The Private School Visit

by Charlotte Thomas



As Patsy Isley pulled into the private school she and her son, Adam, were visiting, she wasn't thinking about the list of things she wanted to look for during their visit. She was thinking about being lost. So when a student happened to come by and cheerfully volunteered to show her where to park and then took her to the admissions office, she already had some good feelings about the school. While parking lots were not on her list of things to notice during the visit, the kind of environment that encouraged its students to be helpful to lost mothers was. On a visit to another school with their son, Andrew, Simuel and Anne Washington had a somewhat different agenda. "We went there to peel the potato," quips Anne. Her potato analogy is an apt one. It takes a visit to look beneath the surface of gorgeous video tapes and well-designed brochures. "On the visit, you're not going by hearsay," adds Simuel.



Brochures can't paint the entire picture.



How right Simuel and Anne are. Nothing substitutes for a visit. The school can have the highest reputation. Your friends can praise the school their children attend. Even your child can promote a school because it's the coolest one around. But until you set foot on the campus, neither you nor your child really will know if that school matches your collective requirements. Even two children from the same family won't necessarily have their individual needs met at the same school.



Peek beneath the pretty buildings.



"The visit tells all. In my mind it's not a tour of the campus, it's a tour of the people," observes John Thorsen, Director of Boarding Admission at the Darlington School in Rome, . It amazes him that some families will spend more time buying a car than researching a private school. Andi O'Hearn thinks along the same lines, too, only she thinks anything other than a visit is secondhand research. "The visit is the only way you can get firsthand information on the school," she notes. "Everything else is someone else's interpretation." O'Hearn grew up in a boarding school and was a director of admissions and then director of college admissions at private schools before starting her own educational consulting company in Rhode Island . Robert Murphy, the Director of Admissions at The Blue Ridge School in St. George, Virginia , sees the visit from yet another angle. Obviously, students will look happy in brochures, but without being able to walk the grounds and see the students in action, you can't sense the personality of the school or know what its facilities are really like. The brochure might say the school has tennis courts, which pleases your sports-minded child, but what condition are they in? Only by visiting can parents get that gut feeling about whether their child's academic and personal needs will be met and allowed to flourish.



The decision is in the details.



What is it about a visit that so often nails down a decision? Simuel, Anne, and Andrew already had their minds set on a school, but a few people whose opinions they valued urged them to look at yet one more school. They reluctantly went, considering it more of a courtesy call than anything else. Maybe it was the student who took them on the campus tour. The Washingtons immediately sensed he wasn't giving them canned information. "He talked more to Andrew than to us," says Anne, "which was a nice touch, because we weren't the ones who would be going there." Maybe it was because Andrew found out that he didn't have to be a superjock to participate in sports. Maybe it was the warm way everyone greeted them, from the maintenance man working on the front gate, to the teachers who looked up from their actively involved classes to smile at them. Or was it the admissions people who took a genuine interest in Andrew and spoke with him as much as his parents? By the end of the visit, Andrew and his parents knew this was the right school for him.



Even if your mind is made up, visit more than one school.



The Washingtons ' experience confirms what Irvin Katz, an educational consultant in Miami, Florida , who has been in education for fifty years, knows about human nature. Sometimes he'll get calls from parents who have just been on their first visit. "Cancel our other appointments," they tell him. "We're positive about this one." He tries to convince them to visit other schools, knowing that it's unwise to see only one and not have a basis for comparison. Often they later thank him for his insistence. "This is an investment that's not only a monetary one but also an investment in the school's influence on your child's values," he stresses. The best decision is an informed one, so the more research you do and the greater diversity of schools you visit, the more you have to work with. First clearly define your child's academic and social needs, and then visit a number of schools--big and small, city and rural, traditional and liberal, coed and single sex--that meet your criteria. O'Hearn advises parents and children to visit a single-sex school even if they say they won't consider that option. Often, she finds parents and children changing their minds because of the visit. Between three and five schools is the optimum number to visit. Any more and they might begin to blend together.



Don't hesitate to ask the small questions.



The visit also is the time to ask the small questions, the nuances that can make the difference between a child doing well or poorly. "Face-to-face real-time exchange cannot be replicated," says Heather Hoerle, Director of Marketing and Admissions Service at the National Association of Independent Schools in Washington, D.C. With careful research prior to the visit, you will have gotten some of your bigger questions out of the way. "Ask for the school's handbook and read it," advises Pat Isley. She wanted to know what the school's honor code was, but on the visit, she dug a little deeper and asked what they would tolerate and where they drew the line on student behavior. Thorsen agrees that the more parents and children know about the school ahead of time, the more they can focus on the little things. If, for instance, you've researched the school's academic strong points, you'll have time during the visit to observe the way teachers and students greet each other in the halls. You'll be able to notice if kids feel safe leaving their book bags unguarded, which indicates a strong sense of ethics. The school might say it's supportive of its students, but, asks Nicky Carpenter, who was a college admissions dean and is now an educational consultant, parents can find out how much additional help the school will give their child. "The school's literature might say it's supportive of its students, but that's a vague statement," she tips. "How often is support given? What kind of support? When is that help scheduled, and who is giving it?" (For a list of possible questions to ask, see the link at the end of this article.)



Give your child plenty of time to consider boarding school.
Laying the groundwork to visit a school not only involves clarifying what you and your child need, it also includes preparing the child to get the most out of the visit. "My office has two large windows," says Mark Werden, Dean of Admissions at Cheshire Academy in Cheshire, Connecticut . "I can see when a family drives up and if the child is reluctant to get out of the car." Based on his years of experience, he knows that talking to a child about going away to boarding school needs to take place way ahead of the visit so that the child has time to consider it. It's essential that parents and children work together on finding the right fit. An open dialogue before the visit will ensure that parents and children will be looking for the same things. "If the ultimate goal is to have a healthy, happy, well-educated child, a lot of honesty is involved in the search process," adds Hoerle. Karen Suplee Hallowell, Director of Admission at George School in Newtown, Pennsylvania , has the same intuitive feel about those children who had plenty of preparation and those who had the visit sprung on them just before the visit. "I can tell within three minutes if a student has just been told where he or she is going," she says. Carpenter seconds that thought. The visit could be sabotaged by a child digging in his or her heels about even considering a boarding school if the student and parents have not come to a prior understanding. "The child and parents need to be on the same wavelength," she says.



The optimum time to visit.



Generally, the best time to visit is in the fall, leaving room for parents, children, and school admissions to reach a decision about enrollment. Competitive schools usually save a few places for students who apply later in the year, but why take that chance or rush to a decision? Jean Hague, who has been a teacher, counselor, and school administrator and is now an educational consultant, admonishes parents not to make the decision about attending a private school a last-minute one. Schools will accept students in August for the school year that starts in September, but with additional time, a more careful decision will be reached. Pat Isley recommends that two years before a student is expected to attend a private school is not too early to start planning. "It eliminates that time pressure," she says. Multiple visits to the same school are something to seriously consider as weather or a child's mood can make a big difference that more than one visit can remedy. Give yourself plenty of time to really see the campus, rather than racing through a tour and interview. "Some parents assume they can pull up at 4:30 and have a grand tour," says Hague. "I suggest a minimum of two to three hours to do a lot of looking." Planning also gives parents and students an opportunity to see the campus in action and to meet teachers, learning specialists, residential directors, and coaches who will interact with your child. Related articles: