Parent interview on choosing a private school: Catherine Wang

Catherine Wang share insights about choosing schools for her children

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Catherine Wang has a son and daughter. They are both in private school. We’ll focus mostly on her private school choice for her daughter.

We asked her several questions about this process. We covered topics such as her goals, research methods used, challenges faced, and plans for the future. Here’s what she had to say.

If you’re interested, read the rest of our parent interviews on choosing a school. You can also read our comprehensive education expert advice guides on choosing a school and getting into a school.

Q: What were some of your thoughts about private vs. public school?
A: The debate about whether to send our kids to private or public school began right when my son was born.

My husband and I are both Chinese Canadian. Growing up, the value of the academic component has always been instilled in us. Even when we first had our baby, we started having a debate about the best way to set up our children for success as adults and make sure they have a strong academic backbone.

I'm a public-school product, and my husband went to public school for most of his school career and then ended up going to private school for high school. He always felt that private school education was important to him. Me, less so.

Q: Why do you think you ended up choosing private over public?
A: The original plan was to send our kids to public school, because I do think there are wonderful aspects to the public school system, and then eventually move them into private school. But when our kids started getting closer to the age of going beyond preschool and to a regular school setting, I started taking a closer look at the private schools. At that time there was a threat of a strike in the public school system. My son was in JK at a public school and I went there to volunteer. I think the teacher herself was strong, but there were just so many students in the class. I felt like there wasn't enough focus on the academic piece and there were too many students in the class for me to feel comfortable.  

That put me on the track of looking into private school earlier than I anticipated. I started looking around. I started going to open houses and finding out about the selection process—how it gets more and more difficult as you go through the years. That prompted me into thinking about starting them right away. For me, it's important I set up my children the best way I can. Whether or not they end up being successful in the future or not is entirely up to them. But knowing that I've done my part to set them up for success is what's important to me. I thought it would be a wise investment to send them earlier than I had anticipated.

In JK, my son was in a combined JK/SK class of about 30 kids each–60 in all–in one very large classroom. It was too crowded for me to feel comfortable that he would be learning in the best way. I worried that the teaching quality could have been a little bit more hit and miss in the public school, and that's why I wanted to put my kids into private school where I think the variability is a little bit smaller.

I started talking to everybody around me about private schools. I work in a hospital setting surrounded by professionals and medical experts. I would say probably there's a higher proportion of folks that are sending their kids to private school in the industry that I work in than probably in others. I started asking a lot of questions around the issue of private school versus public school and all-boys or all-girls versus coed. I found an amazing diversity of opinion.

Q: What did you like about the private school you chose for your daughter?
A: It was never really resolved for me until I went to their open house. The piece that really sold me at the open house was not just around the academic programs. I was already impressed by the whole academic curriculum. I also bought into the inquiry-based learning approach. I believe the way you think about a problem, and having an inquisitive nature, is really what propels you in your life on an ongoing basis. I liked the emphasis around character-building and leadership. I had never experienced that when I was in public school. It was always about the basics of math and science and reading and things like that. I've never experienced an intentional curriculum around resiliency, kindness, generosity – things like that. I really liked that.

I also very much liked the overall balance. You can choose what you want to be excellent in, but you should have the option to try all things. A lot of these private schools have access to sports and the arts and all sorts of different things that are built into the school and easily accessible, rather than having my husband and I figuring out how to cram something else into our kids’ schedule.

I also liked the selection process. You have to really want to go to a school and be excellent and be surrounded by people who want excellence in their children. The selection process itself helps to curate a group of individuals that will spend many years together and hopefully build relationships into their adult lives. There is something about a curated process where you're selecting individuals who are going to be pushing the limits, striving for excellence, and focusing on character and leadership and academic performance, as well as a well-rounded approach to their development.

Q: Did you have any doubts or reservations about your school choice for your daughter or son?
A: I did have reservations as well. At both schools where my son and daughter are, we're probably in the lower income bracket compared to most kids in their classes. And my husband and I do fairly well. I think we're now at this early stage where the families sending their young children to private school have a higher income bracket. I'm looking forward to the later grades when the schools also select students based on excellence and merit. But right now, it’s mostly just people who can afford to send their kids to private school. When you're being evaluated for JK or SK, you're basically hoping your child isn't going to have a temper tantrum. It's hard to pick kids at that stage who are well-rounded.

I know both schools have strong scholarship programs and try to bring in students that may not have the same privileges, but I would say at this stage a lot of the kids are in a very high-income bracket. That’s my main concern: my kids are in this environment where they don't see the diversity that Toronto has and is celebrated for.  We enjoy living in the city and love the diversity, but a lot of kids in their class are just like them. On the one hand, the curated process is great. But on the other hand, I look forward to them moving through the grades and having the student population even out a bit through merit-based scholarships.

Q: Were there any other factors which informed your school choice for your daughter?
A: Her school is the closest to us, so geographically it made a lot of sense. But I was just so impressed by their open house. The girls that toured us were so poised and had the confidence to be able to speak to a group of adults. I was quite taken.

