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Parents' step-by-step guide to choosing the right school

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Many parents face the challenge of choosing a school that's right for their child.

With so many schools offering different environments, teaching styles and philosophies, the experience can feel overwhelming. For Barbi Benjamin Levitt and Michael Levitt, the decision to move their daughter, and later their son, out of the Hebrew school they had attended since nursery and into different private schools was an emotional process. Yet looking back, the parents say that with the right help and careful research, they were able to find schools that fit perfectly with their children's academic, social, and emotional needs.

Bedford Academy – Photograph by Scott Munn

Understand your child

The first step in choosing the right school is to determine what type of student your child is and what environment she will most likely succeed in.

"Before thinking about the features of any particular school, begin by looking at your child's needs, strengths and overall personality," explains educational consultant Judy Winberg.

"I can still remember the psychologist telling us that Jessica needed to be in a different school – now"

For the Levitt family, this meant first recognizing that their daughter Jessica wasn't doing well in her current environment. "Just after Christmas in Jessica's Grade 2 year, the troubles she was having came to a head," Barbi recalls. "Each student was told to present a book to the class, and while the other kids were reading at level four or five, Jessica was still at level one. She felt embarrassed and came home crying."

To better understand their daughter and her learning needs, the Levitt family turned to an educational psychologist for help. "If you're looking for a psychologist to provide an evaluation or aren't sure if this is what your child needs, consider asking your pediatrician for help," advises Elaine Danson, educational consultant and former principal of Montcrest School in Toronto, Ontario.

The psychological assessment provided the Levitts with an unbiased look at their daughter's strengths, weaknesses and abilities. "I can still remember the psychologist telling us that Jessica needed to be in a different school – now," Barbi says. "She had an unidentifiable learning disability and she wasn't absorbing information."

This news was hard for the Levitt family to digest. They had assumed their children would go to Hebrew school for the rest of their elementary years and had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that their daughter would have to start over in a new school.

TIP: Just because parents went to a particular school or type of school doesn't mean it's right for their children. Always consider the specific needs of the child.

Make a List 

Armed with a better understanding of your child, the next step is to evaluate both the child's needs and the needs of your family.

"I recommend that parents start by making a list," Winberg says. "Ask yourself, 'What's most important to us?' and write those things down." Keep that list on hand to help you stay focused throughout the search process in order to avoid overlooking something.

The Levitts knew they wanted a school with small classes, so Jessica could get more attention from her teachers. They wanted a coed school that would be welcoming to a new student. Finally, they wanted a transitional program that would help her catch up to her current grade level without making her feel stigmatized by her learning challenges.

Other factors parents tend to consider include the child's interests and talents and what co-curricular activities are available to address these; the values – religious or otherwise – of the school and how they mesh with the family's values; and the educational tools (e.g., technology) that are used in the classroom.

"Think about what's working in your child's current school and what's not working," Danson says. "Is there anything the child wishes he could do in school but hasn't been able to?"

TIP: It's not selfish to consider your own needs during this process. This can include how far you're willing to drive to get your child to school each day.

Begin Evaluating Schools

Now it's time to look at specific schools to see what they have to offer. Many parents begin by visiting school fairs, such as Our Kids Media's popular Private School Expo in the fall, and using school guides and websites, which provide an overview of what's available and accessible to them.

Other forms of research often include speaking with fellow parents. But Winberg advises that what other parents say about a school should not necessarily be one of your deciding factors. "Just because one child had a positive or negative experience does not mean your child – a totally different human being – will have the same experience."

Winberg also encourages parents to think beyond school rankings such as those conducted by the Fraser Institute. "Parents will often say to me, 'But that school didn't have a good rating,' and what I ask them is, 'What else do you know about the school?'" In isolation, she says, these ratings are not particularly useful.

TIP: Most schools have comprehensive websites, which are often good places to search for information. These can be accessed directly from school profiles on OurKids.net.

The 411 on applying

From the secrets to successful applications to interview tips, find out about applying to schools.

Visit potential schools 

Once you've come up with a short list of schools, you're ready to begin touring. The admissions department is typically your point of contact at this stage. Most schools offer tours of some sort to help get families better acquainted with their programs and environment.

"The school visit is the chance to establish what the parent and student's wishes and expectations are of the school, and what the school's expectations are of the students," says Cathy Lee, director of admissions at Bodwell High School in North Vancouver, B.C. "Then we look for a match."

Carefully observe the students, teachers and parents at the school during your visit, Winberg suggests. "When you're inside the school, look into the classrooms to see if the kids look engaged. Are they talking with one another, or is the teacher sitting behind the desk while the kids work?" Winberg says. "Check out the culture of the parking lot. What are the other parents like? Do they seem open and welcoming? Is this a community you can imagine being part of?"

Other questions to ask during this time, according to Danson, include what type of parent-teacher communication exists at the school, what qualifications the teachers have (especially if your child has special needs), how financially stable the school is, and whether the administration has changed hands a number of times or if there has been consistent leadership at the school.

This is your chance to ask questions, so don't be shy. After all, your child will be spending five days a week here, so you want to be sure you understand the philosophy and the policies before you make a choice.

"For our daughter, we visited both schools before making a decision," Barbi says. "What it came down to was in one school her class would have been nearly all boys, and we didn't think that would work for her."

After touring the schools, it was time for Jessica to experience the new environment first-hand. In March of her Grade 2 year, the then seven-year-old spent an entire day at Crestwood School in Toronto. "We walked into the school and everyone knew who she was," Barbi says. "They assigned a student to wait outside for her to arrive, the librarian knew her name, and the teachers made her feel extremely welcome."

By the end of the day, the admissions official at Crestwood told the Levitts that their daughter would thrive at this school and that she should transfer right away. Though they were worried about how disruptive a mid-year school change would be, Jessica was adamant that she wanted to start at this new school immediately.

"We listened to her, and she started at Crestwood just after March break," says Michael, Jessica's father. Since then, Jessica, now in Grade 5, has excelled in this new environment. She has done much better academically, made an entirely new set of friends, kept her old friends and is loving school.

"It really does come down to happiness," Winberg says. "If the child is happy, there's a much better chance that he or she will be successful no matter what the curriculum is."

TIP: Make sure your child spends some time in each school you're considering before you make a final decision.

For the Levitts's son Casey, who changed schools in Grade 6, the process was different. He wanted a school that would offer a more enriching experience, and his choices had been narrowed down to Upper Canada College (UCC), Crescent School, and The York School. "After we visited all of the schools and he wrote all the admissions tests, we found out that there were very few spaces at these schools for Grade 6 students," Michael says.

To keep their son feeling positive about the process, they kept their options open and tried not to favour one school. When an early acceptance came from The York School, Casey was ready to accept it since he had spent a day at the school and loved it.

"I had at first thought UCC would be the best school for him, based on my own experiences at a similar school, but after hearing about his experience at The York School, I knew it was the right fit," Michael says.

The final decision ultimately comes down to both the parents and the child.

"In the end, parents need to listen to their kids and trust their own gut instincts," Winberg says. "Can you envision your child being successful at this school? Does it feel right? If so, go for it."

TIP: Try not to set yourself up to believe there is only one school for your child. Keep your options open.

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