Interview on choosing the right school: Una Malcolm

Education expert Una Malcolm shares insights about choosing a private school for your child

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Una Malcolm is director of Bright Light Learners, an academic support 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 common reasons parents seek out a change in education, a new school, or a private school?
A: One is a child with special needs. In addition to special education, I would say sometimes parents are coming from a place of "Is this still the best? Is my child getting everything that they need to get? Would a private school be able to give them more support, more enrichment, more opportunities?" To give them smaller class sizes, more extracurriculars, connections with other people. Even if a child is completely typically developing, parents might come at it from that perspective, in terms of, can we give this child more? Are there more opportunities?

Q: What is a sign that a learning environment or school is not working?
A: I think that comes specifically from the child. I think the biggest indicator for that is the child themselves. Whether that's stress, anxiety, something more internalizing in terms of them feeling quite unhappy, them not wanting to go to school. There are also certainly students that have more externalizing indicators that they're not happy, and that might translate into behavior, that might translate into something that you can visibly notice in terms of they're being quite frustrated with their school fit.

Q: How should this situation be addressed?
A: I think the biggest thing is to voice that to the school, in terms of "I'm noticing that he's frustrated, he's resistant to go to school, he's not feeling that he's made a peer group. He's feeling that this course is difficult, that he's not connecting with this teacher," however it's manifesting.  I think the biggest thing is to voice that to the school, because they might not know, truthfully.

Q: What do you think the biggest challenges are that families face when choosing a school, or a new education environment?
I think a lot of parents are worried that they're gonna mess it up. I think they're worried they they're going to make the wrong choice. They’re uncertain because there are many, many options out there, and typically, if you think about the public system, you're thinking about "I live in this neighborhood, this is my school. I can choose public or Catholic."

There's the application process, and that's often something that parents may need educational consultants to help kids learn interview skills and learn the SSAT. There's a whole subset of skills that come along with this school-choice piece in terms of both the interview, the SSAT, all the open houses, and it involves a fair amount of parent involvement. And it involves a certain amount of navigating the system, in terms of the applications, knowing how to set those up correctly and strategically. This can be overwhelming for both parent and child.

Q: What are some of the first steps in the school search process?
It’s important to go and look at schools. Whether it's an open house, or it's booking an individual tour, that's really the first step, because we really emphasize to parents that the fit and the environment is equally as important as the academic programming for these kids. You need to try to find the environment where a child will be comfortable, where they will thrive, where they will feel successful, and truthfully, where the parents feel most comfortable as well.

We really encourage them, as a first step, to look into different options, and to go on tours, and to see what the school looks like. We help them with asking the questions that they need to, to know whether it's a good fit.

Q: What other ways are there to gather information about a school?
A: Sometimes the parent-to-parent connections can be really helpful just because it gives you another place to bounce questions off, and ideas off, as a parent. That's something that many find quite helpful, to have a space to ask your questions to others who have gone on that journey.

This can be huge. I'm thinking of an example where we had a couple of families looking at a particular school, and one mother, who was looking at a couple different options for her son, but really was not sure, and she was also not sure whether he would just stay at this current school. She was really indecisive, and not sure what to do, and I put her in contact with another mom, and she was able to give insight in terms of the energy of this particular class.

Q: What should parents be spending most of their time doing in the research process?
A: I think the biggest thing is for both the parents and the child to visit. And whether that for the child is attending half-day, whether they spend a half-day shadowing, I would say that's the quickest way for a child to know yes or no. Because they'll get a sense of the profile of their classmates, of the cohort that they'd be in.

They’ll also get a sense of what the teaching style is, and what the school day is like. After a half-day shadow, sometimes clear indicators come out in terms of whether it's something they're looking forward to. I‘ve have kids come in after this and say, "Oh my gosh, I’ve got to do this, this, and this, and I can't wait for next year." And then conversely, we've had kids come back and say, "Well, I don't know about that, I think I want to stay where I am."

I would say for parents, the best resource would be meeting with the admissions head, or whoever is in charge of that process, in terms of not only giving them a tour, and giving them an indicator of what the programming is like, and what that would look like for their child, but also to answer the questions that are specific to your family in terms of their needs.

Q: What should a parent look for in their own child? Are there certain categories you look at or certain common dimensions to focus on?
A: An example would be how social they are, and their social skills. There’s also their academic and learning skills. Also other interests and skills they have, that they might need special programming for. And how well they might manage the transition to a new school.

Is it something where we need to look at schools close by, so the child can still keep their core school group? And when they're on their vacation, they can still see them after school? Is it something where we really want a strong sports program? Is it something where we really want enrichment for this child? To help support their clear strengths.

