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The Most Important Questions to Ask About a Private School

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The Most Important Questions to Ask About a Private School

It’s a big decision to send a high school student to private school. As a parent, you’ll have plenty of questions, not the least of which is how to pay for it. But even if money is no object, there are important questions to ask about a school, whether you are considering a private day school or a boarding school.

You’re sure to think of the obvious ones: college acceptance rates; grading policies; sports rankings; AP classes. But to get to the heart of school culture, you’ll have to go deeper and consider the harder issues of high school, such as rules and discipline; honor codes and peer pressure; safety and security. Don’t just talk to administrators or admissions officers. Ask to contact students, parents, and alums. They will give you different perspectives on the same question.

And remember this: You’ll want to assume everything will be awesome in a new school – perhaps your student is excited to be in a more challenging atmosphere, to be getting individual help, or to be turning over a new leaf. But there’s always some kind of glitch, big or small. Remind your student that it’s OK to ask for help and brainstorm options for when things aren’t going smoothly. It’s important that your student is comfortable, safe and happy in a new setting.

Here are the most important questions to ask if you're considering a private day or boarding school.

  1. Discipline

How well does the disciplinary policy work? Are students involved in disciplinary decisions? Does the school have a Good Samaritan rule that allows students to avoid punishment if they report someone in trouble with drugs or alcohol? Is it three strikes and you’re out? Is there training for students in how to have healthy relationships or get out of dangerous situations? How is cheating dealt with? How many students were expelled or suspended in the last five years and what for?

  1. College counseling

What training or credentials do college counselors have? Do college counselors have other responsibilities, such as teaching or coaching that might make them less available? Is there someone trained to work with nontraditional students, such as those who need audition materials for conservatories or art portfolios for visual arts programs? Are college counselors knowledgeable about all kinds of college admissions, not just the Ivy League? How are parents involved in the college application process?

  1. Security

Are staff members trained in how to handle different kinds of emergency situations? How open is the campus and/or the dorms? Is there a campus security or resource officer and what is his/her role? Do students receive training in security or participate in drills? Is there a communication plan in case of emergency?

  1. Community

What school-sponsored activities do students consider fun? Are there surprise holidays or other community-building events? If it’s a boarding school, what percentage of students go home on a normal weekend, and what percentage of students who stay on campus participate in the activities that are offered? Is community service encouraged? Does the school value diversity? If there is a large number of foreign students, how well are they integrated into the student social scene? How much do boarding and day students connect? What are the school’s traditions and how are they interpreted for a modern student body?

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  1. Mental health

Is there mental-health support for students? Are teachers and dorm parents trained in teenage mental-health issues? How and when are parents alerted if a student seems to be having problems? Is there training for students in how to spot a friend in trouble and what to do about it? Is there training on how to cope with issues such as bullying or sexual assault? Does the school do anything to relieve stress during, say, exam weeks?

  1. Sports

What percentage of students play sports? What are the real time demands on sports team members and do they get academic support? What are the goals of the athletic department: winning the regional title or inclusivity? Do teams get priority on gym time or access to equipment? Do students support the athletic teams and attend games? Are there intramurals or nontraditional sports for those who might not be stars on the soccer or lacrosse field?

  1. Academic support

How does the school arrange tutoring or extra help for students with learning issues or those struggling with a particular subject? How are parents kept informed of academic progress and if their child is having trouble in a subject? Can parents communicate directly with teachers and/or advisors?

8. Leadership

Does the school value student participation and opinion? Are school administrators involved on a daily basis with students and do they listen to student concerns? Is there an example of something that has changed because of student pressure or innovation? Does the school seem creative in the way it solves problems? Is the school considered a good place for faculty to work?

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Susan Moeller-profile-picture

Susan Moeller is a former newspaper editor and reporter who has directed education coverage as well as written about schools and children. She lives on Cape Cod, has three children and is a veteran of the boarding school and college search process.