As the editor of New York Family, I’ve moderated numerous panels about independent school admissions, which have typically featured a mix of five school heads and admissions officers focusing, not on their schools, but on the admissions process. The events were always a hit with parents, and I think their greatest value was that parents got to hear a variety of opinions and perspectives, and similarities and differences large and small. That symphony of wisdom and experience is what we’ve tried to create in this story, in which representatives of 14 NYC independent schools share advice on nursery school admissions and private ongoing school (K-12) admissions.
Last month, we offered a step-by-step guide to independent school admissions, along with admissions overviews for public, G&T, Universal Pre-K, charter, and Catholic schools.
For this story, I asked the experts, rather than going step-by-step again, to instead zone in some of the most important aspects of the admissions process.
Whether you’re interested in nursery admissions or independent ongoing (K-12) admissions, I recommend that you read the full story, for there’s a lot of good advice that applies to both journeys. I have identified each source by their school affiliation and the school—for the participants’ names and titles, you’ll want to see our list of sources at the end of this story. And for more information about any of the participating schools, the best place to start is with their websites. –Eric Messinger
NURSERY SCHOOL ADMISSIONS
Please offer some “big-picture” advice on how parents should orient toward the nursery admissions process from the start.
The Takeaway: Start early if possible, research the process and the school options, and figure out the factors that are truly most important to your family.
Nursery School of Habonim: Parents need to be organized. They should develop a list, and learn about the different schools. They should figure out how they feel about morning vs. afternoon programs; what age they want to start; the common early childhood educational philosophies; and how convenient the setting needs to be to the home.
Green Ivy Schools: Yes, it can feel like a frenzy in NYC, and yes, many families start worrying far too early, but you should consider starting approximately 16 months before the date you hope to have your child start.
The Goddard School: Do not get hung up on trying to research, understand, and select the best “curriculum method” or teaching “philosophy.” Most of them, in practice, are more similar than different, and the key is that they all work just fine to help develop your child. Instead, look for well-run schools with well-qualified teachers. Also, be realistic with your family’s scheduling needs and lifestyle. Are you okay with a school that ends at 2:30pm? That will require at least a part-time childcare person if you are not available to do pick-up yourself.
Epiphany Community Nursery School: Be open. You may have a good friend who will tell you: “Oh, you have to go this one school, it’s the best in the city.” But once you start doing your research, you may surprise yourself: You may decide that the school doesn’t have to be around the block—it could be six blocks away. You may surprise yourself and be interested in a program at a religious institution when you never thought you would be—or the opposite; you may like the look and feel of a teacher-directed program, or a child-centered program. Particularly with a first child, looking from the outside, you think you know what you want. But you don’t really know until you start touring the schools and seeing the classes. It’s very organic, once you’re in it. Then you’ll know.
In addition to school officials, who are the best people to speak to get to know a school? What are other good sources of information and guidance? Also: Children are so young when parents apply to nursery school—to what degree should parents be focused on the kind of school community that they’d like to be a part of, as opposed to their child’s still-unfolding needs?
The Takeaway: Use the schools’ websites. Speak to parents whose children presently attend schools that you’re interested in. Other reliable sources include the Parents League and Victoria Goldman’s The Manhattan Directory of Private Nursery Schools. Admissions consultants can be very helpful, too. Parents should absolutely favor nursery schools that they have a good overall feeling about.
York Avenue Preschool: Parents should speak to other parents with children enrolled in that school. They should be looking at what best matches their personal philosophy of education and an environment in which they feel welcomed and comfortable.
Metropolitan Montessori School: During the preschool years, parent presence and participation is a huge part of the preschool experience. Parents feeling comfortable and included within their school’s community is just as important as their child feeling the same in their classroom. Nursery school provides another network for parents where they can feel supported by others with children the same age.
Rodeph Sholom School: “Fit” is definitely an important consideration for both you and your child. A very young child cannot advocate for him or herself, so you should seek a school where you would feel comfortable raising a concern, asking a question, and even participating in the day-to-day life of the school, if that is of interest and possible for you. A child’s needs can change over time, and that’s another reason it’s important that you are able to communicate effectively with your school’s teachers and administrators. The best schools will be very clear about how your child is functioning academically, socially, and emotionally.
Battery Park Montessori: Look at a school at drop-off and pick-up times to see what parents are like, how staff behaves, [and to] see if you think you’ll fit in and feel comfortable there.
