Laura West wanted to make sure that whatever private school her children attended was the right fit. She ended up choosing two different schools for her daughter and son, based on their needs. Her 16-year-old daughter attends New Community School, and her 13-year-old son attends Collegiate. "My daughter needed a small classroom setting," West says. "She was getting lost in the shuffle in public school. She needed more attention related to her individual learning style."
West's son was interested in playing sports. "He is very athletic," she says. "I also wanted him in a challenging academic environment."
Parents in the Richmond area who decide to send their children to an independent school have a variety of options. While having choices is always preferable, parents may have a difficult time making a decision because of the high quality of education in the Richmond area. "In Richmond, we are lucky to have fine independent schools and public-school options as well," says Amanda Surgner, director of admission for The Collegiate School. "You do have to do your homework."
One of the first decisions that needs to be made concerns the type of education parents feel is right for their child. "Different people have different things they are looking for," says Amy Humphreys, director of advancement at Richmond Montessori School, which teaches students according to the Montessori method, an educational philosophy that stresses self-directed education.
Some parents want their child to have a structured education, while others prefer non-structured learning. Students at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School, for example, are grouped in differentiated learning groups with other students who learn at the same pace. "We do that so they're challenged," says Patty Evans, office staff supervisor at Lourdes.
If a student "is in a situation where he or she is too far behind, it's not a good place for them to learn," says Thomas Dertinger, principal at St. Mary's Catholic School. "If it is a place where they know [everything], they are not learning either. You want them to be continually challenged."
Class size is also a consideration. "Sometimes parents use the size of the school or the size of classes as guides," says Cary Mauck, director of admission for St. Christopher's School. He suggests that parents ask about the specific size of the class their child will be attending. "The class size is the most important number. A student/teacher ratio is not what really tells you how many children are in the room with the teacher."
If your child is gifted and the school says it offers student acceleration, it's important to find out exactly what that means for your son or daughter. "Is it individual acceleration, or is it working in a small group?" Humphreys says, adding, "Does the school encourage acceleration?"
Other points to consider: Is technology being used in the classroom? How do parents get feedback from teachers? How do parents communicate with teachers?
You'll also want to inquire about school accreditation. "It's very important," says Evans. Schools have to answer to various accrediting groups such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the National Catholic Education Association (for Catholic institutions), the Virginia Association of Independent Specialized Education Facilities, and the Virginia Association of Independent Schools.
"At the national level, our accreditation is recognized at the highest level by the National Association of Independent Schools [NAIS] through the NAIS Commission on Accreditation," explains VAIS associate director Betsy J. Hunroe. The commission includes state, regional and international associations.
Schools that are members of the VAIS voluntarily participate in the evaluation process. "VAIS evaluators examine all aspects of the school program and operation through review of the school's self-study and observations of the school in action," Hunroe says. "Schools are evaluated through the dual lenses of their own missions and the VAIS Standards for Membership, which are based on internationally accepted best practices. VAIS evaluators then provide feedback regarding the school's strengths and opportunities for improvement."
Of course, all the research in the world on a school's accreditation status or educational philosophy is no substitute for a visit — or visits — to prospective schools. One of the easiest ways to get a first-hand look is to attend an open house. "If you go to one of those, you will get an overview, a general feeling," says Mauck.
During the open house, ask administrators where students typically attend high school if the school serves kindergarten through eighth grade. If classes run through 12th grade, find out where graduates go to college.
Beyond that, parents have to see the campus and experience a typical school day before making an informed decision. Most parents try to schedule a time that allows them to visit a classroom. "You want to watch the teachers and students in action," Surgner says. "How interactive is the classroom experience? How does the teacher play a role in the classroom?"
Dertinger believes that parents should involve their children in the process. "We always invite students to come and spend a day or two with us to get a feel for what the classroom is like," he says.
"Parents really need to understand the culture of the school and if that culture is what they want to pass along to their children," says Dertinger. "They need to have an understanding of what they are really looking for."
"With older children, it's easier because you know who they are, and you know their individual needs," Surgner says.
Sheryl Black knew she wanted her children to attend a private Catholic school when the family moved to Richmond from Washington, D.C., after her husband got a new job. What she didn't know was which school to pick. After visiting a couple of Catholic schools in the area, she and her husband decided to enroll their son and daughter at St. Edward-Epiphany Catholic School. It was the visit, Black says, that made the difference. "My first impressions were really strong. It was relaxing and welcoming, and the families at the school seemed close-knit. It felt like it was going to be a good fit."
Georgette Richards, principal of St. Edward-Epiphany, stresses the importance of the "community aspect" of a school. Parents should feel welcomed when they visit. "It's important that there is a willingness to work with the family," Richards says. "You want to know that people care about one another; that there is camaraderie."
Often parents will rely on word-of-mouth endorsements when they are choosing a school. "Most of our families come to us because they have heard other parents speaking about the program or the environment," Richards says.
In looking for a school, parents also want their children to be aware of the world in which they live; to be respectful of people's differences. "It's important to look for schools that embrace diversity," says Humphreys, of Richmond Montessori.
That's one reason Susan Trenkle of Henrico County is sending her two sons, both of whom were adopted from Guatemala, to Our Lady of Lourdes. "I wanted them to be in a classroom that felt comfortable to them," she says. She appreciated the ethnic and socio-economic diversity at Lourdes.
"I liked what I saw and what I felt. The classroom looks like the world outside."
Trenkle is pleased with her choice. "I like the progress my son has made academically, and I like that it's a community there."