Finding the most suitable private school for your child is a lot like house hunting – sorting through mounds of listings to find the best all-round choice.
With more than 1,700 private schools in Canada of various types and sizes, where do you begin your search? Educational experts say the first rule of thumb is to focus on finding the best fit for your child.
For Doug Nugent and his wife Becky Mortimer, Canadians who’ve been living in California for two decades, their months-long search for a new private school for their only child began after Amelia told them she was ready for a change near the end of Grade 10. She had been attending the same San Francisco independent school since prekindergarten.
While reading a newsletter from her father’s boarding-school alma mater in Ontario, she got excited by the idea of completing high school abroad, says Mr. Nugent, a technology business and management consultant.
“My wife and I both grew up in the Toronto area, and we thought maybe Amelia should go to a school in Ontario, but that’s so far away [from San Francisco]. So, we started to look at the West Coast [of Canada],” Mr. Nugent recalls in a phone interview.
After spending time at three schools in British Columbia, Amelia enrolled last year in Grade 11 at St. Michaels [GL1] University School, an urban day and boarding school in Victoria with 1,000 students from junior kindergarten through high school. Now 17, she’s in her final year at the co-ed independent school. Formed when two schools combined in 1971, it counts basketball great Steve Nash and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney among its alumni.
“At the end of the day, Amelia felt everyone at St. Michaels were her kind of people. … She has totally blossomed, she is extremely engaged … and has developed a lot of critical thinking [skills],” Mr. Nugent says.
Getting a feel for campus culture is a big piece to knowing if a school is the right fit for the child, says Teo Salgado, of VerveSmith Independent Educational Consultants in Toronto.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, visits are more commonly taking place virtually, although schools are also carefully arranging individual on-site tours.
Mr. Salgado says parents also should consider how their child learns, including if they have special needs that can range from being gifted, to having learning, physical or emotional challenges.
“Sometimes families thinking about whether to go with a public or private school have a child with a specific need and feel they can’t get the level of support they need within the public school system.”
He encourages families to write down their priorities such as location, cost, school environment, religion, teaching style or specific academic or athletic program, and then rate them to avoid swaying from what’s important.
To narrow down the options, weed out what doesn’t suit a child, suggests Janyce Lastman, an educational consultant who founded the Tutor Group in Toronto in 1979.
There are a few points to consider if you’re looking at a co-ed or single-gender private school. For instance, if your daughter doesn’t navigate social scenes well, she may have trouble in a girls-only school, while boys who don’t like to draw attention to themselves may not fit well in a single-gender setting, Ms. Lastman says.
Parents may also choose a single-gender school because research indicates some children learn better in that type of environment.
“If a child fits well in a lot of places, it doesn’t matter if it’s single sex or co-ed,” Ms. Lastman says.
Determining a good school fit often comes down to what’s discovered in the application process, which tends to be rigorous at private schools.
At St. Michaels University School, for instance, applicants submit report cards, references and an opinion essay. They also complete math and other tests, and parents and their children attend interviews both together and separately, says Kevin Mennie, the school’s admissions associate.
“When we accept the student, we accept the parents, too,” Mr. Mennie says.
Amelia Nugent, who’s considering a career in non-profit work for an international organization, has thrived at St. Michaels because “it’s really oriented in helping kids be the best they can be, whoever they are, and develop their own individual strengths,” her dad says. “If I ask her what she loves the most, she says ... everybody there is supported and if you screw up, it’s a learning opportunity.”
Ms. Lastman says once you’ve decided on a school, “if you made a good choice balancing all the factors, the best thing you can do is prepare for the transition. Don’t look back, look ahead.”
What should I ask before enrolling my child in a private school?
Ten questions experts recommend parents ask themselves, the schools and others
SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL
While the unique circumstances of this year may add a couple of questions to parents' list of things they want to know before selecting a private or independent school, there are many other factors to consider.
Here are some key questions to ask, with advice from Patti MacDonald, executive director of Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS), a national accrediting body for independent schools, and Elaine Danson, an educational consultant.
1. What are you looking for a school to do for you?
If you are unhappy with your child’s current school, ask yourself why.
Some may be looking for an more academically rigorous school or to nurture an area of interest or a talent their child has, such as athletics, STEM, arts or others.
Some parents want their child to focus on their social and emotional development and grow into a well-rounded person, Ms. MacDonald says.
