Catherine Nwankwo lives in an excellent-rated Ohio school district, but giving her children an education steeped in faith is important to her and her husband, Evans. So rather than sending her three children — two 7-year-old boys and a 14-year-old girl — to public schools, Nwankwo sends them to Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, a local independent school.

“We wanted to give our children the opportunity to pray in school,” says Nwankwo, of Mason. “And (CHCA) has a strong academic record as well as a good sports program.”

Nwankwo has plenty of company. While the Cincinnati region boasts many award-winning public schools, private and independent schools with rich history and impressive records abound. They range in size from 35 students to more than 1,000. Some have missions that include a religious component, some are single-gender schools, and some are geared toward specialties such as gifted education. (While independent and private schools share some similarities, independent schools are organized as not-for-profit corporations governed by an independent board of trustees. Private schools might be owned or run by a profit-making entity or a church, diocese, or synagogue.)

The reasons parents choose these schools vary from tradition to location, special needs, and religion. Another consideration is tuition; the annual cost of Cincinnati’s private schools ranges from around $2,500 to nearly $20,000.

If you’re considering going the private or independent school route, it’s important to do your homework. The state compiles data such as class size, teacher turnover, and teacher-to-student ratios for public schools, but no such clearinghouse exists for private schools. And while those numbers are available from the school for the asking, local experts agree there are plenty of other things to consider as well — such as the school’s culture, sports programs, cost, and religious affiliation — before making a final decision.

“Beyond the general data, you need to find the right fit for your child,” says Jenn Sennett, director of marketing and communications for Mount Notre Dame High School, an all-girl Catholic school in Reading. Knowing what the school offers in the student life category is critical to making a good choice, she says. Even a school with an excellent reputation might not be right for your child.

Know Yourself
“When you’re looking at what is best for your child, you have to consider your own experiences,” says Sandy Schilling, founder of The Schilling School for Gifted Children in Cincinnati. “Sometimes, an independent school has been a tradition in the family. Such is often the case with Catholic schools or something like Summit Country Day.”

It’s no secret that the Cincinnati region is awash in tradition, especially in schooling: Catholic high schools such as Xavier and Moeller have served several generations of the same families.

But sometimes it’s not about tradition. Parents looking into a specialized school like Schilling, where students must have an IQ of at least 130 for acceptance, have often had an experience in another setting that they felt fell short of meeting their child’s needs.

“Perhaps if you have a family who had gone to parochial schools, they might find that in their current school they miss that religious focus. Or, if the child is having problems with structure, they might consider a more open environment like Montessori,” Schilling says. Parents who consider The Schilling School often do so because they want their child to have a more challenging curriculum in an accepting, small-class environment.

Parents need to consider what’s important now and in the long run, adds Sennett. Is it important that their children have extra-curricular activities or strong social connections during high school? Or are they more focused on their child getting scholarship dollars later on? And of course, there are more practical considerations: Where is the school and what are its hours? A parent might not be available to drive his or her child 20 miles each way, or some schools might not have after-hours care for younger children. Answering such questions will help you begin to narrow your choices.

Know your Child
“A parent needs to know the learning style of their child and how successful he or she would be in a particular environment,” says Nancy Ike, a Cincinnati-based educational consultant. “You really need to know what his strengths and weaknesses are.”

Ike recommends testing, particularly for children who might be having difficulty in their current schools. The problem may be in decoding, comprehension, verbal skills, or the social environment. Pinpointing their problems will help as you talk with potential private schools, because you’ll know the right questions to ask about things that will make a difference for your child in particular.

But don’t just seek outside help. Get your child involved early, asking her what type of environment she wants. “Some kids would work very well in a single-gender environment, while another child may not want that,” Schilling adds. Very social children might seek a larger school, while those who are shy or easily distracted might prefer a smaller place.

Sennett says that Mount Notre Dame promotes its philosophy of nurturing the whole student in an environment that is academically challenging, but not cutthroat. “Our kids really push each other and hold each other up. What we hear from people who visit is that MND is a really warm school,” Sennett says. “We’re not just concerned with academic performance. We’re concerned with sending empowered young women into the world, and that’s academic, social, physical, emotional, and spiritual.” Other programs, however, tout their academic rigor, first and foremost.

