Inevitably, when considering the best private school education for their children, parents can encounter difficulty discerning which school best fits the needs of their family and their student(s). According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 5.9 million (over 10%) students attend private school in America.
For those people, searching for the right school can be a lengthy process requiring committed preparation, careful research, continual learning, and finally a confident choice. Hopefully, this article can provide some much-needed help by detailing the 20 essential characteristics of the best private schools in an effort to help parents in their search.
In addition to providing a description of the essential characteristics that the best private schools in the country have in common, we also want to provide a resource that every parent can take with them and use to assess whether the particular school that they are looking at for their student(s), meets the standards when it comes to providing the absolute best education and experience during some of the most formative years of a person’s life.
Four Arenas for Evaluating the Best Private Schools
When it comes to assessing the qualifications of a school, there are four arenas which give a general idea of the things that a school should be doing well and continually improving: (1) the Academic Profile, (2) Student Development, (3) School Culture, and (4) the Organizational Environment. Let’s take a closer look at each of these:
- Academic Profile
The academic profile of a school covers everything the school does when it comes to the “educational program” that a school provides. This includes the school’s philosophy of education, the standards to which a school aligns its curriculum, the scope and sequence of the curricular program, the instructional and assessment strategies employed by the faculty, the readiness of students to be successful in college, and the integration of technology with student learning.
- Student Development
This arena covers what the school provides for students outside the “academic” aspect of its program. This includes the extra-curricular activities available for student participation, the athletic opportunities, and programs the school provides, the philosophies that govern those programs, the ratio of the school’s focus between academics and extracurricular programs, and the diversity of the student body.
- School Culture
This refers to the environment in which learning takes place. It is essential to note that the “environment” or culture of a school also functions as a curriculum which directs, allows, or prevents a school from accomplishing its objectives when it comes to student learning and development. School culture covers the overarching values of a school, the safety and security provided for students (physically, emotionally, and socially), the relations and opportunities that the school provides for involvement within its local community, and the commitment and purpose of its faculty and staff.
- Organizational Environment
This arena attends to the environment around the school and includes opportunities for parent involvement, the overarching philosophy of the school, its mission, its vision, its purpose and reason for being, the security and organization of the campus, the support facilities that the school provides, the plan for continual improvement and the philosophy which governs that plan.
It should come as no surprise that the best private schools are not only guided by the characteristics which define these four arenas but have given considerable attention and focus to providing the absolute best in each of them. Let’s now examine the 20 essential characteristics that the best private schools have in common to provide a map that can guide parents for making informed choices about private education.
The 20 Essential Qualities of the Best Private Schools
1. High-Quality Instruction
The best private schools require teacher certifications and continual training to develop high-quality instructors. Staff members also benefit from regularly scheduled opportunities to collaborate and share best practices. When schools prioritize professional development, students are likely to experience engaging instruction, relevant coursework, and authentic assessments.
2. Viable Standards-Based Curriculum
Effective educational programs strategically design curriculum with purpose and strategic intent. With the end goal in mind, classes, units, and individual lessons plot a course for student learning without gaps or unnecessary redundancies. Using a set of respected national or state level standards, teachers will document the curriculum represented in their classes and align with these standards to ensure their students are competitively prepared for college and career.
3. College Readiness
The best schools have specific plans in place to prepare students for college and/or the career of their choice. Available programs can support students as they prepare for the ACT/SAT and provide interest surveys that expose students to possible career pathways. With the assistance of a trusted guidance counselor, students can explore and choose the class offerings that will best prepare them for future college and career goals.
4. Strategic and Innovative Technology
Great schools implement technology into their learning process but also understand the limitations that come with their introduction. Technology should not simply be used as a substitute for lower-tech tools (like pencils and chalkboards), or for the teacher-student interaction that should take place within the learning environment. It should, however, be used intentionally and strategically to help students learn, deepening critical thinking and opening new educational opportunities.
5. Measurable Achievement and Progress
Student assessments should not just be used to communicate final grades or rank students. The best instructors use assessments to guide individual learners along the journey to academic achievement. Many layers and styles of assessments can be used to create an accurate understanding of student learning. Some of these assessments should include well-respected standardized or growth tests, relevant classroom assessments that give students authentic opportunities to use their new knowledge and skills, and many informal assessments along the way to help students, teachers, and parents identify learning strengths and opportunities for growth.
