Fall is prime time for exploring new educational options. Here's a primer on starting the search.

Maybe next year it'll be time to send your child to elementary school. Perhaps you recently moved to the area and are evaluating school districts. Or you might just be looking for a change. For many parents in these situations, the decision-making process leads them to private school. Is it the right route for your family? There are many factors to consider, as well as different types of institutions in Central Ohio.

Dan Dodd, executive director of the Ohio Association of Independent Schools, said that many parents opt for private schools because they are looking for a different and unique academic experience for their children. “The curriculum is typically much more innovative than what you might find in a public school setting,” Dodd said. “Public schools have a lot of mandates to follow that are handed down from the state government. OAIS schools don't like those mandates and we fight against them. It gives us more opportunity to be flexible and innovative.”

OAIS, based in Sebring, has 45 members, including nine in Central Ohio. Many also are accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States.

When searching for a school, keep in mind that each institution can bring a different learning environment. “Not all independent schools are going to be the right fit for every child,” Dodd said. “That's even within families. Some may benefit from single-gender environment vs. co-ed. Some might thrive in a Montessori school and others may not.”

Some private schools offer specialized academic assistance. New Albany-based Marburn Academy, accredited by ISACS and the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators, serves children with learning differences such as dyslexia and ADHD.

“Marburn Academy offers an educational program for a specific group of students who are largely underserved and underestimated in the traditional school setting,” said Jamie Williamson, head of school. “Students who learn differently thrive in an environment that individualizes the needs to the student. Marburn offers these students a comprehensive program with direct instruction using a multisensory approach.”

Parochial, or religious, schools are another option. That's the route Lindy and Jeff Deal of Gahanna chose for Dylan, 8, and Liam, 5, who attend Saint Matthew Catholic School in Gahanna. Lindy Deal went to Catholic school, and she and her husband wanted their sons to learn religious values in the classroom.

“We wanted that tight-knit community,” Deal said. “It's smaller than some of the other schools, and you know the other kids' families. It feels like more of a community than just a school. It does cost extra money, but you go with your gut, and that's just part of the education and the choice.”

Choosing a School

Tuition costs are just part of the private school decision-making process—albeit a significant one. Current-year tuition for Columbus Academy, for example, ranges from $23,000 for kindergarten to $27,500 for 12th grade. The cost is similar at The Wellington School: $21,300 to $24,250, based on grade level. Both schools offer financial aid and scholarships. Tuition at Marburn Academy is $27,540, but the average cost is $12,000 after awards and scholarships.

If you're thinking about a private education for your child, start by visiting schools, talking to administrators and asking questions. John Wuorinen, director of admissions and financial aid at Columbus Academy, suggested posing deeper-than-normal queries. Instead of finding out which colleges past students attend, dig into what the college counseling process looks like. Or if you're curious about the dress code, also question the philosophy behind it. Bring up educational needs as well, the OAIS' Dodd said.

“I just talked with a parent recently,” Dodd explained, “and if the child is thought to be or has been diagnosed as having some sort of a learning disability or being exceptionally gifted, parents will want to ask the school how they will address those things.”

Start your search well before the next school year, because the application process at many schools starts the previous fall. The start of the current academic year is a good time to look at options, said Dodd. Open houses typically are held in the fall and some schools, such as Columbus Academy, also offer student shadowing opportunities.

“We require a shadow day for anyone at least fifth grade and up,” Wuorinen said. “Lots of people assume that's because we want to check on the behavior of the kid. Much more important to us is seeing how that boy or girl feels about that day and how they feel about the school. Ideally, this is a match of home, school and child. All three of those entities have to be happy with a move to the school.”

Deal's No. 1 piece of advice for prospective private school parents: Check out your top choices in person. “I would say, from a mom to another mom, you have to visit the school and physically walk in,” she said. “You know your kid better than anyone, which helps to make that decision.”