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Experts say the best way to choose a school is to visit with your child to experience what it has to offer and judge the feeling you get.Handout

The initial “feeling” one gets when they walk through the door of a private school — whether it’s positive or not — counts for a lot, says Amanda Dennis, director of admissions for Delta West Academy in Calgary.

“There is a lot of choice out there, so I always recommend to parents to try and narrow it down in terms of what they’re looking for in programming and academics by looking online [first],” says Dennis. “But then there’s the school community, the spirit, and especially that feeling when they walk through the door that can play a big role in that final decision, so listen to that.”

Experts say that researching the academics, extracurriculars, classroom dynamics and speciality programs within each school is an important first step to get the best sense of what might work well for your family.

Many private schools are resuming in-person tours, open houses and interactions that were put on hold due to the pandemic, allowing families to experience the school culture firsthand.

Indeed, many private or independent schools offer smaller class sizes and more personalized learning than their public school counterparts. But when it comes to programming, the areas to focus on are the unique options that might be best suited for your child.

“Parents will often drive across the city to find that perfect dance studio or to be a part of that special hockey team and really, finding the right schooling choice is no different,” says Dennis. She suggests parents ask themselves, ‘What can [this] school offer your family that would make it worthwhile for that drive?’

For instance, at Delta West Academy, students are exposed to coding and robotics from Grade 3 onwards, or there’s the opportunity to try non-traditional athletics like scuba diving.

It’s these types of extras that might set one school apart for your family and it’s easy enough to find out about these programs as many are listed on each school’s website.

Jennifer Gunasekera, enrolment manager at Stratford Hall in Vancouver, says that doing some online research about the special offerings at each school is a good first step, but she also echoes the sentiment of going into the space and trusting one’s gut.

“Families know their child best and what will be the best fit for their family,” she adds.

Stratford Hall, which is designated as an IB (International Baccalaureate) school, draws interest from those in the city and surrounding area, but “there are a lot of independent schools in [Vancouver] and we all have our own niche, our own attraction,” says Gunasekera.

“What I want parents to do in that preliminary stage is to do the research –– go to the open houses, go on the school tours, look at the website and see what information is on there to give them an overview of what they can expect from that school –– because by the time they get to the application process that school wants to know that that family really wants to be a part of that community.”

Social media presence can also reveal a lot about a school, says Stephen Clarke, head of school at Armbrae Academy in Halifax.

“Evidence of your culture will be displayed online somewhere,” he explains. “What’s important, what’s being celebrated, what’s coming out of your school, it’ll seep out on social media and give you a sense of what the school is all about.”

He also advises asking to see a weekly timetable to get a sense of what would work well for your child. Ask questions like: Does the schedule rotate?

“Then go to campus and feel it,” Clarke says. “What’s the messaging in the school? What’s on the walls? How do you feel when people greet you? Sit in the lobby during class change and see the school during its most vulnerable times.”

Clarke’s final piece of advice for families who are trying to find the school that will offer the best fit is to find out if your child can spend time there.

“Kids are honest and they will give you an honest opinion,” he says. “So find out if the school has the option for them to spend the day at the school.”

Make sure you ask your child lots of questions about their day on that drive home, he adds.

“It’s incredible what they can tell you ... because they’ve just been collecting data for the past eight hours and they get to see the faculty and students and decide, ‘do I think that I belong here?’ "

Looking for more stories about private school education? Get the latest on curriculum trends, financial assistance and the pandemic’s impact here.