What Is An Independent School? (It’s Different Than Standard Private School)

what is an independent school image 1Given that there are so many “non-public” schools in our area, you might be wondering:

What is an independent school?

And how is it different than traditional private school?

We’ll break this down explore the differences between independent and other private schools in this post.

Understanding The Terms: Private vs. Independent

To start, let’s examine the terms private and independent, which are often used interchangeably when we think of schools outside of the public realm. It’s important to understand the difference. A private school refers to any learning institution that does not receive public funding from its state government. Independent schools are private schools that are overseen by a board of governors or trustees. In my book, A Guide to Private Schools: The Washington DC, Northern Virginia and Maryland Edition, I used the term independent because it’s more commonly used by the schools themselves. Although these two terms are similar, schools that fall into either or both categories are not all the same. Within the private school world, there are several subcategories:

What is an Independent School?

All independent schools are under the umbrella of private schools. They have a board of governors or trustees that is truly independent of any other organization, whereas a different private school can technically be governed by any outside entity, from nonprofit organizations to churches to for-profit corporations.

The important distinction is that while both are non-public, independent schools have stricter rules for governance. Tuition is higher as well. Schools in this category have larger endowments and many have impressive facilities, from state-of-the-art science labs to stadium football fields. They may or may not have a religious affiliation. For a thorough list of 82 independent schools in the DC metro area that make up the association called Independent Education, visit.

Different Types of Independent Private Schools

When you boil it down even more, there are many subcategories within independent schools

Independent Catholic Holy Order Schools

These schools are also independent, but they are run by an order of the Catholic Church, such as Jesuits. They do not have to follow strict curriculum guidelines set forth by the Catholic Church. They have the highest level of autonomy. Because they do not receive funding from the local diocese, their tuition is higher than Catholic diocesan schools. Class sizes are smaller, too.

Catholic Diocesan School

These schools are linked directly to a Catholic diocese and can offer lower tuition for members of the diocese. Even without a reduced fee, these parochial schools have a much lower price tag than independent schools. One drawback is that the class sizes are typically larger. These schools are not governed by a board of directors—they follow regulations created by the diocese or bishop. Catholic diocesan schools are the most common type of Catholic school.

Non-Catholic Religious Schools

There are other religious schools, ranging from Episcopalian to Jewish to non-denominational Christian, which are tied to their local church or other house of worship. These schools follow their own guidelines and some receive funding from their affiliated religious institution.

All-Boys Schools

These are schools that serve only boys, typically beginning in the third or fourth grade. Most faculty and coaches are males as well.

All-Girls Schools

Just as the name states, these schools serve only girls, also typically beginning in third or fourth grade.

Learning Difference Schools

There are varying degrees of support services to serve a wide range of students, from those with severe learning disabilities to those with very mild issues who simply require a few accommodations. According to Rich Weinfeld and Jennifer Fisher of Weinfeld Education Group, schools can be categorized into distinct groups. “The first category of schools serves students with significant special needs. These schools are certified by the state and receive state funding. When the local school district is unable to educate the child, they may pay for an alternative placement. Many of these schools also have a good amount of private pay students. Schools such as Chelsea and Kingsbury are in this category. The second category of schools has chosen not to receive funding. As with the other schools, they too have small classes, trained staff, and learning specialists who work with students and consult with teachers. These schools serve bright students who need some remediation and accommodations. Siena, Commonwealth, and Nora School are examples within this group.”

Finally, there are schools that support students with very mild learning issues, but the majority of their students do not have a learning disability or an ADHD diagnosis. These schools primarily serve the general student population; however, they employ learning specialists to work with those who need support. Nonetheless, students are expected to keep up with the general curriculum. This type of support is very typical in even the most exacting schools.

International Schools

These schools seek to provide students with an international experience and to prepare them for future schooling overseas. For younger students, these schools provide a global perspective and an emphasis on foreign language and cultures. Older students are prepared specifically for the option of attending a university outside of the United States by means of the International Baccalaureate program.

Boarding Schools

At boarding schools, students live on campus in dormitories, similar to college. Most faculty members also live on campus and there is a significant amount of structure in terms of oversight and planned activities. In our area, there are a handful of schools that have boarding options and one school, Episcopal, which serves only boarding students.

Finding the right Private School for your child

Certainly, there are a host of other categories, but this should give you a broad overview to get you started. It’s my sincere hope that A Guide to Private Schools: The Washington DC, Northern Virginia and Maryland Edition, will make your school search easier and enable your child to find the school of his or her dreams. I wish you all the best on your journey in education.


