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The tie that binds: the financial challenges of a single parent

Why a single mom believes in private school for her three children

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Karen McArthur is a single mother putting her three children through private school. This is her story on why she does it, the financial challenges, and why the outcome is worth the sacrifice.

A small nail sticks out of the white wall next to Karen McArthur’s fireplace. The paint is slightly faded from where a piece of art used to hang. “I sold it,” she says. “Another one, too, over there,” pointing to an empty wall on the other side of a living room turned Lego construction zone and garage sale-purchased dollhouse community.

McArthur talks about how there are no luxurious technological devices in her downtown Toronto home, and how her kids, Rex, 11, Scarlett, 9, and Beau, 6, have to climb through the back of the car to get into the front seat because the door latch has seized up.

But for her kids to get the best education possible the single mother of three is willing to make every sacrifice necessary. She wants to prepare them for a future of success.

The Toronto criminal lawyer says she has had to be creative financially to make sure her kids can continue to go private school. Scarlett and Beau both attend Mabin School and her eldest, Rex, is a student at Upper Canada College.

When it was time for Rex to enter kindergarten, McArthur says she found the public school system couldn’t give her what she wanted.  She was looking for more one-on-one attention in his education and the public school told her it wouldn’t be able to provide what she required and that she should consider other options.

I wanted a system that mirrored what my values were and I found that in the private school system,” she says.

So she took the leap. Inspired by people in her life whose leadership she admired – they attended private school – she applied for Rex to attend Mabin School. Expecting her third child at the time, Mabin was the right fit for her because the school offered a full-day kindergarten program.

“I wanted their imagination to be ignited and their sense of independence and love of learning,” says McArthur. “The values of the schools I chose for my children emphasize things like grit and resilience and love of learning—good core character values. If you can raise a good person you’ve done a great job and that was my focus.”

Those core character values, says McArthur, are what will ensure her children live happier lives, contribute to society “and have an impact so you can make a difference.” Her mantra in life is simple: you get one shot at life, that’s it, so go out there and make a difference.

“That’s what I’m messaging to my children so I wanted a system that mirrored what my values were and I found that in the private school system,” she says.

McArthur is honest about the financial obligations that come with choosing private school. Describing it like pushing a boulder up the side of a steep mountain, “I was trembling taking the first down payment to the school.”  Pregnant with Beau and their father having just left, “I had no clue how I was going to be able to do it. I just leapt. I didn’t give into fear and just went for it. Every step of the way, I’ve not given into the fear and I’ve kept leaping and I’m going to make it happen.”

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Not only has she made it happen, despite criticism from people around her for being “foolish” about investing the money on the early years of her children’s education, but her children’s drive, dedication and passion for their education is reflected on a daily basis. “I sell things sometimes, I’ve had to increase my billing rate, I’ve had to become more creative about ways in which to make a living in order to respond to the challenges.”

Rex wanted to go to Upper Canada College (UCC), says McArthur, because it was a “bigger pond” with more resources, and high-quality athletic facilities. A member of the hockey and soccer teams at the school, McArthur says while he didn’t think much about going to Mabin at the age of four, when it came to getting accepted to UCC, he prepared for the test on his own and was accepted.

And in a few short years, Rex has grown in ways McArthur didn’t expect. “He takes command of his homework and he gets it done and that… it filters into all other aspects of his life and my life and it makes things easier,” she says. “He shows leadership for me in the home. Private school has instilled these leadership values and expectations in him and he’s responding to the challenges.”

McArthur has a picture of Rex from a one of the first Christmas concerts at UCC he participated in, and in the photo he is bending down to tie the tie on his little brother. “Now, my little boy wants to go to UCC like his brother. There was my oldest boy, being such a good brother to his little brother. It’s the tie that binds.”

Going back to McArthur’s mantra of making a difference in the world, she says private school has helped her son become a leader. “The focus is… you’ve got the benefit of this education so go forward and share it. It’s like a jewel and their making it shine in the bigger broader community.”

For parents on the fence about putting your child in private school, McArthur says if you want something in life make it happen. “If you trust, it will unfold the way it’s supposed to. I’ve been at the brink of not being able to have them go to private school, and by the grace of God something will happen and I’ll able to do it.”

“If it were to come to pass I wouldn’t be able to do it in the future, I’d be happy that I made this choice.”

-Andrew Livingstone

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