When It Comes to Picking a School, Parents Need to do the Homework

Homework in the summer? When it comes to finding a school for your child, that’s the best time to start.

Getting started on your school search means parents sitting down with pencil and paper to come up with a thoughtful list of what you are looking for. This list will end up helping you with your school choice, so my advice is to draft it, then keep coming back to it as you look at schools and become and informed consumers. Looking in the Baltimore area, it can be extra challenging, because there are so many good choices, but these questions will help get you started and guide you along the way.

First, what is important to you? An independent research group recently reported that safety is number one on the list for parents of elementary-age children, so I’ll start there:

Look for a school that has a secure building and an engaged faculty and staff. Also, you will want a school that places a high value on mutual respect not only between students and teachers, but among students themselves. This kind of social and emotional safety helps nurture good citizens who are confident, life-long learners.

kindergarten-teacher-and-studentsNext, I would consider class size. Small class sizes for some can mean 24 in your Kindergartener’s class. On the other hand, you might be looking for something closer to a 1 teacher: 14 student ratio, and it is possible to go even lower. Many kindergarten classes have a teacher and a floating aid. This can put you at a 1:7 ratio at times, but there’s no guarantee – usually those aids are in great demand. You are most likely to find the ideal ratio of 1 teacher to every 7 students at a well-established independent K-12 school. A class of 14 with two teachers gives your five year old the kind of individualized attention you want.

Then there’s fit. The great, local public elementary may be the reason you moved to your neighborhood. A school, on paper can be very different from the bricks, mortar, students and teachers you find on a visit. So, take a tour when school is in session in early fall. The school needs to feel and smell right, it should be bright and cheerful, and you should be able to witness happy students who are actually learning while you are there. Independent schools have Open Houses and other events for parents to attend, and you can also call for a personal tour. Ask friends and neighbors, and check the Association of Independent Maryland Schools (AIMS) website to see what is in your area.

engaged-teacherAnd finally, cost. Are you willing to pay to secure a solid social, emotional and educational foundation for your child? Many Baltimore independent schools award upwards of three million dollars annually for families who can contribute to their child’s tuition. Start by looking at school websites, find the Admissions and Financial Aid tabs, and read all you can. Then do the work to apply for an award for your child. Unlike college loans, financial aid awards at a K-12 independent school are given based on demonstrated need and are not paid back. Think about what can you contribute each month, and learn how financial aid works. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

While every family has certain specific considerations, these four items will help you get your list started and your school search plans scheduled.

Martha Donovan

Martha Donovan

Mrs. Donovan is the Associate Director of Lower School Admissions at St. Paul’s. She previously spent ten years in Middle and Upper School Admissions at the Key School in Annapolis, where her three children graduated. Since coming to St. Paul’s, she and her husband have moved to Baltimore and love it. Mrs. Donovan also has experience as a national news editor with NBC Radio and Mutual News, and spent a year as a Press Secretary on Capitol Hill. You will often find her in the Kindergarten classrooms or on the early carpool line, anywhere she can see the kids in action. She can be reached at mdonovan@stpaulsschool.org

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