If you live in the Washington DC Metro area and would like to learn more about our tutoring and educational coaching services, please fill out the form below: 

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How to Write a Private High School Application Essay Worth Reading

high school application essay image 1

If you want to write a high school application essay that is worth reading; one that your audience will remember:

Forget everything you’ve ever learned about writing an essay.

Okay, I may be being a bit melodramatic. You still need appropriate grammar, syntax, spelling, and formatting.

But as for the generic boring cluster that begins with “In this essay, I am going to be discussing ___ by looking at x,y, and z,” throw that out the window because it’s nothing but a one way ticket to Snoozeville not only for you but for anyone tasked with reading it.

Remember Your Private High School Application Essay Audience

The biggest mistake students make when writing an essay is that they forget who their audience is. Your audience, be it a teacher, an administrator, or an admissions committee, has likely read hundreds if not thousands of student’s admissions essays.

This means that you are going to have to do more than throw in a few SAT words to impress them. The key to writing an essay worth reading is writing an essay that has not been written before. It needs to be your own story, not the story you think they want to hear.

high school application essay image 2

One of my favorite things about writing is that there is no right or wrong answer. An essay isn’t a scantron that you have to correctly bubble in or risk some computer incorrectly grading you.  You can’t just play eenie miney moe and hope for the best. Writing is personal. It’s written by one individual and read by another.

But all too often students, especially in the application process, forget this. They write the essay they think that the admission committee wants to read when in reality it’s an essay that the committee has probably already read a million times.

From private high school applications to college ones, this is information that your child will be using for many years. We want to keep up with their journey, so click here to get updated resources and tips so we can help them every step of the way.

The Importance of the Essay Topic

What is the root of this cause? The topic.

If your topic is flawed, cliché, generic, or boring, it doesn’t matter how well crafted your essay is it will be forgotten. When approaching your admission essay, think of it this way: when the admission committee begins reading your essay they’ll view you as just a number, but when they finish it you want them to view you as an individual student.

So, how do we accomplish this?

It’s simple: don’t write the essay you think an admissions committee wants to read, write one that YOU would want to read. If your own essay bores you, it’s highly likely that it will bore everyone else.

Let’s say that your topic is to discuss an extracurricular activity that has played a large impact on your life. A lot of times students are tempted to write what they think the admission committee want to hear.

“I love to volunteer because it has taught me to be appreciative of what I have,”

Or “I love National Honors Society because it allows me to combine my love of academics with my love of service.”

While both of these are wonderful extracurricular activities, unless you are truly passionate about either and have specific details to intertwine into your narrative, it’s going to come off dry and predictable.

What Your Topic Should Be Instead

When describing their ideal student, one of the top words used by the Director of Admissions at some of DC’s top private schools is “passionate.”

Admissions Committees are not looking for a cookie-cutter student; rather they are looking for a student who genuinely loves something and will share that love with other students.

So if you love to spend your weekends driving four-wheelers or riding horses or making short films on iMovie, write about that because I can assure you that your natural enthusiasm will read a whole lot better than the stale and generic “I love to volunteer” response – unless that is actually what you spend your weekends doing.

The Essay’s Opening Paragraph

Don’t believe me?

Consider these two opening paragraphs. You tell me which one you want to keep reading?

1. “’Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ These famous words were spoken by John F. Kennedy, one of the best politicians of all life. John F. Kennedy led America and has become my role model. He encouraged me to get into politics which is why I joined student government. When asked what extracurricular activity has had the largest impact on me as a person, I immediately thought of student government. In this essay I will discuss how student government has impacted me as a person by growing my leadership skills, developing my social connections, and making me take academics more seriously.”

2. “I don’t ride for blue ribbons or Olympic gold, although I respect and admire those chosen few who do. I don’t ride for the workout, although my trembling muscles at the end of a good lesson indicate otherwise. I don’t ride because I have anything to prove, although I’ve proven a lot to myself along the way. I ride for the feeling of two individual beings becoming one, so perfectly matched that it’s impossible to tell where rider ends and horse begins. I ride to feel the staccato beat of hooves against dirt echoed in the rhythm of my own heart. I ride because it isn’t easy to navigate a creature with a mind of its own around a course of solid obstacles, but in that perfect moment when horse and rider work as one, it can be the easiest thing in the world. I ride for an affectionate nose nudging my shoulder as I turn to leave, searching for a treat or a pat or murmured words of praise. I ride for myself, but for my horse as well, my partner and my equal.”

Next Steps: Your Perfect Admissions Essay

Okay, now you have the framework.

First, remember that you’re writing to a private school admissions audience that has probably seen every high school application essay in the book. So don’t write the one you think they want to read… write the one that you care most about.

