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The search for the right school begins at home. “I have always believed that the school environment has to fit your kids’ needs,” not the other way around, says Lynn Yanagihara, a pediatrician and mother of three.
Goheen agrees: “You definitely need to take into consideration the characteristics of each child.”
No one knows your children like you do. What environments do they learn best in? What kind of atmosphere makes them comfortable? Are they independent workers, or do they appreciate knowing what is expected of them? If they are already in school, what is working for them? What could be better? The answers to these questions will help direct your search.
A match only works if the child feels it’s right, too. If your child is old enough to have a real preference, it’s good to take his or her wishes into account, advises Muramoto. Any good match includes “the sense that this is where the students want to be,” she says.
When admissions officers talk about a match, it’s not only for the child, but for the whole family. Before you start looking, take time to figure out—and even write down—what kind of school you think would suit your family’s values, beliefs and educational goals.
It helps to keep in mind that a school is a community, founded around a common purpose. The school’s teachers and administrators will become your allies. The other parents will become your friends. It’s worth thinking about what kind of community you want for your child, and how you want to contribute to it.
Go to the Source
If you have a clear picture of what your child needs and what your family is looking for in a school, casual chats over the water cooler or at the soccer sidelines can be an important source of new ideas. Arleen Kohnke, admissions director of Honolulu Waldorf School, says that most inquiries they receive come from word-of-mouth referrals: “It’s much more validating, I think, when you hear it from somebody who has had direct experience with the school.”
Equally, though, don’t believe everything you hear from friends and family. Perception often lags behind reality, and information passed along the coconut wireless can spin out of control, warns Ella Browning of Mid-Pac: “Word of caution, there’s a parent grapevine.” Application/acceptance ratios that are 50-to-1? Mandatory reading for kindergarten entry? Myths. Nowhere in Hawaii will you find a school for whom these things are true. See table at bottom of the page.
Who can you turn to for the straight story? Simple, says Browning: “If you have a question about a school, ask the admissions director. There are no silly questions. You are investing in a school. You need to ask. You have the right to—you are the consumer.”
In fact, it’s likely that you’ll find your best resources and most knowledgeable advocates at the admissions office. “We would invite contact anytime. That’s our job, that’s what we enjoy doing,” says Nelson. Admissions staff spend all day, every day, making sure that children end up at the right school, whether or not it’s their own. They have the most up-to-date information, and if their school isn’t a good match for your family, they will often keep working with you to find one that is.
Admissions directors aren’t gatekeepers; they’re matchmakers. Or, as Okinaga sees them, expert consultants: “People sometimes look at the admissions director as somebody to be conquered. To me, that’s an unhealthy attitude. I see them as like a doctor or a consultant, where you’re both looking for the health of the child, and so you come together and say, 'Is this going to be a right choice?’”
Cast Your Net Wide
A great place to start building these relationships is at the admissions fairs HAIS holds each fall. Dozens of school representatives in one place, gathered for one purpose, means that you can cover a lot of ground efficiently. You’ll also find helpful speaker sessions, and information on open houses for prospective parents. “The HAIS admissions fair was a wealth of resources all in one place, all at one time,” says Okinaga.
Take-home resources, which are available when you have time to sit and think, are another good place to begin. Most schools offer brochures and other printed information; some also provide DVDs or videos.
Get online, says Browning; at school Web sites, “you can see what’s going on at all the different schools, read the latest news.” The Internet can also provide a peek into day-to-day classroom life, she adds. “At our school in particular, I encourage parents to visit the individual classroom Web sites and see what’s posted.”
See for Yourself
When you have a good idea of the schools you might like to get to know better, it’s time to go one-on-one. Many independent schools host evening open houses to make it easy for parents to drop by, meet the staff, and get a feel for how the school’s mission becomes a child’s education.
This is your chance to ask a variety of people the questions that will make certain schools stand out from the rest, says Shirokawa. “You have to dig deeper, beyond the mission statement. At the end of whatever number of years, what is my child going to be like? What values will they have when they leave that school? What will my child take away from your school’s experience?” If you delve deep, she says, “you really see differences.”
If you want to see the school in action, though, you’ll have to make time for a campus visit during a weekday. It’s a trip worth clearing a space in your schedule for, says Goheen, because “you definitely want to see students. They’ll tell it like it is.” A campus visit is also the “best way to get a feel for the school,” says parent Carrie Wedemeyer: “Does it feel right? Does it have a heart? How would my child feel on this campus?”