Help me decide how to choose a school for my daughter.

My daughter will be starting kindergarten in the fall. We live in Detroit, and aren’t really enamored of the Detroit Public Schools, but we do have a wide array of other schools we can choose from.

We’ve done some background research, and right now have two top candidates we’ll be looking at. We have not visited either school yet, so we don’t have a complete view of either - which leads to my question. I’d like some thoughts from you-all on what questions to ask, or what to look for, when we do visit so we have an accurate view of the pros and cons of each.

Our top two school are actually fairly different. One is a public school in a neighboring district. We know a woman (whose judgement I trust) whose kids have gone/are going to this school, and she thinks it’s great. The handful of online reviews I’ve seen bear this out. The school (and district) is very diverse, and they seem to have a solid, albeit traditional, program. However, class sizes are on the large side, and I’m a little worried that, since we’re from out of district, we’ll be sort of second-class citizens (for example, the district says that if students need to be moved to balance classes between elementary schools, out-of-district students get moved first).

The second school is a private school. Their class sizes are very small, and we know a couple parents who rave about the school (again, online reviews bear this out). Learning is very holistic, with emphasis on problem-solving and tying lessons to real-world experience. They also (at least in the lower grades) emphasize social relationships and how to work through differences between peers. It’s also diverse, although probably less so than the public school. The big downside is, of course, the cost. We can certainly afford it, but spending money here means less money for other things - like a college tuition fund, for example.

So, at this point, part of me says, “hey, I went through a public school that was no great shakes, and I wound up learning something. We shouldn’t be spending money just for the satisfaction of saying we did, when the more expensive option is of marginal utility. Sock money away into a college fund instead.” The other part of me says, “the private school is of more than marginal utility - I’ve seen how my daughter learns more quickly and has more fun (in preschool) with constant attention from a good teacher. She’ll get that in the private school. And even though I learned ‘something’ in grade school, it was a long time later that the real problem-solving lessons sank in.”

Again, I’m not necessarily looking for opinions on which is the better choice (although if you have a strong opinion, by all means please let me know). I’m more looking for opinions on what questions we should ask - or what we should look for - to get a strong sense of the trade-off between pros and cons.


Private school sounds better.


Kids’ brains are much more malleable and influenced in younger life than in college.

Social Skills and Problem Solving are actual learned behaviors that have to be modeled and taught. In a smaller school that focuses on that, it’s a better chance that she’ll pick up good “habits” about school and studying.

There’s lots of studies that show that kids do better in college if they have to pay for it (or part of it) themselves and are invested personally in their education at that point in life.

Private, private, private, all the way private.

Is there a waiting list or application process for the public school since you will be coming from out of district? If so, with all things being equal, try to get your child in there first. If things don’t work out with the out of district school, you can likely subsequently enroll in the private school. Normally most private schools will not turn you away if you can pay the tuition.

It may be more difficult to subsequently get your daughter into the out of district school after her kindergarten year, if the private school turns out to be a bust.

Yeah, I am trying to get my head around this same question: local school that all the parents around us quite like vs. private school that we’ve heard amazingly good things about.

For us, we’ll probably end up going private, because our daughter is all over the place in ability. In some areas she’s more like a first grader than a preschooler. In others (especially socially) she is more like a kid a year younger than her. It’s the kind of thing I think could get her either bored (with what she’s good at) or frustrated (with what she’s bad at), or both. She really needs the help on social skills that the private school could potentially give her.

Also, I totally had the “public was good enough for me, why not for her?” mentality. On the other hand, my husband got bullied in public school (he was a lot like our daughter, strong analytical skills, weak social skills), so he’s always been a strong proponent of private school.

If she were a more mainstream kid, and her social skills were a little better, I think we might still go public, because of the cost and because the public school is so close to us that it’s a little crazy not to go to it, whereas the private school is a fifteen-minute drive.

But also what Omar Little said, that’s a good point.

What are your long term goals for her? When she applies to colleges, are you seeing her filling out applications for Michigan State or Stanford?

Kind of crazy to think about that in regards to a four year-old, but it comes down to what you value the most for her: a top-notch but focused education with kids similar in goals and attitudes, or a good education with more diversity in both students and extra-curricular activities?