Then, choose the essay topic that resonates most with you as a student. That enthusiasm will shine through in your writing, and hopefully “wow” the reader enough to convince them they have to have you at their school.

If you found this article helpful, click here for more free resources and tips that you can use to prepare your child for any application process that comes up next!

Your Private School Application Timeline (Here’s how to prepare, step-by-step)

private school timeline image 1The first step to finding the best private school match for your child is to understand the timing of the process.

Although the timeline varies a bit from school to school, the following schedule is a good overview of what to expect and when to expect it.



  • Begin to compile a list of schools that meet your criteria. Request catalogs from selected schools and peruse their websites.
  • Take an SSAT diagnostic test. Request a test now!
  • Review diagnostic scores to determine if prep is needed and if so, when to start.


  • Fill out online applications for the schools you are considering. Begin the financial aid process.
  • If you haven’t already done so, attend an open house or go on a tour. (Note: Some schools require an application to be submitted prior to touring the school.)
  • Schedule interviews and shadow days.


  • Request letters of recommendations.
  • Register for the SSAT or any other necessary testing to be completed in December. If you need accommodations, plan about a month ahead to make sure you have all the necessary documentation.
  • Submit the candidate questionnaire (usually for grades 7-12).


  • Complete the interviews and shadow visits. Send thank-you notes afterwards.
  • Complete financial aid forms.


  • Final opportunity to take the SSAT.
  • Submit applications and send in all supporting documents for schools with December deadlines.


  • Be sure all applications, testing, and supporting documents have been submitted. Beat deadlines by a week or more.


  • Stack rank your schools.
  • Wait for the admission letter, unless the school is on a rolling admission schedule.


  • Watch for decision letters, which usually arrive via email early to mid-month.


  • Plan revisit days to the schools to which your child was accepted.
  • Make a final decision.
  • Inform the schools that your child won’t be attending of your decision.


When in doubt about a particular school’s timeline, give them a call directly. Admission departments are always happy to help!

A Teen’s Perspective on Motivation

Frustrated with school boy

Getting your child to become motivated is an extremely difficult and sensitive task. Frustration on the parent’s and child’s end continues to grow as parents nag their children about motivation struggles.

Unfortunately, motivation is not a tangible object, which makes it even more difficult for parents and students alike to achieve good motivation.

Luckily, Joseph King has given us the opportunity to understand school motivation from a student’s perspective. Joseph grew up in the Montgomery County public school system where he struggled tremendously from a lack of motivation. Upon his transfer to a private school during his sophomore year in high school, Joseph began to see improvement in his grades. However, it wasn’t until his junior year when he developed motivation in school. Check out Joseph’s perspectives and advice below to better understand a student’s view on the topic. 

Was middle school easy or hard?

Middle School was extremely easy for me. There were plenty of ways to get around putting forth lots of effort to receive good grades. Specifically, the infamous retake policy let me get away with a lot. The retake policy at my middle school allowed me to retake tests and quizzes multiple times until I had reached the grade that I wanted. At the time I thought that this policy was awesome, however, it caused me more problems in high school.

How was your transition to high school?

Poor study habits, such as not writing down assignments, planning ahead, and waiting until last minute made it difficult. Block scheduling made habits of procrastination worse. I remember when I was assigned work on a Monday, and it was due on Wednesday, I wouldn’t start it until Tuesday night.

What were your grades like in 9th grade?

My grades were mostly Cs in my core classes to start off the 9th grade year. I was struggling in the majority of my classes due to my heavy workload and poor preparation from middle school. I was stuck in that retake mindset, which made me think that I could redo anything as many times as I wanted to. I was stunned regarding the lack of a retake policy at my high school. I thought to myself, “How could my middle school claim that it was preparing me for high school, but really wasn’t?” Not having the retake policy to lean on, I was stuck with mostly Bs and Cs my freshman year.

Were you a motivated student?

In the 9th grade I was definitely not a motivated student. I was down on myself about my grades and had given up.

What did your parents do about the lack of motivation?

My parents pushed and nagged me every other Friday, when the automated progress reports would come out. They would get angry and frustrated each time. My parents tried to take away my phone and xbox, but it never worked. I just didn’t know how to motivate myself.

What could parents or teachers have done to help you be more motivated?

In my experience, there wasn’t much that my teachers or parents could have done to help me get motivated. Aside from stopping nagging me and allowing me to find my own self-motivation, they couldn’t have done anything differently. I think that setting up a better foundation for myself before transitioning to high school could have helped a lot. Setting up key study habits in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade would have led to better success in high school. Also, keeping in mind that teachers have around thirty kids to a class and about four classes would have helped me remember that they have a tough time too and don’t always have the time to look out for each of their individual students. 

