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Parents can plumb the Web for data on private schools

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By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 2, 2009

Private schools have a reputation for being, well, private. Private about their size, private about their students, private about rates of college-bound students.

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The information on their Web sites, which is sometimes meager, and the material that a pesky parent can wrangle from an admissions director sometimes seem to be all that is available to interested families.

But a little-known database on the Department of Education's Web site has a surprisingly comprehensive profile of the nation's private schools.

The Private School Universe Survey, part of the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, is a biennial roundup of private schools with information on enrollment, demographics, college attendance rates and number of days in the school year.

Although schools are under no legal obligation to respond to the survey, more than 91 percent do, said officials who compile it. Even schools that are guarded about their information don't always realize that the data they have supplied to the Department of Education is publicly available.

The survey, for which a search tool is available at http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/pss/privateschoolsearch, has been conducted since 1989. The information is slightly old by the time it is released, but it can provide a good snapshot of a school. The most recent survey, released in March, has information from the 2007-08 school year.

Entrepreneurial parents can comb the data for tidbits.

At 240 days, for example, the Community School in Brookeville has the longest school year in the Washington area for a private school that isn't exclusively prekindergarten or kindergarten. (It prepares students with autism for "inclusion in their communities," according to its Web site.)

And if parents aren't sated by the survey, they can turn elsewhere. GuideStar (http://www.guidestar.org) is a free tool for scoping out publicly available financial information about nonprofit organizations.

Tax returns for many schools are available on the site, although small schools and those affiliated with places of worship tend not to be listed. Data about annual revenue and spending are available, as are the salaries of the top-paid employees of the school.


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