Finding the right fit for children for school - The independent school option
-- By Carole J. Everett, Executive Director of the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools (NJAIS).
One of my favorite educators, the late Priscilla Vail, used to talk about "the rightness of fit." She referred to the choice of a school when you know that it is the place where your child will learn, grow, thrive and make friendships that last a lifetime. What do you look for when choosing a school? How do you find that "rightness of fit"? Are there independent (private) schools that you should be considering?
As a New Jersey parent, you are in the fortunate position of having many strong public schools. However, there are many outstanding independent schools that you should also consider as you strive to find the best environment for both academics and social-emotional learning.
Too often, parents will dismiss the idea of investigating an independent (private) school, rushing to the notion that it will be too expensive. However, New Jersey Association of Independent Schools (NJAIS) schools offer financial aid/scholarship to those families who qualify. There is not a single income cap set by schools, as each family has a different financial profile. You will be required to complete a financial aid form and submit a copy of your IRS 1040 tax return in order to determine what level of tuition assistance is appropriate to allow your child to enroll. NJAIS schools seek socio-economic diversity among families and strive to make schools affordable.
Which school best suits your child? NJAIS members represent a diverse group of schools, each with its own mission and culture. For all of their diversity and widely varying approaches, NJAIS-member schools have certain characteristics in common. Each is a non-profit corporation governed by a Board of Trustees. NJAIS schools are independent in governance and finance and have stated policies. They share a universal commitment to ensuring that all students will care about learning and learn about caring. Each fosters a culture of learning in every area of school life: in classrooms and laboratories, on playing fields and stages, in concerts, music practice rooms and art studios.
There are day schools and boarding schools; small and large schools; non-sectarian and religiously affiliated. NJAIS schools are located all over New Jersey.
NJAIS schools will do the following for your child:
- provide personal attention, small classes, high academic standards and a stimulating, supportive and challenging environment.
- engage a strong, dedicated, caring faculty that is respected and revered and has a voice in school-level decisions that affect them and their program
- enlist outstanding leadership in the Head of School, who is directly available to parents
- see each child as a unique individual with a focus on the whole person
- foster relationships and require pro-social behavior (good manners, respect for others, honesty and personal responsibility)
- enroll students from different racial, ethnic, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, believing that diversity enriches the educational environment
- promote responsible citizenship, a readiness to serve others and ethical values
- require frequent practice in both oral and written communication
- offer dance, drama, music and visual arts programs that are central to the program, not ancillary
- provide extracurricular and athletic programs that are not viewed as "extra," but rather as an opportunity for students to experience real-world challenges and triumphs
- assign homework that is appropriate to the age and grade level of the child and is thoughtful and not excessive, with a mind to family balance
- encourage appropriate parental involvement
Finding the "right fit" is not an easy process and parents should gather as much information as possible. It is recommended that parents begin this process the spring or fall before the year in which they wish to enroll their child. Also, parents should consider a number of schools, as many schools have more applicants than places for new students.
Just as each school is unique, every child has different needs and desires, and families should spend time assessing what those are. How competitive or supportive of an academic setting is desirable? Is remedial help needed in certain areas? Does your child perform better in a structured or relaxed environment? Would your child be more comfortable in a single-sex or a coed school? Is a day school or a boarding school setting a better environment for your child? Are there special programs that would be of particular interest (international exchange, experiential education)? What are your child's favorite subjects, activities, sports?
At the same time, parents need to consider their own preferences and concerns. What level of formality (dress code, approach to discipline) would make you most comfortable? Do you want opportunities to volunteer at school? Where do you hope your child will go for the next level of education? Do you have questions about costs and/or financial aid? Do you need an extended day program? Is transportation a concern?
As you attempt to answer these questions, you should also begin collecting information about the various schools on your list. Call and request admission brochures and application materials or visit the NJAIS website (njais.org) to find links to our member schools. Find out the requirements and deadline dates of the admission process. Will the schools you are considering accept the Common Application Form that many NJAIS schools use? Are interviews with you and your child required? What type of admission testing or academic assessment is needed? Are references from current teachers required? Are there deadline dates for various steps in the process? When will schools make admission decisions and/or financial aid decisions? The more information you can pull together, the better able you will be to understand and navigate the process.
While applying to schools requires work, visiting schools is fun! You may want to ask questions about the school culture, curriculum, students, faculty, administration, guidance and the role of parents. When you tour a school, look at the interactions among adults and children. Be aware of what is displayed. And, listen to your gut.
Why look at an NJAIS school? Families who place a high value on education should seriously consider an independent school. There are few things in life that we can give our children that will last forever. An education that creates a lifelong learner is certainly one of them. Truly fine independent school options exist in in New Jersey. And, when you decide to choose, you will be stepping up to a key parental responsibility: to guide, support, and encourage your child toward the very best that his or her life may offer. Is there a better investment in the future than finding the right fit for your child's education?