Male Teenage Student Studying In Classroom With TeacherDid switching to private school have an impact on your motivation?

I think that it definitely had a positive impact on my motivation. I went into the new year knowing that I had a clean slate to work with. Also, my parents were much more at ease knowing that I was in a supportive, yet challenging environment, where I would get a great education. Furthermore, the teachers were much more supportive because they had fewer students and therefore more time to work on a one-on-one basis.

What happened during your junior year to turn things around?

My parents and I realized that this was a make or break year for me. Although I was found to have a mild case of ADHD in 1st grade, we never considered medication because I was doing well. I was retested and the psychologist recommended medication, so I starting taking Vyvanse.

Why did your parents reach a breaking point and decide try medicine?

I think that trying ADHD medication was a mutual decision between me and my parents. The medicine definitely made a significant impact on my grades, but there was a slight placebo effect. The placebo effect made me feel like I could actually do well in school and that all I needed was just a little boost. At that point, I had developed some skills in self-motivation. Because I was able to do well in school, I wanted to do well in school. I was beginning to be on par with my peers and it was a great feeling.

Do you have any advice for parents to help their child become more motivated?

Developing a quality relationship with your child is key to having trust regarding school work, tests, etc. Also, try not to nag your child unless it is completely necessary. In my experience, whenever my parents would nag me, I would proceed to get more overwhelmed and in turn, do worse in school. Despite wanting to help your child in any way possible, motivation is something that has to come from within your child. No video game, amount of money, or toy will dig up your child’s underlying motivation. Whether it be in kindergarten or not until college, your child will eventually reach that self-motivation stage, and you need to let it happen.


Private Schools: Help in Picking the Right One

I was excited to be featured in Sunday’s education edition of the Washington Post Magazine!

Ann DolinFor many parents, deciding whether private school is right for their child and which schools to apply to is overwhelming. A new book, “A Guide to Private Schools: The Washington DC, Northern Virginia, and Maryland Edition”, can help.

The book, by Ann Dolin, who founded the tutoring company Educational Connections, offers strategies and advice on applications, interviewing, ideas from parents and kids, and a detailed guide to the Washington region’s private schools.

I have worked with hundreds of students in the D.C. area to help them and their families in the search for the right private school. When I first meet with families, often they are considering schools by one simple factor: reputation. It is understandable. Ultimately, parents are preparing their children for the future, and parents want to ensure their child has access to the “best” school. However, there is an important distinction between “best” and “best fit.” In determining which schools are a fit, families should consider factors such as class size, opportunities for leadership and, of course, the academic needs of the child.

In the end, a well-crafted list will contain schools that meet the child’s unique academic, social and emotional needs, as well as give him or her a solid chance of acceptance.  Read on…

The Best Private Schools in the Washington DC Area

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

http://clarksvilleacademy.com/newca/wp-content/uploads/3745-Clarksville-Academy-Private-School-female-Student-smiling-education1.jpgRecently 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!

Montessori Schools: What are they and are they right for my child?

Early in their child’s academic career, parents often make the difficult decision of whether to enroll their student in a public or private school. They want the best for their child, and having the best can mean choosing the right school. However, many parents are unaware of alternative styles of education, such as the Montessori methodology.

Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor of medicine, created the Montessori Method in 1907 when she helped open a school for young children. Instead of providing the students with toys and games to play with, she encouraged them to perform real-life tasks, such as cleaning, cooking, or even taking care of pets. The classroom consisted of a mix of students ages 3 to 6, where the older students often tended to the younger ones and therefore developed skills in nurturing and self-confidence.

montessori schoolThe culture around Montessori Schools is designed to promote a child’s self-discovery and creativity with the guidance of a teacher. Rather than using reformative measures and correcting a child’s work, the Montessori approach focuses on developing each individual’s potential and allows him or her to explore and learn individually. The classrooms are typically set up with child-sized furniture and Montessori materials, consisting of objects of nature, measuring tools, puzzles, blocks, and even classical music. The education is meant to be student-led; the teacher can provide the materials, but it is up to the student to spark initiative and lead their path to discovery.

The Pros of Montessori

Since Montessori schools focus on each child and individual interests, parents can be assured that their student is given special attention and the teacher is meeting his or her needs. Students are expected to learn and grow at their own pace; they are not subjected to a plan of predetermined coursework or required to meet specific demands set by a board of education. This allows each student the time to learn and explore what he or she is passionate about, without the fear of being pressured or rushed.

