Choosing the Right School for Your Child

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Go Hands-Off

Your quest for the right school doesn’t end when you start filling out applications for your shortlist of schools. If you’re a hands-on parent, the interview and testing components can be the most challenging part of the process: It’s your job, now, to sit back and let your real child shine through.

Admissions officers emphasize again and again: in order to come to a decision that will benefit your child, they need a true picture of what he or she is like. A successful application is not one that leads to an admissions offer—it’s one that leads to the right decision.

It can be tempting to look to a tutoring agency or other admissions consultancy for help, but schools discourage the practice, particularly for preschool and kindergarten, for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is the danger of turning the educational experience into a stressor. Tutoring this early can actually be a red flag to admissions staff, says Browning. “It’s too soon to be doing that. What you could be doing is eventually turning them off to learning.”

Nelson adds that tutoring can also give a false reading. The interview, and any other time the school spends with your child, is a chance to put the child in situations he or she might encounter in the course of a normal school day. It’s not a test to see who comes up to scratch, but a trial run. “The experience that we have at our orientations, our interviews and our group sessions are what we are all about. It validates that this is an environment the child will thrive in,” says Betsy Hata, director of admission and financial aid at Punahou School.

When it works, it’s obvious, says Hata. “That’s a comment I got just last week. The kid was a kindergartener and said, ‘That’s what I’d like to do every day! Can I do that again tomorrow?’ And I thought, hmm, that really says a lot. That’s how we know it’s a good match—when they come here, they really enjoy the experience.”

So what can you do to help your child out? Just keep doing what you do every day. A child who’s relaxed performs best, says Wedemeyer. “To overstress [children] and expect them to do well on the testing to get in—that’s just going to stress them more. So it’s the idea that they should try their best. There’s a school for everyone.”

 

Trust the Process

If you have separated the fact from the fiction, chosen the schools you apply for carefully, and given them an accurate picture of who your child is and who you are as a family, you will succeed. The acceptances you get will be to schools where your child will thrive. Offers to wait-list will tell you that your child would fit right in, if only the school had enough space to accept everyone. And if you receive regrets (most people do), those schools will be the places that just weren’t right.

Okinaga sent out 10 applications, five each for her twin boys. “We received acceptance letters, regret letters and wait-list letters, we got ’em all. If you have a healthy attitude, it’s not so disappointing. The children that the schools described to me were the children as I saw them. So that made me confident in the process.”

Best of all, confidence breeds confidence, says Yanagihara, whose three sons attend two different schools. “The bottom line: Everybody talks about self esteem, and I think that’s what happens. If it’s a good fit, kids feel good about themselves.”

From the other side of the admissions desk, Karen Muramoto agrees: “Once they get their self-confidence, it will be with them for life.”


 

COMMON MYTHS

There are persistent myths surrounding the admissions process. We checked them out with the schools themselves.

Myth: A friend’s child has been “wait-listed,” but is first in line.
Reality: “The word ‘list’ in itself seems to imply a rank order,” says Betsy Hata, Punahou’s director for admission, and that’s not the case. In almost all cases, the “wait list” is actually a “wait pool,” made up of all applicants who are qualified for admission but weren’t offered a place that year. When a space opens up, the admissions committee turns to the entire pool to make a choice.

Myth: If I send my child to a “feeder school,” there will automatically be a better chance of admission.
Reality: “A feeder school is a school whose students are being directly prepared and ‘fed into’ another separate entity. There is no such thing in Hawaii,” says Kathy Shirokawa, director of admissions at Montessori Community School. Elaine Nelson of Seabury Hall agrees: “We draw from all the schools on the island.”

Myth: At certain schools, reading is a must before kindergarten admission.
Reality: Nope. Nowhere is reading a prerequisite for kindergarten entry. Ella Browning, assistant director of admissions at Mid-Pacific Institute, says, “That’s what kindergarten is about. You learn to read in kindergarten”—not before it.

Myth: If my child doesn’t get in at kindergarten, he or she will never get in.
Reality: Independent K-12 schools tend to admit the majority of their graduating classes long after kindergarten. Punahou’s kindergarten, for example, has about 150 students; the class size at grade 12 is in the neighborhood of 430 students.

Myth: If you’re not well-connected, wealthy or an alumnus, you can forget about applying.
Reality: Diversity of the student body—socioeconomic, geographical, cultural and otherwise—is a big priority at many private schools. Admissions officers keep their eye out for students from a wide range of backgrounds—particularly those who don’t fit the stereotypical (and outdated) private-school profile.

Myth: Admissions directors make all the decisions.
Reality: Especially at a big school, admissions decisions are usually made by a committee, not any single person. Admissions directors are, however, the people whose job it is to get to know, and answer questions for, families of prospective students. They’re the folks who want to talk to you; take advantage of that.