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  • Writer's pictureVicky Keston

How to Choose a School

It’s easy to be jealous of parents who are admitted to multiple schools, but choice always make a decision more difficult, especially when it’s about your child’s future. Whether comparing public to private or different privates, decisions can feel agonizing.

Above all else, remember that you can only do your best. Choose the school that feels the best fit for your family, remembering that no decision is forever. Hopefully, your child remains happy, but nothing would stop you from changing in the future. As such, try to be kind to yourself.  


Fit Is Crucial – For Child and Parent

Ask Your Child’s Teacher. The best feedback about your child’s school needs is their current school or preschool. They know your child in the environment that’s most similar to the next school, when they are with peers and without parents. Many children act differently at home vs. school, so the teacher’s perspective is particularly helpful.

Orchid or Sunflower. A common analogy compares children based on their temperament. Sunflowers will bloom where they are planted, whereas orchids are sensitive to their environment. For those blessed with sunflowers, choosing a school based on parental needs makes the most sense. Whereas for those with orchids, the child’s temperament is critical in choosing the school fit.

Structure vs Freedom. Some children thrive with structure; they like knowing which time block is for which activity or subject. These children appreciate calm. Other children thrive with freedom; they dig into projects of their own choosing and follow through on next steps. These children rebel with too much structure. 

Activity Level of Child. Children also vary in their need for exercise. More active children thrive in a school with more physical education and free movement. Parents can supplement activity with after school sports, but the most active children need more frequent breaks from sitting.

Special Needs. Some private schools have learning specialists to help children needing extra support. Public schools specifically offer (by law) IEPs and 504s for kids with special needs, which, as a whole, is typically more robust than general-education private schools

Academic Precocity. For gifted or more advanced learners, gifted-only and gifted-friendly schools will offer opportunities for more challenging work, including single subject acceleration when appropriate. Schools that meet the need of gifted children will often have small groups of children working at more advanced levels for reading, math, or both.

Logistics. Logistics can never be underestimated. First and foremost, the commute, given it’s two round trips a day. Do a practice run during the hours of school drop off and pickup. For working parents with in-person, inflexible work, check the hours of aftercare, and ask about childcare over breaks.


When Finances Matter

Financial Aid. Different schools have different financial aid policies, budgets, and priorities, so it is common for financial aid offers to vary among schools. While parents can appeal, it can be helpful to lean into the school with the lowest parent contribution. Most private schools will consider total household income (including stock, RSU, bonus, passive income) and taxable assets. Many exclude equity in the family’s primary residence, and most exclude retirement funds (those designated as retirement funds by the IRS). In addition, all private schools have budgets for financial aid, and must decide how to allocate that budget to families, so other priorities arise.

Tuition Differences. When comparing tuition, remember to include all costs, such as trips, food, parent association fees, aftercare, and events. When added up, most school costs are similar by category – i.e., full priced independents, Catholics, and the mid-priced independents. 

Public School. Public school is free, though aftercare can vary dramatically between schools. Even adding supplementary programs, families will pay dramatically less with public school. For families who cannot contemplate private school for K-12, but who want one portion private, middle school is my highest priority because (1) it’s the start of puberty, (2) they learn executive function skills in a small environment, such as how to study for tests, take notes, and follow up on long-term assignments.

Consider Your Finances. Saving for retirement and college remains critical. College costs continue to increase, and there is no financial aid for retirement. Balancing the total financial picture is important for everyone.


What Doesn’t Matter

Prestige or Connections. High schools and colleges prefer a variety of feeders. Where you send your child to elementary school only impacts their future to the extent that your child is happy and thrives. 


Role of a Consultant 

A consultant can help by reviewing your child’s needs and recommending potential schools. In addition, your consultant can help you weigh the pros and cons of each school, and support you in your decision process.


Want more input on schools?

Vicky consults with families to help select, apply to, and communicate with public and private schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. Vicky maintains a principle of non-judgment. Hourly, VIP, and Season packages include a discussion to review school options, applications, essays, and key decisions. Vicky offers a limited number of packages each year to assure her availability. 

Vicky’s own children have attended both public and private schools, and have received both accommodations and curriculum changes; her elder is in high school, and her younger in middle school. New clients can email to learn more about her services, or see her website to learn about her packages.


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