and family really needs and wants.

I’ve seen the most fulfillment in knowing yourself- as a parent, in understanding your child and who they are in all aspects but especially as it relates to the school search from an education perspective- and then applying this knowledge to define what you want in the big picture.

For example, what is the ethos, character and values that you love about your ideal school? What would they teach your child? What is the curriculum? Is there anything you would change? What are the best programs you would want in any school? What about your child- does he/she need a structured environment? What do your current teachers say now?

Applying the answers to these questions of the “perfect school” to your overall school search can help a parent in evaluating, measuring and comparing other programs that they may or may not have considered before. Perhaps other programs will be surprisingly similar, maybe others will surpass the highlights of the ideal program. Maybe the perfect program will continue to rise to the top and remain the front-runner. Either way the process matters and I don’t believe you know until you go through the steps.

There is no informal title that guarantees quality. Just by saying a school is private, independent, charter or magnet doesn’t automatically qualify a school by “NAME” or designation as being a quality program. Quality programs become phenomenal because of their history, reputation and maintaining greatness year-over-year. So parents- do your homework by finding out which programs have earned their rights to truly be called great.  And check out the public school down the road too. Quality doesn’t always have to have an expensive price tag but it does need to be consistent. Respecting the process, having due diligence and knowing what you are looking for goes a long way.

 Study all the Options. Collect Information. Check Numbers. Resist Intimidation. 

I again reflect on my experience working with parents for many years. Anxiety can build when parents see the reality of application and acceptance numbers at competitive private schools (from preschool thru high school). I have seen parents approach this turmoil with over-confidence as well as under-confidence and everywhere in between and in truth, student acceptance results have ranged from overwhelming success to wait-pool, regrets and again everywhere in-between. What one school may have regretted in an applicant another school may have accepted.

The reality is, no matter what your confidence level as a parent in how bright or ready your child is, schools make the final decision on best environmental fit for their program and they are looking for the smallest possible acceptance yield. So a parent/students preparation for the application process and knowing your child and his/her real readiness for programs really does matter.

So how do you prepare as an applicant family? You begin by location including public, private, magnet, charter- possibly homeschooling organizations if you are open to such possibilities. Where are you willing to drive or allow your student to take a bus? Logistics are a key factor.  If you elect to pursue private schools and you feel cost is an issue inquire with the schools financial-aid officer. There are great resources available in Los Angeles and San Diego such as CAIS, LAAIS, First 5 and Connections for Children for preschool, Independent School Alliance and SDCIS.  Go to RESOURCES for more information.

 Visit and Don’t Make Assumptions

Referrals and word of mouth are helpful when parents are searching for a school and being introduced to a new community but often outside endorsements can be greyed by another family’s personal experiences and those rarely apply to the masses. So parents,  be sure to keep an open mind when looking at programs because you are looking at what is best for your child. In a matriculation year, families often make decisions about a school based on incomplete information, so start as early as you can to gather information and build relationships with schools and in the community.

Sometimes school visits are brief and overwhelmed with a lot of material. If parent expectations are based on their own ideals of education from when they attended school instead of how their child learns best it can make school visits less meaningful.

To make school visits significant, take notes on leadership speeches to follow-up on at a later time. Take account of special projects students are working on and unique programs available.  Are they current and accessible to your child? Notice the disposition of the students and how they are interacting with their teachers and peers? Are students stressed out or are they happy and engaged? Where do students matriculate following graduation and how is this data published and accessed by prospective parents? How are the teachers addressing the students? What happens if a student needs extra help? Are other parents on campus serving the school? Are they engaged and do they seem welcome on campus? Is the school nationally accredited and do they have any special recognitions or awards? If so, take the time to visit the national organizations website and check out the requirements for that achievement.

Remember that you are looking for a program that best suits your student. But questions like these address normal issues that can arise over a long tenure of education between schools and parents/students and also these are questions that help to measure quality.

