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the decision

Young people – especially as they get older – are increasingly giving input into the direction of their education.

For the Giampietro family, the most appropriate next stop on their 16-year-old son's educational journey is a private boarding school in the United States, where the talented hockey player entered Grade 10 this month after attending both public and independent schools in the Vancouver area.

Deciding to go the private-school route is one thing; picking the right school is another, especially given the financial investment, from thousands to tens of thousands a year depending on the school and the program.

At each stage of Carter Giampietro's school life, for instance, some important factors were taken into consideration, leading up to him becoming a student at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., this fall.

Last year, he enrolled at a public school, Penticton Secondary School, which allowed him to attend the Okanagan Hockey Academy.

But while the move resulted in "an exceptional experience, a U.S. boarding school will allow him to find the balance between academics and athletics because it honours the whole student," says his mother, Melinda Giampietro, an educational consultant who can relate to other families trying to pick the best private school.

"And," she adds, "he gets that incredible opportunity to play hockey and go to school with motivated kids from all over the world – that, with the course selection, is unique and a good fit for him."

Choosing a school hinges on a family's values and what would be the right fit for the child, stresses Ms. Giampietro, president and principal consultant with Options Solutions Educational Consultants, which has offices in West Vancouver, Vancouver and South Surrey.

"We try to coach families to figure out what they want instead of getting them in the middle of the process and have the process define things; we start with studying the values of the family and help them define what they're looking for," says Ms. Giampietro, whose work includes visiting universities, and meetings with admissions personnel in Canada, the United States and Britain.

For some families, it may be important for a private school to:

- Be gender-based (all boys or all girls) or co-educational.

- Be a day school, a boarding school, or a combination of both.

- Be religiously based or non-denominational and/or culturally based.

- Have a particular education approach (Montessori, Waldorf or Froebel, for instance).

- Emphasize activities that may include athletics, music or the arts.

- Focus on a specific language, or more than one language.

- Provide the right environment and programs for a child with special needs.

Next comes the real research: To determine "if the school really is strong where you want it to be strong," Ms. Giampietro says. "Look at its philosophy, how the school defines itself, and what it says are its strengths – and make sure it has what you want."

Schools' websites – which feature video tours, spell out their missions and goals, profile staff and give details about programs – can serve as starting points in evaluating them, but they shouldn't be taken at face value, say both Ms. Giampietro and Anne-Marie Kee, head of Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS).

"When you go on websites, they're glitzy and made to give you the highlight reel and not the everyday experience the student is going to have, so they don't help you make the best values-based decision for your student," Ms. Giampietro says.

Reached on the phone at the family home in Ottawa, Ms. Kee included her children in the interview, saying young people – especially as they get older – are increasingly giving input into the direction of their education. Kathleen, now in Grade 10, has attended both public and independent schools; Jacob is in Grade 12 at Lakefield College School in Ontario's Kawartha Lakes region, and helps lead students on tours of the independent co-educational school.

Kathleen, 15, says what stands out for her is students' constant use of social media to share what they're doing and how they feel about their school.

"It's pretty cool – kids are all over Facebook and Snapchat with what's going on with the schools and I think it is pretty accurate," says Kathleen, who started at public school Glebe Collegiate Institute in Ottawa this school year after many years at co-educational independent school Ridley College while the family was living in St. Catharines, Ont.

Her mother, the longtime executive director of CAIS, says: "There's this notion that kids are now holding schools accountable – you can so easily find out what they're saying about their experiences at school. It's forcing an authenticity to schools' marketing efforts."

While Selwyn House headmaster Hal Hannaford says "if you aren't paying attention to the social media world, you're missing out on something," he believes good old-fashioned word of mouth "still plays the biggest role in choosing an independent school."

"The best way to market a school is through the current parents – if they're excited [about their experiences with the school], they're likely to brag about the school their kids go to," says Mr. Hannaford, who is in his eighth year as headmaster at the English-language independent school in Montreal for boys from junior kindergarten to Grade 11.

Mr. Hannaford, for one, says perhaps the most important question parents can ask is: What is the school doing to foster good relationships?

"Some big schools are fantastic, but if I'm a savvy parent, I'd want to get a sense of how they are acting like a small school," he says, referring to creating a more personal atmosphere whereby students can connect with each other and their teachers.

Ms. Giampietro urges parents to ask questions that may seem "awkward and rude," but are important. For instance, examine the school's mission statement to see whether it aligns with the family's values, and then ask: "How do you live this every day, what are the struggles in living this every day?"

Other questions can include: "What are the challenges of a school, how do parents in the school communicate, what kind of pride level is there within the school community, do [staff and students] treat each other kindly, are students graduating and returning to stay in touch with their teachers, are they giving to a school and active in an alumni network?

"In the best cases," she adds, "you're going for a 70- to 80-per-cent match because there is no perfect school, and to create realistic expectations – a school can deliver on realistic expectations, but not on being perfect."

What to consider in the hunt for the right school

Weigh options early

"I've seen people touring schools when they're pregnant," says Anne-Marie Kee, head of Canadian Accredited Independent Schools. Adds Melinda Giampietro, an educational consultant: "Apply early and keep in touch with the schools, because these schools are competitive."

Try online tools

Find-a-school tools are included on the websites of CAIS and Our Kids Media. Select from drop-down menus or input information, including location – locally, nationally and internationally – and school type.

Get the full cost

Tuition fees vary, and generally hinge on a school's location and type. Many schools at the elementary level cost less than $4,000 a year, while prestigious boarding schools can cost upward of $40,000 annually, according to Our Kids Media research. But also ask about other costs (books, supplies, school trips, computers and uniforms are usually extra and can add thousands to the total bill). "Don't be afraid to ask about financing options and financial aid," Ms. Kee says.

Ask whether a school is accredited

All private schools in Canada must meet requirements under the respective provincial/territorial education ministry, but they don't have to be accredited by a non-government body like CAIS to operate. An accredited school means it meets certain standards, acting as a sort-of quality assurance. Accredited schools are supported by a network, and also may have more resources than non-accredited schools.

Confirm class sizes

"One of the reasons families look for private schools is the individualized attention," Ms. Giampietro says. "A lot of people assume the class sizes will be smaller [than public schools], but that's not necessarily so."

Keep the individual in mind

"If you have more than one child, convenience shouldn't be a priority" in deciding on a school, Ms. Giampietro says. "I see a lot of families with three kids who go to three different schools." Choosing a school just because a parent went there also isn't necessarily the best move. "You choose a school because you heard a school is great," says Selwyn House headmaster Hal Hannaford.