Look beyond the obvious for the right school
Most parents interested in private school education put a great deal of effort into checking out basics like costs, location, co-ed or all-boys/girls school, extracurricular activities, academic performance, and specializations.
But that’s only a part of the picture, says Ann Wolff, educational consultant and partner of Wolff Educational Series in Toronto with her daughter-in-law Karen. “A very strong premise we work on is that, no matter if it’s one of the best schools, it’s a question of looking at the best fit for your individual child. There is no one size fits all.”
A whole child perspective is one that considers the child’s social, emotional and academic strengths, she explains. Social needs, for example, can run from one extreme to the other. Are they highly engaged and do they need opportunities? Or are they innately shy and do best in an encouraging and supportive environment? Are there opportunities for them to explore their personal interests? Does the child do better in a highly structured environment?
“You need to take into account these factors and more when matching the environment to your child,” Wolff says.
Among the less obvious but important considerations are the culture of the school and social fit, says Glen Hoffmann, editor, Our Kids Media in Mississauga, which has just released its latest Canada’s Private School Guide online. (www.ourkids.net/ebooks/ ourkids-school-magazine. php). The issue provides information on private schools, as well as input from educational experts and parents on finding the right school.
A key indicator of culture is school leadership, Hoffmann believes. “That can be a big factor. Where is the school now? Where is it going in the future? How well do they communicate? Is the leadership stable, and what is their reputation?”
Parents should also look into the school’s focus on issues outside of academics, such as ethics, social justice and community service, which are essential parts of their social development, he advises.
Be sure to visit the school you have short-listed repeatedly, Hoffmann adds. “Beyond open houses, go for a tour, talk to teachers and other people who aren’t trying to promote the school. Go with your child and have a shadow day to see how they feel about it. That’s a great way to get the sense of the school, the culture and the community.”
Janyce Lastman, educational consultant and director at The Tutor Group in Toronto, believes open houses are not enough in determining the perfect fit. “There are two gold mines that parents don’t use. One is the school’s social media. Every school is on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. That’s where you will get a real feel for day-today happenings at the school.”
The second is going to school events that are open to the public, such as craft shows, a basketball tournament or school play.
When taking a tour, she has some handy tips that can help parents get a clearer perspective on the school’s culture.
“This may sound strange, but check out the bathrooms when on a tour — and not the staff ones. Are there a bunch of kids hanging out? Is there graffiti that is racist or homophobic?”
Also see if children’s work on display shows efforts at all levels. “When they only showcase the best work, you are seeing variations in treatment that could mean others may not be getting encouragement.”
If you can get to the school early, at recess or dismissal, you can also observe how transitions are handled and how attentive the supervisors are.
Another good source is parents of children who have left the school to get a sense of how they are doing after the fact, Lastman says. “How do they feel their children benefited in hindsight?”
There is one more important factor that parents often overlook, she adds. If your child has a passion for art, sports or music, don’t immediately look for the school with top-notch facilities for elite students.
“Ask yourself realistically where your child fits in. They may love hockey but in a highly competitive school, they might not even make the team. There’s nothing harder than being in athletics but not being able to make the cut because there are too many others ahead of you.” The same holds true for drama or other arts programs.
Another is personal logistics, particularly for kids who have been used to going to a school near their home. “It’s not just whether you can do the drive or take transit. It might be a much harder transition for your child. You have to know their tolerance for spending more time in long commutes.”
Ultimately, the right choice is one that takes into account all of your child’s and your own family’s needs. As Hoffmann notes:
“We all want our children not just to learn and thrive academically, but to thrive overall.”
A very strong premise we work on is that no matter if it’s one of the best schools, it’s a question of looking at the best fit for your individual child. There is no one size fits all. — Ann Wolff, educational consultant
When choosing a private school, parents need to match the choice with their child’s needs.