By the IECA Schools Committee

As IECA independent educational consultants (IECs), we’re always talking about “finding the right fit” for our clients. It’s what we believe in; it’s at the core ethos of our work with our families. But what is it, exactly, that we mean when we talk about fit and how do we evaluate it? To find out, members of the Schools Committee developed a Q&A to explain how they understand fit.

How do you help families assess “fit”?

Ray Cross, Director of Admissions, Marianapolis Preparatory School: From a director of admission’s perspective, a student who is considered to be the right fit is mission appropriate for our institution. Students who are best suited for a school are not only able to benefit from what the school has to offer, positively contribute to a program, and meet academic expectations but also can make a contribution that is both tangible and significant to the community—simultaneously reinforcing and strengthening the school’s culture.

Lucy Pritzker, IECA (NJ): The “right fit school” values those things that make a student unique and can nurture students’ interests while supporting their needs. I read through the student’s transcript thoroughly, paying special attention to teacher comments to assess how capable they are of learning independently. I also take a careful look at the student’s mental health history and any learning issues identified in testing to make sure the school can offer the appropriate support. The student’s mental health comes first, and they shouldn’t be at a school that will compromise it.

Debbie Ashe, IECA, (NC): When considering K–12 schools, parents need to look well down the road because it could be a 13-year relationship. The school should share the family’s values and priorities and there should be a strong partnership.

Krissy Naspo, IECA (CT): When families have a list of schools already in mind, I discuss each one as it relates to what they are seeking for their child. I point out why some of the features they are looking for might not be the criteria that should lead the search, and I help them identify other criteria that are more appropriate.

Allison Matlack, IECA (MA): I consider carefully what the junior year will look like for the student, even when placing freshman. This can be the year when students who are “overmatched” can start to crumble because any cracks in their educational foundation start to show under the weight of increased demands. I look through the course catalog to see how rich and varied the offerings are. Will a very capable student continue to find classes that are challenging? Will a weaker student find classes suited to their abilities? Will every student have the opportunity to take classes in areas of emerging interest, such marine biology, entrepreneurial studies, creative writing, or Mandarin?

How do you evaluate a school’s academic support program?

Pritzker: The location of the academic support center on campus can reveal a great deal about the school’s investment in its LD students. Is it centrally located and easy to get to? Is it a brightly lit and attractive space? Do students go there just to hang out? All those things reveal a lot about the academic culture of the school.

Allison Kimmerle, IECA Associate (VT): I ask the admissions office to allow me to talk directly with the academic support team so I can fully understand support services and the specific training of the staff.

Matlack: Support for a student’s learning needs can mean things other than extended time and working with a tutor. If appropriate, I ask about structured evening study halls and learn about the lights out and Internet policies for students who don’t manage their time well. I look for opportunities for independent study or for modified course loads. The academic schedule can also make a difference. For some students, a mod schedule works while others need the predictability of a schedule that is the same every day, all year long.

What do you look for when reviewing a client’s file to determine the right social and extracurricular fit?

Kimmerle: I look at how a new school can nurture a student’s interests. I ask the student to articulate the specific things they would like to try at each school so that they can start to imagine themselves there.

Pritzker: I look carefully at the dorms and the dining halls to learn more about life on campus and to see how the students are grouped. Are the international students living with the domestic boarders? Are the dorms separated by age? I find out if meals are mandatory and whether there is assigned seating. For some students, that can be a godsend; for others, a nightmare.

Matlack: Students can pick up on a social frequency that I can’t always hear as an adult, like the mosquito tone. If a student tells me that the school didn’t “feel right” to them, I value that feedback.

What questions do you ask the admissions office to distinguish one school’s culture and ethos from another?

Kimmerle: I ask them to describe the type of student who thrives there academically, socially, and personally. But, more than anything, I like to see students interacting with each other, with no adult involvement or interference.

Naspo: I ask that question the opposite way: Who doesn’t do well here? Who struggles to succeed? I also like to attend an all-school meeting or chapel service to see the community in action and interacting with each other.

Pritzker: I like to know what type of student falls in their “sweet spot.” Who do they serve well? Who was most recently asked to leave and why?

No school is a perfect fit. How do you decide how to prioritize a client’s needs to determine which school is the best fit?

Matlack: Sometimes parents look too far down the road and overlook their child’s most immediate and pressing needs. If a child doesn’t have friends, hasn’t found their voice, or can’t write a coherent paragraph, I don’t believe that looking at the school’s college matriculation list provides the most valuable information to consider when making the decision.

Kimmerle: It’s most important that the school is an appropriate match for the student’s academic interests and capabilities. Beyond that, I believe that the social piece is critical. The child needs to be at a school where he will find his peer group.

What do you think is the most common mistake parents make when selecting a school for their child?

Kimmerle: There are two: First, even if the parents see a clear choice, they often allow their child to fully control the decision process with the expectation that their child will “buy in” if they are allowed to make the decision. Second, parents allow themselves to be swayed by other families’ experiences without considering how different their own child might be.

Cross: On the other hand, there is value in a child having some voice and investment in the school selection process. Often it is the student whose parents have completely driven the process who does not fully take advantage of the opportunities afforded to him or her. A student must identify in some way with the community they join to truly blossom and embrace the experience. When parents want something for their children more than the child wants it for him- or herself, someone is generally left underwhelmed and discouraged as a result.

Pritzker: Too often families are caught up by a school’s name and reputation. They go in to the process with too many preconceptions and don’t allow themselves to be open to new possibilities.

Debbie Ashe, IECA (NC): Families focus in on their final school list too early in the process. They have nothing to lose but much to gain by casting the net wide in the early stages of the search. It’s harder to double back later in the process.

Matlack: The coach, the academic support specialist, or the head of the theatre program may become the adult in the community who plays the most important role in making the student’s experience a success. Families need to find time to connect with those people.

What do you think is the most common mistake students make when deciding where to go to school?

Pritzker: Students can focus too narrowly on one specific aspect of the school—a particular sport, a certain language offering, or the quality of the dorms—at the cost of deciding whether the school, in its entirety, is the right place.

Ashe: I find it helpful to (gently) remind the parents of young students that they are looking for the right school for their children, not the school they would have liked to have attended.

Cross: I would caution students to avoid selecting a school simply because of a friend’s interest in attending. Students should aim to find a school that offers a community whose members share similar values, whose culture will encourage a growth mind-set, and whose environment will be conducive to maximizing their potential.

Final thoughts?

Matlack: I think that talking about “right fit” is actually misleading. It implies that the school should fit like a perfectly tailored suit. But parents of growing adolescents know to buy clothes that are a bit too big for their children because what fits now will be snug in a few months. I think we should encourage parents to think about school choice for their children the same way. It should feel a bit too big, the academics should feel a bit too challenging, the athletics should seem a bit too competitive. We should encourage parents not to look for the cozy fit, but to find something that will give their child the room they’ll need to grow.

IECA Schools Committee Members: Allison Matlack, Chair, (MA), Krissy Naspo, Vice Chair, (CT), Clare Anderson (MD), Debby Ashe (NC), Beth Cashel, Associate (NY), Brian Hetzel, Associate (CT), Allison Kimmerle, Associate VT, Lucy Pritzker (NJ), Ray Cross, Advisory Member