I also think extracurriculars can really be a big factor for kids. When you think about how a lot of the private schools have options that you might not necessarily get in a typical public school, whether that's a model tournament, model UN, a lot of the science and technology, STEM-based extracurriculars. Often, there are really wonderful service and learning opportunities that can be quite enriching for kids, and if that's something that a particular child has a specific interest in, or it could be something where a child might be interested in one day taking part in, that's something for parents to consider as well.

Q: Why do you think extracurriculars are so important?
A: I think it’s a way to work on soft skills. Think about the soft skills that you can develop being on the soccer team. The teamwork, cooperation, working with others, working towards a common goal, the value of hard work. Say, if you're on the rowing team, you have to meet at the lake at 6am, or whatever it is.

Q: What are the best ways to understand a child’s learning abilities?
A: I think the learning skills, the first page of the report card, always give good insight in terms of cooperation, organization, and the soft skills, those are certainly important. But then also, you could look into what is the overall pattern of my child's interests, and what is the overall pattern of my child's strengths? Is it something where they're consistently shining in the written language part of the language curriculum? Certainly, that's something parents likely already know, because that is something that wouldn't likely be disparate between home and school. But it might give indicators of patterns of their consistent strengths.

Q: How important is the culture and community of a school?
A: I think it's quite important. It can make a world of difference in terms of what that particular school will be like for your family. Thinking of the private school options, there are many wonderful academic programs, that's not in debate at all. But, where they differ would be what the environment would be like, what that looks like.

Q: How do you determine what kind of culture and community a school has?
A: I think a good first step is the open house process, because, depending on how each school sets that up, that could be the opportunity to see an assembly, go on a tour, maybe sit in on some classes and some workshops. So, that's a good first step.

You can always ask for a second tour or another visit. It's certainly worth asking for, whether they do a half-day shadowing option, just to get your child in. Try to go on a day other than an open house, where a school is on its best behavior and it’s being showcased to families. This might be a nice time to see some classes, to see how the teachers teach, to get a sense of the dynamic between the students and what that looks like.

You can also look into going to some of their special events. You could look into when they do their holiday concert, or when they do whatever sorts of extra events that they do. You could look into speaking with people who already send their children there, or who have looked into it, getting the parent-to-parent connection, that could give a good insight in terms of what that actually looks like.

Q: What are the main factors that go into finding the right fit?
A: It depends. I would say, there's academic, emotional, and social factors. Location is also important. I would say, academically, there are students who need to work on something, we do suggest a more special education-focused school, in terms of a place where they can get the programs they need every day.

There are also students who, they need enrichment, and they would benefit from a smaller class size. Or they would benefit from a more customized approach, and that might not necessarily be in the form of remediation, but it just might be in terms of a smaller class size and more responsive teachers might be able to better accommodate a child’s sky-high math abilities.

Q: How much stock should you put into what the child wants, as opposed to the parents?
A: I think it would depend on their reasons why. We have some kids who come in and say, "I want to go to this school because there's a really cool group of girls there.” So, that's not something that should be given much weight. But by the same token, I had a child last week say, "I wanna go to this school because I heard a friend went there, and it really helped their writing, and now he can write way better than he could before." If something that specific is coming from a child, and they think it would be beneficial for them, it's worth investigating and having a conversation about. It might not be the final decision-maker, that might rest with the parents, but it is a factor to help make the final decision.

Q: What if a parent says “my child wants to go to school X because her friends go there?” How much, if any, stock should be put in that?
A: Certainly, students are going to voice concerns, such as  "my friends are going here." Especially at a transition period, like grade 8, this is a big issue. I wouldn't put too much stock into it. Unless it's something where it's a child who does have to improve their social skills, and them building a new friend group would be a concern, then that's something more to consider. But if it's a thriving child whose social skills are great, and has a good, healthy peer network, that's something that they can recreate in their new environment.

Q: What are some red flags of schools?
A: The biggest thing I would say in terms of a red flag, is a lack of a commitment to understanding the child. And that might involve not doing initial testing, no looking at the child's assessment. Or, they might not meet you for an in-person interview, something like that.

Q: Do you have any advice that you could give parents who are looking into schooling, private school, or public school, that might surprise them?
A: I would say, there's no perfect setting for your child. I wish that I could say that there's this perfect solution, there's a soulmate school for every student, but there isn't. And it comes to the point where every parent needs to make a tradeoff, in terms of this school has this, these have these, this school has these great factors, but the drawbacks are this.

There is no magic bullet in terms of the one school will give you everything you want. And that's something certainly parents keep doing, they're saying, "Oh, I looked at this school, but it didn’t have  x, y, and z."

There really isn't going to be a perfect instance where every box is ticked. That doesn't mean the parent shouldn't be looking for the best possible solution.

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 WolffElaine DansonRuth RumackJoanne FosterJane KristoffyIrina Valentin

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