They showed us the curriculum and it was really, really impressive: the focus on STEM and the way they teach the arts by bringing in teachers from outside the school to do sessions with the girls. I could see it was a very enhanced curriculum.

The school itself has all the facilities you could possibly want. So, they had all the facilities, the enriched curriculum, and I just loved the feel of it. They talked a lot about character, and I think a lot of schools do, but at this school it just came out in spades. We're not even religious, and this school is a religion-based school. It wasn't important to me, but I was drawn to the faith-based teaching.

I also really enjoyed going into the SK classroom and seeing the teachers' approach. My daughter is very, very shy and risk averse, and I knew she needed to be in an environment where she felt comfortable enough to push the boundaries.

Second would be the outcomes of graduates. The school showed me the number of students in the graduating class and where they went afterwards, and it was quite impressive. And then third in terms of value would be the opinion of other parents.

Q: What were your family dynamics like surrounding your decision?
A: It was a dinner table debate almost every night, but I wouldn’t say we used any analytical tools. We used to look at the Fraser Institute rankings, but most private schools aren't listed on that. I wish they would participate, so you could get a sense of relative scale.

I've always been the one who was very reticent about an all-girls school, whereas my husband thought this school was the right school from the beginning. And that was even before going to an open house. I don't even know how he came to that decision. He was always of the mindset that we should be sending her to this school.

It wasn't argumentative, but it was a whole year of regular debate in our house. At any social event, we would ask others where they sent their kids, and what they thought of the schools we were considering. Anyone who ever said girls' schools are the way to go, my husband would send them over my way and say go talk to my wife. And he would constantly send me profiles of amazing graduates of the school who have accomplished a lot in their careers.

But I would counter with the fact that you have to evaluate success as a whole, including both personal and professional. What I really want for my daughter is a professionally satisfying career, but for her to also be someone who has friends and family and gets everything out of life.

I would debate with my husband about what school would give her the values and the character traits that we're looking for to make her a very well-balanced person, thoughtful about the world around her, not ego-driven, and prepared for the future. Those things don’t always translate to professional success.

I asked the girls' schools how they make sure that the girls aren't in a clique, and all those fundamental questions about mean girls and the possible dynamics that were making me a bit nervous about putting her into an all-girls school. They had great responses, like they're very careful to watch the social dynamics. They’re strategic when they put classes together. They talked about clubs and activities where they help encourage girls to try different things and not get entrenched into the areas that they naturally gravitate to.

On top of that, it's my responsibility to make sure that she has exposure at home to a lot of different people, not just the folks that she sees at school. For all those reasons–and of course the open house really blew me away–I ended up feeling comfortable that the school was the best choice.

Q: Has the school met your expectations?
A: Now that she's been there for a year, she's a totally different girl. I have zero concerns about her being in that all-girls environment.

Skyler is a super sensitive little girl–about other people's feelings as well as herself. She needs to be in an environment where she feels comfortable to take risks. In my interview at the school I told the admissions officer that I was looking for a school that would allow her to feel comfortable enough to be able to try new things, but push her enough so that she'll take risks and thrive.

That's been demonstrated this past year. When she first started, she never raised her hand and didn't want to try anything new. And now coming out of this first year she's happy, she's excited, and enthusiastic to try new things. She's willing to put up her hand. She's getting in front of people and doing oral presentations and school plays. All these things would have resulted in a complete meltdown if I'd asked her to do them a year ago.

Q: Is school reputation important to you?
A: Reputation is important to me because at the end of the day it's based on the consistent quality of a school. Not only am I hoping they're going to get great outcomes from going to the schools they're going to, but I'm hoping they will end up having it pay forward in their adult lives where they have a network of folks that they can always rely on. Having a strong brand is important, so that it's recognized internationally for employment opportunities and networking and socializing opportunities.

Not being a private school product myself, I'm always surprised at my husband's private school connections. You don't even need to know the person, but the minute the person says he's from my husband’s school it bonds them somehow.

Q: Do you have any advice for other families doing a school search?
A: I think it really goes back to fit. Because there are so many good schools in this city. It's about what matters most to you as a parent first. For us, it was about the academic curriculum first and foremost. And secondly it was about character-building and the balanced individual. And then third, my husband was really focused on facilities. At one of the schools that we went to he really didn't like it because there was no gym at all. In his perspective, athletics give you the discipline to work at a sport, team building, and leadership opportunities. Whereas for me, that wasn't important.

Once you figure out what's important to you, the choices start to narrow down. Then you end up going to the open houses, where you get a feel for the place and you can try to picture your child there. You then get a sense of where would be the best fit.

Q: How much time did you spend on the decision-making process?
A: About one full week, if you combined all the hours.

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 the rest of our parent interviews on choosing a school: Catherine MauleJennifer ReynoldsLisa McCabeKarim and ShafreenCaitlin O’LearyHolly WykesShantiKim BridgemanFelix WongSabine KussmanNicole MorellZoe MitchellShemin Jaffer

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