Many families in Canada are turning to private and independent education. With so many options to choose from, this decision can be overwhelming. Here we provide you with our core advice on finding the right school for your child, in the form of five tips.
Not all schools are created equal. Some are big, while others are small. Some are world famous, while others have a more local appeal. What’s more, no school can be all things to all people. Each has specific objectives, goals, and values, and aims to meet the needs of specific kinds of learners. In fact, this one of the virtues of private schools—they cater to specific types of children (and families), and often excel at doing this.
“Parents need to realize there is no longer any such thing as a typical private school,” says Judy Winberg, an education consultant. “All schools vary in their approach to teaching and learning, as well as in how they present curricula, extracurricular programs, and even the type of student they serve.” There’s no such thing as the ‘best school,’ one that works for all students and families. Different schools serve different types of families and children, and you’ll need to find one that works best for you—one that meets your most important needs (though likely not all your needs).
When Anne Rushforth’s son, Kenneth Gordon, was in grade 5, she overheard his teacher introducing him to another parent as “one of her slow students.” Rushforth bristled, knowing “he just needed a school to teach him in the way he learned.” She said, “I decided there needs to be a school for these children, where they’re understood.” In 1973, she founded the The Kenneth Gordon Maplewood School, and designed it to meet both her son’s needs and those of others with similar learning profiles.
Finding the right school means finding the right fit for you, your family, and your child. Start with your child. How does she learn, and what are her learning strengths and weaknesses? Is she an auditory or visual learner? What is she like socially and emotionally? Is she energetic, outgoing, introverted, shy, anxious, rule-oriented, rebellious, creative, or quirky? And what other traits might she have? The more you know about your child, the better equipped you’ll be to know what schools might meet her most pressing needs—academic, social, and emotional. This is one of the first steps, and a crucial one, in finding a school that’s the right fit.
You want a school that’s the right academic fit for your child, one that meets her learning needs, goals, interests, and objectives. There’s more to schools than academics, though. They should also have a culture in which your child can thrive. Make sure to find out as much as you can about a school’s culture—its community, social life, and values.
While you can certainly ask schools about this, the best way to get the real goods is to check things out for yourself. Plan to visit each school you’re considering. Don’t just go to open houses, though: go to school events, tour the campus, and have your child attend a class or two. Ask school officials plenty of questions, but also speak to students and other parents in the school community, especially those who aren’t officially representing the school.
Observing the school up close is another great way to gain valuable insight into its culture. How do students and faculty interact in the hallways and dining hall? What do students do during recess and how do they relate to each other? What does the food taste like? This is often the best way to get a feel for a school.
Your child’s thoughts and feelings should be weighed as well. Is she excited by what she sees, or is her initial reaction to turn and run? What does she like or not like about the school? Keep in mind, though, the final decision should not rest solely with your child. “You don’t want your child to feel responsible or to blame if the school doesn’t end up working out. Children should be viewed as a ‘junior partner’ in the decision,” says Janyce Lastman, an education consultant.
The Fraser Institute’s annual private school rankings are based on seven factors, derived from the EQAO. This test is administered by provinces to assess teaching against provincial curricular standards, and to compare schools in terms of their academics and teaching effectiveness.
These types of rankings, though, only tell us so much. While they reveal a school’s basic academic standings, they leave out its academic approach, including its curriculum and pedagogies, and how they teach learning skills (such as organization, time-management, and initiation) and ‘soft skills’ (such as critical thinking, problem-solving, resilience, and communication). They also don’t tell us anything about a school’s culture, community, support systems, resources, facilities, extracurriculars, and more.
To learn about these crucial features of schools, you’ll need to go far beyond superficial rankings. Read the school profiles here on OurKids.net. Dig deep into a school’s academic and social culture through on-campus visits, not just during open houses, but on other occasions as well. Make sure to ask lots of questions, talk to people in the school community, and involve your child in this whole process.
“I recommend that parents start by making a list,” says Winberg. “Ask yourself, ‘What’s most important to us?’ and write those things down.”
Then, look to the child. “Think about what’s working in your child’s current school and what’s not working,” education consultant Elaine Danson says. “Is there anything the child wishes he could do in school, but hasn’t been able to?” The right environment, Danson suggests, is one that supports those desires, one that addresses a child’s weaknesses and builds on her strengths. When it comes to your child, there’s no one that can know those things better than you.
Consider your family needs as well. “Look at what’s important to your family, and you’ve got to dig quite deep for that.” says Elizabeth Moore, executive director of the Independent Schools Association of British Columbia. “If it doesn’t work out, it can be rectified. But after everything is weighed and balanced, as a parent you know inside yourself what is going to work.”
What makes for a great school?
A healthy environment
The health of a school stems from the interactions between students, teachers, administrators, and staff. It’s also something you can only really get a sense of by visiting the campus. Where do people gather? Are teachers interacting with students outside the classroom? Is there happy banter in the hallways, or do students walk with their eyes down, focused only on their destination? These kinds of observations can tell you a lot about the overall health of the school environment.
A strong core philosophy
“Parenting and mentoring children,” says Diane Swiatek, “is a matter of choosing philosophy and principles, and acting so as to live out those principles.” Swiatek is the head of Banbury Crossroads School in Calgary, AB. The best schools are those that have a clear mandate (which should be outlined in the school’s mission statement), and that demonstrate commitment to that mandate.
Ideally, you’ll want a school that’s fairly close by. Beyond proximity, type of setting is also important, whether the school is in the heart of a city, in a greenbelt, close to the ocean, or next door to a sports facility. The right school setting will provide your child with opportunities to focus their attention on the things that matter most to them.
Marie Lardino, head of Voice Integrative School (VIS), believes students learn best in environments where “belonging and safety are acknowledged, practiced, and celebrated.” It may take different forms, but the best schools are those that begin there. “It’s that feeling I have when I drop her off in the morning,” says Holly Huehn, whose daughter attends St. John’s Kilmarnock School. “It’s that caring aspect. Not only do the teachers want to challenge the students, they also want to let them explore in different ways. They clearly care about the students and the education they’re receiving.”