Interview on choosing the right school: Ann and Karen Wolff

Education experts Ann and Karen Wolff share insights about choosing a private school for your child

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Ann and Karen Wolff are education consultants at Wolff Educational services, an education consulting firm in Toronto, Ontario.

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We asked them several questions related to the issue of choosing a school. We covered topics such as what to look for, learning about schools, mistakes parents make, school red flags, and how to know when a school isn’t working. Here’s what they had to say.

For more expert advice on a wide range of questions related to school choice, read our comprehensive guide. You can also read our parent interviews on choosing a school, as well as  our in-depth advice guide on getting into a private school.

Q: What are some signs that a school or learning environment isn’t working?
A: The most obvious one is that you can’t get your kids to go to school—school avoidance. I mean, in earlier years it may present as “I have a stomachache” or “I'm not feeling well.” We've had several clients this year who could not get their kids into the school building.

Kids love to be with their peers. They love to be where their friends are, and if all of their friends are at school, and they're not happy at school, this is a bad sign.

Another common way to realize it's not a good fit is every day coming home and saying, "School was boring.” Boring is a misnomer for a whole laundry list of things that could be going on. Kids are not good at identifying them. They know there's something that's not right, but they'll say it's boring.

Other issues include phone calls, having to leave at lunch. Is there an issue with lunch? Is it a social issue? Is there bullying going on? We've had calls about cliques and social issues, and social workers coming in and trying to solve issues, and not having the tools to really navigate the social landscape of what happens outside of the learning environment in school. That also has proven to be very challenging for a lot of kids, and because of it they avoid school and they want to switch.

Q: What are some common best practices of good schools?
A: I think the best schools have the best teachers, and there's evidence to support that it's not the class size that matters as much as the teacher. So, if you look at the retention of staff in a particular school, if they retain their staff and they’re really excellent teachers, that's going to be a good school across the board. Couple that with class size, that's a winning combination. Marry that to a varied curriculum that is multi-disciplinary, that knows their students, then even better.

Also, good schools know their students. They know the student population. They take time to know them and to differentiate the curriculum for their students based on learning needs.

Q: What are the best ways to find out if a school is a good fit?
A: After they go to the school expo? They have to visit them. And I prefer they visit them not during the open houses where everything is really pre-planned and certain schools handpick the kids to get the chores. That might be a jumping off point, but I think every school, I know every school has a different atmosphere.

It's helpful to go, to sit in the office, to ask for a private tour, to get an idea of things by looking in the classrooms. How do the students look? There are some schools that if you tour them, a visitor opens the door and the kids stand up and they say, “welcome.” I'm not so happy with that. I want to peek in the window and see how many kids are engaged. See what's happening in the actual environment.

Also, prioritize your child's needs. What does your child look like as a learner? Perhaps meet with their present teacher and say to the teacher, "can you tell me my child's three strengths and three areas of need?" So then you have some objective information to use in your school search.

Q: Looking at the decision-making phase, how much of that really comes down to gut versus the head?
A: I think after they meet with us, it's not so much gut. I think they have facts. They know what they're looking for. They have the information. They're more informed about their child, so they have certain things that they're looking for.

Q: How much of this process is predictive versus more trial and error?
A: The work we do has some predictive element to it because we look at the needs of the child, and once we’ve looked at raw data and scores we can identify what those needs are. It can be very predictive. But at the same time, we're talking about growing, changing human beings. So we always tell parents, “we take this year-by-year.” If they have a wonderful year, that is a win. That's wonderful, but let's look at this as a 10-month investment.

Q: What are the most common mistakes you find parents make when choosing a school?
A: I don't think they are looking at their children as learners and they are picking schools based on other priorities. Either prestige of the school or name or reputation. They might look at variables that don't often contribute to their individual child's success. Also, many parents have preconceived ideas about their kids.

Q: What are some red flags about schools?
A: Schools with a rotating staff—lots of turnover. They don't have good leadership, so if the headmaster or principal or director is changing every couple of years, where is the stability in the school? If my child is in grade two I would like to know that there is stability and continuity from grade two to grade three.

What are the goals of the school? What are their priorities? How do they approach the curriculum? How do they approach discipline? If they can't answer those questions, that’s also not a good sign.

Some schools boast we do STEM and then we get there and say, "tell us about your STEM program." And they say, "what do you mean?" If you can't give us a specific example based on curricular expectations and realistic differentiation, that’s not good.

