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10 Secrets to Finding the Right School For Your Kids as featured in San Francisco Magazine

The process of choosing a school couldn’t be more panic inducing: Pick the right one and your child will thrive. Pick the wrong one and—cue the anxiety-fueled montage—she’ll be living at home for the next 30 years.

But where to start? Public or private? Independent or charter? Traditional classroom or off-the-wall alt school? Google makes for a faulty guide when school websites all look the same—smiling students and fresh-faced teachers all engaged in educational enrichment. So take a cue from the pros and follow the advice of San Domenico’s admissions directors. With more than 45 years of experience, they know a thing or two about school selection.

1. Look for a match, not a prize. Too often parents fixate on names and forget about fit. “Parents naturally want the best for our children and that’s made us vulnerable to an exorbitant, anxiety-producing, soul-crushing school admissions process,” writes Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Top voices in education are calling for a shift from the obsession with the Ivy League track and encouraging parents, students, teachers, and schools to reimagine how we measure success.

2. Make a list.Check it twice. It’s easier to find a good fit if you know what you want before you start looking. What are your preferences, must-haves, and deal breakers? Have your child make a list too, and then see how they compare. Does your dream school exist? And if so, is it a viable option?]

3. Be open. Know what you want, but be open to changing your mind. You may start off pretty sure you want a parochial school, but find that independent is a better fit, or you might reconsider your confidence in the public school down the street once you’ve seen the charter school in the next neighborhood. While there’s no need to hit every school, it’s helpful to know your options.

4. It’s about substance, not surface. While a sparkling new science building may conjure visions of the next Bill Gates and a fancy athletics field leaves you betting on a career in pro sports, what happens within those walls or on that field is more important than the structures themselves. Ask about the school’s history and learn what anchors its programs.

All independent schools offer top-notch education. Find out what that means. Do all classrooms engage in the Harkness method? How much learning is teacher directed versus peer directed? Independent schools are exempt from state-mandated standards and free to create student-tailored curriculums. It is incumbent upon parents to sleuth out how that happens.

5. Interview the admissions reps. Choosing a school is like dating: Admissions directors want to know you as much as you want to know about them, so get at it. Asking lots of questions increases the odds of finding a win-win situation for you and your child. Ask for examples of what it means to “teach the whole child.” Get a working definition for project-based learning and illustrations of social-emotional education. Admissions directors are often reflective of school culture. Only move forward if you dig their vibe.

6. Ask not what the school can do for you… You’ll hear a lot about what a school has to offer your child. Try asking what a school wants your child to give, and ask yourself whether or not that resonates with the person you see them becoming.

7. Do your due diligence. A school isn’t just an all-day education drop off. It’s a community, and one you could be stuck with for up to 13 years. Observe student-student and student-teacher interactions. Is this a place your child will fit? Will your family values and traditions be respected or celebrated? It may be hard to imagine your four-year-old in high school, but he’ll be grabbing the keys before you know it.

8. Go with your gut. At the end of the day, a name is just a name and data is just a bunch of numbers. While you want a school with a proven track record, you also want a place you feel comfortable sending your child. Be mindful of how you feel during the admissions process, especially during campus visits. Are you eager to leave or longing to linger? Does your child seem at ease in the environment or uptight and ready to run?

9. Ask the experts. If the school does not provide a referral list, ask to be connected with current parents and students. Though they’ll likely send you the cream of the crop, those families will likely provide you with a more accurate portrayal of the school culture.

10. Ask your kid. Well, duh. Observe her reactions and listen to her feedback. Kids know what they like and where they feel comfortable. Chances are they’ll let you know, too.

More questions? Contact the admissions team at admissions@sandomenico.org.

Have feedback? Email letterssf@sanfranmag.com
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