Dwight School: Don’t be afraid to reach out to the school if you have additional questions about the curriculum or educational philosophy.
Rudolf Steiner School: When applying to the nursery school, Kindergarten, or the younger years of an elementary school, it is valuable to speak with parents currently at a school, as well as with alumni. Attending a school event open to the public is helpful too, as a prospective parent will get a sense of the community and will know quickly whether or not she or he feels comfortable.
Habonim: Parents should do all of their research and ask [questions of] parents whose children attend the school. They will have the most information of the day to day routines. They could also do online research as well. Parents should keep in mind the place where they feel the most comfortable. If parents are relaxed and happy, the children will be too.
Pine Street School: Definitely meet parents and find out what they love about the school. It is important that your community reflects your own values, so find out what kind of people are attracted to the school and why. For example, if international awareness and service learning attract the majority of people (and this is important to you), you’ll have a good idea of the values of the families and children your child will be among.
How much research should parents do to try to understand various early education philosophies?
The Takeaway: The most revealing and relevant info about a school’s approach is what you hear directly from the school, especially as it’s elaborated in person during a school tour. But, of course, it can be informative to do some supplemental research as well if you’re especially interested.
The Mandell School: Parents should do some research before visiting programs, but it is so important to go see the school and meet with the community because, often, the philosophies may seem one way in print but look very different in action.
York Avenue: Most schools take from many philosophies to create a developmentally appropriate, nurturing environment for the children. Get your “education” on the tour, and do not be afraid to ask questions.
Metropolitan Montessori: Using the internet as a tool to learn more about an educational philosophy is very informative and offers bigger picture perspectives. In addition, a school’s website may offer a better understanding of that particular school’s mission.
Battery Park Montessori: Visit several schools with the same philosophy to see how they are similar or different in the way they deliver the same pedagogy. Any good school should allow you to observe a class.
Green Ivy: It is a good test of a school to ask the staff about their educational approach. It also shows a seriousness and commitment on your part. If you are curious about Montessori [or any other approach], but don’t know enough, ask for books to read, websites to review, and videos to watch. If the school has no suggestions, or is not quick to support you, then you may be in the wrong place. But nothing replaces the value of touring schools.
What are a few of the most important things to look out for on a school tour?
The Takeaway: School tours can be great info-gathering sessions, which can help significantly in forming an overall impression of a school. At nursery schools especially, you should expect to see a lot of enthusiasm and engagement among staff and students alike, in cheery and clean settings, with lots of fun art projects on the walls.
Habonim: A good checklist should include: The philosophy, the class size, a safe, cheery, print-rich environment; teacher support for enrichment and special needs, outdoor play provided, and PTA and director involvement.
Goddard: While the existence of happy children joyfully participating and friendly, outgoing teachers do not guarantee that a school is right for you and your child, if you see the opposite that is a red flag to consider. Do not overlook the basics—is the school clean and does it have good security at the front door? Ask about the background of the director/principal, as well as the teachers. What is posted and displayed in the classroom will give you an idea of the type of experience your child will have. You should also look at the types of materials that are available for the children—and if there are enough of them and whether they’re in good condition.
Battery Park Montessori: Look for happy teachers who are respectful of children and don’t interrupt them, who are looking kids in eye. In a Montessori school it is a priority not to interrupt teachers or children at work. Parents are supposed to be a fly on the wall during tours, so don’t interrupt a group or individual child’s work cycle.
York Avenue: Happy faces—on both the children and the staff! Look to see that the children are engaged in their activities and the teachers are attentive to the needs of each child. Notice the cleanliness of the facility, how well-lit the classrooms are and whether or not there is outdoor space.
Please offer some advice about school interview. As with the application, parents struggle with what to say about their young child without sounding over the top. Also, what should they ask about a school when there’s already so much information online?
Mandell: Parents should remember that schools are looking for a warm and connected partnership with prospective parents, and that no child is being judged for their accomplishments as a toddler. Parents should focus on thoughtfully sharing a sense of who they are as a family and what they think would be a good fit for their child.
Dwight: Instead of going into details about developmental milestones (e.g.: “He crawled at 6 months and walked at 9,” or: “She is at the 99th percentile for height”), talk about what your child enjoys right now. Does she like being read to? Which toys are current favorites? Are there any particular activities or classes that he enjoys? What makes her smile and laugh? What about him has amazed you? Family time is important, too: What are some traditions or experiences that are important to you as a family? What are your weekends like? Additionally, communicate to the school what it is that you’d like to see your child gain from the preschool experience. This kind of information helps schools get a sense of who you are as a family and how you will partner with the school.
