Choosing a school: parent interviews

Learn from parents how they chose private schools for their children

Choosing a school for your child is a big decision. On, we provide all the information you need on this decision. We also cover related topics such as private school expos and questions to ask private schools.

Recently, we interviewed parents on how they chose private schools for their children. We discussed a wide range of topics, including their goals, research methods used, challenges faced, and plans for the future.

Below, you can read four of our featured interviews. You can also access links to the rest of our interviews below. Finally, read our comprehensive education expert guide to choosing the right school, as well as our in-depth guide to getting into school.

All our parent interviews

Featured parent interviews

Catherine Maule

Catherine has two daughters, Evelyn (9 years old) and Oswyn (5 years old). Our interview focused mostly on Catherine’s search for a private school for Evelyn for grade 3.

Q: What were you looking for in a private school?
A: Location was part of it. The other main factors were cost, school philosophy, and feel.

Q: Why were you looking for a private instead of a public school?
A: We had a bit of a sense that we could frontload their education. Maybe they don’t always have to be in private school, but if we help develop the right study skills, and the basics, to read and write well, and know their math well, then they could be better prepared for the public school system.

Q: How did you research private schools?
A: We looked at school websites, and created a shortlist of schools to visit. We prepared lists of questions for each of the schools we visited. We met with principals and asked them questions. Evelyn, our older child, also visited the schools we seriously considered for her.

We also met with students at some schools. They talked about their day-to-day experience: what projects they’re working on, their extracurricular activities, etc. Since this was at an open house, they were probably trying to show the best aspects of the school. That said, we did feel they were being honest.

Q: What kind of school did you select for Evelyn?
A: Evelyn is a smart girl, but she’s not always self-driven. We just felt like she would get lost in a classroom of 30 to 35 kids, where everybody is coming in at different levels. We found a school for her that was academic, with a focused curriculum and smaller class sizes. We did have reservations about it, especially its intensity for the grade 3 level, but overall it seemed like the right fit.

Q: How did you arrive at this choice?
A: We weren’t quite sold after my husband and I visited the school. It was Evelyn’s visit that cinched it. She had a three-hour visit and sat in on a class. She also met separately with the principal, who, along with a teacher, assessed Evelyn’s academic skills. They gave us a report on these and outlined an academic plan for her. They were very thorough. Evelyn also felt like it was a good match. She said, “Everybody was so well behaved and working so hard. It was a really peaceful and nice place to be.”

Q: Did any other factors play a major role in your decision?
A: When you have multiple children you’re trying to find the best fit in many ways, for your whole family. You can’t have one child at one end of the city and another child at the other end. We’re in two schools right now, but they’re two blocks away, so it’s manageable.

Q: How is Evelyn’s school working out?
A: It’s been a good fit for Evelyn and for the family. But I suspect that if I started looking again, it’s possible I might find something better for her, knowing her better now too. The school that’s the best fit for your child is probably not a permanent answer.

Q: Do you have any advice for parents?
A: Identify the deal breakers: a school has to tick your necessary boxes first. For example, living in downtown Toronto, we couldn’t send either of our kids to a school in Etobicoke: it would just be too long a commute.

Also, go to open houses. That’s your first contact, your first way to get a feel for the school. Then go for smaller visits, meet with teachers, principals, and others. Talk to parents. Just gather as much information as you can. But don’t cast your net too widely, as you can get overwhelmed.

Jennifer Reynolds

Jennifer has one child, James. James will begin grade 9 at a new private school in the fall of 2018.

Q: When did you start your private school search?
A: First-stage research began in grade 7. Over the summer, we spoke to a lot of other parents who had gone through the process. These conversations were helpful: we asked parents whether they went to all open houses, did private tours, and what else they did in their search. We also definitely used Our Kids resources, online and print.

Q: What were some of the main factors guiding your school search?
A: We considered coed, but felt really strongly that an all-boys environment would be the right way to go. It just fit James’ personality and learning style. That kind of environment would enable him to move around a little bit more and have strong male influences in his life. We also considered cost, whether we wanted a big or small school, and school programs, such as IB.

Q: How many schools were on your shortlist that you visited?
A: We initially considered about six or seven schools, but narrowed it down to a shortlist of two. We visited both those schools.

Q: What did you do during the visits?
A: We went to open houses, information days, and one-on-one tours, during the school year. We spoke with the admissions team to get a sense of what the school day is like. The whole family also went to homecoming, sports events, and other events, to get a sense of the school community.

Q: How did you make your final decision?
A: When it came down to our final choice, we made a list of pros and cons. But the biggest thing is that we cancelled all our plans on the Sunday before we had to make the final decision and walked around the two campuses.

At one school, the doors were locked, so we walked around outside, and we sat on benches and talked about what we liked and what we didn’t, and whether we could see ourselves there.

We then did the same thing for the other school. We walked around the giant football field and track, and the big hockey arena. I think James saw himself more in the second school. He liked the bigger space. The space represented the opportunity to meet new people and try new things, to explore and dream. We let James make the final decision to pick that school, though we gave him our input.

