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The admissions process

Navigating your child into the right school

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At one time, if you wanted your child to go to a private school, you chose a school, applied, paid the fee and your child went to the school.

No more. Many of today's private and independent schools are inundated with many more applicants than they have places. Unlike public schools, which have to admit children who live within their boundaries, private and independent schools can - and many do - choose students they deem the "best fit" from among their applicants.

Administrator Marilyn Andrews, who has been at Toronto's York School for 27 years, recalls the days when "parents could trek from school to school, interviewing us to find the school of choice for their child." But today, demand often far exceeds supply both at entry level and in grades along the way. Parents apply to a number of schools and take what they can get.

The system can leave them angry and frustrated, Andrews says. "Everybody loves the admission process when the child gets in. When he or she doesn't, the parents complain that the process is faulty."

By early May, all spots for fall 2002 at York School, which offers classes in pre-kindergarten to OAC, had been filled, except for space for a girl here, a boy there. "It's like a big chess game," Andrews says. "In co-ed schools, we also look at the gender mix.... (Because) I have a class with more boys than girls, a lot of boys are waiting. We have some delightful, capable little boys, some wonderful youngsters who in another year might have gotten in.

"All you can do is encourage parents to look around. Sometimes you hear in the (admissions) network about a space somewhere," Andrews says. "The people for whom I feel sorriest are those who turned down a place offered earlier, then change their minds and find a place is no longer available."

As a parent, your first step is to consult the admissions offices of the schools you're considering to determine their drills. At many schools, you need to start at least a year in advance.

Elmwood School in Ottawa, for instance, cautions on its Web site that "applications are welcomed throughout the year. However, we recommend that parents apply one full year before the anticipated entry date."

Most independent schools in Canada don't require an entrance examination. Among those that do, exams vary and test scores are weighted differently.

Janet Lewis, executive director of the Canadian Association of Independent Schools, says each of its 74 member schools sets its own policy.

"Many schools use a combination of past records, a standardized exam or their own exam and the process will probably include an interview. A number of things roll into decision-making. If the school has a huge number of inquiries, it's entirely likely it will use some exam to determine a list to interview."

The Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT) is used at 29 Canadian schools. All of them are in Ontario, except 4 for Balmoral Hall School in Winnipeg and Lower Canada College in Montreal.

Some schools require the SSAT only for scholarship students, some for all applicants. Outside Ontario, it's more common for private schools to require the Canadian Test of Basic Skills. It compares children to others of the same age and can show how they will fit into a school's academic program.

Ruth Ann Penny, director of admissions and communication at Branksome Hall in Toronto, says parents seem to assume that their child's doing well in the test is the main ingredient for entrance. "That is not so here; it is not so at most of the girls schools," she says. "It's part of a group of factors - a portfolio assessment, if you will."

At Branksome, for example, the admission package includes an interview, work samples, report card and, if the applicant has attended a special or gifted program, "it is helpful to have a description of that," Penny says.

"The interview is important - not that we expect 12-year-old girls to be skilled at being interviewed, but it's human contact and a chance for the family to ask questions of us. You can see that some girls are so coached that if you go off the beaten track with a question, they're lost."

As well as standard queries, Penny and her colleagues in admission try to draw out spontaneous reactions. Noting that a girl skates three hours on Saturday, they might ask how she organizes her time on weekends. Or seeing that she had traveled to a rainforest, they might ask what her best experience there was. "You want to get to know them as best you can and your job is to relax them."

At Branksome, Penny spends about 10 minutes alone with the student and 45 minutes with the whole family. She sees parents whose approach is "somewhat flawed" as well as parents who take the long view -- that a bright, active person will have a good future, regardless of whether she is admitted to the school, Penny says.

York School's Marilyn Andrews cites children "relentlessly driven around from activity to activity" in schedules that are "quite shocking" and one child who underwent twice-weekly tutoring sessions for three years in preparation for an application to Grade 7. "These kids must feel so horrible if they don't make it."

When they don't, parents sometimes come in and plead their case. "I never encounter a child who's not gifted," Andrews says tartly. "They're all gifted in the opinion of their parents."

So many parents see their kids in such an unrealistic light, Andrews says with a sigh. They don't seem to know what is normal. "Sometimes I think, quite truthfully, that instead of assessing the children, we should be assessing the parents."

Andrews says she believes kids who are going to do well on admission tests do well without tutoring, although she believes it might help students who are "on the edge."

York sets its own admission test and Andrews says she spends considerable time explaining the results in detail. "I sense people are grateful."

One question on the York School's language paper for high-school entry goes beyond what a student could derive from tutoring. It asks applicants to reflect on something in their own lives in relation to a story they're given. "There is no right or wrong answer," Andrews says. The question is designed to draw out "things that mean a lot to them.... I can tell so much from that."

The approximately 200 schools across Canada that belong to the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) don't require a competitive entrance examination. But the association encourages - and an estimated 80 per cent provide - an academic assessment.

Christian schools are there to support parents who want a child taught from a Christian perspective, "so it is not a restrictive enrolment policy" from an academic standpoint, says Anne Rauser, the association's regional director for the West. From a religious standpoint, some schools attract students from "a narrow population" and some from a broader one.

Admission testing helps determine placement, Rauser notes. "You don't want to place a student two grades above where the student is performing."

Mark Kennedy, Rauser's counterpart for Eastern Canada, says "each school designs its own (assessment), but each would have a basic math and language skills" evaluation.

