Chess players

Stylist Ashley Helvey; hair and makeup by Megan Dodge.

MY DAUGHTER’S IN seventh grade, and by the time you read this I will have been to one private high school fair, four private high school open houses, and at least one party where I turned perfectly pleasant small talk into a ruthless interrogation on the relative merits of Seattle Prep and Holy Names. (What can I say? Their kids were students!)

My friends know how highly my husband and I value education; so now do my readers, whose incendiary responses to a column I wrote in these pages when we were searching for a middle school possibly crashed the Seattle Public Schools community blog. And we support public education—having sent our daughter to public elementary school, then moved across town for the sole purpose of penetrating the attendance area of the public high school, Garfield, we figured was the best fit for our kid.

Now Garfield is 150 to 300 kids oversubscribed (depending on whom you ask), has a football program freshly in shambles (depending on whom you ask), and—I discovered when I called to do a little preliminary scouting last week—employs at least two staffers who don’t know whether non–AP track kids can take AP classes. (They can. And let the record show: Those Garfield staffers were themselves a step ahead of an SPS employee who didn’t know Garfield was a high school.) In other words—and, uh, no need to stop the presses—Seattle Public Schools is loaded with enhancement opportunities.

Thus our new willingness to consider private high school—possibly the only logical conclusion to our heightened standards—a position we didn’t expect to be in after throwing (all of our spare) money at what has been an extraordinary middle school. This explains the two-years-early research—which my friends never tire of teasing me about, but which all the experts say is the smartest way to winnow the field—and the boorish party behavior, which is…well okay, it’s a personal failing. But one that stems from the second biggest expert recommendation: Poll everyone you know.

Pay attention when schools offer up info. Pay more attention when they don’t.

That’s because school open houses and tours tell you everything they want you to know, much of which is indeed significant. (Pay attention when schools offer up info on class sizes, how easy it is to get into good classes, graduation rates, that sort of thing. Pay more attention when they don’t.) But parents whose kids have been there can dish on the culture of the school—a much more revealing indicator of its suitability for your kid. Don’t ignore what those parents have to teach you—talk to enough of them and you’ll draw a pretty solid bead on which school is filled with future ulcer patients, which is impenetrably cliquey, which is overrepresented by designer handbags and, sigh, designer drugs.

And I’m narrowing the field to the ones our daughter and we will pay closer attention to next year, when we’ll have our hands full with tests and applications. It’s a two-year process all right—particularly this year, when the new neighborhood-draw system for populating the public schools is so fresh. That new system is altering Seattle’s school landscape in strange and subtle ways. Families like us are moving to snag seats in schools they like—or, in more than a few cases, lying about their address to achieve the same end. Worse, public elementary schools will undoubtedly grow even less racially and socioeconomically diverse than they already are, reflecting more narrowly the demographics of the neighborhoods they draw from.

O irony, when the private schools—once the country clubs of Biff and Muffy, but now, being smart, genuinely committed to diversity—are, at the elementary level anyway, the most integrated game in town. The other wild card these days is the grim economy, which many local private schools insist has not reduced applications so much as it has increased quests for financial aid.

So… more competition for the precious few private school openings—last year Lakeside got 272 applications for 48 freshman slots—and, thanks to this recession, less disposable income with which to pay for them?

Alas, the best advice of any is to understand that—with private schools—it’s ultimately not your choice at all. Wise is the private-school shopper who learns enough about her local public school to make peace with her child becoming a student there, should the privates shut the little darling out.

You know, Garfield does have a killer music program.