We went private (Catholic school) for our daughter and have never regretted it. Sophia has done nothing but blossomed in the environment and I’m prouder of her than I can say.

I don’t have kids, so I can only speak about this from a student’s perspective, but I’m very grateful that my parents chose the public school and put the money into my college education instead. (Quite apart from the fact that graduating debt-free and being able to spend a semester abroad was a nice perk, I think there’s a particular kind of social and civic education that is harder to get at a private school, even a diverse one, and I’m glad that I had it.)

Parent of two CA public elementary school students here. Here are some not-scientific observations after 7+ kid-years in the public school system.

It would probably be instructive to look at the finances of the public school district. Are there possibly budget cuts on the horizon? Or is the school income fairly stable? Here we are just coming out of 3-4 years of budget cuts and it has been a pretty big impact (class sizes going from 20 to 30, eliminating busing, etc.). And we are in one of the more stable districts in the county.

What is the parent involvement? I have found this to make a huge impact. We live in an affluent neighborhood compared to the rest of the city and the amount of time and money contributed to the school is fairly staggering. The kindergarten classes typically have 1-2 parent helpers at all times. The parent involvement also seems important academically - the academic standards at my kids’ school are higher than at other local schools because the vast majority of the parents place a high importance on academics and schoolwork.

Make sure you visit the kindergarten classrooms. I think you can tell a lot about a school by seeing a class in session.

Public school. For similar reasons, we sent Kiddo to private school for K and 1st. While it was good, it was not THAT much better than what my friends’ kids were getting at the local school. In fact, they were so rigid in their way of teaching that my son really didn’t do well at all. There was one teacher for each grade and if your kid didn’t fit that teacher’s style of teaching, you kid was out of luck.

We ended up pulling him out and homeschooling him for 2nd and 3rd before transitioning to public school. He thrived at public school. I do wish I had that $10k back to put in his college fund.

Do public school for elementary and private for middle school. If money is no problem then private for both. But if you want the best use of your money, I say private middle school.

Elementary is generally a pretty good experience no matter where you go. As long as the teachers aren’t awful, I don’t feel like it really matters. But middle school is when the child is going through a lot of emotional and physical changes. I feel it’s critically important to make sure they are in a supportive environment during this time.

I wish we had done private middle school for our daughter. She’s always gone to public school. In elementary she was confident and unique. But in middle school she became much more shy and conformist. There was a lot more social pressures with the kids and the teachers weren’t as supportive. That’s not too much of a surprise since instead of one class and one teacher all day it’s a different class and teacher each hour. I wish we had instead put in her in a private school that had a Montessori approach which would have encouraged her to continue being creative. Instead, she fell victim to the institutionalized middle school machine. So if you are going to put limited funds to best use, I say use them for middle school.

I was bullied in public school to the point where my parents sent me to private school for a year to escape. That said, overall I still preferred the public schools I attended. I felt like they were more diverse and inclusive, and provided a more well-rounded experience in navigating the world than the private school, which focused more on specific skills (academic, athletic, artistic, etc.) than on just general social interactions.

I would definitely ask about bullying at each school – is it a problem? Do they have a plan in place to handle it? My inclination would be toward the public school, but knowing how the school felt about and responded to bullying might push me in the other direction.

Couple quick thoughts:

Go to a PTA meeting. PTA meetings will tell you what sort of community the school has, which is important. You want a school where you LIKE the other parents, where you feel welcome. You don’t want a school with no community, but you also don’t want a school that expects stuff from you that you don’t want to give–competitive sancta-mommies and the like. Look at the parking lot as you leave. If your car looks really different than the rest, pay attention to that.

If you can’t afford to go private all the way though (and the upper levels are generally more costly), don’t stay private any later than 2nd-3rd grade. It would be terrible to have to explain to an 8th grader that she has to leave her friends because you can’t afford otherwise. I mean, sometimes life happens, but be aware.

Private schools can have significant hidden costs: books and supplies, uniforms, fundraisers you are expected to participate in, etc. Your kid also needs to be in a financial position to function socially: you don’t want to be dramatically different.

