Interview on choosing the right school: Elaine Danson

Education expert Elaine Danson shares insights about choosing a private school for your child

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Elaine Danson is an education consultant at Elaine Danson and Associates, an education consulting firm in Toronto, Ontario.

We asked her 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 she 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 of the most common distinctions between student or learner types that inform your placement decisions?
A: There's a whole list of things I would look at. First of all, I'd look at the social and emotional makeup of the child. I would include in that things like athletics, the arts, the whole dynamic of anything outside the classroom. Within the school, but outside the classroom.

Secondly, I would look at academics. What does a child need? What is their reading, writing, arithmetic like? What would the child need in terms of their academics? That's a huge variety of needs.

Then I would look at what makes sense for the child's growth. Is the child going to grow into the school and evolve with it or is this going to be a school that the child needs only for a few years?

Q: Is school-choice more a matter of finding a right fit or finding a school that just objectively has good practices?
A: To me, they're interconnected. I wouldn't recommend a school that didn't have good practices as a good fit school. There's just no discussion. Practice, leadership, education philosophy, execution, teachers, parent community. It's all about good practice and if it's not all there, to me it can't be a good fit.

Q: How does a parent find out about this stuff?
A: Parents are very savvy. They have their network and they speak to other parents. That's very important to hear—the actual experience of the families. Number two, they go to the school and get the feel of it. They look at what’s on the walls. They get to see the other students. Families need to talk to other people. They need to get out there and see it, but then they have to understand their own child. That sometimes is hard.

Q: What are some of the things they should look for at the school?
A: When they go to the school, they have to see if they can see their child in the school. In the classroom with those children, can they see themselves as part of the community? I like them to look at work and compare it. I like them to ask the school if they can speak to a family at the school, so they can discuss, "What's it like being a part of the school? What are the negatives and the positives of being at the school?"

Q: What should they look for in student work?
A: I would look at things like, how is it corrected? How does it go up on the wall? What is the content like? Is there some description about it? Putting up all work that's totally correct and perfect isn't reality either, but it could be this is the finished product. Can you see the process in the product? They should be able to see that displayed and they should also be able to look at some notebooks in the classroom.

Q: Is it helpful to talk to other parents about a school?
A: Yeah. You've got to go and you've got to talk to a parent at the school and then ask questions like, "How much homework is there? For students from Grade 7-12? How much stress is there in the school?" Parents don't want to ask that because they don't want to have the school think that they can't cut it. They don't want to ask the questions that would get to the culture. Then when you ask to speak to a parent at the school, then obviously you're going to speak to a happy parent. So it may be best to do this on your own time, maybe at a school event.

Q: What are  the key dimensions of a child that a family should look at?
A: One would be how well they deal with instructions. Also, responsibility, independent work, and self-regulation—these are key factors. In fact, the first page of most report cards, private or public, will give you a good sense of how that child's academic behaviors are in the classroom, what their learning skills are like. When you see a "Needs Improvement," that means they can't self-regulate. You know that you need something for your child that's going to help them regulate in a classroom and is that school able to do that for your child?

Q: What are some of the most important factors in the school-choice process?
A: First of all, the family looks at their means, financial. Look on websites to see if there's financial aid, if necessary. Look at the schools in your neighborhood. Being as close to home as possible makes sense for kids. Once you have your shortlist of schools, go and visit them.

Also, it’s important to form a close relationship with the admissions office. Admission people at our schools, honestly, are incredible. I say this to families a lot: "you're going to get more information about your child from the admissions process than you might believe."

Q: What should families be spending most of their time doing in the research process?
A: They have to organize their life overall so that when all of those open houses come out at the end of the year, they have them in their diaries, number one. Number two, decide which open houses and private tours to go to. Look at their work schedules. Make sure of that. Because I see a lot of families that are totally overwhelmed when they haven't organized. Next, go on websites, get a flavour of the school, the mission of the school and talk to people. That they have to do in August when everything comes up on the website.

Q: Are open houses or private tours more informative?
A: It depends on the family. Sometimes the small group-tour is a good way for a family to feel more involved, but sometimes a family said, "We're not sure of the school. We just want to get a sense of it." Go to a big open house. You just get an overview. When you have a student giving you a private tour, the parents often feel that it's not as effective. They're all good ambassadors, but they may not be hitting the mark the parent wants to ask and the parent can't ask the type of questions they want. I always think if you can get a private tour or a small group tour with a member of the admission department or a parent, you have an opportunity to ask those questions.

Ideally you should go to the school several times and have several reasons to go. First of all, you've got to get in there once to check it out, small group or open house. Then you've got to go back for one of their evenings. Typically a school, say you're interested in theatre, may say, "We're putting on a play, why don't you come back?" Make the effort to go to that. Also, go and drop off something to the school, your application or your reference letters. Go on a day where it's just regular school and you walk in and say, "I just need to drop this off."

Q: How much should a family trust their instincts when it comes to how well their child may do in a particular environment. Is this more of a science or an art?
A: In terms of evidence, there are certain documents to look at. There’s the report card. You have the comments that the teachers have written and I find that these are very important and should be looked at very carefully. You also have the experience that the child's had in other areas, such as swimming lessons or summer camp. How does the child follow directions? How does the child interact with other students? You should have a good sense of your child in many different environments, and can use the documents of the school as well.

Q: Are there certain common mistakes that families make when they're trying to choose the right school for their child?
A: It’s typically a mistake to apply to only one school. I used to have families do that, it was no problem because it was a perfect fit. Not anymore—it’s too competitive now. Number two, not preparing the child for interviews. It's giving them the feedback that the school needs them to talk about themself. Sit down with mom and dad and chat and talk about some of your interests. There's nothing tricky in the questions. It's just a matter of being able to express yourself clearly and articulately.

In terms of choosing a school, it's important to have public school options there, so they've included everything. After all, if you don’t get into a private school, guess what, public school will be where your child ends up.

Q: What makes for a bad school?
A: If they're not using good practices in the school, I would not recommend it. Leadership. Parent participation, very important. A solid admission process and compassion to children. A joyful, I know that sounds weird, a joyful environment for learning. Those are very important.

Q: What advice would you give parents now that you would not have given them when you first started giving advice?
A: Have more schools in your bucket. And don't dismiss piecing things together. I've done a lot of creative piecing. Creative piecing is, "Guess what? We didn't get into the schools." I had a family whose child didn’t get into any school. I said, "Okay, what are we going to do? Where are you at school? What are we going to do? Let's piece things together." Piecing means providing some enrichment, providing some support. Providing things where they are right now to make that possible for them, to have a great experience.

Q: Can piecing things together in a current learning environment be effective sometimes?
A: Sometimes it's very effective, because the child's able to stay with friends and be in their community and do things differently, with their interests. For the remedial piece of it, which is very important, our families have stayed put, and we've supplemented with that whole remedial package within the school day, but outside of the school as well.

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 LastmanAnn and Karen WolffUna MalcolmRuth RumackJoanne FosterJane KristoffyIrina Valentin

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