Q: We are looking for a private school for our 4-year-old. Regardless of the school we ultimately choose, we want to keep him there through eighth grade at least. We live in an suburban area, so we have a lot of options to choose from. Our son is intelligent, creative and very imaginative. Do you have a recommendation?
A: These days, the educational options, especially in high-density population areas, can be daunting. Because you've already narrowed your search to private schools, the first thing to decide is whether you're looking for a religious or non-religious (secular) experience. From there, decide whether you think your child would do better in a more structured, traditional environment that emphasizes classroom discipline and the "three R's" or a more creative, child-centered one.
Most religious schools, including schools that are loosely affiliated with churches and synagogues, put some emphasis on moral education, which I happen to believe is a good thing. They also tend to be fairly traditional, which is especially true of most Catholic schools, which also tend to have the most demographically diverse student populations of all private schools.
The average age and average experience (years teaching) of the faculty is also important, as is the teacher turnover rate in any particular school. Obviously, a high turnover rate is a red flag, as is a faculty with relatively few years of experience. Perhaps the most telling indication of problems behind the scenes is a high turnover at the top (principal, director, head of school).
Private schools tend to tout their average achievement test scores, the number of graduates that go on to top-flight colleges and so on. I don't put a lot of stock in those sorts of statistics because research has shown that student achievement is primarily a matter of parent education and expectations, not the school one attends. When parents place a high value on education and their academic expectations are high, public and private school kids do equally well. That is, however, an "on average" finding and may not be true of any particular school.
When all is said and done, I am biased toward two educational philosophies that are, in fact, somewhat disparate: Montessori and vlassical.
A Montessori education is very child-centered but in its original form emphasizes classroom discipline and student responsibility while also allowing for a good amount of independence and peer collaboration.
A classical education places emphasis on learning the core liberal arts - grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. In a classical school, Latin is usually introduced in the upper elementary grades.
Both Montessori and classical educators claim that their philosophies, however different - for example, Montessori education does not emphasize memorization, while classical does - are in keeping with a child's natural developmental process. Paradoxically, I like both approaches, but for different reasons. My experience has led me to conclude that both Montessori and classical educators are highly committed to the needs of their students.
In the final analysis, if you like a particular school and support its educational philosophy, it will most likely turn out to be a good fit for your child.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions on his websites, johnrosemond.com and parentguru.com.