Being able to choose what to learn is the hallmark of the Montessori Method. Students are introduced to materials and activities by the teacher, and they are then given the freedom and discretion to use what they like. Educators of Montessori schools believe if a child has the ability to decide what their focus of learning will be, they will have a sense of internal satisfaction that will drive their curiosity over a sustainable amount of time.

The Montessori system is also designed to instill a variety of life-long skills for the students. By allowing the children to learn freely on their own, they develop self-discipline and self-control. They are able to learn from their mistakes and correct their own work as they mature throughout their time at the Montessori school. Each child recognizes and respects one another as an individual; since all students progress at their own pace, there is no room for judgment or ridicule. According to a study conducted by Education Guardian, “Montessori education fosters social and academic skills that are equal or superior to those fostered by a pool of other types of schools.”

The Cons of Montessori

Many parents may argue the Montessori way may be a little too “free” and that is does not put enough emphasis on discipline and structure. Students typically are not assigned any homework and are often given three hours or more of free time each day to pursue their interests. Classrooms become chaotic when a teacher does not enforce group activities and each student is left to their own devices. It can also be difficult for the teacher to document the students’ progress when all are focused on their individualized tasks. When students are expected to use their own judgment and practice “self-discipline” at such an early age, this can cause concern for some parents.

Since students are encouraged to work independently and explore their own areas of interest, it can be difficult to develop the essential social skills acquired through peer interaction. Some Montessori schools only allow students to work together occasionally and with permission from the teacher. Although this does help students discover their passions without peer influence, it prohibits them from sharing ideas and learning from one another.

Most Montessori schools only teach up to age 6, necessitating parents to enroll their child in a traditional school upon completion. However, the transition to a traditional school may be difficult; students are not taught discipline or boundaries in a Montessori school, which are enforced in traditional schools. They may have trouble adhering to formal classrooms with instruction and assignments, where their work is graded and subject to improvement. This can be confusing and shocking for a child with previous Montessori education who must now familiarize himself with the rules of a traditional school.

Is a Montessori School Right for my Child?

It is important to remember each child is different and reacts to various styles of education differently. Some students may be very receptive to the teaching methods of a Montessori school, while others may thrive in a more traditional school.

Knowing your child and the environment that would suit him or her best is crucial. It may also be helpful to talk with other parents who have sent their children to Montessori schools and get their opinion on the matter. There are many Montessori schools in Northern Virginia that would be happy to talk to parents of prospective students, and will often allow you to observe a class. Always make sure to do plenty of research – your child’s education is one of the most important decisions you’ll make!

The Private School Application Process: Getting Started Part 2

In a previous post I began to provide some insight into the private school application process. Below are five more factors that should be considered when coming up with an initial list of private schools for your student.

Things to Consider When Applying to Private School

Instructional Method:  In the DC area, there is no shortage of diverse teaching methodologies.  Some schools pride themselves on a progressive, liberal model.  This approach focuses on hands-on projects and critical thinking.  These schools teach students beyond facts so that they are able to analyze information and solve problems. Classroom lessons often involve group work and the teacher is seen as a collaborator in education, not as the all-knowing disseminator of information.  Teachers are often called by their first names.  The goal of progressive education is to develop life-long learners and for students to have the flexibility to learn about what interests them.  A few schools in our area that utilize the progressive model are Sheridan, Edmund Burke, Sidwell Friends, and Burgundy Farm Country Day.

Traditional vs. Progressive Education often involves seat work and individual assignments.  The teacher is the head of the class and he or she is called by her last name.  Instruction is often delivered through lecture and textbooks are used extensively.  All children are generally taught using one unified curriculum even though they may be on different levels.  Most Catholic schools follow the traditional model.  Some traditional schools include St. John’s College High School, Trinity Christian, and Oakcrest.

Most schools, including public schools, take a balanced approach. They appreciate individual differences and are willing to differentiate education when possible.  They believe in a combination of individual assignments and lecturing and collaborative groups and discussion.  As you tour schools, ask what model they tend to use and don’t be afraid of asking why they subscribe to the theory.  Most administrators feel passionately about their school’s methodology and will tell you why they feel it works for their students.


