Finding A Private High School That’s The Right Fit

Finding A Private High School That’s The Right Fit

Private high school can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Which is the right one for your child?

Companies are constantly on the hunt for potential employees who offer the elusive “right fit” with a company culture and business strategy.

The “right fit” can be an equally daunting challenge for an eighth-grader who is trying to figure out which private high school to attend.

Choosing a high school also is paramount for parents who’ll pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition over four years, with the expectation that their child will be well-positioned to get into the college of his or her choice.

With annual high school tuition in the range of $24,450 to $26,250 at Blake, Breck and St. Paul Academy, the financial investment in a private education in the Twin Cities is huge. The financial commitment for tuition at some of the Twin Cities largest Catholic high schools, such as Cretin-Derham Hall and Benilde-St. Margaret’s, is in the $11,000 to $13,000 range, and tuition costs add up quickly when more than one child in a family is in a private high school.

The stakes are high for children and parents when they both want to ensure that a teenager finds the right school environment where the student can excel inside and outside the classroom.

So how do you avoid making a mistake when choosing a private high school in the Twin Cities?

“First of all, you have to look at the values of your family,” says Nansee Greeley, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Independent Schools. “Are you looking for a religious institution? Are you looking for a broad-minded institution? Do you want a college prep or arts school? What are the interests of your child?”

Greeley, who’s served for 32 years as a math teacher or administrator at Mounds Park Academy, says parents also can’t assume that if their oldest child is happy at a school that the next sibling in line will flourish there as well.

“There are families where children don’t want to go to the same school of a sibling, especially if they are close in age and the same gender,” she explains. “The student may have been in the shadow of the older sibling and wants their own school.”

Some families pay for professional expertise when selecting a private high school for eighth-grade students. Sue Luse, based in Eagan, works full time as a pre-college planning consultant, and she is among 10 Twin Cities residents who are affiliated with the Independent Educational Consultants Association.

Her work is akin to a career coach, but her efforts are targeted at middle school and high school students and their parents.

In the Twin Cities, there are several private high schools that each has a distinctive character and curriculum. Many parents are willing to shell out the money for private school tuition to help their children get into the best colleges and to obtain an excellent high school education.

When surveying the array of Twin Cities’ private high schools, Luse says, “the problem isn’t getting in, the problem is the best fit. That is what I’m able to help them out with.”

After an eighth-grader begins school in the fall, Luse advises parents to bring her the student’s grades from that year and previous years. She also wants to examine the results of standardized tests.

“If a student has learning issues, that’s a big discussion point as to what high school would be best,” she says, adding that she wants to read evaluations of students who have ADHD, dyslexia or other learning challenges.

Once she is armed with objective data about the child, she adds, “then I need to meet the student and understand the student.”

Her conversations are geared to identifying the student’s academic and extra-curricular interests, strengths and weaknesses.

If the student is an excellent math or science student, she says, “I like to find high schools where they can participate in research, which can be used for competitions.”

A place to shine

Her first goal is helping students and parents find the right academic fit. “If I have a student that tests average and struggles quite a bit, they might not want to be in a very competitive high school,” she says. “It’s just like college. I want them to go somewhere where they’ll shine.”

After aligning a student’s academic needs with the best high school options, Luse moves on to activities beyond the classroom. “I’ve worked with a lot of hockey players,” Luse adds. “Parents will bring an eighth-grader in and ask ‘Can Johnny make the team and be successful academically?’ ”

She also looks for the right social fit. “Some high schools are more preppy, some are more alternative, some are more religious,” she says. “Some have a variety of religions [represented in their student bodies] and are more liberal [in their social perspectives].” Just as in the modern workplace, Luse and the families she works with are striving to identify the right culture.

The road to college

While students and parents search for high school programs that are challenging and fulfilling, they also want strong private high school experiences to translate into admissions to excellent colleges.

At Breck, an Episcopal-affiliated school in Golden Valley, students receive extensive one-on-one academic advising that strengthens their odds of admission to elite colleges. “If you are really successful here, you will be really well-prepared to be where you want to be in college,” says Scott Wade, Breck’s director of admissions and financial aid. Each ninth-grader is assigned an adviser, who meets with the student once a week to check in on how things are going academically and socially for the student. That adviser stays with the student during the four years of high school, and there is a low student-adviser ratio.

Breck also employs three full-time college counselors, who work with 10th-, 11th- and 12th-grade students and their parents on college choices, standardized tests and other aspects of getting into some of the nation’s best colleges.

