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Making the Private School Match

A guide to finding the right school for your child.

Of all the choices parents must make every day for their children, education is one that not only tops the list, but gets analyzed and debated the most. After all, children spend more time at school than they do at home. This is where their educational foundation begins, where friendships are formed, and where they take the first steps toward carving their life’s path.

While there are schools every few blocks throughout the Dallas area, the debate isn’t always which school, but which type of school. Public or private? For some families, the answer is an obvious one, and for others both options offer equal pros and cons, leaving parents wondering if they’ve made the right choice.

This is exactly what happened for one Dallas family whose two middle-school children are now enrolled at Greenhill, a Dallas private school. Says the children’s mother, “We heavily debated public versus private and still do. We seriously considered moving to an area with great public schools where we felt our kids could get a great education, first through twelfth grade. We ultimately chose a private option, but have revisited our decision many times, especially as tuition rates rise. It becomes important to understand for the cost of tuition, what are our children getting from their private school that they wouldn’t get from a great public school?”

For this family, a private school has won the debate from early childhood to preschool, presently in middle school, and likely all the way through 12th grade. “Smaller class sizes, which when paired with an amazing teacher, have allowed our children to have some unique and personalized experiences which would be difficult to replicate in a larger environment,” she says.  “The benefit to my kids is they really feel their school is home, and they have made wonderful, lifelong friends.”

This mom can attest that extensive and thorough research is key to finding the perfect match, as her kids did at Greenhill. She researched schools online and visited them in person and talked to parents who had their children at schools that interested her. “I was nervous about not getting into our first choice, but we applied our children at a time when they could stay at the wonderful school they were in if they didn’t get a spot,” she says.

Families who live in an area with a mediocre school district that has made little or no progress toward improvement may consider a private education the only acceptable option. The same goes for families with a legacy at a particular private school. But when your home is perfectly situated in an area with a highly ranked public school district and a coveted private school, how do you choose?

Private school is providing my child with a focused skill set which can then be used now and in the future in mainstream classroom settings and life situations. This skill set is a key element to her future success.

Preston Hollow Presbyterian School parent

The answer, mostly, is in determining where you think your child will excel, feel most comfortable, and have the best chance of success. But it also may come in the form of a taking a leap of faith, says Waverly Wilson, an admission consultant with Perfect Placement in Dallas. She has been helping families navigate the private school admission process since 2003 and has special insight into the process as a former director of admission and financial aid for a Dallas private school. “There are so many wonderful private and public school options in Dallas-Fort Worth,” she says. “Sometimes, the answer just comes from narrowing your options, making a choice, and knowing that living here, there really isn’t a wrong decision.”

Organizations, such as the National Association of Schools, Independent Schools Association of the Southwest, and Texas Association of Non-public Schools, are excellent starting points for research, as are online resources such as dfwprivateschools.com, greatschools.org, and privateschoolreview.com. However, seeking expertise from someone “in the know,” such as a private school consulting agency, can help you make the decision between public and private education and more specifically, which private school to attend if that’s your choice. Dallas’ Perfect Placement’s private admission consulting helps families successfully navigate the local private school selection and admission process, arming them with the information and confidence to make the best decisions for their children. From questions about school choices and testing to navigating the application process, the decision-making becomes less confusing with guidance and a personalized plan that includes the following tips.

Steps to Success

Identify the must-haves.

Do you crave a smaller, more intimate school or a larger school for your child? Does your child have particular educational or behavioral issues that require more attention? Do you want a co-educational experience or a school with only boys or only girls? Does religious affiliation matter? Does your child need a more traditional or a progressive environment? What age group do you prefer? “Some schools offer education from preschool through high school, and some are focused solely on particular age groups,” Wilson says. “You need to map out what you want for your child before you start shopping.”

Go online.

Private schools have put considerable time and resources in the past few years to update their web sites, making them a comprehensive go-to source on most everything a family needs to know about the school before scheduling a visit. “You can tell a lot about the school’s personality by its web site,” Wilson says.

Be mindful of admission season.

There is a risk of “missing the boat” on getting into the private school you want, as many larger schools only accept new students during admission season, which is typically in the fall. And you have to apply to the school one year before intended enrollment. Some schools offer rolling admission, which means they’ll accept students who qualify any time of the school year. This is often the case for smaller or newer schools. Make sure you plan accordingly to accommodate time for admission testing, gathering transcripts and referrals, and parent and child interviews. According to the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest, most schools accept applications in December, January, and February and make admissions decisions in April and May for that fall.

Attend open houses.

Most private schools host open houses in fall. This is the time to visit the campus, take tours, and meet with administrators and teachers. Families new the Dallas area or who are unfamiliar with the area’s private schools can also attend the annual Private School Preview. “This is a way to help you narrow down the schools to maybe four or five you’ll apply to,” Wilson says. If possible, seek out families who have children enrolled or previously enrolled at the school, alumni, and teachers to get several perspectives on the academic style, personality, and reputation of the school. Also, many schools offer the opportunity for prospective students to attend the school for one day or a half-day, and their feedback can help parents narrow the options even more.

Apply to more than one school.

Although your child may have his or her heart set on one particular school, apply to several. The reason a student isn’t accepted into a school can range from not being a good fit based on the application and testing process to the school simply being full. In many cases, a school only has a few openings for new students each year. “Most private schools in Dallas have more applicants than they do spaces available,” Wilson says. “I always recommend having a plan B, whether it is your local public school or applying to more than one private school.”

Check accreditation.

Most private schools are accredited through agencies approved by the Texas Private School Accreditation Commission (TEPSAC). Accreditation can have an impact when your child is applying to secondary schools and colleges, as some accept transcripts from unaccredited schools.

Don’t rule it out because of cost.

While a private school education can be a considerable financial investment—some costing up to $20,000 per year—cost shouldn’t be a deterrent, as many schools offer scholarships and financial aid to qualifying families. “When a student is a good fit for a school, that school will work with families to make the finances possible,” Wilson says. “Many schools offer payment plans or some form of financial aid for families who qualify. Some schools base this off of current income or how many students for whom a family is already paying tuition.”

Skip test prep.

Every private school requires students take an admission exam, called the ISEE. Families may seek out test preparation services, but private schools discourage this as the results from the test help them determine whether or not the child is a good fit for the school—an advantage for all parties. “It’s the best measure of who the child is, and the schools want to get the most authentic, natural result,” Wilson says.

Is it a match?

“That’s the ultimate question,” Wilson says. “There’s no one hundred percent certain way to know before your child is in the school for a while. The best fit between a student and a school, truly, is determined on a child-by-child basis. But families who do research ahead of time and try to fit their child’s personality and strengths with a school usually end up happy.”

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