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private schools: primer

Upper Canada College in Toronto.Philip Cheung/The Globe and Mail

Guidance for parents doing their homework on schools for their children.

The choices

About 338,000 students attend more than 1,900 private schools across Canada.

The school menu is extensive: co-ed, boys-only, girls-only, boarding schools, language-focused, postsecondary preparation, faith-based, special needs-centred, military or alternative schools.

Some schools, such as TMS School in Richmond Hill, Ont., accept children as young as 18 months. At TMS, the Montessori method is used until Grade 6. From Grades 7 to 12, TMS students follow the International Baccalaureate program, says Ann Bianco-Harvey, TMS's director of marketing and communications. The International Baccalaureate – academically challenging studies before university – is offered in roughly 250 Canadian private schools.

Canadian private schools can have as few as 30 students or reach more than 1,000. What they have in common, usually, is a lower student-to-teacher ratio than public schools. At Vancouver's Fraser Academy, which is for Grades 1 to 12 students with language-based learning disabilities, the maximum class size is 10. Classes of just three students have been arranged, admissions co-ordinator Brooke Ellison says.

Why choose private

With smaller classes, teachers get to know each child and can customize learning to suit each one, says Agnes Stawicki, managing editor at Mississauga-based Our Kids Media, producer of the Private School Expos. Teaching is usually rigorous.

At Canada's first independent school, King's-Edgehill School, founded in 1788 in Windsor, N.S., strong classroom instruction is complemented with fine arts classes, daily sports, community service and twice-weekly chapel attendance. "It's all about well-rounded students," says Karen Morash, associate admissions director. The 300 Grade 6 to 12 students, two-thirds of them boarders, also volunteer in the local community, raise money for international food programs and travel to Africa to work on infrastructure projects.

At Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ont., classes start at 8 a.m. and finish at 4:30 p.m. "The days are so rich," says Anne-Marie Kee, executive director of Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS). Her son and daughter attend the private school, which has mandatory art, sports and music programs. Children have their evenings free because traditional extracurricular activities have been covered at school. As a working mom, Ms. Kee appreciates the "one-stop shop" offered at Ridley. "It's really improved the quality of our day-to-day life."

Select wisely

With so many options, parents sometimes get "caught up in looking for the best school," Ms. Stawicki says. A school might rank high in a survey or have stunning grounds but what's important is the child's learning style, she says. If hands-on learning is desired, a Waldorf school may be appropriate. "Choose a school that plays to your kid's strengths," Ms. Kee says. Family values are also important, which may mean a faith-based school is top of the list. And remember, with so many schools, "People must do their due diligence," notes Ms. Bianco-Harvey. Research is paramount. Almost all schools have websites.

Grade teachers

Research is vital. Some schools post their teachers' credentials. Private school educators don't have to be qualified teachers; rather they may have science or fine arts degrees but not education degrees. Talk to other parents with children in private schools, Ms. Stawicki says.

Professional development of teaching staff is crucial. Public schools provide about three days a year of professional development for their teachers. Private schools should at least match that.

"It's important that teachers engage in research to keep kids on the leading edge," Ms. Kee says. Also important is that the latest educational trend is thoroughly evaluated so as not to make students guinea pigs, she adds.

How to get your child in

Gaining admission is a lengthy process, and the larger the school, the longer it takes, Ms. Stawicki says. Parents are wise to apply up to a year early, she says. At Upper Canada College in Toronto, applications are due in December for admission the following September. Schools usually have application fees.

Some private schools have waiting lists. Others accept students only in certain grades, on a rotating schedule. Some schools want athletic or artistic students. Remember, the school decides whether a student is admitted, Ms. Stawicki says.

Admission procedures vary at each school, but at most private schools, previous academic records, a personal interview and completion of an admissions test that measures interests and knowledge are part of the process. Schools with targeted training, such as the Fraser Academy, require a psychological-educational assessment. Some faith-based schools may require proof of a family's faith.

Cost it out

Depending on the education provided and even the location, annual private school tuition can vary from about $6,000 a year to $30,000. In some provinces such as British Columbia and Alberta, private and independent schools receive provincial government funding. That's not the case in Ontario, Ms. Stawicki says.

Annual boarding fees, on top of tuition, can range from $15,000 to $30,000.

Don't forget extra costs: registration, endowment and alumni fee, deposit, technology or book fee, International Baccalaureate fee, local and international trips, sports tournament travel, school uniforms, athletic clothing, transportation costs.

But costs may balance out. Ms. Kee says if parents with children in public schools add up what they pay for lunches, sports and artistic extracurricular activities, child care, clothing and time spent driving, the cost of an all-encompassing private school might not be much more.

When it comes to financing a future, private schools are flexible. Many allow monthly payments. Discounts are available for more than one child. Assistance in the form of bursaries or scholarships are available.

Questions to ask

What is the school's philosophy and how does it affect student life?

Can you picture your child at the school?

Is the school accredited by an education ministry, governed by a board or by an owner-operator, and is it non-profit or for-profit?

What is the "feel" of the school? Is it a welcoming place? Is it clean, well-lit and secure?

Does it follow, meet or exceed provincial education guidelines?

How is new technology used in the school?

What happens if a student switches to the public system?

Is there a maximum class size?

What kind of professional development are teachers offered?

Are they professionals in their field or qualified teachers?

What percentage of high-school graduates go on to university and do they get accepted by their first choice?

Is there a parent council or expectations regarding parental involvement?

Online resources

Association of Boarding Schools:

Canadian Accredited Independent Schools:

Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators:

Waldorf Canada:

Quebec Association of Independent Schools:

Conference of Independent Schools of Ontario:

Manitoba Federation of Independent Schools:

Association of Independent Schools and Colleges in Alberta:

B.C. Federation of Independent School Associations:

Our Kids Publications:

Fraser Institute: