5 Ingredients in a Successful School Search

09/20/2011 02:12 EDT | Updated 11/20/2011 05:12 EST

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With fewer kids and a better understanding of the educational system, parents today know exactly the kind of education they want for their child, and private schools are becoming an accessible, affordable, and popular option.

Offering much more than tradition, prestige or religious instruction, qualities which were highly valued in the past, they're catering to modern parents who are more concerned about finding a particular educational approach that suits their child. With a range of schools as unique as each individual child, finding the right one seems like a formidable task. But with the right techniques, the school search can be painless for parents and children, resulting in a valuable education that will please the entire family.

1. The Wish List

Before even beginning the search, families need to decide exactly what they're looking for. Involving the entire family in creating the list of wants and needs in a school is also a way to build excitement, help parents get to know their children better, and support family bonding. It will also ensure that the money parents spend on education will achieve their desired goals. Having a list of needs, and a smaller list of wants like certain extracurriculars, technology, or sports teams, will help you stay focused on finding the perfect school.

Some questions to keep in mind...

About your child:

• How is your child doing in their current school? What attention or challenges do they need?

• What is your child's personality and learning style? What about his/her academic ability, social skills, talents, challenges and desires?

• Will your child thrive in an environment rich with technology or one that is based in social interaction?

About your family:

• What are your family's values, goals and priorities?

• Do you want a school that is close to work or home?

• Do you want a school that offers before-school and after-school programs?

About the school:

• Are you expecting an academic-based curriculum or one that attempts to educate the personality as well?

• Are you searching for a large or small school?

• Are you looking for a co-ed or same-sex, boarding and/or day environment?

• Do you want a school that accommodates all grades or a certain age group?

2. The Preliminary Search

It has probably been a while since parents have had to do homework for themselves, but finding a private school takes the same concentration, dedication, and time management as a final exam or research project. And just like school projects, the amount of time and effort that goes into the early stages has a direct effect on the quality of the end product -- in this case, a child's happiness and success at school.

This phase of the search can be exciting as you discover the different learning options available for your child, but the most important thing is to select the best fit for your child, not to make your child fit into a school at all costs. And the perfect fit for your neighbour or friend's child may not be right for your daughter or son.

Here are some tips on the preliminary search for a private school:

• Get started early: At least a year in advance is recommended. Good decisions are best made without time restrictions.

• Consider your budget: Private schools will vary in cost depending on a number of factors -- day or boarding, class size, the level of additional services and extracurricular activities. Determine your financial situation, how much you are willing to spend, and what financial aid is available at each school.

• Read school profiles and websites: The Internet can be a parent's best friend. Look at what's written about the school curriculum, mission, values and philosophy. Read reflections and testimonials from students and parents. Most schools have their own websites with photos and virtual tours.

• Ask other parents: Find other parents who are interested in private school. Ask them what they're looking for, what they've found, how they're going about their search, and if they have any feedback about schools you're interested in. Online forums are great if you don't know anyone personally.

3. The Private School Expo

An effective preliminary search should leave families with a better idea of what they are looking for and what is offered in their area. A relatively new tool for a curious family researching private schools, expos bring together students and representatives from all types of schools across a city for parents to use as a one-stop source of information.

School administrators are on-hand to answer any questions parents have, general or specific, and kids can talk to current students to see what life at that school is really like. Expos also usually feature helpful seminars on how to choose a school, what type of school is best for a child, and how to finance a private education. Expos are convenient places to get a deeper understanding of what a school values that goes beyond what the website can convey.

Here's a list of questions to prepare for a visit to a private school expo:

• What makes the school unique? What is the school's philosophy?

• How does the school encourage involvement amongst parents, teachers and students?

• Ask for an outline of the school calendar. How long is the school day and the school year?

• What curriculum guidelines does the school follow and how are students evaluated? How do they respond to students who fall behind?

• What are the teachers' qualifications?

• What is the average class size?

• What are the transportation options for my child?

• What is the admission process for my child? Is there a waiting list?

• How much is tuition and what other costs might I incur (e.g. uniform, books, equipment)?

• What are my payment options? What student financial assistance is available?

4. The School Visit

As the search nears its end, it's time to address what is thought to be the most distinctive aspect of a private school -- its campus and community. The atmosphere of a school cannot be truly understood unless a parent and child physically experience it themselves. By now a parent's list of potential schools should be small enough to manage a visit for each one. You can either contact the school to arrange a personal tour, or check school calendars for open house dates.

The school visit is also a time to speak with principals, teachers, counsellors, and other students to get information from different perspectives. You can also ask for the names and numbers of current parents or alumni, whom you can contact as references.

While at the school, keep an eye out for these qualities:

• The quality of the campus grounds, lunchroom, sports facilities, and classrooms: Are they clean, operational, and safe?

• The diversity of the school: Is the student population multicultural enough for your child, or is that important to you?

• The classroom dynamics: How do students and teachers interact? Is that relationship what you're looking for?

• The hallway scene: How do students interact with each other? And will your child fit in?

• Student supervision: How do administrators maintain a safe environment? How do they approach discipline?

5. The Application

Compiling all the information gathered over the research process, parents should be able to come up with a final choice of two to three schools in which their child will flourish. Families are encouraged to apply to more than one school to keep their options open, because, although you may have preferences, chances are there are a number of schools that could be an appropriate fit.

Each school looks for different qualities in their students, but here's what an application may require:

• Completed application forms (many are now available online)

• Interview and possible entrance exam

• Non-refundable application fee

• Confidential school report from child's current school

• Previous report cards (up to two or three years back)

• Test scores (depending on your child's age and the school, it may be necessary for your child to write the Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT) or another entrance exam)

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Experts at marketing to your audience

Our Kids Media publishes the Our Kids Canada's Guide to Private Schools, powers the school search on and hosts the annual Private School Expos. This year's Private School Expo will be held in Montreal on September 18, Toronto on October 15, Oakville on October 23 and in Vancouver on November 27, 2011. Register online for 50% admission at