Carol Adams-Knight and her husband, Sydney Knight, took an approach to planning their children’s educational future that could only be described as methodical. And it paid off.
As her middle school-aged daughters neared the end of their educations at Trinity School in Ellicott City, which culminates at eighth grade, she and her husband began the process of choosing an independent secondary school nearly two years before their eldest, Sereena, graduated.
“We did start the process a little bit earlier than maybe most people—I’ve heard from other parents that I started too early,” says Adams-Knight. “But I wouldn’t change anything.”
“After all, this is one of the most important decisions you’re going to make as parents,” she says. “It’s going to affect your children for the rest of their lives.”
First, the couple created a matrix of criteria (single-sex versus coed, distance from home or work, class size, budget, etc.) and came up with a preliminary list of potential schools to see how they stacked up. “We also looked at the college matriculations, what types of clubs they had, and the travel-abroad programs,” adds Adams-Knight.
Starting early allowed them to narrow the list to a handful of the most serious prospects. “The earlier you start the process, the earlier you’re able to eliminate,” she explains. “So, by the second serious year, you’re focusing on three or four choices, not six or seven.” Ultimately, the family applied to five schools and enrolled Sereena and Caroline in The Bryn Mawr School, a nonsectarian school for K-12 girls in Baltimore, for the 2016-2017 school year.
While the family considered schools based on many criteria, one stood out from the rest.
“Fundamentally, we really wanted to see that the academic curriculum was challenging for the girls,” she says. “That was a very important criteria, and we knew that Bryn Mawr had a great reputation in terms of the challenging curriculum.”
The Power of Independence
A personalized experience—for both children and their parents—is a hallmark of independent-school education. But what makes a school independent? According to the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), it’s the school’s philosophy (each is driven by a unique mission), as well as the way it is managed and financed (each is governed by an independent board of trustees rather than a public school board and supported by tuition and charitable contributions).
This independence allows schools to respond uniquely to each child’s needs. Other benefits include mission-driven education, high academic standards, small class sizes, excellent teachers, and diverse communities that value inclusiveness.
With dozens of these schools in the region—the Association of Independent Maryland and D.C. schools (AIMS) claims 123 member institutions, including a great many faith-based schools—there’s a perfect match for every child. But with so many options, finding the right fit for your family takes time.
To start, NAIS recommends creating a “wish list” to help guide your search. For instance, would your child thrive in a small or large community? Are you looking for day school or boarding school? Do you prefer a coeducational or single-sex environment? Would your child excel in any special programs, such as an emphasis in the arts or technology?
Mount Washington parents Angela Lima and Sergio Lima Arroyo, for example, knew their active children would benefit from play-based learning, so, at each prospective school, they asked about how much time students typically spend being active or outdoors.
During the selection process, Angela Lima reflected on her own educational experience. “To me, elementary school was reciting poetry and doing plays,” recalls the mother of three. “We were looking for a school where every student gets art education integrated into every program.”
After looking into several options, including local public schools, Lima was won over by The Waldorf School of Baltimore (WSB), a coed independent day school enrolling students from nursery school through eighth grade in Baltimore’s Cold Spring-Newton neighborhood.
“We know adults in every walk of life who have gone through Waldorf schools that are productive and good human beings,” says Lima, three of whose four children, Giorgio, 8, Vincent, 6, and Lucia, 3, all attend WSB. Developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1919, the Waldorf educational method emphasizes holistic learning with a foundation in imagination and curiosity.
Lima found the active curriculum, which emphasizes introducing the right material at the right time for each child, to be a good fit for her “ants-in-their-pants” sons. “We love that kids can be kids—that they’re nurtured and honored and that instructors get to know each child through hands-on discovery,” says Lima. “They aren’t chided for not sitting still.”
But it was more than the school’s unique educational philosophy that made it a good fit. The Limas say they felt valued from their first interaction with admissions. “It wasn’t a turnstile,” says Lima. “We felt that we counted, and the relationship felt personal.”
Making the Most of the Open House
Unlike public schools, which take in new students year-round, most independent schools follow an admissions process much like a college or university. Since the timeline can begin almost a year before new students would attend the school, NAIS recommends parents seek out deadlines early—for both admissions and financial aid—by calling or visiting the websites of potential schools. Then, keep careful track of the dates, and allow plenty of time to meet them.
Once you’ve defined your family’s ideal school and narrowed down a list of the best contenders, it’s time to see the schools in action. Open houses, held in the fall and winter, give parents an opportunity to experience an institution’s mission and environment for themselves. Individual school tours, planned in advance with the admissions department, offer parents and families a more personalized look at the school.
“When you come to an open house or a visiting day, really dive into it,” suggests Pat Whitehead, executive director at The Waldorf School. Find out how the school will meet the needs of your child by asking questions—beyond what might be found on the brochure. “Your job is to dig deep, to ask as many questions as you want. Prepare your list of questions before you go into the school.”
While children should always be involved in the decision-making process, the degree obviously varies depending on age. “One of the hardest things for parents, particularly parents of kids going into middle school, is to be clear about who is making the decision,” says Whitehead. “You have to listen to your child’s experience and their feelings, but you should remember that you have their long-term needs in mind in a way that they don’t. The here and now is really important, and your child needs to feel heard. But so, too, is the long-term educational strategy, and the parents understand that.”
An integral way to involve children is through shadow days, where they are paired with a student ambassador and attend classes with them for all or part of a school day. Visit days offered Sereena and Caroline Knight the opportunity to get an inside look at schools and share their experiences with their parents. “We encouraged them to not just look at the person they’re shadowing with, but to look at the girls beyond that person. In some instances, we were surprised at the feedback,” says Knight. “But at Bryn Mawr, they definitely felt a connection that they told us about.”
In addition to the organized school tour and visit days, Angela Lima recommends parents get to know the school away from the glitz of admissions events. “Don’t just go through the steps the school wants, when they put their best foot forward,” she says. “Visit on random, non-open house days. Attend other events and interact with current students.” At Waldorf, she was won over by the sense of community evident in the everyday details—children there exuded warmth, holding doors open for one another and saying good morning.
“Don’t be frightened by the process,” advises Whitehead of WSB. Think of choosing the right school as establishing a partnership between parents and educators that begins from the first admissions inquiry and continues through graduation. “You’re going into a partnership that is going to last for quite some time,” she says. “The parents and school will hold that child between them. It’s not to be taken lightly.”