When Lisa Buban applied to law school, she thought she had endured the worst possible admissions process.

And then she and husband Robert started to apply to private schools for their daughter Antonia.

That’s when Buban discovered that private schools in Dallas don’t pursue students; instead, students pursue them.

“There has to be a better way to do it, but I don’t know what it is,” says Buban, an attorney mediator who lives near White Rock Lake.

“I know I spent more time on her applications than I did for law school.”

A seller’s market

When it comes to private schools in our area, it’s a seller’s market – something too many parents learn too late in the process.

Neighborhood public schools have taken their share of public relations blows – both fair and unfair – during the past few years, and this uncertainty is causing growing numbers of parents to more fully investigate their alternatives.

The longstanding debate about whether public or private schools are better for children almost doesn’t matter anymore, education experts say, since private schools currently are riding a crest of favorable publicity.

As long as that perception continues, private schools will continue to have students flocking to them.

So what should neighborhood parents interested in private schools do to ensure they keep their options open?

Read on.

Low-key marketing

Most private schools – which often have severe limits on their enrollment – don’t need a crush of students, says Lynne Magid, the author of “A Guide to Dallas Private Schools.”

What private schools need, however, is a broad variety of students – an often difficult-to-achieve balancing act.

That’s why most private schools marketing is designed to “continuously attract and get a wide variety of students to select from,” Magid says.

So that’s where private schools aim their marketing efforts – expanding their diversity.

The remainder of their marketing is geared simply to make parents aware of the school and its programs. Then, it’s up to the parents to find out which school is the best one for their children.

“The ball is really in the parent’s court,” says Sara Zesser, a neighborhood resident and educational consultant who helps parents select private schools.

“Some of these schools get inundated with applications. They can handpick who they want.”

That’s why parents and school administrators say that word-of-mouth, rather than slick marketing campaigns, tends to be the most efficient way to bring the necessary numbers of parents and students to their doorsteps.

It’s how, for example, Linda Wills found Dallas Academy for her dyslexic son, Shane. Armed with the names of parents with children attending Dallas Academy, Wills was working her way down the list.

Early on, one student told her: “Oh, I just love that school.”

“That was the turning point for us,” says Wills, recalling how strongly the teen-ager’s comments influenced her decision to send her boy there.

This was, after all, a teen-ager professing to love school. Wills was impressed. Now her son, a ninth-grader who began attending Dallas Academy in the seventh grade, also loves it, she says.

Friends and neighbors

The friends-and-neighbors approach is a method with which school officials are more than familiar.

Sonya Darr, admissions/marketing director for First Baptist Academy, which has a campus Downtown and in East Dallas, says the school always asks parents how they learned of the school.

“I would say 95 to 97 percent of the time, it’s from neighbors, friends or coworkers who have children here and are happy with the school,” she says.

“Our main way of marketing is (to have) happy parents.”

Still, that doesn’t mean word-of-mouth is all private schools do. Many participate in an annual City-wide private school fair in September, and many work to ensure they are listed in Magid’s book.

The book, now in its third edition, is a source-book of the Dallas private school community. It provides a general overview of each school, including a summary of admission policies, curriculum, school philosophy, accreditations and other information. Magid recently began putting the book’s information on the Internet (www.privateschools.com).

But there are other tools, too. First Baptist began marketing itself with flyers to people who live in many of the new condominiums and townhouses springing up near Downtown and in East Dallas. The flyers have been placed inside a newsletter distributed to locations. The academy also has had a website (www.fbacademy.com) for about a year, she said, and the site has resulted in a few inquiries about the school.

Sally McPherson, director of external affairs for Good Shepherd Episcopal School, 11122 Midway Road, says her school has found relocation guides to be a good place to market themselves. The school’s next goal is to establish its own website, she says.

“It will be a great way for parents to get to know us,” McPherson says. “We find that more and more people are looking for us on the web.”

Setting themselves apart

When they do market, schools try to differentiate themselves from the pack by telling people about the special programs they offer.

White Rock North School, for example, our neighborhood, says Principal Amy Adams. The school, which offers programs for children from ages 2 through 6th grade, has been at the same location since her parents founded it 35 years ago, Adams says.

Adams herself attended White Rock North, 9727 White Rock Trail, and now has two children at the school; 18 other families have “second-generation” members enrolled in the school, she says.

White Rock North stresses academics, but the school also offers more than just academic programs: The facility also is home to a roller skating rink, an indoor heated pool, a computer lab, even a horse named “Ginger,” Adams says.

“We believe in developing a well-rounded child, one who is academically oriented and who also is involved in other things as well,” she says.

“We have so many activities and offerings available on campus that parents don’t have to leave work to allow their children to participate in a variety of activities,” Adams says.

Of course, all schools sell academics. But what’s important for parents to note is that not all schools are selling the same academic menu.

Dallas Academy, for example, markets the fact that it has an extremely structured and multi-sensory approach to teaching children diagnosed with learning disabilities. Others associated with churches or religions advertise character-building and value-centered education that nurtures a child to grow spiritually as well as academically. Still others concentrate on the exclusivity of their academic program and preparation for college.

It’s a process the Bubans can joke about now. But when they kept filling out admission forms for Antonia, it didn’t seem like much of a laughing matter.

“I think one of the problems is that so many parents want the best education possible for their children, and there just aren’t that many spaces,” says Lisa Buban, whose daughter eventually enrolled at Hockaday’s preschool.

“It seems like the schools can pick whoever they want, and the parents are the ones scrambling to get in.”

Just like law school.