For some parents, particularly native Houstonians, choosing a private school is simple: They send their kids where they went. The application process starts before kindergarten; the child gets an edge for being a legacy applicant; they stay put until they graduate. Done. For other parents, though, things aren’t so easy.
There are plenty of reasons to want to put a child into private school. Maybe they’re exceptionally gifted and don’t feel challenged by their school. Maybe they’d thrive in a more hands-on environment, or a single-sex environment, or a religious environment. Parents who don’t know the secret Houston handshake may know what their kid needs, but not how to meet those needs, while balancing things like cost and geography.
With those moms and dads in mind, we spoke with Brigid Schiro, director of admissions at all-girls Catholic high school St. Agnes Academy—and mom to three grown children, all of whom attended Houston-area private schools—to get some insight into navigating this sometimes-intimidating world. Here are her tips on finding the right fit, getting your kid in, and thereafter helping them to survive and thrive through their high school years:
Do your research.
First and foremost, scour the websites. “That’s how we really communicate with the public,” Schiro says. “We don’t have the same brochures as the old days.” Pay particular attention to the school’s mission statement to understand the values the school holds dear. Every school has its own flavor, its own culture, and its own unique emphasis. Even among Catholic schools, for instance, individual institutions can vary greatly in style and substance.
Pick up the phone, too. “We put that we are looking for average to above-average test scores on our website,” Schiro explains, “but I would tell parents when they call what a typical average score is.” That information can help you determine whether your child would be a good fit, and save you the effort of applying to a school that’s not going to happen.
Above all, Schiro advises, stay calm. Find the schools you like, then circle those deadlines on the family calendar. “Applying to one school is foolish, but applying to 15 schools is also probably pretty foolish,” she says. “Narrow it down to a couple, and don’t overthink the process.”
Take an accurate view of your child’s skills and interests.
Private school is expensive, and some parents think of it as a business deal—you put in the investment, you expect specific results. But kids are individuals, and they develop in their own way and at their own pace. If you can take a clear-eyed look at your child, and ask them what they want to get out of school—and really listen to the answer—you’ll be more likely to select a place that will help them grow and blossom into the best version of themselves.
“Some parents have an idea of the ‘best’ schools, and they want to mold their kid into that, and that’s not necessarily where they’re going to thrive,” Schiro explains. “Setting your kid up in a school they aren’t ready for academically makes for a very painful four years.”
If your kid loves and excels at sports, consider a school known for that; if your kid loves sports but isn’t the best player, the right fit might be a place where they’ll have a shot at getting some playing time. “Know where your child fits,” Schiro says.
Spend time on campus.
“Cultural fit is probably the number one predictor of whether the child will be happy,” says Schiro. “You know what’s important to them, and what they value … You can feel that, walking the halls.” Schiro recommends visiting during the school day, and taking a tour while classes are in session. If you like what you see, check out an event, go to an open house, attend a game. Observe how the kids interact with each other, and with teachers.
The social aspect of school is likely what will stick with your kid long after they’ve graduated, so give that aspect equal weight. And as a bonus, if the staff sees you around a lot, they’ll likely realize your interest in the school is genuine, which might boost your kid’s chances of getting in.
Ask about the wellness policy.
Kids today are under a lot of stress, particularly at rigorous private schools. Even those who thrive in competitive environments need a check-in every now and then.
Find out whether the schools you’re interested in have a proactive approach to students’ mental health. Do they have an assigned counselor? What’s the protocol for spotting issues early? Are teachers and administrators talking to kids about college right out of the gate, or do they wait until they’ve gotten a year or so of high school under their belt? If a school doesn’t prioritize making sure students stay sane and happy, you might want to look elsewhere.
Don’t forget the importance of the high school experience.
As college admission gets more and more competitive, parents have started preparing their children earlier and earlier. Especially at top-tier private high schools, the pressure can be immense, turning the experience into four grueling years with a singular goal—that dream college—taking up all their time, energy and effort. That’s a mistake, says Schiro.
“Some parents are looking at high school admissions as a means to college admissions, and that’s important, and we look at it as a barometer of what we’re doing as a school,” Schiro says. “But it’s short-sighted to treat high school like a huge application for college.” The college-admissions process is nebulous, and the competition is intense and ever-shifting.
If a high schooler doesn’t get in, and they’ve spent the past four years with that goal taking precedence over everything else, it could be crushing. “They might say, Why did I even come here? I should have just gone to Lamar. Whereas if you’re in the right place and you enjoyed your four years and you get into a good college, I don’t think you’ll ever regret it,” Schiro says. “High school is supposed to be fun! It should be, Where is my child going to thrive for four years? Not, How is this gonna get my child into Stanford?”