Making the most of it

Which years of private school have the most impact on your child?

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Often, it comes down to dollars and sense. For most people, tuition fees are a significant financial consideration. So if budget restraints mean restricting your child's private school experience to only a couple of years, the question becomes: Which grades will have the most impact?

Susan Hazell, executive director of the Canadian Association of Independent Schools (CAIS), says removing a child from a private school at which they are happy can be damaging. "The positive experience is great for self-esteem, and they'll probably love their teachers, so it can be a big jar. I encourage parents, if they can only send them for two years, to only send them for their last two years."

She recognizes that fewer spaces are available at that point, and that it's more difficult for a child to come in when relationships have already been established. But it can happen and foster positive results, she says.

Another option is to switch systems at natural breaking points. After Grade 6, a student would make the transition for Grades 7 to 8, while the next change would occur in Grade 9, a good time to explore new opportunities.

If money is an issue, Hazell suggests parents be honest with the school's administrators, since many have financial help available. "There are some schools where families can sit down with financial directors and loans officers for people who really believe in this type of education for their child and need help."

Karen Griffin is the office manager for a family-owned business and the mother of Patrick, 18, and Thomas, 14. She found that the neighbourhood public elementary school in Montreal satisfied her children's early needs, and thought it was not as important to spend tuition money at the elementary level.

When the time came to send her children to high school, she felt class size was important and saw the public system as overcrowded. Instead, she chose Centennial Academy, a private school in Montreal.

"High school years are important years in which to get good attention," she says. "At Centennial, they look at the whole child, they are involved in all areas . . . which gives teenagers a chance to explore and find out who they are."

She also chose to send her kids to a private high school because she "wanted to keep their options open. Being in private school you have to meet requirements in order to make it into the C-gep level (pre-university). By doing their high school education privately, it was my belief that . . . parents were more likely to be kept up to date with their child's academic progress."

Dianne Johnson, the principal at the Junior Academy in Toronto, thinks earlier is better.
"The ideal two-year periods would be during the middle-school years, Grades 7 and 8, in order to prepare the student properly for high school, or during the primary years, Grades 1 to 3."

So when another child comes along and funds are tight, she says, "if parents would like their child to attend a private school but cannot afford a long-term placement, it would nonetheless benefit a child to enrol in a private school for two or three years."

She says making the sacrifice becomes a question of each child's needs. "A strong beginning, including the identification of any potential learning problems, benefits a child throughout his or her entire education. If a family is large and must choose between children, they will most often send the child who in their opinion needs the most help or extra attention."

Dr. Anthony Laws, a physician in Oakville, Ontario who treats children and young adults with behavioural and learning disorders, believes the elementary grades are crucial to a child's learning potential. "If you could only send your child to private school for three or four years, I would say that Grades 3 to 5 or 3 to 6 are the most critical. In the first three years, a child is taught how to learn . . . In Grades 4 and above, the teacher is teaching them information from which to learn. The child will get turned on (to learning) because they already know how and want to learn."

Laws' opinions echo those of Leanne Blades, an interior designer and stay-at-home mom of Hanna, 10, and Trevor, 13.

"The first few years are especially important because children lay the foundation for learning and study habits," says Blades, whose children both attend Rotherglen School, a Montessori school in Oakville, Ontario.

"If they're given a strong grounding in academics, as well as organizational and study skills, I think that by high school they're ready to move into the mainstream."
As well, Blades says, not spending the money on high school, her family can sock the money into an RESP to use for university.

Patty Planques, another stay-at-home mom, has two children at two different schools. Max, 12, attends John G. Althouse Middle School in west-end Toronto, and Christie, 9, attends the private Star Academy, a Montessori school in Mississauga, Ontario. Staying honed in on the individual needs of her children has proven successful in choosing an educational path for each child.
"We were looking for a school that would address Christie's needs," she says. "Christie does have some learning issues described as a learning delay."

Planques felt it wasn't fair to have to move Christie to a new school every two years, as would have been required in the public system to accommodate her needs.

"I wish Christie had started at Star Academy from the beginning. She's done phenomenally well," she says. "Even though we had a lot of support in the public schools because we had teachers that did a lot on their own, her progress wasn't quite up to speed."

Max, who is now in Grade 6, has adjusted well to public school life, Planques says. "He's happy ... and he does sports, enjoys the music program, plus he has a great group of friends. He's had amazing teachers."

In the end, individual parents must decide what's best for their child, whether it be a boost early on or later in the game. Either way, staying in tune with a child's needs will make the decision easier.

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