Be Mindful of Internet Reviews

As stated above, be cautious of how you are influenced by others including what you read on the Internet. While this can be helpful to an extent keep it in perspective. Parents posting reviews online are often and usually heavily influenced by personal experiences (either overly positive or overly negative or somewhere in between). You will rarely find objective information on school rating sites such as (great schools, yelp or other client feedback platforms).  Rather, do your own research. Visit the school, ask detailed questions about curriculum expectations and benchmarks. Ask questions about homework and standardized tests. Ask to see cumulative scores and data of how students have performed. Many times, schools will provide this information and have it readily available. The expert on your child is you and the expert on the school is the staff. You are building a home, student and school partnership. That is what matters.

 Teachers are Important

Especially in Preschool the relationship between the student and teacher matters. As you are visiting schools, really focus on how teachers and students interact with one another. Listen to the language teachers’ use with children. How do they guide them to “get their shovels back and get their bikes back” when a friend takes it? Are teachers forming a trust and bond with students and then using that trust and bond to guide students into social and academic independence in early education? This matters in Preschool.

In later years teachers are still the foundation. Quality schools elevate excellent teachers. Schools that have phenomenal leaders at the helm make it a priority to invest in their teachers, they value them as professionals. They promote them as mentors and experts in their fields and of their kids. Quality schools and their leaders pour into teachers and give them extra training and guidance to make the best, better. Great teachers spend years perfecting and excelling their craft; always studying what is new and upcoming for their age-group changing what doesn’t work but keeping what does because doing something well and being proficient  in a subject, an age-group or a grade takes time, persistence, study, support, dialogue and hard work. Great teachers work at great schools so focus on teachers and behind it you are likely going to find an excellent school.

 Apply, Wait, Enroll and Respecting Deadlines

Once you’ve done all your homework and you know where you want to apply or lottery-in, make sure to meet all deadlines for applications, tuition-assistance and/or any other optional program. The number of schools you choose to apply is based on each individual family’s choice, student readiness/preparation and level of community competition. The number of applications you choose to submit can have an affect on student outcomes. Make this decision with careful consideration.

The appropriate time to study schools and determine best environmental fit for your child is during the application process and usually not after acceptance. As a parent, if you have a lot of questions for a school administrator, Teacher or Admission Director it is best practice to ask those questions during the search season and not after you’ve been accepted.

After acceptance, this is the time to excitedly accept or decline the offer and is not the time to continue ask questions about the school in order to make your decision. You have been allowed (presumably) months of time to interview them. Be honest and authentic about who you are as people. Schools will appreciate your realness. Get to know the school by attending events and following up with questions in the months preceding the admission announcements.

If a child is in the blessed position of having been offered multiple acceptances, some parents prolong the process of sending a regret to a school that they are not electing to attend. This can happen for many reasons. Parents may feel bad for the school or they think it will reflect negatively on them to decline. One of the biggest reasons parents delay in sending a regret is because they want to keep the door open for acceptance in a future year. For example, a parent may decide to send their child to a K-6 school and they regret a K-12 school but they want to stay in good graces for future 7th grade admission.

The best general advice – don’t delay once you’ve made your decision and extend out the process. Tell the school your student is not attending your plans as soon as possible. Direct, honest communication is what shows your integrity. Ethics and respect in the admission process goes far in every circumstance and you never know when you will need to access past relationships again.

 Have a Back-Up Plan

Even after all of the planning for your student. It is good to have a Plan B.

Sometimes it happens that the charter or public school doesn’t pick your lottery number or your student’s name never moves off the wait-pool list before school starts. Or the ideal school you had hoped for never selected your child’s name. And some families have fallen under tough economic times and the back-up plan needs to be accessed at some point in the process.

For whatever the reason, it is highly encouraged to have a reliable Plan B that you have visited, studied and feel comfortable as a potential school for your student.  When parents put the same focus and energy as they did into the first choice school, into a search for a back-up plan school, it is sometimes surprising what can be discovered.

“What’s amazing is, if young people understood how doing well in school makes the rest of their life so much interesting, they would be more motivated. It’s so far away in time that they can’t appreciate what it means for their whole life”
-Bill Gates


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