Ann Dolin’s guide to D.C. area private schools helps parents choose the right fit

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the title of Dolin’s book. The book is called “A Guide to Private Schools: The Washington DC, Northern Virginia, and Maryland Edition.” The story has been updated to reflect the correct title.

Ann Dolin, the president and founder of Educational Connections, a tutoring service in Northern Virginia, is turning her more than 20 years of experience in education into a guide to private schools in the Washington area. Dolin’s book, “A Guide to Private Schools: The Washington DC, Northern Virginia, and Maryland Edition,” will be published later this fall.

Dolin has two sons, ages 15 and 11. One attends private school and the other goes to public school. She taught in Fairfax County for six years and has been in the private tutoring business since 1998.

I recently spoke with Ann by phone about the book and what parents should look for when choosing a school for their child. Here are edited excerpts of that conversation.

Tell me more about the book.


(Ann Dolin, founder of Educational Connections in Northern Virginia, has written a guide to choosing a private school in the Washington, D.C. area.)

The book is divided into three main sections. The first section is all about picking a school that might work for your child and applying. It goes from step one, starting in September when you are visiting a lot of different schools, and goes over what to look for that might match your student’s learning style, the application process, tours, shadow visits and making the decision. The next part of the book, which is my favorite part, is advice from admissions directors, parents who have gone through the process and students. The last part is profiles of about 100 schools in the area, everything from elementary schools to high schools. The profiles include information about curriculum, student life, sports, after-school clubs, the type of teaching methodology and tuition. The beginning of the book has a whole section on financial aid and a section on private vs. public schools, because many families in our area want to consider the public option.

Why is this process overwhelming for parents?

Oftentimes they are not sure where to start. They’ve heard the names of schools but they don’t know if a school is a good match for their child. They go by reputation, by what other people have told them, they read blogs. That’s not a good way of getting information. Many times parents are very emotional with the decision. They often have schools on their list that aren’t necessarily appropriate for the child. Or there are schools with very lofty admission standards that are hard to get into, so parents will say ‘That must be the best school.’ But it’s not necessarily the case for their child.

What should parents be looking at to find the best fit?

You can read a lot on school Web sites and get mailers. But you have to get a feel for the school’s culture by going on tours and to open houses. A parent’s intuition is a very good guide. You also need to look at teaching style. Some schools are very traditional, very lecture-based, where it’s teacher-centered. If your student is bored easily and needs something more hands-on, a more student-centered style of instruction, that student may not fit in the box for a more traditional school.

I also have parents look at the chance of being accepted. If the school is looking for high standardized test scores and a report card with all A’s, if your child has mediocre test scores and A’s and B’s, it’s going to be tough. A lot of parents only have highly competitive schools on their list because they are going on reputation. You want to have options.

Does the book offer rankings or opinions on the schools?

No. It’s all objective information. It’s pretty fact-based in terms of the schools’ teaching methods and focus.

What do you want parents to take away from your book?

I’m hoping that parents cast a wider net in that they look at lots of different schools they may not have thought about before. Often the school they’re thinking about for their child may not be the best fit, so it’s always a good idea to explore lots of options. Parents come in with preconceived notions about their child and when they’re willing to explore other options and think about what’s best for the child and not about where they would want to go, it’s easier to make a better match.

Mari-Jane Williams covers parenting and family issues for Local Living and schools for the Prince William and Loudoun Extras.
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