August, 2001

How to Choose a School

By Wendy Mogel

As fall approaches, many of us are forced to turn our thoughts to selecting a private school for our children. Quite frequently, this process causes even normally stable parents to suffer symptoms of mental confusion, dizziness and difficulty making rational decisions. A school administrator recently told me that one set of applicant parents put down nonrefundable deposits of $3,000 on four different schools. When their strategy was exposed, the parents simply said, “We wanted a little extra time to make up our minds.”

Even after parents have visited the school, listened to word-of-mouth and researched test scores, many are still unsure about which school to choose. Realizing the importance of this decision, and the hand-wringing it prompts, I have decided to divulge my secret four-step formula for choosing a school. This formula was discovered after years of speaking at schools, consulting with them and choosing them for my own children.

Step One: Ignore the Mission Statement.

They all say the same thing. “We strive for academic excellence, but we also treasure the uniqueness of each child. We give them not just roots, but also wings. We raise children not just to be good at things, but also to be good people.”

There’s just not enough variation in the message to be of much use. And they never give the real scoop: “Great arts program, but lots of drugs in the upper grades. Good athletics, but slightly anti-Semitic admissions policy. Great Judaic curriculum, but half the parents don’t give a hoot.”

Instead of poring over the catalog and trying to read between the lines, I recommend moving on to Step Two.

Step Two: Look at the Bigger Kids.

On the prospective parents’ tour you’ll be invited to peek in at the grade your child is currently in and the one he or she will be entering the following year. Try to make a detour to the upper grades. At one school where I speak each year, I invariably mistake the sixth-graders for fifth-graders, they look so wholesome and untrammeled. At another school, I always see the seniors giving the faculty just the right kind of hard time — a sign that they are more interested in animated debate than grubbing for grades. So if your child is applying to kindergarten, try to get a look at the fifth-or sixth-graders; if you’re touring a high school ask to see some senior classes. Their level of vitality or cool and their general spirit reveals important information about what you can expect your child to become.

Step Three: Go See a Play.

The school may only allow you a moment or two in the classrooms on your tour, but everyone is welcome to attend school plays. And a play is more than a performance — it’s a community gathering. What kinds of cars are in the parking lot? Do the parents compete for seats, or reserve them in a stingy fashion? Do they leave after their child has performed? Is every eye in the room looking through the lens of a video camera? Do parents bring big bouquets of flowers for children with tiny parts? How are the parents dressed? Can you see your child in the homes of people who look that polished? That rumpled? How polite are they when it’s time to line up to drive out of the parking lot?

The play itself offers useful information, too. The school’s values and philosophy show up here with far more clarity than in the mission statement. Is the school so politically correct that no big or showy parts are allowed, resulting in Soviet-style blandness and conformity? Conversely, is the school so unenlightened that the show seems sexist or racist?

Step Four: Accept a Compromise.

After you’ve done all the research and followed the three steps above, let your child weigh in. Ask how he or she feels about the different schools. Selecting a school is not a decision that can or should be made by a child. However, he or she is the one who will have to walk those halls each day and, unlike an adult, will not be able to give two-weeks’ notice if it starts feeling too small or too big, too mushy or too competitive.

The Hardest Part: Trusting your intuition.

Realize that no school is good enough for your child and $12,000 in deposits and prolonged indecision won’t help you find one that is. The school you choose is guaranteed to disappoint you because the closer you get, the more clearly you will see its flaws. But your child will get a good enough education, maybe even a great one. And contrary to conventional wisdom, your school choice does not predict every other single thing that will happen in your child’s life.

It’s your cooking that will do that.

This article first appeared in The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles as “Choose the Right Day School.”

August 24, 2001