Rodeph Sholom: The best approach is to be yourself and be natural, since the interviewer can usually tell if you’re not, anyway. Answer questions about your child fully and courteously with stories that illustrate what your child likes and dislikes and how they behave at home, at the playground, and around other children and adults.
Battery Park Montessori: Avoid arguing with your spouse or partner in an interview. Don’t worry about trying to impress interviewers with your questions. If it’s a group interview with other parents, don’t interrupt others, and don’t check your cell phone or send texts. [Editor’s Note: Good advice for a solo interview as well.]
Steiner: Admissions directors appreciate a candid, thoughtful, and succinct report on the child. A carefully-crafted short essay will go a long way, along with a description that allows the reader to get a picture that will find an echo when one meets the child in person. Long lists of classes they are taking are not as helpful as reading about how the family spends time together over a meal or what a child loves doing most when she or he has free time.
Habonim: Parents should convey their enthusiasm for the school and how they feel the school’s philosophy will be a wonderful match for their child. They should prepare a few anecdotes that are true to the character of their child (always positive!). They can ask how they can become involved and share some of the things that they would love to do: [Like] supporting the library program by volunteering to help organize, and helping with the fundraiser, etc.
Metropolitan Montessori: When parents are asked to talk about their child, they are really helping the admissions staff to have a greater understanding of their child. Providing adjectives about personality are wonderful, but talking about your child’s experiences are key. What makes your child happy? Sad? Joyful? Curious? Shy? Outgoing? Disappointed? How do they handle transitions? Being forthright about your child’s development is also very important. Parents really struggle with this, especially if their child is or has received some type of service such as, speech language therapy, occupational therapy and/or physical therapy. Children receiving services does not equate to a negative decision. This information is important to share because it allows the admissions office to have a conversation with the family about the school and whether or not, they have the resources and staff in place to support that child’s developmental needs.
Before the end of the process, should parents send a “first choice” note, or some kind of clear indication of their interest level? Also, what about letters of recommendation?
The Takeaway: If a school is truly one of your favorites, a lot of schools would like to know that. Don’t use the words “first choice,” but convey your enthusiasm in a gracious note that also thanks them for their time and consideration throughout the process. A letter of recommendation from a well-regarded family who is presently part of the school community is a good idea as well.
Habonim: [Parents] should definitely send a note expressing their love of the school. If it is truly the place that they see as a really good fit for their child, a letter of recommendation should be sent from a current family member who knows them reasonably well.
Mandell: As an ISAAGNY member school, we do not ask for “First Choice” letters. Parents are always encouraged to be in touch if they wish to communicate their feelings about the program. With regards to letters of recommendation, be certain to inquire as to whether or not they will be accepted. Not all schools want additional recommendations added to the file.
Goddard: The family should always include a brief handwritten “Thank You” note to the schools after the application process. For the schools of high interest make sure to indicate [your] level of interest in this note.
Dwight: Writing a “first choice” letter can cause a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety for a family, and, honestly, many families feel pressured to send such a letter to multiple schools. I do encourage families to express their genuine interest, however, in a letter or email. Including specific anecdotes about your experience with the school or staff indicates to the admissions director that a parent did not simply copy and paste a generic letter of interest and send it to several schools. Include references to why this school is a great fit for your child and your family. What about your interactions with the school community made it a top choice for you?
Battery Park Montessori: Only send one first choice letter. Directors talk to each other and you don’t want to be found out as having told more than one school that they are your first choice.
BASIS Independent Brooklyn: If, after going through the admissions process, you are genuinely still excited about a particular program, it doesn’t hurt to express that interest if you feel it hasn’t been adequately expressed during the process, but a “first choice” note or any recommendation above and beyond what the school requires is not necessary.
York Avenue: Letters of intent are nice, but as an ISAGNY school, we don’t encourage first choice. Everything a parent sends is put in the child’s folder and reviewed.
To what extent should parents factor in a school’s record or reputation with guiding families through the ex-missions process?
