How to choose the “right” elementary school 1

I’ve told the story many times about choosing Seneca Academy for my children. Almost nine years ago, I was here interviewing for the Head of School position. At the same time, I was looking for a new school for my kids.  I went home after my interview and said to my husband “I don’t know if I’ll get the job, but that is where I want our kids to go to school!”

1st gradeWhat made me so sure that Seneca Academy was the “right” environment for my then rising kindergartner and rising 3rd grader? Mostly, it was a feeling. After spending time in classrooms, talking with teachers and students, and seeing the type and quality of work that was on the walls, I felt that my kids would be both challenged and nurtured here. It was (and still is) very important to me that my children believe that school is meaningful, relevant and a worthwhile endeavor. I sensed that the environment here was one where they would want to be on a daily basis. Thankfully, I got the job, my kids were admitted to Seneca Academy and my “sense” about their ability to thrive in this community was correct.

2nd grade walls

We are now in admissions season, working with families who are looking for the “right” school for their own elementary and preschool children. Our Walk-In Wednesdays have been very well-attended! I’ve been thinking of advice to give to parents in this process that is more concrete that “does it feel right.”  Jay Matthews, the education columnist with the Washington Post, wrote an article many years ago that he updated this past summer titled 12 Ways to Identify a Good School.  I don’t mean this to be self-serving- but the first on his list is “A good principal!” The next points are: “What it feels like,” “Active Parents,” and “Good teachers.” He gives suggestions for how to spot these characteristics in schools.

Another list that could be helpful for parents is provided by Independent School Management (ISM) in an article called3rd grade on the floor Five Questions Parents Should Ask: The Question beyond the Questions. The authors referenced the 5 questions created by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) “for parents to ask as a more substantial way of assessing the quality of a child’s education. The questions were designed for parents of school-age children attending public or private schools as an alternative to top ten lists and rankings based on test scores.” The questions are:

  1. Are there high quality and committed teachers?
  2. Is there a low student-to- teacher ratio?
  3. Do students feel challenged by their school?Three girls
  4. Are there strong partnerships among parents, teachers, and students?
  5. Does the school have a climate that supports achievement?



As Head of School, I cannot objectively answer these questions. Nonetheless, I truly believe Seneca Academy would be considered a very good school by any set of standards. One thing I know is that families get the best sense of the strengths of our school when they come in and see for themselves the daily activities of our students and teachers.

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One thought on “How to choose the “right” elementary school

  • Olivia Nelson

    I agree that when looking for a private school you need to take into account the quality of the teachers. I would imagine that you would want to find somewhere where the teachers are committed to excellence. I’m looking for a school for my son so I’ll have to be sure the teachers are great before I choose one.