Choosing the right private school for her daughter was relatively easy for Michel Shah.
“The big factor was the school’s leadership. My daughter Sayde, who is 14, and I were looking for an all-girls school. Our research took us to Trafalgar Castle School [in Whitby, Ont.],” says Ms. Shah, a professor at Toronto’s George Brown College and York University’s Schulich School of Business.
“During our tour we met the principal in the hallway. She stopped and talked with Sayde and invited us back to her office to discuss the school. For me, that’s what made the decision, even before we discussed curriculum and other details. I thought about how direct and accessible the school’s leader is and how empowering that is for my daughter.”
The personal touch is important, but there are a number of other key considerations involved in choosing the right private school, says Dr. Leanne Foster, head of school at Trafalgar, a girls-only Grade 4-12 school with about 240 students.
“The first thing I like parents to know is how the school is run. There can be a difference between a private school that is run for profit and an independent school like ours, which is not-for-profit and is governed by a board of directors,” she says.
Parents should also ask how the school they’re considering is accredited, Dr. Foster adds.
“It’s a bit like pulling the curtain back. Not all private schools are overseen by provincial education ministries. But there is the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools [CAIS] organization that oversees many schools, including ours, and they are quite rigorous,” she says.
“For most parents, it comes down to one big question: Will my child get what he or she needs from the school? You want the school to be a good fit,” says Anand Mahadevan, executive director of CAIS, who has worked at independent schools in both Ontario and Alberta.
Mr. Mahadevan notes that some high schools offer Advanced Placement courses, which are Grade 11 and 12 courses that include university-level work and may count as university credits, while others have the International Baccalaureate high-school diploma program, which is recognized worldwide by postsecondary schools.
“Some families will look for a school with a strong athletic program; for others it’s the support for students’ learning differences that the school will offer,” he adds.
Schools that belong to CAIS are inspected regularly to achieve accreditation. “You want a school that you’re confident will live up to what it says it offers; for example, if they say they take kids on a lot of field trips you want to know that they do,” he says.
“Our organization also includes religious schools,” he notes. “For some families this may be a factor in their choice.”
Boys only, girls only or co-ed? There’s no single answer, says Julia Murray, head of Royal Oak Community School in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Her school is an independent co-ed elementary and junior school that opened after the district school board closed the town’s only public school.
“Many supporters of co-ed schooling believe that it supports the real-life experience students will navigate for the balance of their lives. But proponents of single-sex education cite cognitive neuroscience research, which tells us about differences in the ways the different genders learn,” she says.
“This research continues to uncover interesting brain differences,” she adds. Experts agree that the question is even more complicated nowadays, as society adapts to more fluid ideas about gender.
To board or not to board? That is also a question for many students and families.
“I like the idea of boarding, it provides a safe environment,” Ms. Shah says. One thing that attracted her to Trafalgar Castle for her daughter is that it has both day and boarding students, and even a part-time boarding option.
“Sayde can live at home with me, but I travel a lot for work, and if I go away for two weeks the school will let her board there,” she says.
In terms of curriculum, Ms. Shah was looking for a combination of rigour and flexibility. “They have a math club that starts at 6 a.m. And both Sayde and I wanted something that would help her continue to develop her love of reading,” she says.
“She also liked that in some courses she could choose from among different particular subjects to cover. She came home excited that she could choose to do work about the Vikings,” Ms. Shah adds.
Another factor to consider is the size of a school, Ms. Murray says.
“Will your child thrive when all the teachers know their name and where class sizes are capped or are they ready for a larger environment?” she says.
“Ultimately, it comes down to finding a school with talented teachers and leadership who care about your child and will support and challenge them. That’s what you should be looking for.”