Janyce Lastman is an education consultant at The Tutor Group, 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 the most common questions clients ask you?
A: They usually have questions about facilities and activities. “My child loves music, sports, art, whatever. Which school is best in that area?” That's a pretty common one. Another one is which school will give my child the best chance at the university of his or her choice? The child could be 18 months old, but they want to know which. The third really common one is pros and cons of either all-boys, all-girls, or co-ed, and occasionally, but not as much anymore, boarding and non-boarding.
Q: What are some effective ways to find out about schools?
A: One is through social media or school websites, and I say to parents, if there's a school you're really interested in, before you go to the school, follow their Twitter, follow their Facebook, because it's not really networking, it can tell you what happens in schools.
As with school visits, don’t go to the open house only, go to a school event. Go to a sports event. Who do you see at an open house? The only people you see are parents who might want their kids to go there. Practically all the events these days are listed on websites. They have a school fun fair, they have a play, they buy a ticket. You want to see real parents and real kids who go to a school, that's what you do. Make sure to stay over during a transition period. If you're visiting a school and it's during the day, try to watch what happens at lunch. Try to watch what happens when everybody's walking around the halls. Just watch, because you learn. Sit in the car if you have to, if it's recess, but just watch and listen.
Another important consideration is special needs. Maybe your child will never need special education or ESL, but if there are kids there that need that, what does the school do with them? Because maybe they're sitting beside your child, maybe they're struggling. Maybe they're feeling badly, but they're also interfering with other people's learning. Ask about scenarios that don't necessarily apply to your child: “how do you deal with this,” “how do you deal with that”? You can make it clear, it's not personal, but I'm trying to get a sense of how you operate as a school.
Another thing is homework. Is there a homework policy, how does it work, and why does it work that way? Whether homework is good, bad, or otherwise isn't the issue. It's important that you understand how it's administered or supported in the school, and what happens if things break down, and that also ties into a homework website. They may have a beautiful homework website—ask them for a temporary password. Some teachers never post, sometimes no teachers post. Sometimes all teachers post and they attach all the handouts that your kid will have lost. That's really good to know. The fact that they have this lovely homework website itself doesn't tell you anything, though.
Q: How much of a school’s identity is reducible to certain concrete characteristics of the school, like its size? Could you break it down analytically, could you take the school and basically reduce it to these various characteristics or features?
A: You'd have to have an algorithm, and it's really complex, because, if you have a school that is smaller than X, but the class size is bigger than Y, then it's not really small. Which is why I don't believe in an algorithm here. Marketers are constantly trying to get everything into an algorithm. To a certain extent, I suppose you could, but to me, I think in flow charts. There's too many if, thens, and buts, but that's also why I'm not a marketer.
Q: Are schools thorough in the selection process?
A: The more competitive your school is, the more choice you have. That doesn't mean you exercise it. If you have 10 candidates and are picking 5, you may or may not be as careful as one would think. The schools that are to me the most careful are the schools that don't need to fill a certain amount of spots. Maybe you have a school that says, we have 22 in our class, we have 50 applications for those 22, and we take what we feel are the best 22 candidates. But when I have a school that says, we have 12 kids in our class, sometimes there are 6, sometimes there are 10, occasionally, there are even 12, I can tell you that those schools are far more careful about who they take than the schools that have to fill.
Q: What are some common errors or mistakes parents make in the school-choice process?
A: One is, when they're starting the process, parents want to have it all. What I say to parents is look, you make your checklist and I'll make mine and we'll compare, and then I'm going to tell you that just like finding a spouse, finding a job, finding the perfect home, it's a compromise. It's a trade-off. If you get 75% to 80% of what's on your list, what's on the other parent's list, because sometimes they're different, and what's on my list, we're doing great.
What do you do about the other 20% or 25% that’s on your list? These things you can often find outside of school, through after-school programs, travel, volunteer opportunities, or elsewhere.
Another mistake is not respecting your negative gut, or overrating your positive gut, in the choosing stage. When you go into a school and you're visiting, you're going on an interview, that's the honeymoon period, right? Everything should feel good, go well. That doesn't necessarily mean it is.
Another error is when parents give their kids the final say. Kids don’t want this. It’s too much responsibility. They still need someone to blame if things don’t go well.
Q: What are some red flags about schools?
A: What I tell parents to watch out for is if you have three, four, five different sources that all complain about one thing at the school. And they seem to come from different types of people, even different generations of people or three, four, five years apart, that's something to be concerned about, because there's a common thread of concern.
Bad schools also are not transparent. If they communicate they do so with a spin. They do so with a party line. Even if there's nothing to hide, you have a sense that you're not getting the true story. No transparency. You need that because you are giving them your most valuable possession. You’re giving them your child and so you've got to be able to have that relationship. It's that trust relationship.
Another thing to watch for is what I call “high pressure sales,” a school that not only accepts your child too quickly, but wants you to sign on the dotted line and puts a lot of pressure on you. Now, that's different than a school sends out a letter and says, "We need to know in 10 days, because we have a wait list," or whatever.
Another bad sign is if a school can't answer three questions: Who are you? What do you do? What do you do well and differently? I don't want motherhood statements. If a school tells me that our mandate is to bring out the best in every child, help every child reach their potential and teach a broad range of ... Who doesn't want that?
So, I want schools to really be able to describe themselves. It doesn't have to be glib. It doesn't have to be polished. But, it has to be clear, because the thing about private school is you are choosing them for their personality. You are paying for something that theoretically we get for free, well, before our taxes. It's there for everybody. You don't want to pay for it unless you know what it is.
One example might be “we're geared to the all-around child who wants to do sports, arts, musics, academics, but doesn't really have a specialty or a special drive and who is balanced in their life, so that they can do everything.” That usually means that they're not an academically elite school, or an athletic elite school, but they really do provide a little bit of everything. That's actually a pretty good answer. The corollary is that they should be able to say what they can't do as well.
There is a quality of communication separating schools that appear to be just trying to sell something versus schools that genuinely are being upfront and honest or forward.
Q: Is it helpful to talk to other parents at the school?
A: I've mentioned that at other times. Yeah, talking to other parents is good. I guess what I say to families is unless you're asking someone who has a child very much like yours and has a family very much like yours, what they're telling you is interesting, but it's probably not definitive for your family.
Q: To what extent should kids be involved in the decision?
A: The child can go in with all kinds of misconceptions, attitudes. It's a different kind of a process for kids. What I usually say to kids is, first of all, it's your life, and we're talking about usually maybe eight or nine years old, and up. Under eight or nine, it's a whole different scenario. Eight or nine, certainly with adolescents, it's your life we're talking about here, so I want your opinion and I want your input, but you're still a junior partner at the table. You're a partner, but you're a junior partner.
Mom and dad are still paying the tuition, and we want your input, we want your buy-in, but you don't get the final say. Now, you have to negotiate this with parents first. You have to have some autonomy, especially if you’re 15 or 16. These are big decisions. I say to parents look, look at how hard this is. Look at how much time and how much money and angst you're spending. You want to take that decision and say, “so what do you think? We'll just do whatever you want.” How does that feel to a child? It might be empowering, but it can also be a huge burden, especially if things don’t turn out well.
Q: Do you have any other advice for parents searching for schools?
A: I guess a big thing that they haven't thought of is that your choice and your child's acceptance in school is still one moment in time and that kids change, schools change and if your child enters a school at grade two or even grade nine, it doesn't mean that okay we're done. The complementary part of that is when you've got several kids, and I know it's hard to drive them to all different directions, but it's really rare these days especially to find a private school that really does suit, as well, all of those children.
Read our other education expert choosing interviews