From academics to extracurriculars, to the school culture and feel of campus, independent schools can vary drastically, and discerning the best fit for your student can seem daunting. This guide is designed to help you know what to look for, and what questions to ask as you embark on this important journey.
- How is the school viewed in the academic community?
This question is multifaceted. First, it is important to find out if the school is accredited and, if so, by whom. The most respected accrediting agency for independent schools in Florida is the Florida Council of Independent Schools, or FCIS. Schools that are accredited by FCIS go through a rigorous accreditation process and an equally rigorous re-accreditation process every five years. This process looks at everything from school safety to the academic program to faculty credentials, and much, much more. If a school is accredited by FCIS, you can be assured that they have met or exceeded these benchmarks. Beyond accreditation, there are some ranking organizations that evaluate private schools based on an array of criteria. One such organization is Niche.com.
- What is the academic program? What teaching methods are used?
Once you have researched whether or not the schools you are looking at are accredited, you can move on to looking at more details about each school, which will further differentiate them and help you find the best fit for your family. The first and most obvious thing to look at are the academic program and teaching methods. Does the school have a certain focus or “claim to fame?”
One thing to look for are schools with a college preparatory focus, as they are always looking toward the end goal of success in college and beyond. True college preparatory programs will offer options for students to take an advanced curriculum including Advanced Placement and other upper-level courses, while also developing the whole student through fine arts, athletics, and extracurricular opportunities. The upper level courses are not usually available until upper grade levels, of course, so be sure to investigate how students in the lower grades are prepared for the advanced coursework they can elect as they get older. Is there an established course progression? Do the courses align so students can move seamlessly from one grade level to the next? How are students placed in the courses? What kind of academic advising is available? Will there be space for your child in the advanced courses? These are all important questions to ask.
Another focus that is gaining traction in some schools is innovation. Having a nice “maker space” is great, but it is important to investigate how the space is used, and who gets to use it. Innovative curriculums should focus on building skills for students to be able to create and iterate, both within a prescribed framework and independently. Most innovative curriculums are very hands-on, and involve students creating prototypes, receiving critiques, and then redesigning based on the feedback they received.
- What are the qualifications of faculty members?
While teachers at independent schools are not required to hold teaching certificates from the Florida Department of Education, many do, and many hold advanced and even terminal degrees in their subject areas. Schools should be able to provide information on the percentage of faculty with teaching certificates, as well as the percentage with advanced degrees. Another thing to look at with regard to faculty members is their years of experience, both in general and at that school. Often, the best independent schools have excellent faculty retention, which results in a highly experienced faculty. The schools should be able to provide these details when you speak with them.
- What is the school’s philosophy, vision, and mission?
One main factor that can help you find a school that is a “good fit” for your family is ensuring that the school’s philosophy, vision, and mission align with your beliefs and what you value in a school. In addition to reading these statements on the school’s website, try to find out how the schools put these statements into practice. It should be apparent that faculty and staff lead by example in a school’s vision, engaging in lifelong learning and sharing their experiences and learning opportunities with their students.
- How does the school support the student’s emotional and spiritual needs?
One major factor that leads families to choose an independent school, aside from top-notch academics, is the special focus placed on meeting the students’ (and family’s) social, emotional, and spiritual needs. Many independent schools have a religious base that guides some of these elements. Does the school have a religious leader who is available to work with students in developing their faith? How do students practice religion at the school? Are people of different faith backgrounds welcome? How are people with different beliefs treated?
Many schools also have a counselor on staff who specializes in working with students who are struggling or need someone to talk with. The school may also contract with an outside counseling group, or have a group they work with for referrals, for more serious needs. Some schools also have an advisory period, where students are grouped with a faculty or staff member who helps monitor their academic success and also guide their social and emotional growth.
Ultimately, school should be a place where students feel comfortable and supported. Seek out details on how the school provides this structure and make sure it aligns with what you would want for your child.
- What sort of enrichment, extra-curricular, athletic, and fine arts activities are available?
If your student already specializes in a certain area such as a sport or art, make sure to check out the program related to the specialty area at the school to ensure it meets or exceeds your standards. You should be able to request a meeting with the program director or coach if you have questions the admissions counselor can’t answer.
If your student is younger, or just wants a wide variety from which to choose, explore what options are available. What clubs are popular at the school, and how do students join? What kinds of leadership and service opportunities are available to students? Do a lot of students participate in athletics? What types of productions do the theater, dance and/or music programs put on each year? If your student wants to participate in a variety of activities, such as a sport and the orchestra, is that possible? These kinds of questions will help you develop an idea of what student life is like at the school, and can often be a deciding factor in the school selection process.
- What is the Parent Community like, and what sort of time commitment is expected from parents?
Once you select a school, it will become a central part of your life, not just your child’s life, so be sure to find out what life is like for parents at the school. Find out what is expected by the school to ensure it aligns with your expectations and desires. In addition, find out if there is any type of Parent Association or Parent Community, and learn what they do. Does the group exist to help teachers with projects, are they more of a social group, do they provide programming on topics of interest to parents, or is it some combination of the three?
Finally, seek out some current parents at the school and inquire about their experiences. This is easy to do if you already have friends with children at the school, but if not, ask the school for names of parents you could contact. Would the current parents recommend the school? Is their student happy and thriving there? Then ask yourself if you can see yourself and your family as part of the school’s community.
Once you have taken the time to seek out answers to these important questions, you will likely have a school that stands out as the best fit for your student and your family. Continue to move through the admissions process and work with the school to ensure your student is ready to start at your dream school.
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