How to find the right independent school

Questions to consider

The Commission on Independent Schools has developed this guide to assist parents and their children who are interested in attending private schools. It is designed to help them define each child's specific needs, to learn details about schools that might match those needs, and to use that information to reach a careful decision.

Before beginning any detailed questioning, parents should first prepare a list of school features they prefer and another of their child's particular needs and interests. The lists don't need to be long and they may well expand or contract during the screening process. Both will save a great deal of time and possible mis-direction in the long run.

The next step is to write to or telephone any school of interest and ask for a copy of its mission statement. All schools that are affiliated with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges -- and many others as well -- have such statements in print. As they read each mission statement, parents should ask whether the school's asipirations match theirs and whether it has unique features that are attractive to them and their child.

Parents should remember that independent schools are an alternative to public schools. They should be confident that the school or schools they choose can match their child's needs and interests well enough to justify the considerable expenditure and commitment required.

The detailed questions that follow should produce most or all of the remaining information needed. Parents can then weigh this information against the specific needs of ther own child.

Considerations for selecting an independent school

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Program of the school

Consider whether you are looking for a school with a very competitive academic environment or a more comprehensive program with less academic pressure.

  • Does the school's program suit your child's academic needs?
  • Does the academic program have the breadth and depth to challenge the range of students admitted?
  • How are the most able students challenged?
  • What is unique about the academic program?
  • Are there programs for exceptional children?
  • Learning disabled children?
  • Those with physical or emotional handicaps?
  • If this is a denominational school, how is that reflected in the program?
  • What does the school offer in cocurricular areas such as athletics, dramatics, and community activities?
  • Does the overall program of the school include learning experiences of residential life (when applicable)?


  • What kind of students does the school seek, and with what results?
  • Is a student profile available, including racial and ethnic characteristics, percentage of students receiving financial aid, and geographical distribution (especially for residential schools)?
  • If the school has a denominational affiliation, what percentage of students are from that denomination? What other denominations are represented?
  • Are there examples of students participating in school-sponsored volunteer community projects?
  • Where do students go following graduation or completion of the program? How does the school stay in touch with them?


Your interest in being active in the school and the school's expectation of parental involvement will differ depending on whether this is a day or residential school, an elementary or secondary school.

  • What degree of involvement is expected of parents in school activities and other supporting roles?

Quality of Life

The best way to get a feeling for life at the school is to visit, talk to students and parents or guardians, look over school publications, and observe. Don't hesitate to ask questions. Try to visit when school is in session to get a real sense of "the scene".

  • Is the atmosphere that of a "tight ship" or is it informal?
  • If this is a residential school, what is residential life like?
  • Are students required to participate in some form of organized athletics? dramatic projections? other school-wide activities?
  • What is the student attrition rate? What are the reasons?
  • What is the school's policy on substance abuse? Alcohol use? Smoking?
  • What types of infractions are considered serious and what disciplinary procedures are used?
  • How do the personal and educational guidance and advisory systems work?

Professional Staff

Schools usually have a list of their professional staff available to parents. It may include much useful information, such as degrees, areas of responsibility, length of time at the school, and previous experience. If such a list is not available, ask for those details in addition to the ones below.

  • What is the typical class size, particularly in English, foreign languages, mathematics, and science?
  • What is the individual teacher load, including numbers of students as well as preparation and other duties?
  • In what professional organizations do individual faculty members participate?
  • What publications have individual faculty members created?

Physical Plant

  • Is the physical plant — including classrooms, library, laboratories, and physical education facilities — adequate for and compatible with the mission of the school?
  • Is the plant well maintained and does it show signs of people caring about the physical environment? (Include dorms and individual rooms if this is a residential school.)
  • Is the food service area clean and are certificates of appropriate health and sanitary inspections displayed?

Financial Base

  • What is the annual tuition?
  • What percentage of the per-student operating cost of the school does the tuition meet?
  • If tuition doesn't meet all costs, how is the balance made up?
  • What is the school's tuition refund policy?
  • Is there a tuition insurance plan?
  • What is the amount and purpose of the endowment?
  • In the operating budget, what are the percentages and categories of expenses? (This may indicate some school priorities.)
  • Does the school have an annual giving program?
  • For what purposes are annual funds requested and expended?
  • Who is asked to participate in annual giving?

Governance and Administration

  • Is the school separately incorporated, not for profit, proprietary, a member of a school system such as a diocesan system, or affiliated with a parish or parishes?
  • Who establishes policy for the school?
  • Who is the chief administrative officer of the school?
  • What is his or her background and experience?
  • How long has she or he been at this school?
  • With what education-oriented associations is the school affiliated?
  • By whom is the school accredited?