Over the course of the past year and a half, many parents have found themselves taking a much closer look at their children’s education.
Parents have spent hours helping their children with online lessons, watching countless board meetings, tracking data and trying to keep up with the latest guidelines. For many, the pandemic brought into focus just how important it is to ensure their child’s school is truly the right fit.
And that fit is not the same for everyone. We are surrounded by excellent public schools, and many students thrive within their walls. For others, a private school education might be a better fit. Whether you are embarking on the search for your child’s first school or considering a change in your child’s education, a little research and preparation will go a long way in breaking the decision-making process down into manageable tasks. Below are a few things to keep in mind as you embark on your search.
Understand the options
First and foremost, it is important to understand that not all schools are created equal. In the public sector, there are traditional public schools, magnet schools, virtual schools and charter schools, which function like a hybrid between a public and private school.
Non-public options include traditional private schools, boarding schools, Montessori schools, language immersion schools, faith-based schools, parochial schools, Waldorf schools and private special education schools.
While all public schools must answer to the Florida Department of Education, that is not the case for all private schools. Private schools are governed in a variety of ways. Some are led by a school board that is elected by the parents, some are affiliated with specific churches or religious bodies, some are governed by boards or trustees, and some are proprietary schools. It is important to understand how a school is organized so you can determine who is ultimately responsible for decisions regarding your child’s education. Most schools will spell out their leadership and governing structure on the school’s website.
Researching the options and understanding the different teaching philosophies, governing bodies, classroom structures and expectations of each type of school is a good first step in narrowing down your search.
Set your priorities
Education is not simply reading, writing and arithmetic; it is exploring new interests, building relationships, and acquiring new skill sets, habits, beliefs and values. During the K-12 school years, students spend a majority of their waking hours at school, so it is important to ensure the school you choose offers those things you feel are essential to a well-rounded education—whether that is a strong athletics program, a college-preparatory curriculum, a robust arts curriculum, a faith-based education or all of the above.
While parents may assume their child will have access to a wider range of athletic and extracurricular opportunities in the larger public school system, that is often not the case. In fact, taking part in the school play or participating in a club is often mandatory at private schools to foster the education of the whole child. Many private schools also have “no cut” policies for athletic teams, making it easier for students to try their hand at different sports and be a part of a team. “Extracurricular activities allow students to pursue their interests, go above and beyond, challenge themselves and exercise their bodies and minds,” explained Mike Johnson, associate head of school at Corbett Prep. “We have a robust after-school program that includes learning extensions, games, sports, arts and crafts. Our Odyssey of the Mind teams have received international recognition, and we’re excited to launch our new Lego robotics team this year.”
Keep the family in mind
School choice decisions not only affect the student; they affect the entire family, and therefore the entire family should be involved in the decision-making process. Transportation is a key concern for many families. Some private schools, like Tampa Prep, offer bus service to select areas of town for an additional fee. Other schools leave transportation to the parents. While this may seem like a minor concern, the daily commute to and from school can have a large impact on the family dynamic, so it is important to know the options and ensure you are able to live with those options.
Parental involvement is another key concern. Private schools typically strive to create a close-knit community of teachers, staff, students and parents to ensure the school’s mission is being upheld. Some private schools welcome parent volunteers in the classroom and other areas of the school, while others focus more on getting parents involved in fundraising and recruiting initiatives. At Corbett Prep, for instance, parents automatically become a member of the Parent-Faculty Association (PFA), which plays a critical role in both fundraising and “friend raising.” “Our parent volunteers provide us with financial support and classroom support through major fundraisers, such as our annual golf tournament and our ‘Big Event’ gala, and through their classroom help, supporting teachers, planning special events and facilitating communication with parents,” Johnson stated.
Carrollwood Day School also turns to their parents to help us in retention and acquisition of students, advancement fundraising, volunteering for all types of events and to be their voice in the community. They also offer a number of ways for parents to become involved in their child’s education, including Friends of the Performing Arts, Parent Teacher Organization and Athletic Boosters.
It is wise to ask up front what the school’s expectations are when it comes to parental involvement to be sure they align with your own expectations.
Ask about financial aid
Cost is one of the key factors that leads many families to rule out a private school education. What many may not realize, however, is that most private schools offer financial aid. This aid is made possible through endowments and active alumni fundraising groups, allowing private schools greater flexibility to budget money for students in need. According to the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), the median day school tuition is $23,248. The average grant awarded to students is $12,859.
