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Going Private

by Leslie Feldman

You have made the decision to send your child to private school, but how do you decide which one is best?

Making the decision to send a child to public or private school may seem like a big one, and it is. But once that initial decision has been made, if it is to go the private school route, that’s when the real work begins.

With so many exceptional private schools in the immediate area and a great number that are slightly farther away but still reachable, how does a parent invested in his or her child’s academic success and well-being decide on the “right” one?

Just as each child has his or her own personality, interest and learning style, each private school has its own curriculum, atmosphere and philosophy. It is important that parents select a school with programs and an environment that will foster strength and growth in their unique child.

Do your research
The large number of private school options and the wealth of information about them may be overwhelming to parents who want to make the best choice for their child. Kathleen Stewart, director of admissions at Paul VI High School in Haddonfield, explains it is wise to start off exploring a school’s website, requesting admissions materials and speaking with families currently enrolled in the particular school. In addition, it is helpful to compare the measurable aspects such as test scores, AP course offerings, college admissions statistics and faculty-to-student ratios. Stewart further suggests, “after narrowing the list based on the objective criteria, parents should explore the ‘fit’ of the school. This can be achieved by visiting the campus and by shadowing students, both during the school day and at extracurricular events.”

In making a final decision, it is imperative that a family be honest about the child’s strengths and needs. Parents should consider the various levels of instruction available at a school to ensure their child’s needs will be met in each subject, whether it be an area of interest or of difficulty.

Some schools may offer elective courses or extracurriculars that enhance a student’s passion for a topic. Stewart gives examples that “a mathematically inclined student might find that a technical drawing class bolsters an interest in engineering or architecture … a student who writes well might find that a course in film or broadcast journalism opens up a whole new world of opportunity.”

While Paul VI’s curriculum is challenging, its athletic and art programs are equally strong. Students want to extend their time and do not check out when the bell rings, Stewart says; they make their time meaningful, contributing to the spirited atmosphere, honing their non-academic talents and appreciating those of their peers.

“As we gathered information in our high school search, it became apparent that Paul VI would be a good place for our daughter to be,” says Carolyn O’Kane, of Cherry Hill. “Paul VI provided all we were looking for—a strong spiritual foundation, great variation of course selections that would challenge her academically, several options in sports she was interested in, facilities that were up to date and clean, and school size that was not too big, but not too small either. The school spirit was very apparent among the students, and wearing of uniforms is a plus, too.”

A place where they belong
Uniforms definitely help eliminate one major stress of the teenage years. At Camden Catholic High School (CCHS), the administration recognizes the discomfort that can accompany the teen years and works hard to make its students feel welcome and accepted. Camden Catholic’s Director of Admissions Mary Whipkey says acceptance is a pervasive theme at the school. “This message is woven throughout academics, athletics and the arts, and allows students to develop a moral compass that will lead to success after high school.”

Acceptance and self-reflection is stressed throughout all four years of education and it is kicked off during Link Crew, a pre-freshman peer mentoring program. Trained juniors and seniors pair with incoming freshmen to impart skills to cope with the academic and social aspects of high school. Whipkey explains that students “encounter a self-realization process to learn about their strengths and weaknesses as well as their classmates.”

In Burlington County, Doane Academy’s Admissions Director Jane Affleck says parents are looking for a nurturing environment where their child receives individual attention. “Our school (which is Pre-K through 12th grade) focuses on small class size, with an emphasis on character/leadership development. Students have the opportunity to participate in co-curricular activities. Parents need to find an environment where their child feels most comfortable, so he or she can achieve their unique potential.”

At Moorestown Friends School, also Pre-K through 12th, caring for the student’s well-being is as important as their academics. “Parents are most passionate about ensuring a safe and nurturing learning environment for their child, where their child is known and appreciated as an individual and encouraged to follow his or her interests and talents,” explains Karin Miller, director of admissions and financial aid. “They are looking for inspirational teachers, strong academics, opportunities, and a sense of community. At Moorestown Friends School, we combine academic challenge and a personal approach to learning with an enormous range of opportunities, in class and beyond.” Miller adds that when choosing the independent school which is the best fit for a child, location, size, educational philosophy, curriculum, faculty and facilities are what’s important. Parents should learn as much as they can about each school and be sure to visit each one. The best independent school for the child is the one which fits the child’s needs, strengths and learning style. The NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) is just one online resource for parents beginning the search for an independent school for their child.

Preparing for the future
“I would encourage prospective parents and students to see the school. Walk the grounds; talk to the students; meet the administrators,” notes George Smith, director of school communications at St. Augustine Preparatory School in Richland. “Try to get a feel for the environment of the institution. Encourage your son or daughter to shadow at the school, or spend a day in a typical student schedule.”

Smith adds that one of the tenets of Augustinian education is the idea of educating the whole person. “We believe that the responsibility of an academic institution is not only to address the mind of the student, but also the spirit of the student as well. I think this consideration of and care for the whole person is what makes our students love this place and creates in them the desire to be here.”

At Bishop Eustace Preparatory School in Pennsauken, the only Catholic, co-educational, college preparatory school in South Jersey, one of the most unique features of the school is its college-style campus, which sits on 32 acres of land. Students walk outside to as many as six different buildings throughout the day, much like they would do in college.

Nick Italiano, a 1999 graduate who now serves as director of institutional advancement, states each school is different, “so more interaction you have with the schools you are most interested in will help distinguish between them. Do not base your decision on statistics or rankings; instead, focus on which school reflects where you want your child to be in four years, and where you feel they will thrive.”

School is a time for students to build knowledge, character, friendships and habits, such as work ethic and time management. All of these components will follow a student and affect his or her future. Different schools offer their students different experiences and perspectives and there is one out there for everyone. It is just a matter of each family finding the best match.

“Our advice would be to find the right environment and culture for your child, not just necessarily ‘the best’ school,” says Vincentown’s Jill Little, the mother of a fourth-grader at Moorestown Friends, adding they made their decision largely based on comments of seniors at open house events. “What happens during the day on a daily basis while they are in school is equally as important as their academic success.”

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 7 (September, 2012).
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