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Elizabeth Street


What Kind of School is the Best Fit for Your Kid?

Oct 18, 2013

What Kind of School is the Best Fit for Your Kid?

If you’re considering private elementary school, one of the most challenging tasks you’ll face is trying to decide what type of private school will best fit your child’s learning style, personality and interests. And, the school will also need to dazzle you! After all, you’ll be paying a pretty penny and it should offer your child the best education possible. 

So, how do you figure out whether your high-energy little one will do better in a traditional or progressive school? Are you favoring a particular type of school because that’s the way you were educated? Where will your quiet, artistic twins do best? Or, are you exploring all options as you begin the admissions process?

Understanding various types of private schools and the educational philosophies that guide their work is important. A school’s ideas and inspiration will be reflected in the curriculum and school culture. Once you are familiar with the most common types of private schools, you can focus your school search on those that you think will best fit your child.

Many private schools are a mix or blend of several educational philosophies. Very few are pure adherents to a specific doctrine or ideology (Waldorf Schools would be an exception). However, well-known educational theorists, educators and authors inspire most private schools.

The majority of private schools are experienced in dealing with a range of learners, from highly gifted children to kids with learning difficulties and special needs. Some schools specialize in a specific category (i.e. gifted education) and require additional testing as part of the admissions process.
Here are the most common types of private elementary schools:
    •    Traditional Schools
    •    Progressive Schools
    •    Developmental Schools
    •    Religious/Parochial Schools

Characteristics of a Traditional School
A traditional school generally values a more classic, time-honored, tried-and-true approach to education. In this model, it is accepted that teachers are the providers of important concepts and instruction. Teachers will deliver to their students a body of skills and information necessary to proceed successfully to the next stage of their education. The culture of a traditional school is often a bit formal with students wearing uniforms, addressing teachers by surnames, and participating in the traditions of the school’s history both in and out of the classroom. The curriculum is likely to be skill development and information acquisition based and the teaching style is probably one in which the teacher is the deliverer of knowledge and the student is expected to assimilate that knowledge and be able to reconstruct in in various ways; tests, papers, labs, projects.

Characteristics of a Progressive School
A progressive school philosophy usually assumes that the natural curiosity of the child, when offered the proper materials and environment, will motivate that child to learn about his/her world. This automatically sets up a dynamic within the school culture, where the teachers serve as guides to students' efforts and interests. The atmosphere is often more casual and cooperative and can fall anywhere on the spectrum of fairly formal to very informal relationships between students and teachers. Students typically address teachers by their first names. Assessments are often student work that shows what the student has learned and can be offered in many creative forms other than the traditional test/paper model. Cooperative projects and verbal narratives are sometimes part of this approach.

Characteristics of a Developmental School
A developmental school starts with the premise that students grow academically and emotionally at different rates and that it is essential to match the developmental level of the student to the curriculum. This can be done in either a more traditional fashion or it can follow a more progressive approach depending on how the school wants to deliver the skills and information to the student when the student is ready for it. A developmental school can exist within a traditional or developmental framework. Developmental schools assume that while students develop academically at different rates, they will all reach the milestones set by the school, just not at the same time. For example, all students will learn to read, some faster than others. You will often see elements of both traditional and progressive approaches in these schools, since they are trying to find a way to reach different kids at different places in their development and who may also have different learning styles. Schools that use a developmental approach tend to be a bit less formal than traditional schools, but will often retain many of their philosophic values.

Characteristics of a Religious or Parochial School
Religious schools range from very traditional to developmental and occasionally progressive. They also run the spectrum from mildly religious to strictly doctrinaire. The mission of a religious school is to offer an education to those families seeking a Catholic, Jewish or other religious education for their children. Therefore, it should be expected that religion will be an important part of the school day. The amount of religious education provided and whether or not it is necessary to be a member of the faith depends on the school. There are some parochial schools where more than half the student body is not a member of the religion. Religion at these schools is often taught with a focus on acceptance of all religious beliefs and an emphasis on values. At other schools, the opposite is true; the preference is given to members of the church or temple, religious teachings are only about that particular faith and the vast majority of students are members of the religion. The school’s culture and activities will reflect its strict religious education.
In religious schools there can be a more progressive approach to the education of younger children and a tendency for the schools to become more traditional as the age level increases. Preschools tend to be much less formal; elementary may be somewhat progressive, but few religious high schools are outside of the traditional model. Some of the best schools in the U.S. have a religious affiliation. But, if you’re uncomfortable with your child attending a religious school (or a school with a faith different than your own), this is something you’ll need to consider as you tour the school. If you are an inter-faith family, you’ll need to think about whether that will put you outside the mainstream of the families at the school.

 By Christina Simon and Anne Simon
Christina Simon is the co-author of Beyond The Brochure: An Insider's Guide To Private Elementary Schools In Los Angeles. She is the mom of two kids, ages 10 and 13. Christina writes the Los Angeles private elementary school admissions blog,  Beyond the BrochureLA,

Anne Simon is the co-author of Beyond the Brochure, An Insider’s Guide To Private Elementary Schools In Los Angeles. She is an educator with more than 30 years of experience as the head of several private elementary schools in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Virginia. Anne received her Master’s Degree in education from Columbia University. She is Christina’s step-mom.

Wondering what these top private schools are going to cost you? Check out Christina Simon’s guide to tuition all over the country.

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