Facilities can also be a red flag. If you hear, “this is our temporary space but in two years we are moving to something bigger,” that’s something to watch out for. What are the next two years going to look like? And why are they so unsettled? That being said, there are some schools that operate in a facility that isn’t beautiful and doesn’t look like some other schools and they are quite successful.

Another red flag is if they aren't tied to the community. If they have no community ties outside of their little existence in their world. If they are in the community and they have a fun fair something where they are in the community, the community knows they are there. They are part of the community and vice versa.

Q: What points of differentiation are there between big and small schools in terms of school choice?
A: Small schools often have a family-like feeling, because the class sizes are so small. They form a sense of community across the grades. You get these cross-grade friendships, relationships, mentoring if it gives certain kids leadership opportunities (that they would rarely have in a larger school).

Q: What about advantages of big schools?
A: I guess more resources. Opportunities for social alliances, there are more opportunities to be friends with more people. They often have specialist teachers—e.g.,  a French teacher, a music teacher—you get the specialists you might not get in a small school. They have great opportunities. They often have a large sports, arts, drama, and music program, because they have the students to support them.

Q: Are there factors parents tend to overlook or under-emphasize in their school search?
A: I don't think parents put enough emphasis on learning skills. The learning skills, if you don't acquire them, you're not going to get the academics. Learning skills are cooperation, initiation,  time management, organization, collaboration, time-management, initiation, and responsibility. It's on the first page of the provincial report card, and parents tend to overlook it. They often go straight to grades for academics. They don’t see the connection between learning skills and academics.

Parents sometimes also underestimate the importance of the school community. Unless this is something they are specifically looking for, they may not realize how important it is. The student community and the parent community—you may be closely involved with these people for a long time.

Q: Are there ways that you can think of to tap into the parent community to get insight about the culture and feel of the school and other aspects of the school?
A: Some private schools have parents who will do that. They'll say you can call such-and-such, or you can read on their website their parent feedback. But this tends to be biased input. There are some schools that also have a parent monthly club. That's more social, as opposed to PTA-driven, so it's less about school initiatives and school-wide plans and more just about like, "Hey, this is Bill. He's a lawyer." Or, "Hey, this is so and so." It's more about a social network for parents.

Q: How involved should children be in the decision?
A: I would say if the parents are having a hard time, it sometimes should be the child who makes the final decision (when they’re old enough). Make sure that the child visits the schools, meets the headmaster or whoever, and I would then leave it up to them, as long as the parents are on board.

So, I don't know, I think number one, parents have to trust their kids. Some parents do and some don't. Some parents would never give up the control of making that decision. We have to respect that. You know, they will say, "Uh-uh. This is a $20,000 decision. My kid is not making that." And that's fine. But if you're comparing apples and apples, and the parents cannot make that decision, and they trust their child, that's when that decision can be handed over to the child.

Q: Do you have any other advice to parents doing a school search?
A: Sometimes it's as simple as parents want both of their kids at one school. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn't. It's really looking at each child as an individual case all the time. And you need to look at the whole child: social, emotional, and intellectual.

Also, make sure you get a real first-hand feel for schools and their environments. For example, if you're dealing with a student that can't function with an overstimulated environment, and you walk in and there are tie-dye walls with graffiti and letters everywhere, and there's a smartboard and it's playing music, and there's so much going on, you know this might not be a good fit. If the environment is quiet and calm and the child would really rise to that learning environment, then you've hit the nail on the hammer. Are you inspired to learn there? Does it resonate within you as a place that you could come every day and feel good about learning?

And I would say that private schools are not always the best option. I think parents feel that if they are paying for it they are going to get a great education for their child. This is not always the case.

Child-specific advice on school choice
For child-specific insights on choosing a school, read our guide. We explore how school choices crucially depend on kids' unique traits, such as their mental and academic focussocial tendenciesactivity level, academic interests (such as art and STEM), and other attributes (such as giftednessspecial needslearning disabilities, and social issues).

To get school-choice advice customized to your child's unique traits, create a child profile through your user account and read our seven ways to choose a school based on your child's needs (i.e., overall fitmore academic challengesocial strugglesacademic strugglesintensive learning interestsuniversity preparation, and special needs.). 

Read our other education expert choosing interviews: Janyce LastmanElaine DansonUna MalcolmRuth RumackJoanne FosterJane KristoffyIrina Valentin

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