It's easy for parents to obtain statistical information on a school's academic performance by looking at standardized test scores, class size and student-teacher ratios, percentage of graduates who go on to college and whether it has earned accreditation. Most schools provide such information upon request. A good place to start is to browse the Internet for sites such as info.neworleans.com/schools.html. This particular site lists private schools around New Orleans in order of tuition, which ranges from $9,450, plus $1,025 in fees at Metairie Park Country Day to $1,575 and $325 in fees at St. Mary's Academy. While tuition rates may create limitations in choices, most institutions have financial assistance and scholarship programs that can make it more affordable.
Selecting a quality institution, however, is only half the equation. To find a truly optimal education "fit" involves many other considerations: whether your child would do better in a co-ed or single-sex school, the atmosphere and discipline orientation of the institution, teaching approaches in the classroom, special services offered, strength of the faculty and administration and even extracurricular activities. To learn these things, parents can tour schools they're considering, meet the principal and some of the faculty and talk with parents and students already attending the school.
"My advice to any parent is to come visit the school," says Diane Killeen, admissions director at the Academy of the Sacred Heart on St. Charles Avenue. "You pick up a feeling, you pick up the ambience, you pick up an attitude. Visit the classrooms and see how the students interact and how the teachers interact with them."
Like most private schools, Sacred Heart, a Catholic school for nursery-age through 12th-grade girls, welcomes youngsters of all religions and backgrounds looking for a disciplined but comfortable approach to serious academics, with a reported 100 percent of its graduates attending college.
"We look for the total child," Killeen says of what the school seeks in a student. "If she's qualified academically, we look to see if she feels comfortable, if there's a complete fit. Our teachers are part of the process and get to know the child as well as the parent. We know academics are very important in a school like this, but there are other things that help to determine whether we can help her see her potential, if she is going to thrive here and if we can help her growth."
Visiting schools also gives parents an idea of whether discipline is maintained within the schools, whether the students seem happy and other subtle insights. Participating in open houses and other special events reveals the mix of students and parents, backgrounds and cultures represented within a school.
"A lot of our focus is on helping the family find the right fit," says Merry Sorrells, admissions director at Isidore Newman School, an institution with a reputation for challenging academic programs and a 100-percent rate of graduates who advance to college. "We don't ever try to describe another school's program, but we do communicate to parents what is available. Newman isn't right for everyone. We want students to come in feeling good about their experience."
Independent private schools in the city cooperate with each other in directing students to the best environment for them. They share information, such as admissions test results to save students time, money and anguish. "The independent schools' admissions directors work together to make the process easier for the schools and the families," Sorrells says. "Our objective is to make the process less stressful by them not having to repeat the process for every school they look at. If we're not able to accommodate a student, we try to suggest other schools and share information with that school. We do try to make sure that no student is left without a spot." Only about 50 percent of children who apply to the co-ed Newman School are accepted as students.
For some children, parents also must determine whether the school provides for special needs such as dyslexia, attention disorders and other learning difficulties or children who are "gifted" in certain areas. St. Georges Episcopal School Uptown fills both bills for its students.
"What we try to do is focus on learning disabilities and gifted," says St. Georges Director of Admissions Elaine Eichberger. "The key for us, though, is that we are only able to take kids with mild learning problems. We can take these children and keep them in the mainstream." Children who need intensive special education or individual tutoring must look for other options.
"It's every parent's hope that their children can stay in the mainstream. Because it's part of our mission, it's integrated into the entire program. The kids are part of everything. They just need some modifications in their education and an understanding that they don't process the information the same ... someone understanding what they're going through. They need to find out that they, too, can be successful."
What children learn in a classroom is only a part of their overall education about life, and schools have recognized the importance of non-scholarly endeavors through extracurricular activities that can range from sports teams to service organizations to special-interest clubs. The experiences and interactions they gain through such activities also can be important to their character development and social interaction skills and can hone special talents.
"Our students tend to try to do everything," says Sorrells. "There's a rich variety of programs for them to get involved in. About 85 percent of our students play at least one team sport. If you're a computer person, there are competitions you can go to. There's a chess club, cheerleading, drama ... a little something for everyone.
"In some schools, when the bell rings at the end of the day, the halls fill with students rushing to get away from school. When the bell rings at the end of the day here, everyone runs to another activity on the campus."
Parents exploring the private schools also should consider the spiritual and disciplinary attitude of a prospective school, whether it's Catholic, another religion or independent.
"I think parents today are looking for schools that have roots, that have learning and are faith-based," says Sacred Heart's Killeen. "The world is a scary, scary place and you want kids to feel safe and secure. We need to have values and a system in which we can feel that security. Many times, with a faith-based school, there is even more reason to feel secure."
That security, she says, doesn't lie in being hidden away from reality, but feeling comfortable enough to learn how to maneuver through it effectively. "The children have to know what the real world is about, although they're in a secure spot. You have to let them grow, spread their wings and fly. We believe in giving them that independence and freedom to learn."
Preparing students for college and adult life as well as teaching them ways to achieve their goals is the mission of the private education system and part of the methodology of schools such as Newman. "We teach critical thinking and higher-level thinking, starting in pre-K," Sorrells says of Newman's faculty. "Math is a discussion; it's not pencil and paper only. Science is a discussion, and prediction and experimentation. A lot of times, we're as interested in the process as the outcome."
Diversity in cultural, socio-economic and spiritual backgrounds within an institution also is important in preparing children for life beyond high school. "We're reaching way beyond Uptown, and enrolling students from all different backgrounds," she says. "We're reaching out all over the city and are finding out that we want Newman to be a school where strong students interested in a strong academic background find it accessible. As we grow in those directions, it has become stronger as a school. It's more reflective of the community."
The decision process doesn't necessarily end when a parent decides which school is best for their child. While parents are evaluating schools, the schools are evaluating the children. Admission rates can range from 99 percent of applicants to as low as 45 percent. Test scores and pre-admission tests and interviews are part of the determination, as are space limitations and special needs. Schools admissions officers say their goal is to enroll students who will realize their potential in the environment provided.
"It is hard to try to find the school that's right for you," says St. Georges' Eichberger. "You can't put all kids in a classroom and expect them to learn the same way. If you work on making sure the child is happy, comfortable and their self-esteem is high, the rest comes.
"The structure in the private schools is different than in the Catholic system. They have a different philosophy. A lot of times in New Orleans, (the choice of schools is based on) what you grew up with, what your parents want, their heritage. I think you have to be able not to be afraid to change. Don't make your kid miserable; weigh all the factors and decide what's best for your child."