One evening, several months into the school year, Karen Lyndon answered the phone and was surprised to hear her daughter's computer teacher on the other end. She said she was calling to reassure Lyndon that her daughter was flourishing in the classroom, and seemed to have overcome her apprehension about asking questions publicly.
Lyndon, whose name was changed for this article, had addressed the issue with the teacher two months earlier, and already felt comfortable it had been resolved.
"She was just following up, something I had never seen before," says Lyndon, whose daughter had attended public school until the end of Grade 6, when she started up at Bayview Glen in Toronto, Ontario.
"That was the main reason we moved over to the private system: how involved the teachers are," Lyndon says. "And I feel, by being involved myself with the kids, I have a better understanding of the school itself, and a better relationship with the staff."
Parents of children in private and independent schools generally can be assured of generous access to their kids' teachers, other administrative staff and the school itself. Parent-teacher communication is often abundant and regular. The household is kept in the loop about events and activities - both classroom-specific and school-wide - and parents are invited to correspond with those in charge of their kids' education.
"Keeping the lines of communication open between parents and teachers is very important," says Eileen Daunt, Bayview Glen's head of school. All of the teachers at this 900-student, Preschool-to-Grade-12 independent school have voice mail, and parents' calls are encouraged. The school also produces a monthly newsletter and hosts regular interviews and curriculum meetings.
Crescent School in North York, Ontario has 660 boys in Grades 3 to 12 and operates an Intranet. Known as the Green Room, it's "just rich with information," headmaster Geoff Roberts says. Parents can visit it to find everything from homework instructions, cafeteria menus, sporting events and major announcements to PDF versions of school publications, speeches and parental FAQs (a much-visited section that's continually updated by parent volunteers).
Indeed, Dianne Johnson, principal of The Junior Academy in Toronto, believes all of this easy access to school administration, "that (parents) are able to communicate directly with the teacher and come right into the classroom," qualifies as the revelation that would most surprise parents about the world of private schools.
"The smaller you are, the easier it is for people to access information, because all the teachers know who your child is," says Johnson, whose 120 students are in nursery to Grade 8.
But parental involvement is a two-way street. Private school families might be asked to donate more of their time than their peers in the public system.
If the match between a student's family and her school is a good one, says Pat Parisi, "then the parents in a school really become the strongest advocate for the school's mission."
Parisi is the principal at St. Clement's, a Toronto school for girls with 440 students in Grades 1 through 12. The active participation of parents in the school setting is "critical." Her school enjoyed the benefit of 10,000 hours of volunteer work from parents last year. "If you divided that out, that's six years of one person's work," Parisi says. "It's staggering."
Often, the subject of how much time a parent is expected to dedicate to a school comes up in the admission interview. In some cases, institutions formalize the arrangement in written form. At the very least, it's alluded to in student handbooks.
At St. Clement's, the covenant is more explicit. St. Clement's sends out a -"Volunteer Handbook" - a 20-page mail-out inviting parents to nominate the nature and extent of their contribution - to students and their families over the summer break. Inside, the contents page breaks the opportunities into specifics, including the Welcome Garden Party, Used Textbook Sale and Christmas Goodie Bags.
Parents are a child's first teachers, Parisi says; schools only fill in the blanks. "What's important for parents to think about is: Where am I going to have the most effective teaming?" St. Clement's is delighted to call upon parents' expertise whenever possible. One school parent, whose job regularly exposes him to such high-flown matters, spoke about international banking to an upper-grade economics class.
At Crescent School, a recent round of renovations has been helped by a facilities committee, whose parent members include architects, engineers and entrepreneurs. "We rely on our parents for wisdom and insight and support in all sorts of ways," Roberts says.
But, he stresses, parents should never feel overwhelmed by the weight of expectation. "It's your choice," he says. "Being involved is great and wonderful, but not necessary. By not being included, you're not excluded."