If you're preparing to enroll your child in private school for the first time or changing schools, here's what
admissions counselors recommend you do
Written by Mike Giglio
Officials at local private schools often refer to an "art" that complements the "science" (or testing) of determining whom to admit. When it comes to rug rats who aren't likely to have transcripts or recommendation letters, formal evaluations might seem at their most susceptible to interpretation.
Yet for families with their sights set on a specific school, kindergarten can be crucial. It is the only grade when all spots are open (though often after siblings and offspring of alumni have had their pick). After that, class sizes normally stay the same, and students usually stay put. At Charlotte Latin, for example, less than 10 percent of seats typically open up each year.
Find the right preschool
Nancy Ehringhaus, admissions director at Charlotte Country Day, recommends considering preschool for an introduction to socialization and the classroom environment.
"What you're trying to do is help children expand their attention spans," she says. "They should be listening to stories read by the teacher, sitting in a circle. Those types of things begin to get them ready for prereading skills. Are they using scissors, coloring, pasting, and all that fun stuff?"
Let your child experience life
Children also need to experience different things, Ehringhaus says. "That can be going to the grocery store. But you talk about what you're doing there."
And, of course, there's "reading, reading, reading" with your child—in the morning, at night, at the library.
Know the routine
Evaluation processes differ depending on the school. Mecklenburg Area Catholic Schools (MACS) requires a single screening for kindergartners, during which they are given tests on early reading, math, vocabulary, and basic skills. The results don't determine where students are placed in the lottery for school preference, only that they are ready for kindergarten.
Charlotte Area Independent Schools (CAIS)—which includes Latin, Country Day, and Charlotte Christian, among others—requires a standardized, one-on-one cognitive-assessment test administered by a child psychologist as well as an interview and/or observation session.
There's work to do
"Do your homework," says Charlotte Christian's admissions head, Alicia Jesso. "Spend time on campus. Start the process two years ahead of time. Parents in this area are very strategic in this approach."
Parents should understand what a school is about—both to make sure it's the right fit and to let officials know they're on board with the school's philosophy. Charlotte Christian and the MACS schools, as might be guessed, take their religion quite seriously.
"It's very important for families to understand that we have a Christ-centered worldview," Jesso says. Her school prefers at least one parent to be a Christian to avoid "conflict with what we are teaching."
Pay attention to details
"One thing that really affects a family's process is whether they're able to get a signature from their pastor," says Virginia Bond, director of admission for MACS. No signature means tuition rises and priority seating drops. "Our parishes help support the schools, and families help support the parishes."
School officials insist that money plays no role in the admissions process.
"There's an expectation when families come into any independent school that they will support it financially to the extent
that they can," one says. "And that may be $5, and that may be a whole lot more."
But, "There's absolutely no crossover between the admissions process and the fundraising. Even financial aid doesn't factor in. We're very diligent about that. It's very intentional."
"That would not be a piece of the application or the acceptance," another says.
Transcripts, recommendation letters, standardized test scores, writing samples, and extracurriculars play a much larger role for the upper levels.
"Not all students are prepared to come here," Jesso says. "In general, we're looking for children certainly performing at grade level or higher."
Be more than bookish
"You look for children who have that spark and interest in a particular thing," says Judy Mayer, director of communications at Charlotte Latin.
"Or a child who's always pushing the envelope in terms of course selection." Letters from nonacademic sources like coaches or youth group leaders can also help.
"We're looking for kids who want to be a part of things, who maybe have a passion for something but are also willing to try new things," Mayer says.
After a student's paper trail has been evaluated by a group of faculty members, he or she sits down for a one-on-one interview. Ehringhaus knows such a prospect can be nerve wracking, but she insists it is just "an informal learning session" where a student's interests and what the school offers are discussed.
"It's not like we're saying, ‘Tell me what you think about the Iraq war.' Be yourself—be completely yourself and don't be nervous…It turns out to be pretty fun, actually."