How to Choose a Private School: Ten Things to Consider and Questions to Ask

Ronnie’s Awesome List presents a guest article by Debra Lambrecht, Founder of Caulbridge Education.

How to Choose a Private School: Ten Things to Consider and Questions to AskI’ll never forget the most meaningful advice given to me when I was a young parent choosing a school. “When your child is happy at school, you will be happy too.” It was so true! Making the right choice on behalf of your child is an important decision – but how do we choose?

With my daughter now grown and those tricky school decisions far behind, there is one thing I know for sure: the most important factor in choosing a school is what you as a parent want for your child. Do you want a balanced approach to academic and social development? Do you want accelerated, individualized learning? Do you have concerns about sensory processing delays in your child? By first establishing your family priorities, you can select an education model that’s right for you.

Speaking as an educator, I developed this matrix to help parents navigate school choices. It compares varying models of education and then identifies the risks and benefits of each approach. On one end of the ‘teaching’ continuum, teaching is primarily about content and focuses on standardized curriculum and testing to measure progress. On the other end of the continuum, teaching focuses on the child’s experience rather than specific content, believing that if children are exposed to enough experiences they will learn what they need. The matrix also compares the learning process within a class to that of an individual student or child-directed learning. See more risks and benefits here.

Ten Things to Consider and Questions to Ask:

  1. BEST FIT FOR MY CHILD In any given classroom, you can expect to find a three- grade level range of abilities (i.e., in a Third grade classroom there will be students working at low Second grade to high Fourth grade abilities) How does the school work with differing learning abilities and learning styles?
  2. SOCIAL/EMOTIONAL Educational researchers now recognize that social and emotional learning is a prerequisite for academic success. How are social/emotional needs met and how are student behaviors managed in the classroom and at recess?
  3. HOW LEARNING HAPPENS California’s Common Core standards stem from a constructivist model of education, based in the idea that if we can interest children, in math for example, they’ll begin to pick up the processes on their own. While this makes it interesting for the adults, if a child is not explicitly receiving concepts in a code-oriented linear pattern, they are not getting the inputs they need to master the concepts of math. Evidence reveals that explicit, direct instruction works to build the codes of math and all learning. How is teaching explicit, and how is learning made evident throughout the school?
  4. CLASSROOM ENVIRONMENT Children are physical beings and use all their senses to learn. Is the classroom environment over stimulating or is it organized to support healthy sensory processing?
  5. MOVEMENT = LEARNING Body awareness (proprioceptive sense) along with the sense of balance are foundational to a child’s ability to perceive and learn. How much time are children active in physical movement and time outdoor?
  6. LEARNING TOOLS AND SKILLS Executive functioning skills are essential for academic success however they are not necessarily developed through academics. How does the school identify executive functioning skills and how are these skills addressed?
  7. TECHNOLOGY is increasingly used in school for directing individual student work and administering standardized testing. How is technology used in the classroom?
  8. HOMEWORK does not necessarily correlate to improved academic performance of elementary age students, and in fact often adds unnecessary stress for families. When age-appropriate, the purpose of homework is to reinforce learning and to practice self- regulation and executive functioning skills (time management, care of materials, prioritizing). What is the homework policy of the school?
  9. ASSESSMENTS AND OUTCOMES Measuring student progress must correlate to a school’s stated outcomes and be consistent throughout the curriculum. If a school hopes to teach something that is a stated value, for example collaboration, but uses assessments that measure other priorities, pressure is felt to conform to the assessment standards and move away from integrating those values into regular curriculum activities. What does the school value as student outcomes and how are those outcomes measured?
  10. TEACHERS AND LEADERSHIP Most progressive or alternative private schools are established and run by parents who are not necessarily educators. How are education priorities set and school decisions made?

Finding the right education is personal to your family priorities and individual to your child’s needs. No school model will be the right fit for all children. We are fortunate in Marin to have a variety of schools, both traditional and innovative.


Debra Lambrecht is the Founder of Caulbridge Education and Head of Caulbridge School, a private K-8 school in San Rafael, CA. For further assistance in your exploring your education options, please feel free to contact her at (415) 481-1243, email  to learn more.

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