2. How long should I budget for researching before applying?
Ms. MacDonald recommends families start, at the latest, by early in the fall before the school year they are targeting.
Some families choose to build in extra time to prepare the child, for instance with tutoring, practice entrance tests or practising for interviews.
Because of pandemic precautions, families should be prepared for virtual tours and online interviews, Ms. Danson says.
3. Can we afford this?
The average day-school tuition across Canada in 2018-19 was about $21,000, according to CAIS, with regional and individual differences. (Boarding schools average: $52,000.) Average mandatory fees are about $800, CAIS says.
Ask prospective schools whether the following are included in fees: application fees; registration fees; after-school tutoring, child care or extracurricular activities; books; technology; supplies for art, music, sports or science; uniforms; trips; busing or meals. There may be financial aid available, so inquire at the school.
4. How many schools should I look at and apply to?
Do not apply to only one school, as your child may not get in.
But four is the upper end, Ms. Danson suggests. The process of applying can be hard on your child and can cost more than $200 for each application.
5. Should I choose a single-sex or a co-ed school?
There is no right answer, as research has shown mixed results in favour of one or the other.
Here are some of the main arguments for each:
- Boys and girls tend to learn differently, many studies show, so teaching can be tailored to each;
- Less pressure to conform to gender stereotypes inside and out of the classroom.
- Better reflects the real world;
- Diversity allows students to learn from each other and stretch themselves.
6. Should I choose a traditional or a progressive school?
There are many different types of schools, from specialty to faith-based to those meeting special needs.
Aside from that, there are more traditional/academic or alternative/progressive approaches.
These are generally focused on traditional methods of delivering rigorous academic preparation for university studies. Some may offer Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) diplomas, which adhere to international standards and can earn your child postsecondary credits.
There are many diverse approaches, but they often focus on experiential and inquiry-based learning, self-exploration and creativity. Examples, especially in the early years, include Montessori and Waldorf schools.
If your child is comfortable with traditional test-taking and taking the lead from the teacher in a structured environment, especially if they excel in academics, you may want to consider a traditional school, especially one that offers AP or IB programs.
If your child prefers to learn about their own interests, rather than follow what classmates are doing or a set curriculum, you may want to consider a progressive school.
7. Is the school and are teachers accredited?
Independent schools have a board overseeing the mission and sustainability of the school, while private schools may not. Accreditation adds another layer of oversight, Ms. Danson says. If a school is not accredited, ask why not and ask where to turn if you have an issue to resolve.
Ask whether the school meets the curriculum standards of your home province.
As for teachers, generally you want core subjects taught by teachers accredited by the province, Ms. Danson says.
8. What will class sizes be like?
Aside from class size, there may be differences in staffing. For instance, one school may have average classes of 20 with staff aiding the teacher, whereas another may offer a class of 16 with one teacher, Ms. MacDonald says.
Ask about student-to-teacher ratios, as well as other staff available to students.
9. Beyond the classroom, what is the school environment like?
To find out whether your child will feel at home at the school, ask what their ideal student is like.
Ask not only the school but other parents what strategies are used to promote a school community.
Find out what facilities and resources are available, such as a gym, library, sports field, playground, music room or art studio, as well as learning and social and emotional supports.
Ask what the homework policy is.
Ask about co-curriculars: what is offered, including lunch and after-school programs, clubs, community service opportunities, and how often they take place and whether they cost extra.
Ask how the school deals with social and behaviour problems, such as bullying. Ask, as well, how they deal with a child who is not meeting academic expectations.
10. When should I consider boarding school?
Ask yourself and your child about his or her capacity to live independently, Ms. MacDonald says. “Anyone who is … wondering about their child’s ability to handle homesickness should wait until Grade 11 or 12” to send them to a boarding school, Ms. Danson says.
Ask what the school’s 24/7 program looks like, Ms. MacDonald says. What are both academic and social-emotional supports like? What about study hall? What does supervision of the students look like once class is over and who is doing it?
During the pandemic, ask what protocols the school has to protect students.
How does the school plan to function during the pandemic?
Finally, as the future of the pandemic is uncertain, ask the school about their strategies for continuity of learning, Ms. MacDonald suggests: Can they move between face to face and virtual learning easily? What is the school’s plan if a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19?
The effort you put in up-front will pay off dividends in choosing a school that is the best fit for your child.