Independent schools, Independent choices

08/09/2011  |  Holly McGlennon Treat
Independent Education

Photo by Jennifer Fiereck, Fessenden School

Considering educational options for your son or daughter can be an overwhelming experience, and the stakes are high. This is a decision you cannot afford to get wrong during the most formative years of your child’s life. Independent schools encompass diverse communities where learning happens through cutting edge curricula, including everything from state-of-the-art multimedia labs to small, hands-on classroom learning. Independent schools are dynamic, forward thinking, exciting places to learn and live. 

Each independent school has its own personality, much like individual people. Each one is uniquely different in its student body composition, size, location, and day/boarding ratios. However, one size does not fit all, which begs the key question: How do I find the right school fit for my child?

Different schools

A variety of independent schools exist from large and small day schools to schools that have both day and boarding students in a range of ratios. Single-sex schools offer learning that is specifically geared toward a certain gender making teaching and learning more productive. Students at single-sex schools enjoy weekdays free of social tension and are able to focus more easily on academics and extracurricular. There is a myriad of research that exists to support the value of single-sex schools. It is wise to consider both options. Many families dismiss the idea of a single-sex school without truly understanding the benefits. Consider exploring the concept before making a decision by default. Making an informed choice the educational future of a child and independent schools starts with considering all the options – day, boarding, coed and single-sex schools.

Academic milieu

The most important aspect of finding the right fit for a student is his or her academic needs. Each independent school caters to a specific cohort of learners. Some schools provide a highly competitive academic environment that can challenge the most capable students. Other schools offer a more academically supportive environment, helping all of their students reach their academic potential. And then there is everything in between. A more recent phenomenon in the independent school world is the increasing presence of “study skill centers.”  These centers provide additional tutorial support for students who have gaps in their learning, organizational issues, minor learning differences, and/or need subject specific help. A variety of learners at a broad range of schools can benefit from these kinds of programs.

Sometimes it is difficult to determine a school’s academic niche. Websites and print material are becoming increasingly sophisticated, as are curricular offerings. One could consider entering and exiting standardized test scores, but that only tells part of the story. Some of the best and brightest will not score well on such tests, particularly if they are coming from a less traditional learning environment. The secondary school or college placement list can be a telling indicator, but one should not hang their hat on such a list. Keep in mind that college matriculation is often skewed by legacies, development prospects, recruited athletes, and financial aid need.

The best information about where a school fits on the academic continuum is through discussion with key personnel at the school starting with the admission director. This person above all knows the profile of the student that thrives in that particular school. He or she will also be able to identify the characteristics of a learner that historically have not been successful. I believe that students are best served when they enroll in schools where they have the ability to perform in the top quartile of a class. When students feel at ease in the classroom, they are more likely to ask questions and take risks. This is when real learning happens.

Special interests

Photo courtesy of The Gunnery 

During a school search process, a family should also consider a student’s special interests. Perhaps a particular student has had little exposure to extra-curricular activities and is looking for an environment where there is easy access to explore a variety of interests. Or, perhaps a student is highly skilled in a specific sport and wishes to pursue the highest levels of competition. Whatever the student’s wishes or talents, there is a school that can accommodate them. As more and more families recognize the value of extra-curricular activities, enabling students to participate in activities is becoming more complicated. Independent schools help make that life challenge easier. Independent schools are all-encompassing with all offerings taking place within the program day; families are no longer required to juggle multiple activity schedules, ensuring that their student can participate in his or her activity of choice.

Feeding the passion of students is critical to their self-esteem and self-confidence. If learning is going to be a challenge in the classroom, then ensure that a student can be a rock star on the sports field or arts platform. This success will ultimately carry over to the classroom as the student matures and gains confidence. In an independent school, this process is compounded by the fact that teachers tend to have a variety of roles in the school community and are engaged in each student’s life in a number of ways. Thus, the math teacher can be the soccer coach and/or dorm parent. Understanding and knowing a student in a variety of settings can help good teachers find the key to success much more quickly and efficiently.

Cultural atmosphere

The culture of a school tends to be less tangible than the academic profile or extra-curricular offerings of a school, but is part of the school’s make-up whether it be a small or large school, a day, boarding or combination school, or a coed or single-sex school. These characteristics are going to have a big impact on the culture of a school. However, the only way to get a true feeling of a school culture is to visit the school. The culture of a school is its “personality,” and families should not be afraid to follow their “gut” when considering an independent school. False rumors and mis-accusations about specific independent schools or in general are too easily cast about within communities. It is of vital importance to hear those opinions, but parents and students should be sure to create their own through first-hand research and experience.

It is imperative that the personality of the school fit that of the student. As with meeting new people for the first time, students will have a visceral reaction to a school community. It is not uncommon for students to struggle with articulating what it is they like or dislike about a school. These are intangible “gut” feelings that are essential, but they can often be scrambled by the feelings of others in the family, neighborhood or community at large. It is important to hear the reactions of others, but I caution giving them too much weight. The “parking lot chatter” can be highly charged, filled with personal agendas and confounded by rumors and misguided facts. Consequently, I often encourage families not to discuss their school searches with others. These decisions and discussions should remain between the individual families and the schools.

Geographical considerations

Photo by Jennifer Fiereck, Salisbury School 

Accessibility and safety have become primary concerns in recent years. Parents have become less comfortable with the idea of their children being further away, harder to access and less under their realm of control. When considering day schools, longer or multiple commutes to and from school can wreak havoc on a family. From a boarding school perspective, parents want very much to be able to attend games and take their children out for the occasional mid-week dinner. Families are tending to tether their boarding school searches within a two hour radius of home. As a parent, I am completely empathetic to this consideration. However, sometimes the best fit is a longer car ride or even a plane trip, which creates an extreme dissonance in the school search. Managing distance is a very personal decision. Weighing the pros and cons of commuting distance and school fit is a family consideration, and it should remain that way.  Again, it is personal.

Where to start

The first step in the school search process is to consider a priority list including the four main topics discussed in this article — academic milieu, special interests, cultural atmosphere, and geography. Decide what kinds of schools you would like to explore – day, boarding, coed, single-sex. Research can begin by a look at two great guidebooks: Peterson’s Guide to Private Secondary Schools and/or Porter Sargent’s Handbook of Private Schools, just to name a few. You can get more information from internet Web sites: the National Association of Independent Schools ( or The Associate of Boarding Schools ( Keep a look out in your community for a “school fair” where admission representatives will be present with information and a little time to chat. Visit individual school Web sites and request print material. From this research, develop a list of schools to visit – the most important aspect in getting to know if a school is the right fit for you. Lastly, if you feel that you need support in this process, consider an educational consultant ( These professionals can be extremely helpful in navigating this process toward a successful outcome. The educational future of your child is of extreme importance. And this is a choice you cannot afford to get wrong.

Holly McGlennon Treat has been involved with independent school for the past 20 years in a variety of roles. She has served as the Director of Secondary School Advising at the Indian Mountain School and the Director of Admission and Dean of Students at The Ethel Walker School. She has also worked as the Associate Director of Admission at both Miss Porter’s School and Miss Hall’s School. She has a Master’s Degree in Education from Harvard University and she is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Middlesex School. Her goal is to join each student with the educational environment that best develops his or her potential. Ms. Treat is a member of the Independent Educational Consultant Association ( For further information, Holly can be contacted at [email protected].

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