The Takeaway: Navigating the process of applying to Kindergarten in the city—which comes with all the private, public, and parochial options—can be an even bigger undertaking than applying to nursery school. And a lot of the nursery schools understand that parents expect guidance and assistance from them when the time comes. So, it’s a good idea to inquire about a school’s commitment to, and track record in, “ex-missions.” And as a helpful point of comparison, it might be useful to know the rough percentages of their families that go on to private ongoing schools and to public schools.
Epiphany Community: When you meet with the director, if it’s important to you then you should politely ask questions like: “What part does this school play in the placement game?” “Is it very active?” “Do you help guide parents?” “Do you provide opportunities to learn what kind of a learner our child really is?” “Do you have good relationships with the ongoing schools? Or are you more hands off?”
Habonim: Parents should think about how the director works with families. By the time, the child is ready to ex-mit, you should keep in mind how much the director works in partnership with each family to find the best placement. You should ask for a list of the ongoing schools that children have been accepted, [and] there should be a big variety.
York Avenue: [Parents factor in a school’s exmissions record to] a large extent—your head of school needs to know your kids and your family. Connections at on-going schools mean a lot.
The cost of an independent nursery school education is substantial for many parents. What’s the value?
The Takeaway: A well-run nursery school nurtures a child’s interest in learning and jumpstarts a burgeoning social life at a very important developmental stage. It’s also a great opportunity for a family to become part of an active and supportive community of local families.
Mandell: The extraordinary growth and development that takes place during a child’s preschool years sets them up for a lifetime of successful, engaged and, hopefully joyous, learning. A well-established program with a rich curriculum and a commitment to each individual learner offers children an exceptional foundation for their academic journey.
Green Ivy: The greatest value for a child under 5 is time with a parent or primary caregiver. This is because a child’s self-esteem and identity are shaped during those years, and often the best inspiration for these is the person who loves him or her unconditionally. However, there are some things that private preschools can do that merit the investment: Private early childhood education can nurture a love of learning and risk-taking, which feeds the fire of your child’s engagement in academics for years to come; private early childhood education can broaden opportunities for friendship and support healthy approaches to social relationships, including collaboration, kindness, conflict resolution and more; and private early education can help families identify any need for early intervention (such as with speech delays or autism spectrum traits) which, if acted upon at a young age, can completely change for the better the child’s life opportunities in school and beyond.
Habonim: The value is the individualized instruction, small class sizes, differentiated programming, specialists, beautiful facilities, and qualified highly trained teachers
Pine Street: All of the research says the most important years of a child’s education are from birth to age 7. Therefore, choosing a school which specializes in early childhood development, as opposed to mainly being a preschool feeder into a follow-on elementary school spot for your child, is an important priority.
Epiphany Community: The socialization aspect is just brilliant. It’s so important to learn to how to get along with other people, and in nursery school you learn how to be a good friend. You learn how to deal with the kid who is taking your blocks, and the one who doesn’t seem to want to stop trying to kiss you. It’s different from the playground sandbox because it’s regular time with the same children, supervised by experienced teachers
How do you choose which schools you prefer?
The Takeaway: If you take the process seriously, with an eye toward determining the factors that are most important to your family, in the end, you will have some clear favorites and some secondary preferences.
Dwight: The most important question we encourage families to answer for themselves during each preschool visit is: “Can I see my child here? Can I see myself being a part of this community of parents and teachers?” It’s very easy to get swept up in the playground chatter, but when you’re thinking about your child’s earliest years, it’s your gut that will give you an indication of the best fit for you. Trust your instincts as a parent.
ONGOING SCHOOL (K-12)
Please offer some “big-picture” advice on how parents should orient toward the ongoing school admissions process from the start.
The Takeaway: There’s lots to do, and many options to learn about and explore, so get organized and consider your priorities, but be especially open to the kind of learning environment and community that would best suit your child (primarily) as well as your whole family.
Dwight: While the admissions process can be daunting, it should also be fun. Remember, it’s a two-way street. Schools are not only assessing your family’s potential fit, but you, too, are assessing their potential fit for your family. Don’t dwell on whether the school will admit you; focus on whether the school will ultimately be the best place for your child.
Mandell: Parents should plan to cast a wide net in the beginning of their research; it is much easier to refine as you go through the process than it is to add schools later in the season.
The Hewitt School: Parents should begin their search with an open mind. There are so many fantastic independent schools in New York City that are all very different from one another. Parents should really look at a number of different types of schools because they might be surprised by what they find. They should talk to their preschool directors about what types of schools might be best for their child. But since they will be a part of the new community as well, they should also think about what factors are important to them.