The most expensive private high schools tend to have the greatest number of staff devoted to academic advising and college admissions.

Comparing private schools

Private high schools, often called independent schools, are characterized by small class sizes, excellent academic standards, caring faculty and involved parents.

“Everybody knows who you are. It’s hard to get lost” in a private high school, says consultant Luse. For example, St. Paul Academy has only 373 students enrolled in grades nine through 12.

At some of the large, suburban public high schools in the Twin Cities, students may face intense competition in outstanding schools to get on a sports team or land a role in the school play. Advocates of private schools say that participation in some extracurricular events is more accessible in private schools because of the much smaller student bodies.

In addition to academics and extra-curricular programs, campus culture helps define private schools.

Visitation, a Catholic-affiliated school in Mendota Heights, is the only girls’ high school in the Twin Cities. “We are focusing on empowering young women to be leaders here and now and in the future,” says Renee Genereux, director of the upper school at Visitation. “Every academic department has leadership development as its goal.”

Tied to the school’s religious heritage, Visitation faculty, staff and students approach living their daily lives with “joyful optimism,” she adds. “It doesn’t mean that I’m always happy or Pollyanna. It means that deeper down I have joy that life is good and life will be good, in spite of everything that is going on in the larger world.”

At Benilde-St. Margaret’s, a Catholic school in St. Louis Park, one of the differentiators is its extensive commitment to community service. “We were the first school in the state of Minnesota to hire a full-time service coordinator. That was 15 years ago. Service is part of our mission,” says Kate Leahy Emmel, admissions director for grades nine to 12. “Our goal is to develop intelligent, engaged, servant-leaders.”

Service is infused throughout the curriculum. For example, math students can serve as tutors and art students may make ceramic bowls for a hunger awareness project.

Benilde-St. Margaret’s is known for its advanced competitive science program, Mounds Park Academy in St. Paul has built a reputation for an outstanding speech and debate team, and Breck students work with professionals on advanced research in science, math and history.

Access to success

In private high schools in the Twin Cities, plentiful staff resources help students succeed in the classroom and deal with problems they may be having at home or with peers.

Who are the families who have access to the top academic programs and individual attention?

“People often think at an independent school that you have just wealthy children,” says Greeley of the Minnesota Association of Independent Schools. “That’s not true. There are lots of families that make sacrifices so they can afford tuition.”

For example, she says, “instead of having the big boat or the bigger house or the fancy trips, this is where they put their money. The common denominator is parents are making that extra sacrifice.”

Financial aid also is available. At St. Paul Academy, for instance, about 23 percent of students receive financial aid, and the average grant covers 62 percent of tuition. Benilde-St. Margaret’s also offers financial aid, but its high school tuition of $12,828 is less than half of the $26,250 price tag at St. Paul Academy.

In surveys, Leahy Emmel says, Benilde-St. Margaret’s parents have said they believe they are getting a good value for the tuition they pay. “We have more students than Blake and Breck,” she explains. “That’s by design. We want our school to have diversity in terms of academic ability. We have diversity in terms of socio-economic background and we have ethnic diversity.”

Wade, who came to Breck after working at an all-girls’ school in New York City, says Breck places value on diversity in its student body and faculty. There are 31 percent students of color at Breck. “We are a school that highly values inclusivity, diversity and service,” Wade explains.

When college adviser Luse thinks about private high schools in the Twin Cities, she knows that having a good GPA at a private high school can help a student gain access to a prestigious college. However, she cautions that schools such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton only accept around 7 percent of their applicants.

She warns that high school students can be overscheduled with the toughest classes and too many extra-curricular activities. High school students, whether they are attending private or public schools, need environments where they can foster their creativity, she says.

“The most interesting students for colleges are those that don’t have every minute scheduled, that have time to pursue their passions and get to know themselves,” Luse says. “They are students that have time to look at the stars and dream.”

7 Factors for Choosing a High School:

  1. Size Big school or small school?
  2. Location Is transportation convenient for classes and extra-curriculars?
  3. Quality of academics What are the teacher-student ratio, retention rate and teachers’ educational backgrounds?
  4. Quality of the program Does the school have the math, science, foreign language or writing classes the student wants?
  5. Social activities, sports Does the school meet a student’s expectations for extra-curriculars and socializing outside the classroom?
  6. Affordability If a family needs financial aid for tuition, would the out-of-pocket costs be affordable?
  7. Impact on the future In what school environment will the student be happiest, feel comfortable and have the ability to thrive?