For some families, a child’s educational path is decided upon by the parents well before he or she is ever born. Maybe the child will attend the same private school where the parents met or the one most of the family has attended for generations. For others, the neighborhood public school with great ratings may be the very reason they chose their home. And then there are families who don’t decide on a school until they can best determine which type, public or private, could best meets their child’s needs. This is a perfect example of why there is no definitive right or wrong answer to the private versus public school debate.
However, families seeking a private school education for their children will need to do more than show up for kindergarten orientation with vaccination records in hand. Selecting and applying to private schools is a process—one that can take a year or more before the child is accepted and enrolled.
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 obvious, and for others both options offer equal pros and cons, leaving parents wondering for a while whether they made the right choice. For the families who choose a private school education, it’s not as easy as registering the child and showing up on the first day of school. It’s a process that requires time, commitment, diligence—and plenty of research. Getting hung up on one particular private school can result in disappointment, as the application and selection process to private schools can be competitive in that only a certain number of students can be accepted per year, and the schools make the final determination about the best fit between school and child.
Nancy Jacobs, director of admission for St. John’s Episcopal School, says much of the work in determining the right fit can be made by following a structured research and visit process. A school that hadn’t been considered at first, but still made the list to explore, may wind up being the one that is perfect for the child. “Sometimes, parents focus intently on a particular school, perhaps because of reputation or legacy affiliation,” Jacobs says. “Maybe that school would be a good fit for their child, but maybe another school would be a better fit. We recommend parents keep an open mind throughout the school search process, because it truly is a process. If you do your research and keep your child’s specific needs at the heart of your search, you’ll find the right school.”
“If you do your research and keep your child’s specific needs at the heart of your search, you’ll find the right school.”Nancy Jacobs, St. John's Episcopal School
One Dallas family with two children in two different private schools says the choice for a private school education came down to smaller class sizes, adaptability of the curriculum to fit the student, and an affiliation with a community of parents who share common goals and are participatory in the success of the students. “The biggest pay off for our investment in private school has been acceptance in his (our son’s) peer group,” says Tiffany Kister, the child’s mother. “Because private schools are smaller, and families have the same educational goals, we find there’s a place for every student. Our son has exposure to a wilderness curriculum in addition to a chicken coop, greenhouse, and a wonderful fishing quarry. Each of these are woven into the overall school curriculum in a way that they are creating a well-rounded individual.”
Another mom with three children, two at Episcopal School of Dallas and another now at Shelton School who started at Preston Hollow Presbyterian, says beginning their children’s education with schools that had a Christian foundation was important to her and her husband and that, later, Shelton offered what her son needed, as he has learning differences. “I feel that private school has been the best gift I could give my children,” she says. “They are getting the best educational foundation they can. There is also a sense of family we share with a lot of the families of their friends. We are a community who roots for the kids.”
A mom with an 11-year-old son in the same private school recommends first to determine what is important to your family as far as values and goals, then find a school that promotes and follows similar values. “For us, it’s a compassion to help others and a strong service before self that applies to the kids and the parents,” she says. “During school visits, get to know families with children who attend and learn about their philosophy behind raising their children. I think private schools in Dallas do a good job of knowing if a child is a good fit for their community. Trust your gut as a parent on what is best for your child.”
Another Dallas family whose two middle-school children are now enrolled at Greenhill heavily debated public versus private— and sometimes still do. Says the children’s mother, “We seriously considered moving to an area with great public schools where we felt our kids could get a great education, first through 12th grade,” she says. “We ultimately chose a private option but have revisited our decision many times, especially as tuition rates rise. It becomes important to understand what our children get from their private school that they wouldn’t get from a great public school.”
Private school has won the debate for this family, however, from early childhood to preschool and likely all the way through 12th grade. “Smaller class sizes, when paired with an amazing teacher, have allowed our children to have some unique and personalized experiences that 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 enrolled 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 areas with mediocre school districts that have 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?
“The best fit between a student and a school, truly, is determined on a child-by-child basis.”Waverly Wilson, Perfect Placement
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 your child should attend if that’s the 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. Karen Deniger, another admission consultant with Perfect Placement, says even when everything is in place—research, test prep, admission assessments, entrance exams, and acceptance—the most important thing is the child being in the best school that meets his or her needs. “As a parent, I always encourage families to visit schools in person and consider all of their options, whether public or private,” Deniger says. “Every school is different, as is every family and every child. There are so many factors involved in this process that there is not a one school fits all.” From questions about school choices and testing to navigating the application process, decision-making becomes less confusing with guidance and a personalized plan that includes the following steps.
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.”
Private schools have put considerable time and resources in the past few years to update their websites, 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 website,” 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 accept new students only during admission season, which is typically in the fall. And you must 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 to 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 has only 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.”
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 the family 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 current income or how many students for whom a family is already paying tuition.”
EVALUATE TEST PREP
Most every private school requires students take an admission exam, called the ISEE. Families may seek out test preparation services, but some private schools may discourage this as the results from the test help them determine whether the child is a good fit for the school—a potential 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 100 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.”