Whenever parents feel that their children are not achieving their full potential in the public system, the solution – finances permitting – is often to consider sending them to a private school.
But "public versus private" is not a zero-sum game, and many factors, from a pupil's personality to finding an individual teacher who makes a difference – can affect a particular outcome.
Nevertheless, figures show that private system is benefiting from a migration from public schools. In British Columbia, for example, for the school years 2008-2009 through 2012-2013, private school headcount enrolments increased from 69,138 to 74,305, according to the BC Ministry of Education. During the same period, public school enrolments declined from 579,486 to 564,530.
To try to put the brakes on the migration of students in the district to private schools, for about a year, the Nanaimo Ladysmith Board of Education has worked to install a strategic plan to enhance services offered by the public schools in that area to help attract students from private schools back into its public-school system.
"If the public schools are seen as strong, offering viable options, parents who have students in private schools will once again consider them," says Donna Reimer, board spokesperson.
Goals of the Nanaimo Ladysmith plan include meeting each student's unique needs, the continuous improvement of instruction and assessment, and enhanced facilities for learning.
The plan is welcomed by conservative think-tank, the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, whose director of School Performance, Peter Cowley, is encouraged by the fact it reflects the district's desire to ratchet up its performance and its willingness to identify low performing schools.
The Fraser Institute is known for its reports cards – rankings of public schools across Canada, designed to provide parents with benchmarks and encourage improvements to schools in the public system.
"Private or public, personnel in all schools should understand that improvement in student achievement is possible – the rankings demonstrate this – regardless of the personal or family challenges their students might face. Demonstrable improvement in academics and other important aspects of education should be job one," Mr. Cowley says.
One key advantage of private schools is that they're disciplined by their customers, Mr. Cowley adds; they are required to meet the needs of families and students in order to survive. Consequently, they must continuously focus on their clients' needs and improve quickly where required.
Doretta Wilson, executive director of the Society for Quality Education, is not as bullish about the district's strategy. She says she has seen many strategic plans for school improvement, "which all sound wonderful and well-intentioned. The proof of the pudding is in the implementation; whether there are real incentives for improvement and consequences for non-performance." Furthermore, it shouldn't take a decade to see improvement, she said. "If something isn't working in a year, it won't work over five years."
Private-school educators must get results, and are not constricted by union collective agreements, Ms. Wilson adds. For instance, "they can fire ineffective staff and hire staff that fit with their teaching philosophy."
At the same time, choosing the right private school can be a matter of "buyer beware," Ms. Wilson says. "You must really do your homework to find the right fit for your child. Even the most elite of private schools can use ineffective progressive education methods and poor provincial curricula." On the other hand, some publicly-funded schools do an "exceptional job" educating students, regardless of demographic challenges, she says.
Deani Neven Van Pelt, Director of Teacher Education and Associate Professor of Education at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ont., believes Nanaimo Ladysmith's strategy places "inordinate attention" on the physical space; such as redesigning or closing schools and facilities and building new ones, "which schools boards are good at." Her research suggests those are areas where parents would make the strongest compromises.
Her doctoral dissertation in 2009 explored who chooses private schools in Ontario and why – in fact, addressing some of the issues facing the Nanaimo Ladysmith district. Respondents chose religious schools for values, morals, character development, parent-teacher collaboration and some religious aspects, while among academic schools, "it was very clear" that the parents came for the individualized programming, encouragement and support their child would receive, Ms. Van Pelt says.
That's reflected in the decision of parents to choose private schools, some of which have "pretty ordinary" facilities and are inconveniently located, but provide a superior school climate; a culture of care, which can be difficult for a public-school district to deliver, she says.
She believes one answer for public schools like those in the Nanaimo Ladysmith district is to create more individualized autonomy for each school. "That's some of the brilliance in private schools; there's more individual school culture and autonomy to build that local space from the ground up, based on the parents, families and students in that space. School leaders and teachers have more opportunity to collaborate with families and supporting community and build a dynamic, responsive atmosphere in which more participants can flourish. That's the struggle, I think, that Ladysmith's facing."
The board's Ms. Reimer points out that two of the three goals in the strategy are educationally-based, and the goal related to facilities also is designed to improve educational services and outcomes for students.
A major part of the work going on in the district is the introduction of the response to intervention model throughout the district, Ms. Reimer adds. Response to intervention is a framework that focuses on collaborative problem solving to improve all students' learning and to close achievement gaps for struggling learners. It combines extensive effective-schools research that identifies teacher collaboration, sharing of effective instructional practices, and problem solving as critical factors for improving student learning.
The work being done in the area of enhanced facilities is designed to support the two major educational goals by providing equity of access to programs and services in modern, up-to-date facilities, Ms. Reimer says.