Traditional Model

Progressive Model

Instruction: Teacher-centered; the teacher is authority figure and is the disseminator of information.  Students may sit in individual desk in rows.  Text books are used frequently.  Most instruction is lecture-based. Instruction: Student-centered; students learn from each other in small groups and independently through self-study and projects.  Discussion-based learning. Teacher is facilitator and may be called by first name.
Beginning reading: Phonics-based approach Beginning reading: Sight word approach
Math: Focus on basic skills and computation Math: Focus on problem solving
Grading: Traditional letter grades on report card to measure performance Grading: Some letter grades are used, but teacher comments are favorable
Progress: Monitored through frequent quizzes and tests Progress: Monitored by some testing, but also by portfolios of work samples
Curriculum: Focus on reading, writing, math, history, geography, and science. Curriculum: Focus on reading, writing and math. Social sciences emphasize diversity and social consciousness.
Technology: Used sparingly; students take notes by hand. Technology: Used frequently; laptops/iPads brought to class.
Overall focus: Building academic skills in core areas. Overall focus: Academic skills and social/emotional growth.


Sports:  Are sports important to your child?  If so, what are his or her chances of making the team?  Although academics are of the utmost importance in most families, sports run a close second and for good reason.  Not only do sports give kids an outlet for their energy, studies show that students who play have grade point averages and time management skills.  When visiting schools, be sure to ask about the sports program that interests your child and request a meeting with the coach.

Primary, K-8 or K-12:  Some parents prefer a larger K-12 school where their child can stay put for the long haul while others are more comfortable with a school that just caters to young children or one that runs from kindergarten through eighth grade. Primary schools, such as Beauvoir, specialize in educating very young children (preschool – third).  Proponents of K-8 schools consider them as a great option because, quite frankly, you do not know what kind of student he or she will turn out to be.  A school ending in 8th grade gives you flexibility to move schools (although that’s always a choice) for high school.  It’s also an opportunity for a child to reinvent herself in later years.  A fresh start is a good thing for some students.  Others desire a K-12 school where their child can stay grounded for their entire school career and the teachers and administrators know your child at a deep level.  It also means that you only need to go through the application process once.

Chance of Acceptance:  Is the school known to be highly competitive meaning that only a small percentage of students gain acceptance each year?  Is the school looking for very high test scores and for older students, top grades?  These are the schools that might be hard to get into.  Be sure your list contains some of these “reach” schools, but also others that may provide a better chance of acceptance.

Your answers to these questions will help you to formulate many possibilities.  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 long considered by others to be “the best”.  It could be that a particular school does not measure up to all the hype in your book.  When in doubt, hire a consultant who can help you with the whole application process or who is willing to assist you to develop your initial list.

If you have specific questions about the private school admissions process, please visit my website!

The Private School Application Process: Getting Started Part 1

When it comes to the private school application process, there are many details to juggle, papers to file, and deadlines to meet. One of private school admissionsthe biggest surprises for families is how early they need to start the school search process. Some parents start looking for schools in the same calendar year they want their child to begin only to find out that they are too late to the game. For example, if you want your child to begin in the fall of 2014, you must start the process by the fall of 2013. This is true for all schools that have a traditional application deadline on or around January 15. Schools on rolling admissions do not adhere to such tight deadlines – you have more time. Applications to those schools can be submitted up to the day school begins if space is available. Regardless of the time frame, you’ll want to start the search off right.

Create a List of Schools in Virginia, DC, or Maryland

The start of the school year or even a bit earlier in the late summer is the best time to start compiling a list of potential schools. You will want to create an initial list that is fairly vast. How do you know which schools to consider at first? Speak to your friends, acquaintances, and teachers in your child’s current school to get an idea. If you feel the need, hire a school consultant. Utilize a lot of resources because you will get many opinions. The point is that you want to consider a variety of schools in the beginning, anywhere from five to fifteen. The list can always be narrowed down the line.

The next step is to visit the schools’ websites and request a packet of information sent to your home. Many parents find that they can quickly eliminate a few schools from the online and print information they gather. A seasoned consultant can review your list. Did you include every appropriate school? Is there a great match that has perhaps been left out? Is your list reasonable or do you have too many highly competitive schools with low rates of admission?

Consider Crucial Factors of Private Schools

As you compile a list of schools that might meet the needs of your child, you’ll want to consider certain factors. Here’s a list to get you started:


Is the school close by or logistically feasible? Many students travel great distances for a good education, but be sure your quality of life isn’t too impacted by the commute. Consider that your child will likely stay after school for clubs or sports and that rush hour in this area can be a bear. 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 mid-week study groups are tricky. As far as daily transportation, ask the school about bus service (many provide it) or possible car pool arrangements. Most admissions directors will give you a list of families in your area that are willing to carpool.

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, the staffs 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 with boys, and the way they learn in mind. Some popular options are Landon in Bethesda and Gonzaga in DC.