Pine Street School: Think about what kind of person you want your children to be when they grow up. What values do you want them to have? What can you do now to awaken the passions and talents that can be nurtured over time? What habits of mind and characteristics do you wish for your child? How do the schools articulate how they will instill these values, attributes, and skills?
Metropolitan Montessori: Time and research and organization. Six months prior to the admissions season to which they are applying, parents should start to look around at different websites to understand the different kinds of schools available—co-ed, single-sex, traditional, progressive, Montessori, Waldorf, etc. Most schools offer spring tours or open houses. Every school you end up applying to should be somewhere you would want to attend.
Léman Manhattan Preparatory School: Help narrow down your options with the criteria most important to you. Are you looking for a school through grade 12, the International Baccalaureate program, single-sex, in a certain neighbor-hood convenient to home or work? Think about what you most value in your child’s education. Is it diversity, critical thinking, social and emotional development? This will help you set a framework for evaluating how each school delivers on those priorities.
BASIS: The most important thing you can do—and something to remember throughout—is to relax and try to stay calm. You might have a very clear picture of your top choices, but listen to your gut if and when things shift. It is best not to go into the school search with the goal of finding a program that is absolutely perfect in every way. Prioritize what is important to you and where you are willing to be flexible.
Epiphany Community: Have your favorites but apply widely. For one thing, it’s a risk to only apply to the most competitive schools. But also, on the front end of the process you may have ideas about what kinds of schools you like, and your thinking may change later on. For example: New York City is unique in how many good single-sex schools there are among the independent schools. I see many parents who were educated in co-ed schools and who assume they want the same for their children…until they learn more about the co-ed school.
The Alexander Robertson School: If your child is attending a local nursery school when you’re applying to ongoing school then chances are you’ll be meeting with your nursery school director or some school official to discuss what schools would be good choices place based on your child’s needs. A helpful director will be current on the educational programs and general approach and atmosphere of the ongoing schools. But it’s a family decision too: it’s a decision about values and the kind of school community you want to raise your child in and be a part of. A few questions to consider: “Is it a place where materialism is rampant?” “Is it a place that values family life?”
Should parents with future Kindergartners be thinking down the line about a school’s upper grades, or, if it doesn’t have an upper school, its admissions success in placing children in other private schools? Or should they primarily be focused on finding a school that feels like a good fit right now?
The Takeaway: Everyone looks ahead with hope and excitement about being part of a great educational institution. It doesn’t always work out, of course, but the starting point should be one of mutual optimism, shared by the family and the school. That said, you should still be focused on finding a school that also feels like a good fit from the start. Otherwise, you could be asking for trouble.
Pine Street: It is nearly impossible to know with any certainty a school’s record for placing children in particular colleges, high schools, or boarding schools. Just remember that the admissions officers at those colleges, high schools, and boarding schools look for many of the same things you are looking for on the tour. They are looking for students who are engaged and thinking critically, speaking foreign languages, involved in community service, being encouraged to develop artistically, socially confident, and collaborative. That is why it is important to look at the students while on the tour, because this will tell you almost everything you need to know about that school.
Steiner: We expect people to view school as an educational experience that concludes after grade 12, and continues to shine for our graduates. So families applying to a lower school are encouraged to contact the admissions office with questions about high school, and to have attended a tour of the upper school. We want to help parents have a vision of their children with the school for the duration of their elementary and secondary education. Showing a sense of curiosity indicates to an admissions officer that you are invested and really interested in their school, not just attending an independent school.
Alexander Robertson: When you’re looking for a school for a child who is going into Kindergarten, try not to give much weight to that school’s college admissions record. The prestige factor is enticing, but also misleading. For children who are 4 years old, there’s not enough evidence yet to reliably predict what their learning style, interests, and challenges will be in higher grades. It’s better to choose a school based on whether you think your child will thrive there right now. Get the fit right now; and chances are, your child will grow up as a confident learner who likes school, whatever path ultimately emerges.
Rodeph Sholom: “Fit” is definitely an important consideration for both you and your child. A very young child cannot advocate for him or herself, so you should seek a school where you would feel comfortable raising a concern, asking a question, and even participating in the day-to-day life of the school, if that is of interest and possible for you. As the question implies, a child’s needs can change over time, and that’s another reason it’s important that you are able to communicate effectively with your school’s teachers and administrators. The best schools will be very clear about how your child is functioning academically, socially and emotionally, and if he or she will be able to thrive in their program from year to year.
