Don’t depend too heavily on a checklist.
Parents, please understand that choosing a school cannot be done solely with paper and pencil. “Parents want a checklist,” says Joyce Pickering, executive director of the Shelton School and Evaluation Center. “What I tell them is…you have a feel for every institution you walk into. You feel how people relate to each other, how they treat each other, how they talk to each other, what the students look like. You are going to leave having a gut feeling. ’I can see my child here.’ Or, ’I can’t see my child here.’”
“It isn’t a case of picking a good school,” says Meadowbrook’s Goldberg. “It’s about picking a school that fits your child.”
After you’ve narrowed your list, start touring the schools. As Morrell says, don’t leave until you understand their missions. And while you’re there, ask to see a copy of the school’s handbook. Most private schools have such a resource that outlines what is expected of children and parents. Some schools make both students and parents sign a contract that covers much more than just financial terms. And a few private schools have a handbook actually written by parents. These are invaluable, as they tell the parents of prospective students everything they need to know, perhaps with more candor than school officials might offer in their official version.
Cecil and Doris Lofton learned how important visiting a school can be. Their son, Cecil Jr., was in the first grade at Edna Rowe Elementary, an East Dallas public school. “We made cold visits there to evaluate the curriculum,” Cecil says. “The teacher was basically running a baby-sitting outfit. We tolerated it for one year.” The Loftons moved their son to the Dallas Montessori Academy at the beginning of this school year.
“We scheduled a meeting with [the head of the school],” Cecil says. “The size of the classroom was the number one thing that impressed us. We also looked at the training of the teachers and the overall amount of time and effort they were willing to put into my son’s education.”
Most importantly, the Loftons got a feel for the school’s environment. “You could tell it was a good place because of the manners of the kids,” Cecil says. “They were all polite. If they bump into you, they say, ’Excuse me.’ You’re not going to get that in public school. There, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy.”
Don’t limit yourself to 12-year schools.
Given the choice between a) having a root canal and b) having a root canal, then going back to the dentist six years later for another root canal, most people would choose the first option. So it’s easy to understand why many parents have their hearts set on getting little Jimmy into a 12-year private school. Choosing a private elementary and contending with its waiting list produce enough anxiety; doing it all over again for middle school or high school doesn’t sound like much fun. Plus, there’s the stress that changing schools puts on Jimmy.
“There is a panic on the part of parents who, in utero, worry about where their child will be admitted in the ninth grade,” says Ritterband of Solomon Schechter. But the numbers fuel this panic. “There really are very, very limited options. Relatively speaking, there are few private schools in Dallas for the size of the city.”
Good Shepherd’s Kohler says the issue really struck him after he left St. Mark’s, one of the best-known 12-year schools in the area, where he was an administrator for 23 years. “I wasn’t aware of how stressful it was going to be for eighth-graders to get into a competitive high school. There is high anxiety among Dallas families that can afford a private-school education to get into a 12-year school.”
But the flip side is that a move from one school to another can be good for a child. “We argue that it’s good to have a change,” Kohler says. “You’ve been with the same kids for the last 13 years, if you started as a 4-year-old. It’s good to have new faces and a new start at another high school.”
Liza Lee, headmistress of The Hockaday School, which goes from age 4 through high school, agrees. “I think that parents love the idea of not having to go through the admissions process again,” she says. “But I think that changing schools is often a strengthening experience for children because they get practice in coping skills and in self-reliance.”
And Scott Griggs, headmaster of Greenhill School, which goes from age 4 through high school, says the schools also benefit from change. “The new folks coming to Greenhill are important to us,” he says. “They have new ideas, new talents, and new peers coming into our community.”
That said, take heart. Educators are working to fill the demand for more private high schools. The Parish Day School, for example, is expanding into a 337,000-square-foot building designed by I.M. Pei as a research facility for Mobil on 50 acres of land at Midway and Alpha. The school, which used to go through the sixth grade, expanded through the seventh this year and will go through high school at its new facility.
The Catholic Diocese of Dallas is hoping to open a $17 million campus for 600 ninth- through 12th-grade students by fall 2003. The planned John Paul II High School would be the first Catholic high school designed for students in Dallas and Collin counties north of LBJ Freeway.
And Solomon Schechter, which goes through the eighth grade, recently completed a $9 million expansion. For the 2003 school year, the Jewish community plans to open a new high school in North Dallas to serve the conservative/reform sectors of the faith.
Don’t let your ego interfere with the process.
Our panel of educators reminds parents that they’re choosing a school for their childrennot for their own social standing. But tell that to the moms in the carpool line at Meadowbrook, comparing acceptance letters at the end of March. “They are so stressed out,” Goldberg says. “People think it’s a reflection on them whether their child gets in, and it’s not. I put my arm around them and say, ’Your child is going to find a school.’”
And if your child doesn’t get into the perfect school, don’t despair. First of all, there is no such thing as the “perfect school.” Secondly, says Pickering of the Shelton School, “If the child does not get in where the parents had their heart set, it was probably not the right match. Sometimes it’s because of how many people are applying. But other times, it’s because this really wouldn’t be the best place for the child, and the school knows it”.
By Dawn McMullan, Illustrations by Greg White