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Shopping for a school? Try an education consultant

Concerned about academic reentry? Is the family relocating? Feel it's time for your child to change schools?

You may need an educational consultant.

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If the problem is a simple one, perhaps the school you are leaving can provide the information you need. Or perhaps there's a book that can help.

On the other hand, the issues may be too complex for simple solutions: Some tests may have to be taken and analyzed.

This is where professional consultants can help; they provide guidance through the academic maze for those asking, ''Where do we go to school from here?''

There are advisory services that do not charge the client. Instead, they take 10 to 15 percent of the first year's tuition from the enrolling school.

But an advisory service offers little or no counseling and may have less than up-to-date firsthand knowledge of schools that are not familiar clients. Furthermore, the percentage commission may negatively influence admissions committees reviewing applicants referred by such a service.

A good independent consultant earns his fees from his clients, and the better ones invest considerable time and money on school visits, returning every two or three years to keep abreast of developments, get a sense of the student body, and talk firsthand with admissions personnel.

Some make a similar effort to inform themselves about public schools. Those consultants who are members of the IECA (Independent Educational Counselors Association) have been elected to the group after they have met standards designed to ensure continued self-evaluation and maintenance of professional ethics. A member must have a bachelor's degree, appropriate advanced study, and at least three years experience as an independent counselor, plus recommendations from clients.

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David Edgar, IECA executive director, says the bottom line is public assurance that ''nobody's on the take.''

The cost of using a consultant varies, averaging about $500. But placement may cost much less, depending on such variables as special needs and testing, which often costs far less than random school visits, which may be disappointing.

In some cases, fees may be lower. Most consultants offer reduced rates for a second child or for future counseling. Some charge a flat hourly fee of $30 and up. Locating the right consultant is worth a bit of time and effort.

Although there are independent consultants nationwide, some listed in the yellow pages of metropolitan telephone books, there are other approaches to finding a consultant. Parents might ask the guidance officials at the child's present school. A family being moved may be able to get a recommendation from the company-relocation department.

Independent school-admissions officers often are willing to make suggestions and provide names of IECA members with whom they work regularly. Friends with children in private school may have used a consultant they can recommend.

Following are some general guidelines suggested by private consultants:

* Before committing yourself to a particular consultant, call and clearly outline your situation.

* If you or your child has special needs, such as a learning disability, say so -- some consultants specialize.

* If career counseling or general counseling is what you're after, say so; not all consultants work that way. A good consultant who can't fulfill your needs will refer you to someone else.

* Finally, if the initial session is unsatisfactory, don't be afraid to say so. Ask for a recommendation and change horses.

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