Many parents ask, “What are the best private schools in the DC area?” My answer is always, “It depends on your child.” There is a significant difference between “best” and “best fit.” So often, parents equate “best” with hardest to get into. It’s easy to assume that the harder the school is to get into, the better the education, but that simply isn’t true. There are many academically challenging schools in our area that provide just as good of an education as their counterparts without the same exclusivity. An ultra-competitive school may be a fantastic match for your child, or it may not be.
Whether looking at a public or independent school, parents should consider goodness of fit. Success is far more likely to occur when a child’s temperament, motivation, and ability allow him to master demands and expectations. Simply put, when there’s synergy between the child’s personality and school environment, good things happen.
In the end, it’s not about the campus, the degrees teachers hold, the latest technology, or how many trophies the sports teams have won. It’s more about students’ personalities, interests, and work habits and how these factors gel with the mission of the school.
Finding the “Best Fit” for a Great Falls Family
Recently I worked with a Great Falls family that came to me with a preconceived list of five independent high schools to which the daughter was planning to apply. These five schools were some of the most prestigious in the Washington DC area, each with a rigorous curriculum and very heavy homework load. The problem, I soon came to find, was that the student had a pretty severe anxiety disorder that caused her to break down when she was too challenged, especially academically. The other piece that I quickly discovered was that the list of five schools was almost entirely the work of the student’s parents. Of course, they wanted the best for their girl, but they came up with that list by equating the “best” school with biggest name, most impressive matriculation list, and reputation. In reality, none of these schools would have been matches for this particular student; none were her “best fit.”
After working with the family, we ended up with a new list of five schools. One of the original schools remained because it had a very strong academic support system in place for students who may need extra help. However, the other four schools were completely new to the list and ones that the family had not even considered prior to our meeting. These schools were able to offer strong academics and a more flexible approach, which is exactly what this student needed.
What to Consider When Looking at Private Schools in Maryland, DC and Northern Virginia
As you create a list of schools that might be “best fits,” you’ll want to think about certain factors. Some of these include:
Location (Washington DC, Northern Virginia, or Maryland)
Is the school close by or logistically feasible? Many students travel great distances to find a goodness of fit. Consider that your child will likely stay after school for clubs or sports and that rush hour in this area can be miserable. More importantly, if a school is too far from where you live, your child may miss out on social opportunities on the weekends. This is something that parents overlook in search of a good education, but for most kids, a social life is equally as important. When friends are too far away, weekend get-togethers and even midweek study groups are tricky.
Single Sex vs. Co-Ed
Preschools and primary schools (up to third grade) are almost always co-ed, but single-sex schools become an option starting in the fourth grade. Some students and their parents will quickly rule out a single-sex education, but that can be a mistake. There are many beneficial aspects of a single-sex school. For example, staff members at all-boys schools understand that boys learn best with movement and hands-on activities. They are able to capitalize on boys’ high energy and learning style. The curriculum has been designed around the way boys learn best.
Studies have shown that girls are more open to taking risks in math and science in single-sex environments. While girls are fully capable of conquering any subject, they often feel more comfortable doing so in an all-female classroom. Many of the all-girls schools in the area have strong STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs that allow students to explore subjects that have been traditionally viewed as male-oriented.
Academic Challenge, Safety Net, or a Balance of Both
Are you looking for all-out rigor and accelerated academics or would your child benefit more from a balanced, less intensive approach? If your child is highly motivated, has a natural desire for learning, and is academically advanced, a school with a reputation for challenging academics might be ideal. In contrast, some students need a school that can provide significant scholastic support, while others would do well at a school with an in-between, balanced approach.
As you consider these crucial factors, don’t be afraid to start with a long list including schools you may be hesitant about at first. You may be pleasantly surprised on your tour. The same works for schools considered by others to be “the best.” It could be that a particular school doesn’t live up to your expectations.
In my book, A Guide to Private Schools: The Washington DC, Northern Virginia, and Maryland Edition, you will find an easy way to categorize schools into reach, target, and safety in order to increase chances of acceptance. Good luck on finding your child’s best fit!