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The best time to send a child to private school

Four years ago, when Erica Patulli felt the environment at her local high school in Montreal was intimidating, her parents decided to look for an alternative.

"It was hard to concentrate in class," says Ms. Patulli, 15, adding that her parents were concerned about classes that commonly had 30 students. Bullying was also a problem. "I'm very shy, and prone to get picked on."

Although it was a last-minute decision, Ms. Patulli was accepted at St. George's School, where, despite initial worries, the transition was smooth.

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"It was so different from what I was so used to," says Ms. Patulli, who is entering Grade 10 this fall. "But I love it. The teachers are there for you all the time. It's interesting to learn from them."

While some of her public high school friends have said St. George's small class-size creates extra academic pressure, Ms. Patulli brushes off that observation. "It depends on each person. But for me, it works. I'd recommend it."

It's a perennial question that parents wrestle with: When is the best time to send your child to a private school?

Do you start in the early formative years, when your child is a veritable sponge, learning a host of skills? Or do you wait until your child has acquired the basics at public school and then enroll him or her in a private school's middle-school program?

Although the answer depends on a number of factors, such as your child's personality, family finances, and the quality of public education in your own community, most experts agree that the answer is, in an ideal world – the sooner the better.

"The right time is at the start of school," says Gary O'Meara, headmaster at Halifax's Armbrae Academy, which has about 250 children from pre-kindergarten to Grade 12.

Mr. O'Meara believes that the most critical years in a child's education are the early ones. "Studies done in the last 15-20 years confirm that is when children's minds are most open to learning. That's when the biggest growth spurt occurs, intellectually; and when you look at the best years to have small classes, they should be the younger years," he says, noting that schools such as Armbrae limit classes to 18 students up to Grade 5, 20 in Grade 6 and 22 from Grade 7 to 12.

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The early years are particularly important, says Mr. O'Meara, because problems such as learning disabilities can be identified and remedied. "That's when you want a small class-size. And for the most part you won't get that in the public school system, in most jurisdictions."

Elaine Danson, a Toronto-based educational consultant and former principal of Montcrest School, agrees that the early years are the most important time to start at a private school, assuming there are no financial restrictions. "You are developing reading, writing, and math skills, and the joy of learning. The joy of being in a school and being enriched, or being supported," says Ms. Danson, who helps families work within the public school system and will also assist in selecting an appropriate private school.

"The earlier the better," says Ms. Danson. "You don't really know what a young child is coming to school with. Are they coming with strong literary skills, or do they need some attention with reading? What kind of learners are they? I like the idea of stressing the early years to consolidate their skills and attitudes. Then you, as a parent, can make some decisions as your child gets older."

The caveat is many families cannot afford private school, which is a considerable financial challenge for families in the career-building stage. In that case, Ms. Damson works with families who send their child to a public school by monitoring his or her progress. "You have to keep an eye on how your child is doing. That might mean lots of conversations with the school and perhaps some outside support, either enrichment or tutoring if necessary."

An alternative starting point for private school enrolment is Grade 7. "That's a fine choice. It allows the child to get into the system, as long as they have the attitudes and skills developed in the early years," says Ms. Danson. "But no matter what your decision – if you decide to save your money and wait until Grade 7, for instance – you have to focus on the early years."

While James Officer, head of St. George's School in Montreal, also encourages families to start with kindergarten, he agrees that children can make the transition to private school in the middle-school years (Grades 5-8). "That's the time when children are developing their sense of self and personality," says Mr. Officer, adding that the middle school curriculum is less demanding than the final high-school years. "Their connection with their peer group is very compelling. They are more likely to seek friendships with each other and the new kids as well."

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It can also stressful, he admits, because of the emotional turmoil during the onset of puberty. "If kids can share their insecurities and enthusiasms, it can be an exhilarating time as well," says Mr. Officer, whose school has about 200 students at the elementary level and 250 in high school.

Dr. Meg Fox, principal of The Dragon Academy in Toronto, agrees that Grade 7 could be the optimum year to make the transition to private school. "Kids start changing. At the end of Grade 6, the stirrings of puberty start happening," says Dr. Fox. "If you leave your kid in the same school, some kids start leaving and class dynamics change."

Dr. Fox recommends a private school that combines the middle-school and high-school program under one roof, as a way to ease the social adjustment.

The next entry point is Grade 9, Mr. Officer observes. "But the closer you get to the end of the program, the harder it is. There may be some significant curricular differences with your previous school. There isn't a lot of time for catching up."

Mr. O'Meara maintains that Grade 9 is still a good time to switch to private school. "And by and large, the families who send their kids make a commitment to stay until Grade 12. They're saying, 'We want our kids to go to the upper school.' "

Dr. Fox notes that students who have the hardest adjustment are those who make the transition in Grade 11. "They did badly in Grade 9 and 10, and their parents panicked and switched them to private school," says Dr. Fox, adding that the stress of catching up often creates a lot of anxiety. "The message is know your child. If you're not certain, get professional advice from a guidance counsellor, for instance."

Armbrae Academy's Mr. O'Meara has seen the same problem in older teenagers who are looking for a fresh start.

"They don't have the discipline and study skills to do well. It's too late, for most of them," says Mr. O'Meara. "So, you don't necessarily have to start right away at a private school. But the longer you wait, the more likely you will run into things you would want to avoid."

Special to the Globe and Mail

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