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Parents should not be caught off guard by additional costs or expectations of volunteering

When her daughter Kendra was in Grade 6 at Mulgrave School, a co-ed independent school in West Vancouver, Roberta Perrin and her husband paid almost $5,000 to send her on a school trip to Australia with her classmates.

The Australia trip was not mandatory, but there was a strong sense of pressure to write that cheque, explains Ms. Perrin. "You just get caught up in that expectation. You don't want to be the only one [of the parents] in the class not sending your kid on the trip.

"You're always writing cheques for something and a lot of them aren't very big, but they all do add up," adds Ms. Perrin.

Kendra Perrin is now in university, but the trip remains a household conversation among her parents, according to the mother of two.

Ms. Perrin's experience was unusual in that her daughter joined the school in the middle of the term so there was less opportunity to find out about added fees and commitments.

Whether it's mandatory or expected, parents should ask administrators at the initial stages of admissions about what their chosen private school may require of them – both time and money – to avoid any surprises.

Elizabeth Barnes, manager of admissions at Venta Preparatory School in Ottawa, says parents are informed from the start about the "extras" that could come up over the school year.

"The tuition fee on our website includes all lunches and snacks, all school supplies – pencils, pens, books, binders," says Ms. Barnes, adding that local field trips, such as ventures to museums and ski hills, are covered by an upfront $500 cost. "And the only extras that the parents would have to pay would be uniforms."

The majority of independent and private schools in Canada require students to wear uniforms. While costs vary, Canadian uniform supplier websites list costs for secondary school students ranging from the more expensive blazers going for about $150-$200 and kilts for close to $100. But many private schools also have parent-run shops stocked with a supply of used uniforms to help offset the extra costs.

While there are not many extra costs for Venta Prep students – unlike at some Canadian private schools that require parents to purchase school-supply packages and pay flat fees for athletics – Ms. Barnes says she often has parents coming into her office inquiring about what kind of mandatory volunteering requirements they have to fulfill.

While there is no expectation at Venta, some private schools do require a mandatory number of hours a school year that parents must volunteer.

This volunteer work helps keep costs down at the school and helps parents acquaint themselves with their new community, explains Mabel Lim, director of admissions at York House, a girls' junior and secondary school in Vancouver.

"Being an independent school we do not get a full subsidy from the government, so a lot of what you see around here," pointing to York House's modern interior, "the amazing building and superb technology … is a legacy of the past community or past parents and there is an expectation to keep up with that exceptional quality."

But Ms. Lim explains that no one should be surprised on the first day of school by what is required of parents, as the terms are brought up right from the first stages of application, at open houses, at the interviews and the student assessment.

The majority of the volunteer work is not a requirement, but there is one volunteer activity that is mandatory for every parent at the junior school. Parents are required to participate in traffic duty, which involves having four parents in strategic areas around the grounds before and after student pick-up and drop-off times .

"We're in a neighbourhood with three other schools and it's really important that we have a traffic plan and parents respect that because it's all about the safety of the children," she says. "And so by doing [traffic duty], it potentially makes you more aware."

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