The complete guide to getting your child accepted to a private school in Charlotte

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Families are used to campus tours, recommendation letters, interminable applications and standardized tests as part of getting into college.

But for some of the most sought-after private and independent schools in the Charlotte area, this rigorous admissions process starts as young as kindergarten.

Nearly 13,500 students attend one of 56 private elementary schools in Charlotte. The process of applying to these schools is highly involved and highly competitive.

Everything from the national economy to local redistricting for public schools can impact how competitive selection really is.

Here’s a complete guide to getting accepted.

There are three major categories of private schools in the Charlotte area.

1) The Charlotte Area Independent Schools network also known as CAIS:

  • Charlotte Christian School
  • Charlotte Preparatory School
  • Charlotte Country Day School
  • Providence Day School
  • Charlotte Latin School
  • Trinity Episcopal School

2) Catholic schools falling under the Mecklenburg Area Catholic Schools (MACS) office. There are 8 in Charlotte:

  • Saint Matthew Catholic School
  • Saint Gabriel Catholic School
  • Saint Mark Catholic School
  • Saint Patrick Catholic School
  • Saint Ann Catholic School
  • Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic School
  • Holy Trinity Middle School
  • Charlotte Catholic High School

3) Other independent schools which belong to neither group. Here are some of the best known:

  • Davidson Day School
  • Cannon School
  • SouthLake Christian Academy
  • Covenant Day School
  • Carmel Christian School

The six CAIS schools have worked together to streamline their application process. Parents can apply to one or more of these schools without having to repeat the same testing assessments (you’ll learn about those later), and they’ll get a decision on admittance at the same time from all of them — making decisions easier.

The application process for MACS schools is similar, though the timeline differs from CAIS schools.

The other independent schools have different application processes — and you’ll have to go through them one at a time.

Step 1: Evaluate your options.

Families typically apply to three schools.

Some decisions are fairly clear cut: Do you want a secular or religious school? Do you favor a K-8 program or K-12?

Some are trickier. How big of a school are you looking for?

Class size typically falls within the 10-20 students per classroom range at the kindergarten level — smaller than public school classrooms. Smaller schools like Charlotte Christian School have kindergarten class sizes of 15-17. Some of the biggest schools have larger kindergarten classes, like 18 per class at Providence Day School.

These logistical decisions matter, but the final decision generally is based upon the culture of the school.

Each private school in Charlotte has a different “flavor,” says Vicky Wilkison, admissions director at Charlotte Preparatory School. It is often difficult to pinpoint without spending time on campus. Wilkison describes the flavor at Charlotte Prep as marked by its small classroom sizes and diversity, with minority groups accounting for 42% of the student body.

Charlotte Country Day School’s flavor is centered on balance, and the creation of an atmosphere where academic rigor is met with equal attention to the value of creativity, sports, art, theatre, and well-roundedness, says Nancy Ehringhaus, admissions director.

At Providence Day School, 66 countries are represented on campus, demonstrating the global perspective that school values so deeply.

For schools like Charlotte Christian School, a non-denominational Christian worldview underlies everything done on campus.

students-at-charlotte-country-day

Courtesy of Charlotte Country Day School, as well as the cover photo for this story

Step 2: Tour the schools you’re interested in.

Open houses generally begin in October and run through January.

Families typically begin this touring process one year before they intend to apply. So if you’re looking for an admission in fall 2020, you’re likely touring schools beginning between October 2018 and January 2019.

Step 3: Have your child tested by a psychologist.

Many private schools require applicants to submit a test score to be considered. Academic testing for 4- and 5-year-olds? Yes — but don’t stress out.

The CAIS schools use the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence – Fourth Edition (WPPSI-IV). This is essentially a one-on-one session between your child and a psychologist.

This session is play-based, so the “testing” is not as harsh as it may sound. It is, however, designed to assess the cognitive, emotional, and developmental readiness of children for the academic and social setting of kindergarten.

Though this sounds stressful, private school admissions directors say that parents should relax, remain flexible, and enjoy the process when possible. “It really is fun because they learn so much about their child,” Ehringhaus, of Charlotte Country Day School, said.

Appointments for psychological testing can be made (anytime after Labor Day) with testing psychologists and the tests themselves are generally done anytime after October 1.

How should parents get their children ready for the test?

Wilkison says she hates to think of parents focusing on “preparing” their child. Far more important in the eyes of the Charlotte Preparatory School admissions team is finding the right fit with families.

