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Choosing the right school

It's hard work for parents but well worth the effort

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You've decided to send your child to a school outside the public school system. It was an agonizing choice based on family finances, debates about the merits of public versus private education and a desire to do the best you possibly can for your child's future. A tough choice, but you feel good about it and now you can relax a little.

But just a little - because that's only the beginning of the process. Now you have to choose a school. There are hundreds across Canada and, although they have similarities, they also present a diverse choice of teaching and learning styles and environments. Some claim single-gender education is a benefit, others that co-education is the way to go.

Not every school matches every student. The right school is the school where your child will thrive; the challenge is finding the right match.

Some offer grade levels from preschool through high school, so your child can remain in one nurturing environment his or her whole pre-university education. Others offer only elementary, middle school or high-school levels. Oh, and by the way, how do you feel about boarding?

Finding the right school for your child can be easy, or it can be grueling. Before setting out on an extensive search, sit down with your family and decide what your ideal school is. Deciding you want a co-educational school or a single-gender school, for example, will immediately narrow your search. With your "wish list" in hand, you are ready to start making some choices.

The next step is to contact each potential school for materials outlining its philosophy, curriculum, extracurricular offerings, the admissions process and financing options.

Compare each school's literature with the items on your list; this should give you a sense of which schools are a good match. Take into account what type of environment would be best for your child and consider his or her individual strengths as you examine each school's program. Eliminate any school that doesn't meet your fundamental requirements.

Once you have contacted a school's admissions office, you will learn about application deadlines, possible entrance examinations and interviews. Also, ask about upcoming open houses or if tours with student guides are available.

Remember, as every child is a unique individual, each school is unique in its own way. Not every school matches every student. The right school is the school where your child will thrive; the challenge is finding the right match.

When Michelle Guay began looking for a school, she and her husband sat down and discussed what they felt would be best for their four-year-old son, David. "We both agreed that a positive schooling experience has a great impact on a child's life. We discussed what we wanted our son to experience and then began looking for those qualities in a school," says Guay.

"We knew we wanted a comfortable environment that was kind, energetic and stimulating, with strong academics, but with reasonable competitiveness."

Because Guay and her family were in the process of moving from Montreal to the Toronto area, they also had to depend on word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and colleagues - for many parents an invaluable resource.

"After we chose Oakville as our community, we began to look at schools in the area and were encouraged by the choice," she says. "We called the schools that interested us, spoke to the admissions office and requested to be sent an information package."

Guay says she and her husband visited the schools that appealed most to them with their son in tow. "We wanted him to feel included in the decision. We also wanted to see which schools he was interested in and where he appeared to feel most comfortable."

The Guays looked at four schools. "We made our selection based on both rational and emotional decisions," Michelle Guay says. "We wanted a school with a strong reputation, a low student-to-teacher ratio, strong academics, caring teachers, pleasant facilities and a tuition we could afford. Emotionally, we were looking for our son's comfort in the school and the hum of activity we saw in the classroom during our visit."

In the end, the Guays chose Fern Hill School in Oakville. Actually, David feels he made the choice.

Elaine Dimmer's daughter, Alexandra, 8, is a Grade 3 student at Branksome Hall in Toronto. Dimmer started looking for the right school when Alexandra was five. She began her search knowing two things definitely - she wanted a single-gender school that would see her daughter through from kindergarten to university entrance.

Dimmer narrowed her choice to four all-girls schools in the Toronto area and began by calling the admissions office of each and attending open houses. "I was looking for the right fit for Alexandra, a well-rounded program that took into account strong academics, social, sports and community service," she says.

After touring the schools, submitting applications and taking part in the assessment and interview process, the Dimmers had a clearer view as to which school was their first choice.

In the end, Alexandra was accepted at two schools and waitlisted at one. The fourth had told them from the outset that it had no spaces in Grade 1. "We chose Branksome because we felt that it was the right balance for Alexandra. Now she's in Grade 3 and we are very pleased with our choice."

Next fall they begin the process again for their son, Michael.

Check out our detailed, recent advice on choosing the right private school and our guide on questions to ask private schools. You can also read our guides to choosing Montessori schoolspreschools, and special needs schools.
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