Look be­yond the ob­vi­ous for the right school

National Post (Latest Edition) - - PRIVATE SCHOOLS - Denise De­veau

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

COLE BURSTON / POST­MEDIA

When choos­ing a pri­vate school, par­ents need to match the choice with their child’s needs.

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