Jennifer Moore, admissions director of Trinity Episcopal School, echoed the same sentiment. She said learning independence is far more important than having letters memorized.

“We want a really well-rounded kindergartener that comes in independent,” Moore said. “If a child has a solid core, or maybe they have spent a lot of time running around outside, we know they are well developed.”

Cecil Stodghill, admission director at Providence Day School, recommended that parents focus on “developmental readiness.”

“Make sure they’re playing, make sure they’re exposed to being read to,” he said. “Make sure they learn to ride a bike. Make sure they learn to socialize with their peers. Those developmental pieces are much more important at 4 and 5 than those academic pieces.”

Step 4: Figure out how you’re paying.

Tuition ranges widely from school to school — but the average runs $14,000 per year.

Here’s a quick rundown of the price of selected kindergarten programs in Charlotte:

  • Providence Day: $19,050
  • Charlotte Latin: $17,850
  • Charlotte Preparatory School: $17,350
  • Charlotte Country Day: $17,330
  • Trinity Episcopal School: $17,235
  • Charlotte Christian: $14,200
  • Carmel Christian: $8,930
  • Saint Matthew Catholic: $6,569

[Agenda story: 14 biggest private schools in Charlotte, ranked by the cost of tuition]

For families of limited means, need-based financial aid is generally available.

Providence Day School alone distributes $4 million a year in financial assistance. At Cannon School, 20 percent of families receive financial aid. “We are committed to our families,” Admissions Director Bill Diskin said. “If cost is the problem, we fell like it’s something we can solve.”

Most of these schools have financial aid specific pages on their websites, offering the details of application processes and deadlines. Some work with third parties to determine who ought to receive aid and how much.

Step 5: Get the final pieces ready and submit your application.

Applications are typically due early or mid-January, but most schools require a few more boxes to be checked.

CAIS (and most) independent school applications will include an open house visit, a shadow/observation day for the prospective student, and letters of recommendation from the child’s pre-kindergarten teacher.

The specific dates of this timeline and the criteria for submitting these components vary from school to school.

Step 6: Open your acceptance letters.

Families generally are notified in February or March if they are admitted to a school. Congratulations!

Didn’t get your first choice? Moore, the admissions director at Trinity Episcopal School, says not to worry. “There is a space and a spot for every child that goes through the process,” she said. “It may not be your first choice, but it is most likely the place that your child is meant to be in the long run.”

How competitive is private school admissions? What are my chances of success?

The bottom line is that, for the most part, these schools aren’t going to be able to tell you. Admissions rates are confidential, and frequently it is a numbers game.

The elementary school acceptance rate for all private schools in Charlotte is about 74 percent, according to Private School Review, an online tool where schools can update data about their institution. That compares with a national average of 86%.

Two area schools — Charlotte Latin School and Providence Day School — both list their acceptance rates on Private School Review at 50 percent.

That encompasses grades K-12, however, which could be misleading. One key to acceptance is what grade you’re applying for, and how many available seats the school has at that level.

The CAIS schools tend to have more firm classroom size caps, while their Catholic peers tend to be more flexible.

Purely based on the numbers, it’s going to be easier to get your child in during the pre-kindergarten, transitional kindergarten, and kindergarten years.

Are private school admissions getting more competitive?

This depends on who you ask.

At a handful of Charlotte schools, applications are currently on the rise due to last year’s student reassignment plan at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Parents wishing to avoid the uncertainty of where their child will attend school next year are often turning to private schooling.

Jennifer Harris, with the MACS office, said that last year’s CMS redistricting has led to a rise in application numbers at all grade levels for the Catholic schools. Ehringhaus shared that the same increase has been seen at Charlotte Country Day School.

[Agenda story: Student assignment is over. There were winners and losers. What comes next?]

For some schools, though, kindergarten application numbers are decreasing due to factors including decreasing birth rates or families starting out in charter or traditional public schools.

This downturn correlates with nationwide trends.

“We did a task force in the fall to look at this, because around the country, if you talk to independent schools — families are delaying their decision to send their children to independent schools,” Diskin, of Cannon School, said. “They’re delaying that decision until later elementary, middle school, or upper school.”

However, it’s important to note that this downturn is primarily taking place at the kindergarten level — and may be simultaneously occurring with an uptick at the upper level.

For parents who value small, tightknit schooling, that is more easily obtained at a public elementary school than a public high school. Thus, it is at that stage that a family may elect to transfer to independent schooling.

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