Metropolitan Montessori: It really depends on the entry point to which a family is applying. While the qualities of the graduate are important, the focus for a Kindergarten applicant should be different than grade 9 applicant. For middle or high school applicants, college placement, process and exmissions is absolutely important because it is something that is tangible in the next few years. For a Kindergarten or lower elementary applicant, knowing where the school’s graduates attend middle or high school is something to consider but should not dictate your decision.
Mandell: Families should remember that their child will be very different at 14 or 18 than they are at the age of 4, so I encourage parents to look for a strong partner in a program who will help guide their child through all of these different stages. To that end, outcomes are a valuable data point for many families, and a family should certainly have confidence in a school’s placement process.
Green Ivy: The same rule applies at all levels of schooling. Choose a school you feel good in. This will translate positively to your child. If the methods seem strange to you, that will broadcast to your child. If the environment feels cold to you, your child will sense it. Go with your gut.
In addition to school officials, who are the best people to speak with to get to know a school?
The Takeaway: To get an in-depth feel for an ongoing school, there’s real value in speaking to members of all sides of the school community—teachers, parents, and students—in addition to admissions officers and top school officials who you’ll meet or have some exposure to in the course of the process.
Green Ivy: The best people to speak to when getting to know a school are the students who attend, or have recently attended, that school. Ask them to tell you about their favorite experiences. Try open-ended questions like: “Tell me what it was like during your first few years.” If a school makes its students available to you, that says quite a bit about the school. Second, if the students impress you, then you know you are in the right place.
Hewitt: We are happy to put prospective parents in touch with current parents—there are some questions parents don’t feel comfortable asking the admissions office and we want our applicant families to have all of the resources they need to
feel comfortable making such an important decision.
Metropolitan Montessori: The faculty are also a great resource to speak to for a well-rounded viewpoint. They have a perspective about the school day, academically and socially, that a parent may not. They can speak to curriculum, school projects, in-school community, etc.
Dwight: If a school you’re applying to offers you an opportunity to attend a community event—such as a book fair, spirit day, concert, or picnic—absolutely attend! You will see community life in action and get a sense of your comfort level and if it’s a good fit.
Mandell: Connecting with parents in the community is a very valuable resource, as they can help a prospective family gain a true sense of the community they may be joining. In addition to current parents, another terrific resource is alumni—both parents and students who have had the full experience can offer excellent insight into a school. The school should feel like an environment where your child will not only grow and thrive over the years to come, but as a family, there is a real sense of community where parents can be as involved as much as they wish. Parents should seek an environment where they can form a strong partnership with the school.
Léman: Parents should absolutely be thinking about themselves as part of the school community when evaluating their options. The home, school, student partnership is critical to student success and we encourage parents to be in our school and be visible in their child’s education.
BASIS: After speaking directly to school officials, namely teachers, speaking to parents of currently enrolled students is key to understanding the type of learning community a program offers. If you are able to, speak to non-teaching staff who don’t work in admissions. Do they like working at the school? What are their observations of the students and general learning environment? It is important for parents and guardians to feel comfortable with the school community, but it should naturally first and foremost be about the learning community that your child will experience that drives your decision-making process.
What are a few of the most important things to look out for on a school tour?
The Takeaway: Naturally, look for evidence of the qualities or programs that are most important to you, but one universally good litmus test is the quality of student engagement.
Mandell: Think about what is meaningful to you and your family. Is it curriculum, facilities, location, class size, athletics, creative projects and artwork, learning in action, other enrichment opportunities? This is a deeply personal process and each family will have their own very specific criteria when looking at schools. But do pay attention to student interaction and engagement when you visit, and think about how the program adapts as the children age up.
Pine Street: When considering an independent school, the tour is king. Seeing is knowing. Try to ignore playground gossip and random advice from friends. Go. See. Judge for yourself.
Metropolitan Montessori: If there is an opportunity to speak with students, what do they say about their experience? Are they able to articulate an understanding of what is happening on an assignment/in their classroom?
BASIS: Of course, it’s important to get a sense of the facilities of the school, but remember that what goes on in the classroom is the most important and defining aspect of a program.