The process of applying for financial aid at a private school is similar to the process of applying for aid at the college level. Students must first be admitted to the school, and then they can submit an application form and financial statements. There is no set income level that automatically qualifies a family for financial aid; rather, financial aid officers take into account income, assets and expenses, including educational costs for other children. Carrollwood Day School, for instance, utilizes a third party, FACTS Grant & Aid Assessment, to process their need-based applications in order to determine a family’s ability to pay. They also offer a select number of merit scholarships for both new and returning students.
Know the end goal
Looking down at your tiny kindergartener, it may seem an impossible task, but try to envision the educational experience you want for your child. Does that involve smaller class sizes and years spent building a sense of community at a single school? Or do you envision a more traditional public school experience? Looking further down the road, are there specific post-secondary education goals you have for your child? Perhaps a dream college? Public school is certainly not a deterrent to any end-goal; however, private schools often offer a more personalized approach to reaching future goals.
According to a report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the average student to counselor ratio in public schools in Florida is 485 to 1. Those statistics are hard to ignore. Private schools not only offer a lower counselor to student ratio; they are also able to offer a wider range of college support—from help with college essays to tips on strengthening a high school resume.
Get on campus
Once you have come up with a short list of potential schools, it is time to see those schools in action. Every school has a system in place for campus visits and the school’s website is a good place to start. For those who prefer a bit more anonymity to simply gather information, an open house is a good start. Berkeley Preparatory School, for instance, offers several parent-only sessions called “Mornings at Berkeley,” that are open to prospective parents in a small-group setting. Lower Division sessions are led by current parents, while Middle and Upper Division sessions are led by current students, allowing for a more personal experience.
Some schools offer more in-depth opportunities for students to visit once an application has been submitted. Carrollwood Day School offers the option of a half-day visit for middle and high school students to shadow their current grade. As their website states, “Experiencing our learning environment firsthand is a key component in the school selection process.”
Check with the schools you are interested in to find out their visitation and shadowing policies, and then take advantage of as many of those options as possible. When it comes to choosing a school, there’s no substitute for experiencing that school first-hand.
There is no one-size-fits-all option when it comes to education. It is a very personal decision. Taking the necessary steps in your search will help ensure you find the right fit for your child and your family.
WOW Education Summaries
WOW thanks the following schools for helping to bring you our Education Special.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The business listings on these pages represent paid advertisements in conjunction with WOW’s Education Special. Paid advertising is not an endorsement by WOW, Inc. Interested residents should contact the businesses and ask all relevant questions prior to enrolling.
Berkeley Preparatory School
An independent, Episcopal day school for boys and girls in grades Pre-K to 12 dedicated to putting people in the world who make a positive difference. Learn more at www.berkeleyprep.org.
Calvary Christian High School
Calvary offers an advanced, college preparatory education in an environment where high school students are taught from a Christian worldview. Learn more at www.cchs.us.
Cambridge Christian School
Since 1964, Cambridge Christian School has equipped students in greater Tampa Bay with a Biblical worldview and passion for community that results in extraordinary academic experience.
Carrollwood Day School
Carrollwood Day School is a world-class co-ed IB School in Tampa, FL offering the complete continuum of IB programs from preschool through 12th grade. Visit CDS at www.CDSPatriots.org.
Corbett Preparatory School of IDS
An extraordinary environment for learning in Tampa since 1968. International Baccalaureate Programme for all students in PreK3-Grade 8. Visit us at www.corbettprep.com.
Hillsborough Academy of Math and Science
Accredited public charter school for Grades K-8. Offering the Cambridge Program and a balanced curriculum with enrichment in science, technology, engineering, arts and math education. www.hillsboroughacademy.com.
Kids ‘R’ Kids
Kids R Kids Learning Academy, opened since 1999, provides care for infants through Pre-K and after-school children.
Primavera Preschool is a private, family-owned business that strives for excellence in early childhood education along with their exclusive infant care. Experience the difference…
Rainbow Garden Preschool
Recognized as an excellent, long-established Christian preschool providing a well-balanced, enriched curriculum developing a strong foundation for reading, writing, science, math and social skills, including art and music.
Smart Start Pre-Prep
Smart Start Pre-Prep takes precautions to keep your child healthy while providing a quality education. Infants through Grade 1. Call for an after-hours tour.
Tampa Catholic High School
Celebrating faith, excellence and family. Providing educational excellence, nurturing academic, spiritual, and personal growth while promoting life-long learning and commitment to service and justice. www.tampacatholic.org.
Westlake Christian School
Westlake Christian School’s college preparatory learning environment, composed of approximately 475 students in Kindergarten through Grade 8, is accredited by the Florida Council of Independent Schools, and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools/Cognia.
By Karen Ring