The aim is "not to exclude the struggling student" but to identify problems, Kennedy says. Further assessment might indicate that the school the student came from didn't succeed in teaching the basics, or that the student has a learning disability.

"A number of (ACSI) schools do have programs for children with learning problems," Kennedy says. It's important to determine if there's a problem beyond the scope of a particular school's resources before the child is enrolled.

Jim Christopher, executive director of the Canadian Education Standards Institute (CESI), says that in the past, parents have successfully sued schools that admitted children but were unable to provide the program needed. The parents argued that the schools failed to screen the students properly.

CESI doesn't expect its accredited schools to follow a single admission procedure, Christopher says. "We ask the schools: 'Do you have an admission process consistent with the school's mission?'"

A school might look for attributes that wouldn't come out in a standard academic exam. It's vital, however, that whatever the admission process, it be "free of bias, open and equitable," Christopher says.

If the mission of a CESI-accredited school is religious, then parents must understand the environment from the beginning, Christopher says. Some Catholic schools belong to CESI and some Jewish schools are joining. Students should not be refused entrance to a CESI-accredited school on the basis of nationality or creed.

"Many nominally Anglican schools operate by inculcating Anglican values but they are open, say, to a Hindu," he says.

When a school gives preference to students' siblings or the children or grandchildren of alumni, it isn't a problem if the child with connections is chosen over a student with equal qualifications, Christopher says. CESI would be concerned, however, if a school required an 80 per cent average to enter, yet admitted a student with much lower marks simply because he was an old boy's son or she was the daughter of a faculty member, he says.

CESI would also take a dim view of a school that admitted the sibling of a successful student if the child's family then had to provide outside tutoring for the younger student to catch up or keep up, Christopher says.

He cites a Quebec court case in which a parent sued because a daughter wasn't admitted to a school. The judge said independent schools have the right to set their own criteria for admission, but noted that once set, the criteria should be followed. The parent lost the case.

Parents shouldn't be pressured to feel grateful for a spot in a school where the number of applications exceed places, Christopher cautions. "They're the ones paying. If a student is coming in at Grade 7, they may be facing $100,000 in fees over the course of the education. They should recognize they are buying a service and make sure it's the right place for their child."

Christopher says he's heard of schools putting the "heat on" parents to enrol a child in Grade 5 or 6 to improve chances of getting into Grade 7. "Some parents do panic and register earlier than they had planned."

International Baccalaureate North America doesn't require an entrance exam for admission to any of its academic programs. An IB school might choose to administer an entrance exam, but that is entirely its choice.

Jean Thomas Hawkes, administrator with the Association of Waldorf Schools in North America, says the 17 Waldorf schools in Canada don't require entrance examinations. They do, however, interview the parents and the student separately. "When a child is accepted into the school, it's on a three-month probation."

Brenda Kotras, registrar for the Toronto Waldorf School, says a probationary period is a protection for both the school and the family. "As a school, we want to be sure that we are able to provide what the student needs. "In most cases we will but, as you can imagine, parents are sometimes looking for a miracle 'cure' and they bring very needy children to us. We can often help, but it may take a little while to assure ourselves that this is the right place for the child. Also, an interview cannot illumine all aspects of the child/family or Waldorf education, so we need a little time to make sure that their 'picture' matches our reality."

Kotras says students are assessed very carefully during the probation period. "We do not willy-nilly dismiss children - those we accept we try very hard to educate."

"If we start to have second thoughts, there is a procedure whereby there are conversations with the parents to keep them updated on the child's integration and progress."

If the probation doesn't work out, the parents are not liable for a full year's tuition, Kotras says. The Toronto Waldorf School doesn't give an entrance exam, he says. "Rather, our teachers meet with the parents and students in a thorough biographical interview. Some previous report cards and student work are brought to the interview. Then, in lower school, the child comes to visit in the classroom for three days."

High school is a bit different; students are accepted or declined without a visit.

Montessori schools have a general policy of admitting children before their fourth birthdays, so exams aren't administered, says Breffni MacMahon, until recently executive director of the Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators. Schools that accept students older than that usually require that they have already been in another Montessori school, such as a Montessori preschool. Admission is by interview, not by test.

One exception is Town Centre Montessori School in Markham, Ontario, which has 1,600 students from four years old to OAC. With every passing year, parents need to confirm places in the school for the next year earlier and earlier. By February 2002, for example, several grades had already been filled for the fall term and by June waiting lists existed for most, if not all, grades.

With younger students, the school likes to "screen the background, meet the families and see if the child has the emotional and physical ability" to handle the day-long programs, says Sean Farrell, Town Centre's senior vice-principal. "Sometimes when children are young, they are not socialized. We want to make sure their first experience is an enjoyable one because it will set the tone for the rest of their education."

From Grade 1 on, "someone from admissions and a vice-principal" interview the family. From Grade 2 up, potential students do what the school calls "a written assessment" rather than an "exam," a word that can be intimidating and get parents and children "too worked up," Farrell says.

The test, which takes about 50 minutes, looks at reading, writing, comprehension and math and helps ensure the child is placed at an appropriate level. There are several models of the assessment for each grade, depending on the time of year; they ensure that a child writing in May, for instance, doesn't have an advantage over a younger child who wrote in October.

If a child is not accepted, the school might recommend the child start at a lower grade or reapply after some help. Advice would be given on which subject areas need work.

"We look at students' overall strengths," says Farrell. Weakness in one subject wouldn't mean the child would be turned down but would be used as information about where to start remediation right away.

"Sometimes academics are not the best indicator of how well a child will do. There may be other strengths, such as athletics, to consider," he says.

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