Rodeph Sholom: In addition to the basics—the nature of the academic program, teacher qualifications, the student-teacher ratio, and general environmental factors such as security and cleanliness—you should pay attention to clues about the school culture and values as they may affect your family as a whole. Beyond regular semiannual parent-teacher conferences, some schools welcome and encourage parents’ involvement, while others do not. Some families want to become part of a social community, while others prefer that their child have a world of his or her own.
Hewitt: Parents should really think about how they feel on a tour. What is their gut reaction to what they see and hear? They need to set aside all of the conversations they have had with friends and their preconceived notions about a school and focus on how they feel. Are the students engaged? Do they look happy? Is there joy in learning? How are they interacting and engaging with their teachers? Do the students seem kind and supportive of one another? Is the curriculum dynamic and current?
Dwight: On a school tour, look carefully at the students in class. Are they smiling? Participating? Engaged? In the halls, are they friendly with one another and polite to you? What about the teachers—do they seem comfortable with their classes and the material? You’re not only sending your child into a building, but also into a community. It can be easy to be distracted by facilities; really look at the people and their interactions.
Any advice for the application and parent interview?
The Takeaway: Keep it real. Help the school gain a good feel for your child and your family with some fun, happy anecdotes—and ask a few questions that reflect some truly important priorities of yours (that you can’t get full answers for on the web).
Steiner: Admissions directors appreciate a candid, thoughtful, and succinct report on the child. A carefully crafted short essay will go a long way with a description that allows the reader to get a picture that will find an echo when one meets the child in person. Long lists of classes they are taking are not as helpful as reading how the family spends time together over a meal, or what a child loves doing most when she or he has free time.
Green Ivy: Speak about your child from firsthand experience, not what you’ve heard from his teachers. Focus on behaviors that have importance in social settings or when your child has been invited to learn or explore. Be honest, but don’t overemphasize problems. What may appear to be a problem for you may be completely normal for someone trained in child development.
Léman: Think of it more as a conversation than an interview. Parents should listen carefully, as they will learn much about the school via the questions being asked.
Hewitt: As much as possible, parents should really be themselves during an interview. I always ask parents to tell me what they did last weekend, and I’m not looking to hear about every museum they visited or every cultural event they’ve done. Interact as a family; [I want to hear about] the messiness that is real life on a weekend.
Dwight: Regarding the interview, I remind parents that this meeting is an opportunity to ask questions pertaining specifically to their child and family. If your child excels in a particular activity or academic area, ask questions specifically about those activities or subjects: What is the school’s approach to differentiated learning? What athletic or artistic activities are incorporated into the school day or available through afterschool programs? Most importantly, be honest regarding your family’s educational philosophy and your child’s strengths and challenges. In the end, admissions directors are looking for students who will be successful in their school’s environment and families who will make good partners. Open and honest communication from both sides helps to ensure a good fit for everyone!
Pine Street School: Be honest! Tell the story of your child, with all of the relevant information about their talents and challenges. Explain in detail why you are interested in this particular school for your child.
BASIS: Try to approach the interview as a two way conversation. This is just as much about you getting a feel for the fit as much as the school is trying to get a sense of how your child is aligned with their student body. There is a lot of information online about most schools, but much can be learned by having a conversation. Even if you “know” the answer to a question you have that might be of particular import, ask it again. Listen to how the interviewer answers it.
Alexander Robertson: Don’t come in arrogant, and especially don’t compare aspects of the school you’re interviewing for to aspects of other schools in front of the interviewer—like: “Such-and-such had a better gym.”
How should you prepare a child for their interview?
The Takeaway: Keep it low-key, explaining that they have an opportunity to have some fun at school that they might attend next year in Kindergarten.
Steiner: To some extent it depends on the child: Some children like to know about the setting that they’ll find; others just want to show up and check it out. It would be helpful if the young applicant has had a sufficient amount to eat before coming to an interview (avoid sugars) and that the person accompanying the child to the school is leaving enough time to get there a few minutes early without rushing. The inner stance (emotional state) of the adult will affect the young child. A cheerful, optimistic, and calm person who has a sense of humor about the visits will do great role-modeling.
Léman: The play session is just that—play. We encourage parents of young children not to call it an interview. We want children to feel comfortable and at ease in our school and recommend parents tell their child he or she is going to a play date to meet some new friends. Keep it simple and positive.