6. Extensive Athletic Programs
Athletic programs create opportunities for student-athletes to compete at the highest level of interscholastic sports and foster within each individual a desire and commitment to excellence of practice and performance. Schools should be committed to providing an experience that trains leaders, develops character, emphasizes teamwork, teaches athletes to compete, and encourages healthy lifelong habits. Athletes should learn what it means to work hard, improve both on and off the field and court, and have fun in the process.
7. Fine Arts
Fine arts is a vital part of providing students with a well-rounded education. Whether a student is enrolled in music, theatre, or art, this discipline teaches creativity, leadership and presentation skills. There are many statistics supporting students heavily involved in fine arts. They were better than their peers at staying motivated to achieve, had improved social skills and noticeably better test scores. Schools that stress the importance of a great arts education play a vital role in preparing students for success in career and personal life.
8. Extracurricular Activities
High-quality schools develop not only the academic abilities of their students but also offer extensive extracurricular opportunities. These activities allow students to pursue their unique passions, explore new talents, and grow their perspective while unveiling new possibilities. The best programs will open doors for students to showcase their skills in authentic ways both inside and outside the school community.
9. Leadership Cultivation
Effective schools produce effective leaders. The best private schools recognize the essential role they play in shaping the future of our society by cultivating the next generation of leadership. Diverse opportunities should be available to students to develop their unique strengths through various levels and avenues. While exercising these gifts, quality leadership programs also challenge students to grow in confidence, independence, and responsibility.
10. Holistic Development
The best private schools believe that education is not centered on producing intellectual achievement alone, but recognize their responsibility to develop the whole child. Successful educational programs should produce life-long learners who appreciate intellectual stimulation and challenge. However, the future of our society needs more than academics. Great schools develop a legacy of fostering compassion, integrity, and a willingness to discover, develop and use individual talents to serve a greater good.
To be considered a great private school, it must be student-centered. Every decision that is made is driven by one essential question, is this in the student’s best interest? A student-centered school should have happy, productive and engaged students. They should also develop and maintain strong friendship and peer relationships. Additionally, a student-centered school will have a high retention rate.
12. Safe and Secure Environment
Parents recognize that a secure environment is not only about locked doors and safety drills. Of course, high-quality schools have the equipment and procedures necessary to ward off accidents and potential threats. However, a safe environment also means that our children feel accepted by the community, valued as an individual, and supported by teachers and peers. The best schools promote a healthy student culture free of bullying, discrimination, and harassment.
13. Community Relations
To promote a favorable climate within their community, great schools execute strategies that foster a vibrant and cohesive culture among students and faculty. Regularly scheduled events and activities provide opportunities for community building both during the school day and after-hours. When schools see value in investing in a student’s character, in addition to their academic success, they can confidently claim their students are equipped to thrive both academically and socially in the outside world. The best schools also promote strong community relations by implementing policies to address social and behavior-related problems.
14. Invested Administration and Leadership Team
An invested leadership team produces invested students. In thriving schools, the administration and leadership team set the tone for a healthy climate and have a direct correlation to student achievement. When school leadership is passionate about the school and the vision and mission, they will invest heavily in students and cultivate a culture of growth and learning. Great educators view their school as more of a team or family rather than simply a place to work. With this mindset, school spirit becomes contagious and the whole student body feels united as a community of learners who accept and look out for one another.
15. Diverse Environment
A diverse school environment contributes back to the educational process by celebrating a multi-voiced school culture which teaches students to welcome a multitude of perspectives. The best private schools endeavor to help students learn cultural intelligence and the ability to operate successfully in a multicultural world by establishing non-negotiable values such as the inherent dignity of each person regardless of race, gender, or creed, and the understanding that human problems are complex and defy simple, cliche solutions. Great schools seek greater unity through diversity and understand that difference is the uniqueness that defines each individual.
16. Parental Involvement
The best private schools build strong partnerships with parents and effective educators understand that the task of developing successful learners is shared with the child’s most powerful influences at home. Open and regular communication should exist between the school and parent. This communication often comes in a variety of forms such as websites, emails, newsletters, and phone calls. In each case, the shared information should give parents valuable insights into their student’s progress, but should also invite a two-way conversation. The best private schools recognize the value that parents can bring to a school and they actively seek the voice, perspective, and involvement of their customers.
17. Purpose-Driven Philosophy
Underlying the “how” of what schools do is a “why” which gives guidance and direction to action and decision. The best private schools academic disciplines align with their mission statement. Their vision is clear, guided by reachable and measurable goals, and executed well. When a school’s vision, purpose, and values are clearly defined, decisions are consistent and lead to effective and measurable progress. A school’s philosophy of education, mission, and vision should be understood and easily articulated by all stakeholders. When the organization states these guiding principles clearly and keeps them at the forefront of decision making, students benefit from clear expectations and continuous school improvement.
