Chattanooga school consultant, admissions directors share tips for choosing a school

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Members of the Collegedale Academy band perform patriotic music on Thursday, November 11, 2021 during the Veterans Day Ceremony in the Collegedale Commons. The event was moved from the Collegedale Veterans Park to the Commons due to the threat of inclement weather.

Chattanooga's education opportunities are so abundant that when it comes time to choose a school for your child, making a decision can feel overwhelming. Making a list of priorities can help, says Whetstone School Consulting founder Will Newberry, a Chattanooga-based consultant who helps parents select the best school for their child.

"I think it boils down to finding the right fit for your child and your family, not only academically but also what kind of extracurricular programs schools offer and the community," says Ryan Armstrong, director of admissions at Baylor School.

For example, a child who is the right fit for Baylor is engaged in school and extracurricular activities, is well-rounded and cares about a lot of different things, Armstrong says.

"School, of course, is always the priority, but at Baylor specifically I feel like we go far beyond that, and we are very much focused on the whole child and development from social-emotional, artistic, athletic standpoints as well. And when students leave, I think the most important thing that we want to see is that they're prepared for that next level, not just academically -- they'll definitely be prepared academically -- but also just prepared to be independent, to be a self-advocate, to know how to collaborate, to think independently. Those are skills I feel like are important and very well-developed at Baylor."

For parents who are in the process of choosing a school or plan to start looking at options in the future, here are a few more things you should consider.

Start early. 

While Newberry gets calls from many parents who want to find a school immediately, it's best for parents -- especially parents who are new to the area or live outside of town -- to leave enough time to really explore the plethora of options Chattanooga has to offer. "A year or two out is never bad for planning, for budgeting, for understanding options and thinking," he says.

Does the school offer the classes, sports and activities you want? 

"The biggest thing I think when parents are looking at schools is they obviously want their child to be able to grow in a variety of ways, and matching up the school that will provide those opportunities most readily is an important thing to do," says Armstrong.

Do you want to consider public schools, whether traditional, charter or magnet?

"A lot of times people don't realize how many great public options they have through open enrollment, the academies here in town or the magnet schools," Newberry says. "They aren't aware what a charter school is or where they are, how they're different."

Visit the schools you are considering and observe the community.

"Take some time to just observe students and faculty in candid situations," Armstrong says. "I know that might not be possible at every school that you go to, but you can learn a lot about a school just by sitting in a quad of campus where there's heavy traffic and just observe the teachers that are there. Of course as you're given tours and listening to presentations, you're hearing a lot of positive things that I'm sure are all true about all the schools here in Chattanooga, but I think when you have a chance to sit and observe, listen, watch -- that is really helpful, and I think just interacting with current students and current faculty members is also a helpful way to kind of gauge whether their child will be a fit."

  photo  Staff Photo by Angela Lewis Foster Student Isabelle Cox talks about an art project in the art classroom Wednesday, October 26, 2015 at St. Nicholas School.

Do you want a religious element? And if you aren't religious but are considering religious schools, is the school accepting of that?

Becky Sharp, director of admissions and public relations at St. Peters Episcopal School, notes that Episcopal schools are accepting of all religions.

Do you want a school located close to home? Is transportation an issue?

"If they don't mind driving to a particular school then that may not be an issue, but for some people it is," Sharp says.

Do you need financial aid? 

"Some schools have larger and more aggressive and helpful programs than others," Newberry says. "It can be intimidating for a lot of parents who ask for help, and they don't want to hurt their child's chance of admission because they need help. So we talk about that a lot, and I encourage them to take full advantage of every opportunity that exists with each school."

Does class and school size matter to you?

"We feel that a small school is great for younger students," Sharp says of St. Peters, which serves 223 students age 3 up to fifth grade. "It gives them a lot more leadership roles in the fourth and fifth grade, because they are the older students in the school, and it really prepares them well for moving into middle school."

Do you have other children? If so, will your choice of school for this child affect the options of your other children? For instance, will transportation be an issue if your children choose different schools? If you're choosing a school for the oldest of three children, can you afford to send the others?

"You see the different personalities of parents come into play, because some parents are more anxious about it financially and other parents are more, 'Let's just go for it. We've got to make it work.'"

Seek unbiased advice.

"[Clients] are so relieved that somebody knows about all these options, but is not pushing them to anyone. I'm often the first person they've talked to and felt that way," Newberry says.