Q: What challenges did you experience?
A: Finding the right school, applying, jumping through all the hoops: it’s a huge investment in time. It was also a long process for us, because it started in grade 7 and continued through most of the next year. It takes up much of your time and energy, and it distracted James from his school work at times.

Q: What advice do you have for other parents?
A: I think the importance of different resources changes along the way. Peer-to-peer was most important at the beginning: talking to other parents who have been through the process. But open houses and tours became more important later on. So, go to all those things. Understand what each school values and if it’s the right fit.

Lisa McCabe

Lisa has one child, Liam. Liam attended two private elementary schools, one up until grade 3 (the highest grade of the school), and one from grade 4 to 6. He’ll be starting grade 7 at a new private school in the fall of 2018. This interview focuses mostly on the decision to send Liam to the two private elementary schools.

Q: When did you first consider private school?
In senior kindergarten.

Q: Why did you consider private school at the elementary level?
A: I had actually originally thought he would be in the public school system and Liam had attended French immersion in SK at a public school. But it became apparent that it wouldn’t be for him. So the teacher reached out and we had some conversations. We came to the conclusion that he might be better off in a private school with smaller classrooms and more challenging programs (Liam was already bilingual).

Q: Why did you pick these two elementary schools?
A: For grade 1, I found a school with smaller class sizes and more individualized learning. I liked the school’s approach to learning how to read, and their art, theatre, and music programs. They performed little plays, and there were opportunities for children to interact more, and they had more field trips.

For grade 4, I was looking for an all-boys school. I visited and met with a school, and they said they’d like to have Liam for the day. So he went for the day while he was still in grade 3. Compared to the other all-boys school we visited, this seemed like a better fit. It had a warm and welcoming environment, plenty of sporting activities, and presented the opportunity for Liam to grow academically. It also helped that the school was in our neighbourhood.

Q: Were any resources especially helpful in your search?
A: We enlisted the services of an experienced education consultant, a former private school principal, in our search for the second school. She helped to identify Liam’s strengths and challenges and narrow down a list of schools that might be a good fit for him. We also used Our Kids, which allowed us to compare and analyze schools.

Q: Do you have advice for other parents?
A: Selecting a school is a very competitive process, and that should be taken into account. Putting a young child through this process can be very taxing. For example, what if a child is super set on one school and he doesn’t get in? What does that say to him about who he is, his academics, his educational ability and acceptability? It’s important to apply to a number of different schools, which is why, for high school, we had plans A, B, C, and D. You need to help your child manage his expectations.

Nathalie de Groot

Nathalie has two children, one entering junior kindergarten and the other entering grade 2 in the fall of 2018. They both attend the same private school.

Q: Why were you looking at private instead of public schools?
My husband and I both went to private school. It was something we both valued. And we saw things taken away from the public school system which we weren’t happy about. We had several friends who are in both systems, and the ones in public schools often complain about so many things. It wasn’t something we wanted to experiment with.

Q: How many private schools did you look at?
A: We looked at four schools. They were all great schools and quite comparable in many ways.

Q: What were the main criteria you used to evaluate schools?
A: It came down to what we were getting for what we were spending, and the location. We were keen on the IB program, which I went through myself. We also wanted to avoid big classes, which are common in public schools. And, we wanted our children to get lots of individual attention.

Q: What were your family dynamics around the choice?
A: We’re always on the same page in wanting what’s best for our children. Here’s one example about the school we chose. My husband said he liked everything, but wasn’t excited about the facilities (the equipment is a little bit older). He wanted something better, because we’re both very health-conscious, active, and athletic people. But I felt like school isn’t the only place our children are going to get their physical activity. At the time, the admissions person told us that there were plans to improve the facilities, and those plans have gone through since we’ve been there.

Q: Has the school met your expectations?
A: My kids are happy and doing well and thriving. They both love their teachers; they’re so nurturing and communicative. But we do wipe the slate clean every year, so we can evaluate each year and teacher independent of our previous experience. We’ve had some challenges. For example, we’ve had struggles with the negative influence of other kids. But I’m very happy with how the school dealt with it.

Q: Did you experience any frustration or difficulty with the search?
A: It was the unknown. I didn’t know much about private schools when I started the search, and I didn’t know about, which is great because you can learn about what other parents and students have to say. I wanted to tap into parent insights, but was limited to people I knew.

The truth is private schools say a lot of the same things to parents. And I had a newborn at the time I was searching for a school for my first child, so it was tough doing the research and trying to make the comparisons. I’d fall asleep sometimes! It was like a tornado of information and trying to analyze it was the most frustrating thing.

Q: Do you have any advice for other parents?
A: The most valuable thing is knowing your child and knowing what you want. For some people, it’s all about academics. For others, it’s athletics.

You have to be serious and realistic. You need to have a serious conversation with your significant other or whoever is raising this child and say, “What do we want for this child?” Then you have to do the research and due diligence. At every school we went to, I’d ask, “What makes your school special and different?” And when I started with that, it helped put them on the spot. Even if a lot of them would say the same thing, you could tell something about the school from the person representing it.

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