Do Homework Before Choosing Private School

Selecting the right educational program to fit your child's needs and your family's values often can be a challenge, according to experts.

Posted Updated
Jane Paige (Carolina Parent contributing writer)

When looking outside of the assigned public school, parents have to do their homework to find the ideal school. Talking with school administrators and other parents, visiting the schools and asking a lot of questions are good ways to learn about various curricula and programs.

“Every parent aspires three things for their children,” says Doreen Kelly, head of school at Ravenscroft, a private college preparatory school in north Raleigh. “They all want their children to be successful, to be happy and to be good.”

But each family probably would rank these aspirations differently. Understanding these individual preferences can help when looking for a school with the same missions and values as the family, she says. For example, a parent who ranks the child’s happiness at the top of the list might not want to select a rigorous, competitive academic environment.

The cost of a private school can be a major consideration for many families. Fees range from $3,000 to upwards of $15,000 per academic year. Many schools also have a detailed admissions process, with interviews for both parents and children.

When selecting any private school, it is important for parents to meet with the principal or school leader, says Michael Fedewa, superintendent of the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Raleigh.

“If there is a strong leader, you will have a strong school,” Fedewa says. “Parents also need to ask about accreditation, test scores and extracurricular programs that are offered outside of the academic classroom.”

A variety of schools with different philosophies, missions, values and curricula are available. To help you get a jump start on your school search, Carolina Parent did a little research and reports on some of the different curriculum types.

Religious-Affiliated and College Preparatory

For parents seeking a school affiliated with a certain religion, there are many to consider in and around the Triangle. The Catholic Diocese of Raleigh offers the largest number of religious-affiliated schools in the area – 24 are located in eastern North Carolina, with 10 in the Triangle.

“The mission of the schools is to create a quality education within a Catholic environment that fosters the current and future development of the whole child,” Fedewa says. “The majority of students who attend our schools are from Catholic families.”

When considering a religious-oriented school, parents should ask specific questions about the school’s religious ideology, he advises. Obviously, it is important for families to decide if this ideology fits with their beliefs and the values they want instilled in their children. Religious instruction can range from incorporating religious beliefs into every subject to just requiring regular attendance at worship services. Parents also need to consider how their child will fit into such a setting where uniforms often are required.

While the majority of private schools in the Triangle are college preparatory, many offer rigorous, competitive academic programs geared specifically toward preparing students for the challenges of major universities. When considering these schools, parents need to know if their child is ready to be academically challenged and spend the required time studying.

For example, Ravenscroft offers 27 advanced placement classes in the upper school curriculum, and typically all of its graduates attend college. School head Kelly says the school offers an intense academic schedule while also balancing the college preparatory education with both arts and athletics.

Nontraditional Styles and Settings

Many schools in the Triangle offer unique curricula focusing on various disciplines, such as art, music and foreign language. Others use nontraditional classroom settings and less-structured instructional styles. These programs also may require extensive family participation and support, as well as similar views on the entire educational process, school officials agree.

More than 25 Montessori schools are located in the Triangle. The Montessori philosophy is that students are active participants, problem-solvers and learners who learn best by doing, says Meg Thomas, head of the Montessori School of Raleigh, the oldest Montessori school in the area.

There is a core curriculum of math, language, science and culture taught in an experimental and interdisciplinary manner to students of different ages, grouped in three-year developmental learning cycles. Montessori uses a hands-on approach, taking into account where each child is developmentally and proceeding from there.

When considering a Montessori education, parents need to know their child can function in the same setting with children of different ages and can adapt to a less formal style of instruction, Thomas says.

The only school of its kind in the state, the Emerson Waldorf School in Chapel Hill also offers a less-traditional instructional style. The curriculum offers an in-depth classical program with artistic experiences. Teachers have the same class of students through the elementary and middle grades, and textbooks are not used. Teachers create the presentations, and children make their individual books for each subject. The arts are integrated into the entire curriculum. Foreign languages are taught beginning in first grade, and the sciences are taught by using experiments.

“Parents are encouraged to limit the amount of television watched by their children and also to limit the use of the computer,” says Matina Metz, admissions director at the Chapel Hill school. “We believe these both hinder the creativity of the children.”

Classical and Language-Immersion

Various schools in the area offer a specialized curriculum focusing on classical instruction or a language-immersion curriculum. Often, parents are expected to partner with the schools in volunteering, teaching and helping outside of class programs.

An international curriculum may offer classes in Spanish, French and music, such as violin and piano, explains Elizabeth Howdeshell, director of the Atlas International School in Raleigh. Parents are encouraged to broaden their children’s experiences by attending local museums and libraries.

A curriculum with a classical focus uses history – from ancient to modern – as its organizing theme. Other subject areas are linked to history. It follows a three-part pattern known as the Trivium: the mind first must be supplied with facts, then given the logical tools for organizing those facts, and finally equipped to express conclusions, according to Aanessa McKain, founder of The B.E. School in Durham.

Other Options

Homeschooling is another alternative. There are numerous homeschool curriculum resources available, as well as social and educational groups in the Triangle.

Ernie Hodges, president of North Carolinians for Home Education, says that teaching children at home is a customized education. The association is the state’s largest homeschooling organization with more than 5,000 families.

“Obviously, making the decision to homeschool children is one that needs to be made by the entire family,” Hodges says. “In most cases, parents become the teachers, so everyone is impacted.”

For homeschooling to be successful, the children also must support the decision, he says. Parents need to be sure to discuss this option with children before a final decision is made.

Today’s homeschool students are active in many community and recreational activities. Special homeschool groups also offer numerous athletic and academic programs and classes for both students and parents alike.

For children with special needs or learning disabilities, there are a variety of instructional programs in the Triangle. Often, students must be professionally tested and meet certain criteria before being enrolled in these special schools.

Many schools, like The Hill Center in Durham, have low student-teacher ratios that focus on individualized instruction. The Hill Center offers half-day instruction in math, reading, written language and foreign language with students returning to their public or private schools for their other classes.

No matter what educational option you are considering for your child, take time to visit schools, meet with the administrators and teachers, and discuss educational changes with your children.

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