Learning Process: Finding the right school takes time

Asking the right questions makes the school search easier

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Is private school really better? Will my child get more attention in a smaller class? Which school will provide the best preparation for university? What's out there for my special needs child?

As an educational consultant, these types of inquiries are standard for me. Parents need to realize there is no longer any such thing as a typical private school. Traditional schools are evolving, and more non-traditional schools are coming on the scene each year. All schools vary in their approach to teaching and learning, as well as in how they present curriculum, extracurricular programs and even what type of student they serve (for example, gifted or learning disabled and so on).

An educational consultant can provide more information about such specialized opportunities, but each family must ask many questions, both of themselves and of potential schools for their children.

The search for the right school is complicated and can be time-consuming. To simplify matters, consider the three major components: the place, the program and the people.

The Place

Where your child goes to school -- the facilities and their surroundings -- is as important as a strong vision of learning and high-quality teaching staff.

To determine if the school's physical environment suits your child's needs, here are some suggested questions to ask:

What is the condition of the school and associated buildings? How old is the school and how is it maintained? What facilities are available for day and boarding students (for example: gymnasium, cafeteria/dining area, residence, library, playing fields, arena, swimming pool, auditorium or theatre, technology labs)? What access do the students have to all these areas?

What, if any, are the plans for renovations? How will those plans affect your child?s time at the school?

Is there only one campus or do the children transfer to another campus when they reach a certain grade level? What considerations are given to building safety and public access?

What are the transportation options if your child attends? Is there a procedure for carpooling and supervised parent drop-off and pickup?

The Program

Learn as much as you can about a school's educational program, and ask to observe classes and school activities. Don't hesitate to ask as many questions as you need to, to better understand how the school will educate and treat your child.

Here are some suggested questions to ask:

Is the school an independent non-profit institution governed by a board that appoints a school head or a private, for-profit school?

What is the school's vision and mission? Do you see evidence of the mission statement in practice? What educational philosophy does the school follow (for example, Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emiliapreparatory school, etc.)?

What curriculum is used? Since each Canadian province has its own guidelines, find out which curriculum is in use as this is especially important for planning your child's next steps, such as university entrance.

Does the private school offer value-added programs, such as the International Baccalaureate (www.ibo.org) or Advanced Placement (www.ap.ca)? Does the school participate in the Duke of Edinburgh awards (www.dukeofed.org) or Round Square programs (www.roundsquare.org)?

Does the school have any religious affiliation (such as Christian or Catholic) and how does that affect the school program?

Is the school inspected or accredited? If so, by whom and how often? Is the school an affiliate member of a recognized professional association?

How does the school go beyond the standard curriculum requirements? Is there a specialization in arts, science, or character education? Are there programs for children with special learning needs? What provisions are made for offering second or third language instruction?

What are the policies on evaluation and assessment? When are report cards issued? Does the school participate in any standardized testing programs? If so, how are the results reported to you and, if not, why not?

Is there a code of behaviour? A policy on bullying? A homework policy?

How is technology used? Are children required to have a personal computer or a laptop?

Does the school provide daycare or extended hours to accommodate working parents?

To which post-secondary institutions do graduates apply and get in? What programs are in place for advising graduates about their options?

The People

The head of the school, or principal, the teachers, the support staff, the students, the parents and in some cases the alumni -- all contribute to the heart of the school. Speaking with current and past students, teachers and administrators will give you a strong idea of the kind of atmosphere your child will find at the school.

Here are some suggested questions to ask:

What is your first impression with the first person you meet at school? How is your child treated on the first visit?

As you tour the school, watch for things, such as: When you go into a classroom, where are the children sitting and where is the teacher? Are the children engaged in their learning and interacting? Do the children and staff appear content?

How many children and adults are in the classroom? Is there a maximum class size?

What credentials do the teachers hold? Are they certified in any way? How experienced are they? How long have they been at the school? What opportunities for professional development do staff have?

What is the relationship between parents and teachers? Is there one staff member assigned to your child with whom you can communicate regularly? How do you communicate with your child's teacher(s)? How often are parent-teacher meetings scheduled? Does the school employ a mentor system or a teacher-adviser system?

What help is provided for students having trouble academically? Are additional resource staff brought in to work with children with special needs? How does the school value diversity?

If the school is a boarding school, what is the proportion of day to boarding students? What is the relationship between the two groups? What is the expectation for communication between the boarding students and their families?

What is the relationship between the school staff and the parent community? Are parents viewed as partners? Is there an active parent council?

What is the relationship between the school and the local community?

For in-depth analysis, see our guide to private school questions. For more information, read our guide on questions to ask preschoolselementary schools, and high schools.

Now what? Some final thoughts:

An informed decision will be based on reviewing printed information and websites, attending school open houses, school fairs and visiting schools and classrooms. A school cannot be chosen based on the experience of another family or on hearsay.

Base the choice of school on your child's strengths, needs and interests. A school must be chosen for the child, not the parent.

Focus on the current school year. It is important for your child to have a successful school year in order to be well-prepared for the next. The stress associated with applying to private school may be yours; it does not have to be your child?s.

Apply to more than one school. You may want to have a choice if your child receives multiple offers, and avoid disappointment if you only apply to one school.

Know before you apply the extent of the financial commitment that is required. Besides tuition costs, there will be additional costs and you want to know what they are.

Prepare your child for the admission process. A child who knows what to expect in an interview or the types of questions that may be on an admissions test will be more at ease, and more successful than one who does not. But beware of over-preparation. Experienced admissions directors can determine when a child has been coached.

Present a complete profile of your child's abilities. The school needs as much information as is available to determine if the child will be successful.

Depending on the age of the child, involve the child in the decision-making process, but do not hand over the responsibility or the power to make the decision. If, for some reason the school doesn't work out, the child should not bear the burden.

If the child is not accepted to the school of choice, do not take it personally. Some schools are more competitive than others. Sometimes it is just a matter of too many applicants for the number of available spaces.

—Judy Winberg, Educational Consultant (www.optionsineducation.com or 416-932-1168)
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