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-girl classroom. Many of the all-girls schools in the area have strong STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Programs that allow for girls to explore subjects that have been traditionally construed as male-oriented. In our area, Stone Ridge of the Sacred Heart in DC and Madeira in McLean, among others, are often considered.

In 2005, the U.S. Department of Education published a study on single-sex public education. While the findings were inconclusive about the impacts academically of single-sex education on students, it did reflect a positive correlation between single-sex education and positive student interactions.

Even those in favor of single-gender education, such as the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, believe that simply separating boys and girls doesn’t guarantee academic achievement. While many pros and cons can be made for either case, ultimately, parents must still make the decision based on what’s best for their child’s particular learning style and needs.

Academic Challenge, Safety Net or a Balance of Both

Are you looking for all out rigor or would your child benefit more from a balanced 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 lots of academic support, while others would do well at a school with a balanced approach.

Check back next week for five more factors that should be considered when coming up with a list of schools for your student!

The Cost of Private School

For many families, independent schools seem financially unreachable. However, there are more aid structures in place than ever before to help pay for a student’s education. In fact, the 82 schools that are a part of the Independent Education Association awarded over $116 million in aid during the 2012-2013 school year. That’s not a small number. The bottom line is that aid is available for financially deserving families and the cost of private school may be within your family’s budget.

Tuition at Schools in DC, Northern Virginia, and Maryland

The national median twelfth-grade tuition at independent schools is $16,970 per year, but locally, the average independent school runs $24,167. It’s typically lower for church-based schools ($13,316). But unless the school can offer full tuition assistance (and a few can), public school can’t be beat for cost.

In general, the least expensive options are religious schools, but by no means are these a poor education. Many small Christian schools make it their mission to offer tuition as low as possible so that no one is deprived of the religious education they desire. Some schools offer tuition as low as $10,100 (Trinity Christian School) before financial aid is factored in.
private school girl
By far the least expensive option is available for members of a Catholic diocese. The Catholic Church will help pay for tuition with its regional funds. The rates are higher for those who are non-Catholic or not a member of a parish, similar to how state universities treat out-of-state students. Average tuition for parish members is a low $2,607 in elementary school, and $6,906 for the freshman year of secondary school.

The more expensive independent schools can reach upwards of $35,000 or higher, with extra fees for those with a boarding option. The Madeira School, for example, charged $39,830 for day students and $52,710 for its students who choose to board during the 2013-14 school year. Most yearly tuition payments fall into the $20,000 range. For tuition figures for almost 100 independent schools in the DC area, but sure to check out my upcoming book, A Guide to Private Schools: The Washington DC, Northern Virginia and Maryland Edition. As you review tuition at various schools, bear in mind that eve the priciest of schools do not want to preclude students based on finances alone, and they boast large financial aid budgets to help those in need.

The reality is that since independent schools do not receive state funding from taxes, they have to rely on tuition, private grants, and fundraising as sources of income. Some schools will offer multi-sibling discounts and most give the option of a payment plan so that a lump sum does not have to be paid all at once. Schools are very willing to have honest conversations about finances and, when possible, arrangements can be made to best suit your needs.

With the exception of a few for-profit schools, independent institutions are not run like businesses. “Profits” are usually invested directly into the student body, the faculty, and the development of new facilities. Long-standing, prestigious schools will use superfluous funds to bolster the endowment, but for the most part, independent schools are focused on providing the best education they possibly can and serving their families faithfully.

Other Fees to Consider

When touring a school or speaking to an admission director, it’s important to learn exactly what tuition covers. When asking about yearly tuition, make sure to verify exactly what it includes. You don’t want to be hit with a surprise bill for new uniforms that you hadn’t worked into your budget. Some common questions parents ask are the following: does tuition include hot lunch, books, uniforms, fees for extracurriculars, fees for technology (laptops, iPads), transportation? Transportation in particular can run a few thousand dollars, so make sure you know up front what the school expects of its families. Some schools, such as Nysmith, offer their tuition at face value with no other costs added, but others will require you to pay out of pocket for additional services.

Beyond these fees is the unwritten expectation that every family will contribute to the school’s annual fund. A contribution is the norm, not the exception. I remember my first exposure to this unwritten rule when my youngest son attended preschool at Green Hedges School in Vienna, Virginia. On top of the annual tuition, which at the time was around $20,000, we were expected to give to the school’s building fund, silent auction, and a number of other fundraisers. In total, we easily contributed $2,000 in donations by the end of the year.

