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Choosing A Private School for Your Student

You’ve decided to investigate the possibility of sending your child to a private school. You’ve heard that many private schools have smaller class sizes, high faculty-to-student ratios and freedom from standardized testing.

With the wide variety of choices available in the District and area, it’s difficult to know where to begin. How do you narrow your options? Who can help?

A List of Ideas
Educational Consultant Pamela Tedeschi, of Tedeschi Educational Consulting, said that while a number of factors should be considered, the choice of a school must be centered on the student.

“The first thing to look at are your child’s needs, strengths and talents,” said Tedeschi. “Then determine what is important to them in terms of education and values.”

Ann Dolin, president of tutoring and consultancy company Educational Connections, recommends that parents begin the process of identifying potential schools by sitting down with their child and jotting down on paper what is important to each of them in a school.

This list can include anything that comes to mind, such as strength of academic program, sports, social life, location, cost and study abroad options.

“Your list should be long –be creative and let the ideas flow,” she writes in her book, A Guide to Private Schools: The Washington Edition. The list is then prioritized into two categories: three factors that are most important and a secondary category of three to five that are also important.” After narrowing and ranking your priorities, a comparison of school features is more straightforward.

Once you and your child have identified the most important features in a new school, it can be helpful to meet with a school consultant to further refine your list of wants or needs and to begin looking at options.

“Whenever I meet with a family, I always meet with the child separately,” said Dolin in an interview, “because often kids will tell me things they just will not tell their parents, and those things are helpful in determining the best fit for a school.”

Fifth Grade and Early Childhood buddies at Capitol Hill Day School
(CHDS) engage in a spring planting activity. Photo: Courtesy CHDS

Learning Needs
Understanding how your child learns and what she or he finds challenging about learning is important in determining what kind of school environment you should choose. Specifically, it can help you decide if a you should be looking at a traditional or more progressive school.

In traditional schools, subject-based knowledge is delivered from teacher to student through lectures, textbooks and worksheets and progress is evaluated through testing. In a progressive school, students lead their own learning through group work, projects and experiential learning.

Dolin emphasizes how different schools respond to learning needs in a variety of ways. For instance, Flint Hill School (on two campuses in Oaktown, VA) and Bollis School (100601 Fall Rd, Potomac MD) have supportive programming, including a learning center where students can get extra help. She also describes how Nysmith School for the Gifted (13625 EDS Dr, in Herndon, VA), a strong math and sciences school, will place kids in ability groups very early on so that they can take more advanced classes, if appropriate.

She cites a student she recently worked with who apparently lacked motivation in his current school. She said that she realized that he performed better with teachers who involved the kids in collaborative, hands-on learning over lecture-style instruction.

“Teachers that had a more progressive style of teaching, he did really well in those classes,” she said. “So, I wanted to find a school for him where the teachers bought into a more progressive way of teaching.”

Capitol Hill Day School or CHDS (South Carolina Ave. SE) is one such independent school, serving students from three to 13 years old.

“When kids feel passionate, interested and that learning is authentic, those are the times where they learn the most and get more deeply into content,” said Head of School Jason Gray. “Clearly there are key concepts we as educators know kids need to be exposed to. But there can be more balance between giving a child the opportunity to direct some ways that learning goes within the standards directed and developed by the teacher.”

Learning Difference
One reason many parents consider a private education is because more focused attention can be paid to students with learning challenges. The Weinfeld Education Group (WEG) specializes in students with learning differences. WEG Executive Director Rich Weinfeld said that consultants begin by analyzing the student’s unique strengths and challenges.

“Not every kid at every time needs an assessment,” said Weinfeld, “but if we have questions that need to be answered by a unique student profile and there has not been a recent test, we’re going to refer them to a competent tester.”

Administered by a trained psychologist, education assessments can show you strengths and help identify learning differences, helping parents to determine if their child needs specialized programs or a specialized school.

For instance, the Lab School of Washington (4759 Reservoir Rd. NW) is designed to work with kids with learning differences, particularly language-based learning differences, through a non-traditional arts-based program tailored to their particular needs. Using the Orton-Gillingham approach, the school offers a structured, sequential approach to teaching students. “By nature, it’s multi-sensory,” Head of School Katherine Schantz said, “because we’re involving all the language modalities, oral, visual, kinesthetic as well as hands-on projects.”

Confidence building is emphasized in students with the goal of post-secondary education. Schantz said testing often helps with this, as students with language challenges test above average in intelligence, and knowing what sets them apart helps them to understand.

“They learn differently,” Schantz said. “That’s not a bad thing. That’s who they are. It’s up to teachers to know how to teach these students.”

Religion, Culture, Gender
The area around Washington DC offers a variety of private school options that base instruction around religious principles, and parents often want the benefits of instruction based in religious tradition. Although it varies between schools, students may not have to be of the same religion as the school but may be required to take a course related to the faith and culture.

Dupont Park Adventist School (3942 Alabama Ave SE) Principal Grace Ameyaw said that the school provides Christian values to inspire students, offering a Christian education as a basis for character building, but doesn’t force religion on students.

The school offers a character class that teaches students how to treat one another, as well as how to resolve conflict, and what to do when students find they are not getting along with others. “That’s one way that we teach Christian values,” Ameyaw said.

Other schools focus on sharing historical and cultural traditions. Kuumba Preparatory School (3328-3332 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE) is an African-centered private school that offers a non-traditional academic, cultural and artistic program. Kuuma uses the arts, including theatre, music, dance, poetry and song, to stimulate learning. The school also incorporates African-centered concepts into the curriculum, including various languages.

Some parents choose single-gender schools, citing the lack of pressure to perform classically masculine and feminine roles relative to subject matter, allowing girls to shine in STEM subjects and boys to apply themselves to the arts. Experts say there are differing learning styles between genders, but many cite the lack of social drama within the student body as a benefit to the schooling.

Practical Concerns
In addition to learning and educational objectives, practical concerns are also a vital part of choosing a private school. Factors such as tuition cost, financial assistance and travel to and from the school should be considered. If your student is interested in the arts or a particular sport, you’ll want to investigate if particular schools offer strong programs.

Dolin suggests that while visiting school websites is the obvious first step, parents and children also need to set foot on the campus of prospective schools, attending open houses or scheduling school visits and observing students as they learn in order to get a sense of the school’s culture, academics and student life.

You can begin attending open houses and admissions events up to two years before the expected intake year.

Often, Dolin said, campus visits can transform a view of a particular kind of school and open up possibilities not previously considered. “I’ve had parents who wouldn’t consider an all-girls school, then go to Madeira, an all-girls’ school in McLean, VA (8328 Georgetown Pike) and say, ‘Oh my goodness, this is for me!’, or ‘I can see myself here, this is the perfect fit, I love this setting, this feels like home, I love the teaching method’.”

There are private schools in the District that can meet every student’s needs. Dolin encourages families to cast a wide net and consider many options.

“Often [parents] come to me with a very narrow view of what schools are going to be best for their child,” she said. “I’ll often encourage them to think outside the box a bit, broaden their vision of what could be a good match, narrow it down from there.”

Learn more about the educational consultants interviewed for this piece by visiting:

  • Ann Dolin, Educational Consultants, anndolin.ectutoring.com, (703) 934-8282
  • Pamela Tedeschi, Tedeschi Educational Consulting, pmtedcon.com, 301-951-0131
  • Rich Weinfeld, Weinfeld Education Group, weinfeldeducationgroup.com, 301-681-6233

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