For the public school, I’d look at the high school it feeds into. That says a lot about the ultimate expectations people have of these kids, whatever they say.

Lastly, make sure the academics are as rigorous as you would like. There are a surprising number of private schools that are really weak academically. I’d go look at a 5th grade classroom both places.

ETA: when observing, watch the kids, not the teacher. You want to see engagement.

Thanks for all the replies!

There is an application process to transfer to another district; it looks to be pretty straightforward, but the earliest application date is like mid-April. We tentatively plan on going ahead and applying to both the public and private schools to give us more time to make a decision.

That’s somewhat similar to our situation. Our daughter is clearly ahead in some areas and lagging in others, although I don’t know how much so compared to an average kid. However, I did see a marked improvement when she started working with a favorite pre-school teacher, so I’m inclined to think that more one-on-one teacher time may be important (but how much so? I dunno.).

Good point - there are a substantial number of students who would be in this public school who have shifted to charter schools, so the district is particularly susceptible to student loss. I know they ran into financial issues last year, but don’t have a feel critical an issue that is. At the same time, the private school is fairly small, and I worry about how a small drop in enrollment might affect them.

Good point.

Although my sense is that the public school is certainly more inclusive, particularly in cutting through the social strata, my sense is also that the private school has a holistic focus, so that the curriculum is constructed to be more well-rounded than the public school can be.

Another good point.

Yes; that was a niggling worry I had, that signing up for a private school would be signing up for an endless round of fundraising.

Going by reputation, I think this isn’t a problem, but if that’s the case the school should have no problem demonstrating their rigor if I ask.

I know you don’t want specific advice, but if you have any access to an IB school, I would move mountains to make that happen. Their elementary program is superb.

As for questions to ask, find out (if you can) what the staff turnover is like. We really like our daughter’s school, but if there’s one thing I’d change, it’s the turnover. Between maternity leaves, teachers moving grades, student teachers and one teacher who I think has simply cracked up (she’s just been announced to be taking a leave of absence, without explanation; she’s been acting odd at school functions all year), there have been a lot of role models drifting in and out of her classrooms in the last 4 years. It’s really hard on kids switching teachers mid-year, especially more than once (her kindergarten class went through four - FOUR - teachers. Oy.)

Some private schools pay really awful wages, and the teachers are constantly looking to get out. On the other hand, some public schools don’t have great administrative support, and their teachers are always looking for the next opportunity elsewhere. But it’s really hard to make generalizations. The one interesting, and to me surprising, correlation seems to be that small schools tend to have higher turnover than large schools.

The private school we are considering does try to provide a well-rounded experience including social interactions, I believe. But I do worry a lot that putting her in private school will basically mean she’s with a lot of rich white kids instead of the diversity she’d get in a public school, and that she’ll turn out a snob.

nods These are great questions, and I’m writing them down.

That’s one thing that I’ve heard is a problem with the private school we’re considering, that they’re always asking for money.

Makes sense: a large school has more opportunities for a change of position or a promotion than a smaller one. It’s the same for any kind of business: a smaller one will, if you’re happy with the job, be happy to let you do it for a long time; a larger one has both more opportunities to change without leaving the organization and, often, more pressure to do so. Were would you expect to see “career plans”, a small organization or a large one?

I don’t know about the public school (although I’ll ask), but it looks like nearly all the faculty at the private school we’re looking at have been there in the 6-12 year range.

The private school we’re looking at is reasonably racially diverse, but I do still worry, like you, about the turning-out-a-snob thing.

I’ve been to a few private schools in the area for Lacrosse tournaments. Either Cranbrook or Country Day should be good. Your family name includes something like Ford, Olds, or Buick though right?

If not, you could “settle” for Brother Rice.

Thanks for the tips, Mitt. :smiley:

I’m kind of with those that thinks that elementary school is where you see the least variation in school quality and its a sort of a waste to spend limited funds there unless its to address a specific problem. I would try the public school for a year before deciding whether or not it meets your needs.

If money were no object, or if the public elementary school had a poor reputation, my answer might be different. But as it is, IMHO you’d be better off saving for private middle school or high school, where the variations in educational experience and social support will be far more significant.