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private schools – choosing

Students at Selwyn House School in Montreal.

Rinku Mondal started looking for a private school when her firstborn was two years old. She did multiple site visits at different schools. She consulted everyone in her community, including her pediatrician, to determine a good fit for her child. Today, both her sons, Kalyan Xavier, 9, and Wolfgang Alex, 7, are thriving at Selwyn House School, a private English-language boys school in Montreal.

Ms. Mondal's efforts reflect the recommended approach: Start early, meet people in person, and find a school that fits your child's personality, not the other way around. Patti MacDonald, executive director of Canadian Accredited Independent Schools, an organization representing more than 90 schools, says the biggest benefit of private schools is choice. "Different schools have made choices about what they believe is the best approach to teaching and learning," she says.

There are 1,935 independent schools in Canada, educating 368,717 students from kindergarten to Grade 12, according to a 2016 Fraser Institute report. The report also provides a sense of the range: Half have a religious orientation, and a third are specialty schools either by curriculum (arts, athletics, science) or teaching style (Montessori, Waldorf, International Baccalaureate). There are also single-gender schools, boarding options and different funding models (independent, private).

Investigating the options

While school websites are a natural starting point, most recommend you move quickly beyond them. "Talk to people. Ultimately, it's about a relationship your family and your child has with the institution and with specific people within it," says Glen Herbert, editor of the recently released Our Kids Private School Guide (Our Kids Media also holds expos across Canada with private schools as exhibitors).

Ms. MacDonald agrees. "Call the school and ask about opportunities to see the school in action, to talk to current families who attend the school. Parents need to have a chance to ask questions and meet some of the teachers," she says, adding that parents should ask about everything from class sizes to school philosophy.

Sheriann Heath-Johnston, director of admissions at Hillfield Strathallan, says that admissions officers are there to help. "If you need to speak to that coach to really figure out that sport, or the principal or a faculty member, we're happy to co-ordinate that."

Ms. Mondal, who chose Selwyn House for its small class sizes, quality of teaching and sense of community, says talking to parents helped her make her decision. She reached out not only to kindergarten parents but parents from other grades to get a long-range sense of the school.

Open houses and beyond

Hal Hannaford, headmaster of Selwyn House, says open houses can be a great starting point. He advises paying attention to the little things. "Do people come up and say hello to you? Do you go into a class?" he says. CAIS's Ms. MacDonald advises parents to look at the art on the walls. "Schools are reflecting their values through the kinds of things they're documenting and displaying," she says.

Mr. Hannaford also urges parents to move beyond open houses, adding that early morning can be a great time to see the school in action.

"You get a sense of how is the day starting, if people look like they're happy to be there."

Ms. Mondal recommends parents visit a school in multiple contexts, such as school plays and football games, where they can observe the community.

Meet the teacher

Mr. Hannaford adds that meeting faculty should also be a priority. "The thing that's going to make the biggest difference in their children's life is going to be the interaction with teachers," he says. He recommends parents ask faculty about their tenure at the school, their passions, and even their professional development. Private-school teachers are not required to have education degrees, although most do, along with other specialized credentials. So find out about their background.

Ms. Mondal agrees that teachers are the most important element. "Never be attracted to the shiny – some schools have beautiful football fields and facilities, but teachers are tired and not interested to teach, they're not connecting with your child," she says. She adds that she even took her son with her and got valuable feedback from him, including the attention paid to him by teachers and the fact that they bent to his level when talking to him.

Admissions and finances

After making their decision, parents should contact school admissions offices, since each application process is a bit different. Many applications now start online, some requiring fees. Some involve standardized testing, digital portfolio submissions and personal interviews. Many schools have intakes at specific grade levels, while others admit to every grade.

Application deadlines vary: Many are in December, though some are earlier and some schools have rolling deadlines. Time frames also vary by province. Acceptances are often sent out a couple of months after application.

Annual tuition also varies, from less than $4,000 to more than $50,000 for schools that include boarding. Ms. MacDonald suggests parents should ask up front about what is included in their tuition, such as sports programs, tutoring or lunches. Other costs can include registration, alumni fees, technology or book fees, school trips and tournament travel, uniforms and transportation. Ms. MacDonald adds that funding is available at most schools and that they are genuinely interested in increasing their socio-economic diversity. "There are millions of dollars in financial assistance available at schools across Canada," she says.

Making decisions

In the end, most agree that it all comes back to fit. Mr. Herbert uses an analogy to make the point with parents. "If someone were to say to you, 'What are the best pair of shoes?' Immediately you would start asking questions: 'Are you going jogging or are you going to a wedding? How big is your foot? Are you male or female?' And very quickly you're not talking about the school so much as you're talking about the needs of the person."

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