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Finding the right school for your kid

Note: this article was originally published in November 2013.

For 18 years, Jim Rupp has been the director of admissions for Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences, located in an urban setting east of First Hill. The sixth through 12th grade institution is one of many independent and parochial schools offering an alternative to public education. Rupp shares his wisdom with parents trying to navigate the private school landscape for any grade level.

1. Go beyond the academics. When you look at the independent and parochial schools in the Seattle area, says Rupp, they're pretty evenly matched academically. If you compare where their high school grads go to college, for example, many of the same top-tier and Ivy League schools pop up.

"If you accept the academic part (as roughly equal), it comes down to the extras," says Rupp. Look for what your child is excited about, whether it's something in the arts, sports or extra-curricular academics. Then consider if they simply offer this "extra" or "is it a part of the culture of the school," he says.

2. Seek a happy fit. The questions parents need to ask, says Rupp, include "is this a place where my child would be happy and comfortable spending seven, eight, nine, 10 hours a day? Is there a subculture that will allow your child to be fully part of the school life?"

Of course the kids need to learn key academic material, he says, but they should also love coming to school and exploring new interests.

"The saddest thing is a child who walks through the door, and who they are that day is who they are when they walk out," he says. "They need an opportunity to expand their definition of themselves."

3. A place for champs – and the second string. A school might have a stellar soccer team or crack debate club, but how easy is it to join in? Ask the person who teaches or coaches the program of interest how a novice would get started, Rupp say. Also ask what happens if a student is passionate about an area, but lacks the talent to excel in it. Can they still participate somehow?

"If you're only hearing about the champions, maybe that will be a red flag," Rupp says. "If they say there is a place for you when you walk in the door, that will be telling.

"The programs may be fabulous," he said. "But they don't do you any good if they don't allow you to participate."

4. Take your time. Websites, open houses and drop-in visits will give you a flavor of a school's culture and personality, says Rupp, but if you want a deeper understanding, you need to invest some time in the classroom. And it's not enough to pop into classes for a few minutes of observation, he says. Do it that way, and you won't have any context for what's going on.

"You've got to talk to people," he says, and avoid visits that are heavily scripted. The best scenario is for prospective students to spend a day at a school with longer stretches in classrooms and opportunities to chat with students. For checking out elementary schools, Rupp says, it's great for parents to take time to "see how teachers run their classes."

5. Get the real scoop. Administrators and teachers will try to show their schools at their best. To get the real skinny, Rupp advises students to check in with their peers. This conversation works best out of earshot of adults so the students will be uninhibited and speak frankly.

"It is incumbent upon the child to pull aside some kids who go there, and ask them, ‘Do you enjoy this school?' " he said. "It's amazing how candid the kids will be. Ask them, ‘Are you having fun?' "

When considering elementary schools, parents might want to put the same question to the younger students, though they can't reliably go deeper into matters of curriculum or other features of the school. At the same time, says Rupp, "they can tell you if they're having fun or not."

6. Give your kid a say. While parents will likely write the tuition check, the kids will be walking the halls and taking the classes. Once they reach a certain age, they deserve some say in school choice.

"Nobody wants to drag a child kicking and screaming into a school and say, ‘You'll thank us someday,' " Rupp says. For sixth-grade kids, if they have a strong reaction to a school, parents should listen to their opinion, "but the parents should make the lion's share of the decision. By ninth grade, it's a different situation." By that age, he says, input on the decision "should be at least 50-50, or even the child should make more of the decision."

7. This isn't your chance at a "do-over." Robotics lab, class trips abroad, drama club with real costumes and sets. Many of these schools are appealing at any age, and it's tempting for some parents to fantasize about having a do-over with all of the bells and whistles.

"They will tell us in a joking way, ‘Boy, I wish I had gone here,' " Rupp says. He warns parents not to fall into that trap. Whether or not you would have loved a school, "that's not going to be any kind of a predictor as to whether your child is going to be happy here."

8. Kids, be yourself. Parents and kids anxious about getting into a select school might be tempted to rehearse for visits and interviews. Rupp says don't. "The best thing would be to let the child be themselves. Don't fill them with advice to ‘Be sure you do this and do that, and don't do this and don't do that,' " he says. "We want to see who the child is naturally."

At Seattle Academy, prospective students spend a day participating in academic, art and sports classes as well as social situations. "The day is designed to see who the student is," Rupp says. "At some point, that child is going to show us what makes them tick."

9. Parents, chill out. Rupp remembers a call from a mother about seven months pregnant. She asked if he could recommend a pre-K school that would be a good start for a child she hoped would one day attend Seattle Academy. He declined.

Remember that this is about what your child needs to be a happy person, not your dream for their future.

"Your anxiety is going to rub off on your child," Rupp says. "Try to relax and realize the schools are going to work with you to make sure this is the right environment."

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