Goddard: Parents feel the pressure and importance of getting into a good school so they sometimes transfer their stress onto their children. When children feel stressed, they do not perform as well. Keep the interviews as a “fun” visit to a new school, and when the child feels comfortable they will be able to perform optimally, letting the interviewee see how much they know. A student should never feel the pressure of “practicing” for an interview; they will shut down if they feel too much pressure.
Alexander Robertson: In most schools, it’s more of a playgroup, or at least they try to keep it fun. But they may still do activities that give them some indication of your child’s skills and focus. There may be some drawing. Some questions to answer. I recommend keeping it very low-key with your child, that you’re going to see a new school and it’ll be fun and you’ll meet other nice kids, and you should do your best to answer any questions they ask you. Some parents hire child psychologists to prep their kids—I think that’s nuts.
The cost for independent school is quite substantial for many parents. What’s the value?
The Takeaway: At its best, an independent school offers students a really good match for their academic potential and interests, while tending to their character and cultivating an interest in the world around them and the world at large. It’s a place they’re happy and proud to be a part of.
Rodeph Sholom: Free of the constraints that would be imposed on them by public funding, independent schools are able to deliver the kind of 21st Century education that our children need to have to grow into a healthy, responsible, and successful adults. The best private schools are combining “high tech and high touch,” teaching a well-rounded curriculum that offers a wide range of opportunities for exploration, learning, and mastery.
BASIS: There are many clear benefits, such as typically more robust facilities and a smaller class sizes, but there are many other intangible benefits, the clearest of which may be the school’s independence and thus the ability to shape their curriculum to address the needs of their student population. The school community forged by independent schools where families enrolling are self-selecting to that particular program and/or pedagogy often stays with students throughout their lives.
Pine Street: Value in [independent] education is in the fit. Finding an environment and program that best suits your child during this phase of life will provide a lifetime of personal and professional rewards. This return is infinite. Sometimes, the best fit is public school, especially if it is a specialized school whose program addresses a strong and lasting interest that your child has shown, such as in science or the performing arts. Sometimes, the best fit is social, in cases where a child lacks confidence and small class sizes and nurturing teachers are needed to bring them out and ensure that they learn to share ideas and collaborate in a healthy way with peers. Focus on the fit, and you will find the right place and program. And know that, because it is New York City with our wealth of resources, if you can’t find the right fit in a school, just make the best choice you can and look for extracurricular avenues to provide the support that’s missing.
Steiner: The value of an independent school education shines through its liberal arts courses, abundant extracurricular offerings, and amazing one-on-one college guidance. One is embraced by a faculty who is engaged fully in student development. Independent school faculties are passionate not only about their subjects, but about the growth of the individual and preparation for a world outside of school. The instruction in the classroom is inspired, but there is also active and ongoing consideration by teachers about each and every student, how they are meeting their school work, their social and emotional growth, and how they are being readied for life outside the classroom. Students who are engaged in their education and its community have the opportunity to grow and experience the world on multiple levels both within academia and without, and the support they receive as they go through their adolescence is priceless. Alumni frequently speak about the networking and collegiality that comes from attending a private school. By enabling networking opportunities for its graduates, students who attend independent schools expect significant outcomes from the people they meet along the way.
Metropolitan Montessori: The value of an independent school education comes from three distinct areas. First: The philosophy or practices that defines the process of learning for that school (for example, Montessori, Waldorf, parochial). Independent schools do not follow a cookie-cutter education; they have the ability to specialize their approach. A parent will be happiest with their choice for their child if they match their own philosophy in childrearing with that of the school they are applying to. Second: Individuality is valued. Each child is different and the school embraces and encourages that uniqueness. Third: Children are known by everyone in the school. Smaller class sizes and more individualized attention are often times the reason parents choose an independent school.
Léman: An independent school can have a specific philosophy that resonates with the family’s interest and values, and can deliver a high level of personalized learning to each child.
York Avenue: The value is in the smaller class size, a philosophy that is tailored to a child’s needs, and a strong sense of community.
How do you choose which schools you prefer above all the rest?
The Takeaway: You’ll know.
Alexander Robertson: If you’ve done all the research, and have honed in on your priorities, the rest won’t be so hard: for each particular school you need to ask yourself, all in, would you be excited about having a child at the school and be equally excited yourself about being part of that school community? Trust your instincts: If the answer is not a solid “yes,” then don’t pick that school.
Our Independent & Nursery School Sources