7 Questions to Ask When Considering a Private School

Written By Tony Houle, Head of Admissions and Strategic Imperatives

As you embark on your school search this fall, it is important to go into your tours — even if they are virtual — with a list of questions that will help you determine whether the specific school is going to be a good fit for your family. There are a lot of options in Houston, and each private school has its own niche or set of differentiators.

As you tour the school and visit with admissions representatives, school administrators, faculty members, parents, and students, there are some questions to ask that will help you gain perspective on each school. My advice would be to not only listen to the answers but to see what themes or answers are consistent. A school where the answers are consistent and evident in tours and on their website, marketing materials, and social media presence is more likely to deliver on those promises.

7 Questions to Ask:

1. What is different about this school? 

Each school has some differentiators that set it apart from others in the market. It might be a top-notch academic program, strong athletic teams, or state-of-the-art facilities. At Duchesne, we are a Pre-K3 through12th-grade all-girls school — the only one in the state of Texas. But that is not the only thing that makes us different. We have unique schedules in the Upper and Middle School, our focus on the health and wellness of our students is evident throughout the program, and we take a proactive approach in soliciting and listening to the voices of our students.

2. What are the criteria for hiring faculty? 

This is a critical question. Your children will spend 8 hours or more a day with the faculty members. Does the school have a philosophy in its hiring practices? What does the school value most? Independent School Management, a leading consulting firm for private schools, defines school culture as the interplay between students and faculty. The culture of the school will be what your child lives and experiences every day. At Duchesne, we have one baseline for all of our hires – can they build relationships with the students? Relationships are critical in education and particularly for girls.

3. What is the mission/philosophy of the school?

Several years ago, a colleague did his doctoral thesis on the importance of a school’s mission statement in delivering expected outcomes at an independent school. All schools have mission statements, yet many of the members of those communities do not know what they are. The mission is what drives a school. It is the foundation of what that school stands for. What my colleague found was that schools that were more mission-driven tended to be able to deliver on the expected outcomes that they advertised. Duchesne is a Sacred Heart school, rooted in the Five Goals and Criteria – faith, intellect, service, community, and personal growth. This is our definition of whole-child education and you would be hard-pressed to find an employee or student who was not acutely aware of these goals.

4. How can parents be involved? 

Independent schools need parent involvement. It may be through volunteering to work in the bookstore or chairing the gala. Maybe it's just being present for special events, attending back-to-school nights and special school events, or giving to the annual fund. The time, treasure, and talents of parents are valued in a private school community. You can be as involved or uninvolved as you would like; understanding what level the school invites your partnership should be important to your decision. A school that values its parents tends to find itself having stronger parent involvement. This is a good thing for your child.

5. What are the communication expectations with parents?

You are getting ready to make a considerable emotional and financial investment in a school. Knowing the philosophy on how and when the school communicates with parents is going to be something that will impact you every school day. Is there a weekly communication, newsletter, or email updates? Will the school keep you informed on important developments and upcoming events? Are the teachers willing to meet with parents? Are they responsive? Knowing what to expect will help manage expectations. Schools are more than just places for your kids to go 8 hours a day, 180 days a year. They are communities and you should expect to be kept informed both about the school, and more importantly, about the progress of your child.

6. What are the outcomes we can expect by sending our child to this school? 

Does the school have a promise statement or portrait of a graduate? Is it public? Who created it? Do they publish something similar about their teachers? Schools that are mission-driven usually also know what outcomes they want for all students who have been fully invested in the program. These statements help you to understand what the school expects for its students and, by extension, what you can expect from the school and for your child.   

7. What are the challenges of the school? What are the areas for improvement?

I love answering this question on tours — not because I am proud of the things that we do not do well, or at all for that matter. Rather, this is a question that helps to establish and build a trusting relationship. In admissions, our job is to help you determine if our school is a good fit for your family. You should be wary of a school that is not willing to express its challenges or areas in which it is working to improve. Additionally, in this regard, ask very pointed questions about some of the programs that are important to you. This will help identify areas in which a school will not meet your needs.

Lastly, a final piece of admissions advice — have fun with the process. Admissions people love answering these questions. Ask a lot of questions of all the people you meet who are part of the school community. It will help confirm that good feeling and give you peace as you make your decisions in the spring.