Know the School
Experts agree that figures such as student-to-teacher ratio, the number of teachers with advanced degrees, advanced placement classes offered and students accepted to college are important indicators of a school’s footing. All schools typically track these numbers. It’s easy to get plenty of data on individual public schools on the web sites of state departments of education, but not so easy with private schools, which aren’t required to report them to the state.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t get them: Just ask. In fact, says Ike, a private school should divulge such figures without hesitation. “I think if a private school hesitates to give you any kind of numbers that you would get from a public school, then you should be wary,” she says.

Sennett echoes that sentiment. “Generally, I think most parents are looking for the same figures, and we make them available,” she says. “We always submit that information to publications. This is the time of year when they start comparing apples to apples.”

Many private schools have at least some of these figures — likely the ones they’re most proud of — in their marketing materials. As of last year, all Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati can recruit students from across the region. Since at least the 1960s, interparochial high schools could only recruit students from elementary schools within assigned boundaries.

Dennis Coyle, admissions director at Roger Bacon High School, encourages families to explore schools outside their traditional boundary area, but reminds parents that numbers in marketing materials can be manipulated easily.

“You have to understand what the numbers truly represent,” he advises. “A good question to ask would be: How did you derive that information? If they don’t know, that’s not a good sign. They could be grabbing at straws and giving you a number that’s a few years old.”

For example, a school could derive its student-to-teacher ratio from dividing the entire student population by the total number of teachers, Coyle says, but that might not indicate the actual size of a typical class at the school. It’s also a good idea to make sure statistics, such as percentage of students who move on to college, are reflective of the entire student body and not just of certain segments.

Numbers are just the beginning in evaluating a private school, says Schilling. “I think, in looking at a private school, one of the things that’s important is knowing what the culture is all about. Is it a school where the focus is on helping your child become everything they can become, or is it a culture where they are looking for what your child can bring to the school?” she says.

The Ohio Association of Independent Schools has some recommendations for assessing schools. Among them:

✔ Review a school’s web site. Some of them, such as the site of The Seven Hills School in Cincinnati, offer a wealth of information including schedules, class offerings at each grade, a list of clubs and activities, and the philosophy of teaching. Many school web sites include photos, overviews of community service projects, and summer program information.

✔ If you like what you see, visit the school’s open house during the fall.

✔ Request printed materials from the school’s admissions office and talk with students who attend.

✔ Set up an interview and ask the questions that are on your mind. Observe the culture of the school and how your child will fit there. The Ohio Association of Independent Schools web site says your child “should be given plenty of opportunities to ask his or her own questions.”

At Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, families are required to meet with administrators as part of the school’s admissions process. Natalie Pfister, interim director of enrollment at CHCA, says the interview is a chance for both the family and the school to assess how the student will fit in at the school, both in terms of what the family is looking for and what the school can offer.

“It’s worth the extra time investment to make sure there’s a solid match at the front end of the process because no one wins if there’s a later disappointment or mismatch of expectations,” advises Pfister.

Additionally, parents should request that their children shadow a student for a day, Sennett says. “That’s a great way for everyone to experience the environment. It’s a gut feeling that you get when you experience it.” At MND, Sennett says the admission office schedules these shadow days, matching potential students with current students who might have the same interests, such as drama or art.

Coyle also stresses that shadowing is very valuable, because it gives students a genuine idea of what the school is like on a regular day. “Nothing can replace going to school and experiencing the atmosphere,” he says. “If students can research online and narrow (their options) down to two to three schools, then the shadowing experience can solidify their decision.”

The sooner families begin researching, the better, Coyle asserts. An early decision is often essential in the application for financial aid and scholarships. While the Archdiocese of Cincinnati reserves the shadowing experience for 8th graders, 7th graders are welcome at open houses, which provide great opportunities to speak with staff members who can address your child’s specific interests.

Finally, look forward to watching your child thrive. If you’ve done your homework and made the right match of school and child, there’s an excellent chance of success.