18. Secure and Organized Campus
The well-being and safety of students should be the main priority in all schools. A great school seeks to identify and reduce potential risks within the school environment, and continually works toward providing a safe facility. The best private schools have security personnel in place to assure parents that their students are safe and work to provide the necessary training for security staff, faculty and support staff to prepare for any type of crisis situation. Crisis plans for each potential situation should be written down and students and faculty should participate in regular drills for each possible crisis. Additionally, the organization and flow of the campus should foster easy and efficient access for students and a secure check-in/check-out procedure for parents, guests, and school visitors to provide a safe facility.
19. Support Facilities
Effective schools strategically design workspaces and select resources to promote student success. Students need spaces for quiet, independent study as well as locations to gather with peers for group assignments, collaboration, and socialization. A well-designed school makes it easy for students to find and utilize this space. Necessary resources and relevant technology should also be readily available to support students in 21st-century learning.
20. Data-Driven Decision Making
The best private schools research best practices and continuously evaluate the effectiveness of decisions made regarding instruction, assessment, standards, procedures, and curriculum. Standardized testing, instructional software, advances in technology, and student information systems provide information about learning trends, student progress, and school effectiveness. Collecting school data is a good start, but great schools know how to effectively interpret and use data to show inconsistencies and gaps in their program which then can guide decisions and policies toward greater student achievement and school improvement.
Action Steps to Choosing The Best Private School
Finding the right private school is about understanding what is best for your family. The individual strengths and challenges of your child, your philosophy of education, and your family’s circumstances should all be considered along with these 20 essential characteristics when looking for the best private school for your needs. Here are some action steps that can aid parents in making the best choice for private education.
1. Evaluate what your family is looking for in a private school and why
Though a school might grade well in all of these characteristics, schools approach these areas from differing philosophies. It is important that parents know their own values when it comes to private education and that their school aligns well with those values.
- Your child’s learning style and academic ability.
- Special needs your child may need assistance with.
- Your family’s beliefs and objectives.
- How much has your family budgeted for education spending?
- Desired class size and social environment.
2. Do your initial research
Seek out the options available to your family when it comes to finding the best private school. This can’t be said enough: Do your own analysis. Documenting your own base of information and having knowledge about the private schools in your community will ensure that you make the proper choice for you and your child.
- Start your search early. Six months to a year in advance is good timing.
- Do first-hand research. Seeking first-hand experiences of others is helpful too.
- Checking school profiles on their websites is a great way to quickly find accessible information.
- Contact schools admission personnel to ask initial questions.
- Determine if the school falls in line with your value system and/or religious beliefs.
- Attend a private school fair or an open house.
3. Visit the schools on the top of your list
The best private schools will welcome visiting parents and prospective students. Schedule a tour. Seeing a school first-hand is essential to help determine whether the school is a good fit for your family. If necessary, plan an additional visit. Spend time in the classrooms, ask about your child spending a day with a current student.
We have created a private school assessment tool that can help you to evaluate the schools you visit according to the 20 essential characteristics of the best private schools detailed in this article. The assessment provides questions you can ask school officials on each of the characteristics detailed above as well as an easy way for you to “grade” the school in each of the four areas. This assessment is available for a free download for anyone to use.
4. Apply to the school of your choice
Upon the completion of your evaluation, having made a well-informed investigation, and having chosen the best private school for your family, it’s time to apply. Usually, schools will have application materials available online or will detail the next steps you can take after a tour, but a quick call to the office will provide you the necessary information when it comes to the application process.
- Submit the application early; the best private schools will have limited class sizes and possible wait lists.
- Allow time for testing; an entrance exam may be required. No need to stress your child about this exam. The school needs to understand where your child is at academically.
- Most private schools ask to interview your child, prepare for the interview.
- Be honest and clear about your child’s needs. Be sure the school is willing and able to accommodate them.
Hopefully, this article has provided an extensive overview of the essential characteristics of the best private schools as well as a process by which parents can make informed decisions on choosing a school for their children. Ultimately, no matter where schools rank in each of these 20 essential characteristics, the best private school is the school that fits best for the needs of your family.
Remember to download our Best Private Schools Assessment Tool as an aid to make a more informed choice for your family.