Many parents are turned off by this expected contribution, but they shouldn’t be. There’s a reason schools request donations from their current families and alumni. It takes a serious amount of money to run a school and independents are not supported by tax dollars or religious organizations. Tuition covers approximately 75% of the funds needed to operate a school; the rest is generated through fundraising, an annual appeal, and interest earned from the money set aside in the endowment fund. Schools are in the business of educating students to the best of their ability and to do so, money is needed for cutting-edge technology, teachers’ salaries, and building renovations. Discerning parents want and expect great teachers and state-of-the-art facilities.

The Ins and Outs of Financial Aid

private school financial aid Financial aid has also grown tremendously in the past decade. On average, independent schools dedicate 12% of their overall budget to supporting families through financial aid. With more assistance available than ever before, it’s important to know the process if aid is a necessary component of your school search. Not all schools are able to offer it, but those that do are very upfront about what they can realistically offer. Some schools offer a greater amount of aid, such as $10,000 per year. Others will offer smaller awards, such as $2,000 per year, but give it out to a greater number of students. It’s appropriate to ask schools about their average package amount, but a student’s specific allotment of aid will not be known until decision letters are sent out in March.

Most financial aid is needs-based, which usually means the tuition cost is looked at as a percentage of your total income. Certainly, families with lower means will be the first priority, but more and more schools across the country are reporting a huge increase in financial aid requests from parents earning more than $150,000 per year. Overall, tuition costs went up 4% in 2012 over 2011 and in just the last five years, average tuition increased 24% nationally. Families that could have afforded a $25,000 school a few years ago now need aid to keep their child there.

How Financial Aid Works at Private Schools

Be aware that most financial aid is awarded on a year-to-year basis, and there may be no guarantee of assistance down the line. Any concerns should be worked out before enrollment, and schools will appreciate your open communication and professionalism.

The good news is that the need for financial aid is not taken into consideration during the admission process. Students are accepted, waitlisted, or denied based on the strength of their application. Financial aid is a separate consideration. A student is not denied admittance because he or she needs help with the costs; however, it is common for students to decline enrollment if the aid package isn’t significant enough or within the family’s means.

Financial aid is expected and normal for many independent school students. Even in the top schools in the DC metro area, normally 20-25% of the student body receives aid of some kind. Nationally, the average financial award, according to the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), is $2,772 for day school and $7,744 for boarding school. There are also merit scholarships available at some schools. This kind of aid depends on achieving high grades or possessing a particular talent. Always ask if there are additional scholarships available in addition to traditional financial aid awards. Bank loans are also possible under the right circumstances, but if your finances are tight, don’t give up until you’ve exhausted your options within the financial aid system—you’ll be surprised at how much a school is willing to help.

The financial aid application itself is almost always submitted at the same time as the application for enrollment. The most popular financial aid form used by schools is the School and Student Services (SSS) form provided through the NAIS, which has over 1,400 member schools. Some schools use other processes and other forms, such as the Private School Aid Service (PSAS), Financial Aid for School Tuition (FAST), and Tuition Aid Data Services (TADS), but all follow a similar format and will ask for the same financial information.

The core of the SSS form is a Parent Financial Statement (PFS) that is submitted electronically. The PFS is considered the “common application” for financial aid since it’s used by so many schools, similar to the common application for undergraduate study, which covers nearly 500 universities and colleges. The PFS gathers in one place relevant financial information regarding income, expenses, family size, tax and business information, and assets. Once the PFS is completed, the form is sent only to the schools that you have selected. Schools use your PFS as a starting point in calculating financial aid awards. Many schools will want additional forms filled out to aid in their decision.

Be sure to submit the application by the school’s deadline. Aid is often awarded on a first come, first served basis. Keep in mind that many schools already have 12% of their budget dedicated to financial aid for this very purpose. If you feel overwhelmed, the admission office is almost always happy to help.

Apply On Time or Early

Financial aid directors at schools around the area encourage parents to be well aware of deadlines. Many families are not conscious of cut-off dates or don’t adhere to them. Schools try to give away their available aid to those who have filled out the forms on time, so if a great student comes along after the deadline and needs aid, usually none is available. The most successful families build relationships with the financial aid office early on. Honesty and open communication are essential.

Monetary awards are not negotiable, but if there is new information after the application is submitted, such as a death in the family, sudden health issue, or job loss, the school is able to reevaluate the situation. Although aid is reassessed on a year-to-year basis, any school worth its salt will never abandon a student once they’ve agreed to provide financial support. Once you’re in, you’re in, and the school will do everything in its power to help pay for a student’s education. The calculation is very specific, and the school will not expect you to pay what it knows you cannot afford once it has seen your PFS. Financial aid directors want to help parents navigate the waters and remind families that there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking for help. If a parent feels overwhelmed, most are happy to work through the first form together.