Some people have been known to start trying to enroll their child into a particular school before the child is born. Neighborhood residents Jane and Tim Elder were further ahead than that – they started talking about it before they decided to get married.

Although they were raised more than a thousand miles apart – Jane in Los Angeles and Tim in Dallas – both had attended public and private schools as children and both had fonder memories of their time in private school, Jane says.

So by the time they were discussing marriage, both were committed to sending their children to private schools.

“We discussed why we wanted them to be in private school and the fact that we wanted them to be in a religiously affiliated school,” Jane says.

“We are Episcopalian and were committed to some kind of Catholic education, but it didn’t necessarily have to be Episcopal.”

Before enrolling their first child, William, in pre-school at St. John’s Episcopal School, the Elders say they started doing their homework on the options available in the Dallas area.

“We wanted to decide objectively what was going to be best for us,” Jane says.

They read literature; talked with friends; visited schools; attended open houses, school tours and introductory meetings; and interviewed school administrators.

“You can’t underestimate the parental grapevine in the selection process,” Jane says. “Talk to everyone you can. We talked to everyone we knew who had kids in a private school and asked them what they liked and didn’t like.”

Because the research, application and acceptance process can take quite a while, now is not too soon to begin if you plan to enroll a child in private school in the fall or to move a child from one school to another.

“January and spring are the time to start looking at private schools for fall school start,” says Dina Jaramillo Paulik, director of Dallas Montessori Academy.

Paulik and the administrators of other schools are familiar with the many questions parents ask when comparison-shopping for a school.

Parents not only are looking for a good academic environment and good value for the tuition cost, but also for a school that fits their child’s interests, personality and specific needs, Paulik says.

Beyond that, the questions cover a wide range.

Among the most frequent questions administrators say they hear:

  • Is the school safe? (By this, parents usually mean not only is the campus or building secure against unwanted intrusions but are older children prevented from bullying younger children.)
  • Does the school care for emotional needs as well as academic requirements?
  • Is the curriculum challenging?
  • What is the ratio of staff to students?
  • Are children taught discipline, and how is it enforced?
  • What sorts of extracurricular activities are offered?
  • How much will it cost? (Tuition in the Dallas area can range from about $1,000 to about $12,000 per school year. Scholarships and loans are available at many campuses, and some allow tuition to be paid monthly throughout the year rather than in advance.)
  • How far away is the school?
  • Is before- and after-school care offered?

These are important considerations, but school administrators suggest that parents delve deeper.

Here is a sampling of the types of in-depth questions you might ask:

  • Do you consider the child’s developmental stage? Grace Cook, director of St. John’s Episcopal School, says this is important for all children. Parents of extremely intelligent children also should ask about the challenges offered for the developmentally advanced child.
  • What is the school’s philosophy in relation to the arts – both creative and performance? This could include everything from learning to talk in front of a group to singing.
  • If it is a parochial school, how is religion addressed or taught, and how are evolution and creationism presented? What are the rules of attending chapel? How is the religious emphasis presented to students who are of different faiths?
  • What kind of children do well at this school? What kind do not do so well here?
  • What kind of child would you recommend go to school elsewhere?
  • What do you do when you think a student is not working out in your program? Carol Wolfe, assistant director of the East Dallas Community School, has been asking this question while seeking a school for her teenage daughter because she says the answer can give insight into the thinking of administrators.
  • What are you preparing your students for? And where do your children usually go from here?

“The things I’m looking for for my daughter include a nurturing environment, a stimulating curriculum and good teachers,” Wolfe says. “I don’t look for glitzy, and I don’t really look at the glossy brochures or how many trophies they have in the display case.”

When neighborhood resident Karen Kantner was shopping for a school for her son Paul, now a first-grader at The Highlander-Carden School, she was surprised that some of the campuses she liked best were the least fancy.

“I was most interested in how the class was run and how large it was,” Kantner says. “I also was interested in how the academic sequence compared with the sequence in the public schools, in case he decided to change schools later.”

A year later, when the family decided to transfer daughter Kristina from a public school to the sixth grade at a private school, she had an additional set of questions and concerns.

“I want my children to have more academic emphasis, but not huge amounts of homework,” Kantner says. “I looked at the actual makeup of the school, I didn’t want to get into a brainy-society sort of culture. I wanted them to be in classrooms with a range of children.”

In making the final decision to enroll Kristina at Lakehill Preparatory School, the Kantners also considered how long their daughter might be able to stay at the same school.

“Lakehill goes through the 12th grade, and because we moved her to a private school later in her life, that is one reason we chose it,” Kantner says.

The process of selecting a school, like so many other consumer decisions, boils down to weighing pluses and minuses and deciding which programs best suit a specific child, parents say.

“I don’t think there’s any school that’s absolutely perfect,” Jane Elder says. “There’s always one teacher you want to hang up by thumbscrews…or some rule that you think is absolutely stupid.

“In my case, I think St. John’s not only will be good for my son but also for my daughter when she starts pre-school next year. But if it doesn’t work out, I would move her somewhere else.”