A Solo Mom makes private school work for her
Choosing your child’s school can feel like a decision on par with choosing a career, deciding to get married . . . or whether to get divorced. Because I opted for divorce, I found myself making this massive decision between public and private school for my child—and dealing with everything that went along with it—solo.
Because we all want what’s best for our offspring, one of the first (and most expensive) decisions a parent faces is whether to go public or private.
Why go private?
Private schools do not receive money from the state; therefore, they don’t have to adhere to the same regulations or suffer the lack of funding that often frustrates the public school system.
While many contend that public schools provide more real-life experience and offer more specialized programs (especially magnates), others feel private schools are better schools, worth the price tag attached. (According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the current average cost for elementary private-school tuition is $7,700 per year. Parochial schools tend to run between $5,000 and $10,000 per year.)
Private schools set up their own admissions policies and are able to choose whatever curriculum and testing models they’d like. They can be highly specialized, offering new and alternative teaching methods, advanced and diverse curriculums, and for parochial and Catholic schools, religious affiliations and studies.
Class sizes are smaller in private schools (though Catholic schools tend to have a higher student-teacher ratio), and because teachers do not require certification at private schools, schools can hire staff who offer special skills.
After assessing all of my public-school options available at the time, I decided to go private.
Which brought up the next issue . . .
How do you choose a private school?
Tour—both with your child and without. Speak with other parents, administrators, and teachers at the school, and check Facebook, Google, and Yelp—and everything in between—for reviews.
Go to the school carnival or fair. (For me, this was the best indicator.) Observe if there are other single parents. How does the school community jibe with your own family values, sexual orientation, ethnicity, faith, and family makeup? During an interview at our then–number one school choice, the principal referred to my daughter and me as an “incomplete family.” Delete! We ended up at the perfect school with many single parents and a diverse student body.
How do you get in?
Although public schools are obligated to accept every child, private schools are not. Because private schools often pick and choose based on academic ability, ethnicity, religious background, or even special attributes of the parents, they have the freedom to create their own community. Admission generally involves applications, interviews, essays, testing, and on-campus “playdates.”
Here are some tips:
1. Lay the foundation early. Attend events (e.g., school fairs and carnivals), and make yourself visible to the school community and administration. Don’t be afraid to speak up and shake hands. Make it clear, “We love your school and plan on applying next year.” Ask your preschool or any friends you have who are currently at the school to provide references.
2. Send your child to preschool. Your child will gain the remedial skills, maturity, and social skills that private schools look for.
3. Enroll your child in the school’s summer camp. If the school offers a summer camp, send your child. The school will get to know her . . . and you.
4. Don’t freak out. Do not get caught up in the contagious, competitive parental frenzy to get junior into “that” private school. Don’t push your child. If he is not meant to be at a certain school, then he shouldn’t be there. Let your child evolve naturally into his own special person—that is what schools will spot. The right fit is key.
5. Don’t be afraid to advocate. Sell what your family and your child have to offer the school community.
6. Mind your manners. You will find that admissions and financial-aid personnel work their butts off. They are kind and patient and deal with hundreds of people in what can be a highly charged time. Send a thank-you card to these people, and have your child handwrite one as well. Better yet—have your child make the card. In fact, my daughter and I baked cookies and delivered them to each school that spent time with her—just to let them know how much we appreciated their efforts. They were delighted.
How do you pay for private school when you’re a Solo Mom?
Many parents feel the individual attention children receive from a private school is worth the cost of tuition. But let’s face it—it’s expensive.
1. Do not despair. Many private schools offer financial aid, scholarships, and loan programs. Financial-aid policies will be posted on a school’s website. Upon application, be honest and up front that you will be applying for aid. The financial-aid counselors are there to give you guidance during the financial-aid process.
2. Be realistic. Be honest about your assets, income, and estimates of future income, and try not to be overconfident, as awards and aid can change from year to year: tuition goes up 5% to 10% annually, and awards can go down based on increased income or unreasonable lifestyle costs. No trips to Paris or new BMWs if your kid is on financial aid!
3. Don’t let tax rules discourage you. Most schools require the custodial parent provide an estimated yearly budget, plus the previous year’s taxes for both parents. Because my ex would not provide his taxes, my daughter was accepted to some schools but not others. Thankfully, some schools that understand the nature of solo parenting will waive the “ex’s taxes” requirement. Do your taxes early, and turn in your paperwork on time . . . better yet, turn it in early!
4. Don’t jump at the first offer. If your number-one school gives you a so-so offer, but your number-two school gives you a better one—know that number-two really wants your child, and you will have less financial stress. We went with our number-three school, which made us an amazing offer—and my daughter ended up being a number-one student there. You want your child to be where your child is wanted.
For more information, School and Student Services, run by the National Association of Independent Schools, has a ton of information on private school financing.
What I did
I took a risk and put my daughter in kindergarten at a private school when I had enough money to pay for only one year. Thankfully, she excelled. When the next year rolled around and I could no longer afford the tuition, we were offered aid, and my daughter received aid throughout high school. It was largely based on her grades, school involvement, community service, my school involvement . . . and her performing at every single school fundraiser until she graduated high school!
Do not do what I did!
Do not count on winning the lottery, marrying a billionaire, or selling that screenplay for six figures so you can pay your child’s tuition . . . or even the reduced monthly payments, like I did. (It was stupid and risky—but we were lucky.) The last thing you want to do is pull your child from school in the middle of the year because you can’t make your already discounted tuition payments.
The most important tip on educating your child? Do not go into debt educating your child.
Private or public, you may hit some bumps, and you may have to gently advocate, have a few meetings, or work through issues. Just stay the course, and before you know it, it will be time to find a college.
We’ll reconnect then. . . .
Kathleen Laccinole, ESME’s Dating Resource Guide, has penned numerous films and parenting books but is best known for producing the highly lauded Greta, age 20, and William, age 16.
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