By Susan L. Wright
There are a variety of reasons parents choose private schools for their children, including religion; a preference for small classes or small schools; a belief in a certain educational system not used in public schools, such as Montessori; or academic quality.
With a total of about 50 private schools, Volusia County has something for almost every parental wish -- except boarding schools.
All of the private schools in the county are day schools.
According to the Private School Review website, the private schools in Volusia County serve 6,698 students. However, the site lists St. James Episcopal Day School, which closed in August 2013, so some of the information may not be up to date.
Surprisingly there is no central association of private schools in the county or the region, no Central Florida agency that supervises or links the schools.
Parents searching for the right school for their child will have to do their own research into the school and try to find comparisons with similar schools in the region or country to see how the school stacks up.
The first thing anyone will tell you when looking into private schools is to check their accreditation. Which sounds like an excellent idea, except there's a wide assortment of accrediting agencies. That leaves prospective parents having to evaluate the accrediting agencies as well as the schools.
The cost for private school can be as much as $10,000 per year ($10,200 for Father Lopez High School, for instance), so parents will want to know that money is being well spent.
Henry Fortier, the secretary for education and superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Orlando, who supervises Volusia County's six Catholic schools, suggested parents look for accrediting agencies with a good, long history and a solid reputation. The kind of reputation recognized by college admissions boards, for instance. All the schools in the diocese are accredited both with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, now named AdvanED, a non-denominational organization and the Florida Catholic Conference Accreditation Committee.
Accreditation is just "one piece of the puzzle," however, he said. He suggested parents start by checking the school's website and to check online for parent sites that offer reviews of different schools. Finally, parents should visit the school and insist on meeting with the principal or head administrator, including a tour of the school.
Their schools use national standardized tests, rather than the state testing used in Florida's public schools since the advent of the FCAT. He suggested parents check the school's record in how the children score on the standardized test -- adding the diocesan schools have all tested 15-20 percent higher than the national average on the tests.
And, maybe the most important piece of this puzzle, he said is the visit to the school. Academics may be one key reason to opt for private schools, but another quality that makes them stand out from public schools is the close, family atmosphere. The largest private schools in Volusia County are still much smaller than any equivalent public school and parents often choose to pay the tuition to make sure their child doesn't get lost in the crowd.
Mark Tress, the superintendent of Warner Christian Academy in South Daytona, also recommended parents check out the accreditation of any school they're considering, and double checking the accrediting agency.
At Warner Christian, he said they use the accreditation process not just as a means of measuring the quality as a guide for parents, but also as a tool to help them in the process of continuing improvement.
Like the Catholic schools, they are connected to both a religious and a secular accrediting agency, in their case the Association of Christian Schools International and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Going through the accreditation evaluation process, he said "is helpful in becoming a better school. We always seek to improve our programs. Through the accreditation process we learn what we can do to improve ourselves."
While Warner Christian is founded on Christian values, with an emphasis on morals and character, he said they welcome non-Christian students as well. He also said checking out the school personally to get a feel for the atmosphere and the way it seems to fit your family is just as important as assessing the academic achievement of the school.
While the internet is a valuable tool for researching the quality of a school, old-fashioned word of mouth can be just as important to getting a feel for the qualities that can't be summed up in statistics and grades.
Volusia County is home to a number of very small private schools, including a couple that feature the Montessori method that emphasizes a child's individual learning style and pace.
Mary Koenig, principal of the Casa Montessori School in DeLand, also recommended parents check the accreditation of the schools. Casa Montessori is accredited by the Association of Montessori Schools International, founded by the originator of the Montessori method, Maria Montessori.
There are other accrediting agencies that claim to accredit Montessori schools, but Ms. Koenig said the only one that adheres to the principals of the original is the international agency. An accredited Montessori school will have staff specifically trained in the Montessori method, over and above a bachelor's degree.
While the Montessori Method isn't for everybody, parents who believe in that kind of educational approach can be very committed. Ms. Koenig said they have students who travel from all over the county to DeLand because their parents are so determined to give their children a Montessori education.
Private schools cater to all kinds of specific interests. There are two Jewish schools in Ormond Beach, one more conservative than the other. There are schools that focus on helping children with special needs and with special interests.