Parent interview on choosing a private school: Holly Wykes

Holly Wykes shares insights about choosing a school for her child

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Holly Wykes has a daughter, aged 3. She focused her school search on a preschool.

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: When did you first think to send your kid to a private school?
A: I started thinking about preschools when I was still pregnant. I went to public school, but living in Toronto, I recognized that the number of available spots far exceeded the number of children. I’d heard people say you need to get your child on waiting lists before they were even born, so I wanted to get started on the research right away.    

Q: What were you looking for in a private school? What were your priorities?
A: Smaller class sizes were key. And it had to fit with my life and my schedule. I work full-time, so location and hours are important–all the logistics.

I was also focused on school philosophy and methods: what are their foundational beliefs and values, and do they sync with what I want for my child? It was about congruency.             

My daughter is a bit of a sensitive girl who takes some time to adapt to change and transitions, so I was looking for a school that could work with her individually and develop her own strengths. I was also looking for opportunities for socialization, like through group work, because she’s an only child. She’s very drawn to the arts and loves to sing, dance, and create. So I was looking for a school that would offer those creative opportunities. Physical activity is very important to me; we do yoga at home and I wanted those kinds of activities available to her.

One thing I really value in private schools is that they bring in outside experts to enrich the kids’ education with things that the teachers might not be able to offer, like yoga or specialized science.

I’m a big believer in exposing your child to everything—languages, sports, art, technology, science, etc.and then seeing what sticks. You can see what they love and help them grow with it.

Q: Were you trying to escape anything in public schools?
A: I looked at both the public and private schools in our area and did some research on EQAO scores and the Fraser Institute’s school rankings. These sources don’t paint a full picture of schools, but they do give a general sense of what the demographics are like and what the students are like.

We recently moved and had the option of two public schools for preschool or daycare. The first school looked like it was going to work out–there was a spot, it was affordable, it was nearby, but I just wasn’t impressed by it. It was under construction, so there was a lot of noise, and it seemed dirty. There were also slow response times for emails and phone inquiries. The other option was a Toronto public school that only offered French immersion, which is something I hope to have for my daughter later on.

I can remember being bored in school, and feeling kind of lost in classrooms with 30 kids. It made it challenging to learn, and I don’t want that for my daughter.

Q: Do you know when you “began” your search?
A: When I was pregnant I just picked an afternoon near the end of the day at work and started looking at resources online. I started sending emails and requests for information packages. But then I didn’t begin touring schools until I had my daughter.

Q: What sources of information did you find valuable during your search? Why do you think you found them so valuable?
A: Our Kids for private schools, CCMA (Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators) for accredited Montessori schools, the City of Toronto website for daycares. Each was helpful for a certain niche.

I found Our Kids to be really useful. The website is comprehensive. I like that you can search by grade, by map, etc. It’s very well laid-out. I didn’t realize it’s been around for 20 years: that’s impressive. Now I’m using Our Kids again for our camp search!

Q: Was there anything you found annoying about the school-search process? What did you find most difficult about it?
A: There isn’t a central repository of preschools in the city. Our Kids is great for private schools, CCMA (Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators) is good for looking at Montessori, the city has a resource for daycare centres–but it was very fragmented. Just trying to understand what was even out there was challenging. It was very time-consuming and sometimes frustrating.      

Every once in a while, I’d encounter a new school that wasn’t listed under any of the resources, including Our Kids or the CCMA. For whatever reason it didn’t fit the usual categories, or maybe wasn’t formally affiliated or accredited for those listings.

Q: How many schools did you consider at first?
A: It’s been an ongoing process. My initial search was in our first neighbourhood, but when we moved, the first crop of schools I investigated had to be scrapped, and I started all over again from scratch. Since my daughter was born, I visited over a dozen schools across two neighbourhoods–the one we started in and the one we moved to.

Q: How many schools did you apply to?
A: When I connected with schools that I liked I’d usually go for a tour and then decide if I wanted to apply. The challenge was finding alignment with schools I liked that actually had vacancies.

We were on the waitlist for easily 30 schools, but we only did the full application and paid the deposit for our school of choice. It was all about alignment between our interest in the school and having a spot available.

Q:When exactly did you know which school you would choose? Describe the process.
A: I visited our daughter’s school several times, sometimes with my daughter, but the last time I went alone. I remember walking in and thinking, “I want to go back in time so I can go here!” It was bright and warm and sunny and friendly. The kids were happy, and the teachers were attentive. I liked their teaching philosophy and approach to learning. It ticked all the important boxes, including good healthy catering and nice outdoor space.                  

Q: Have you made other decisions in your life that you would compare to the choice of school?
A: Applying to university! You look at all the same things–curriculum, faculty, location, extracurriculars, the schools’ values. It’s actually a very similar process.

Q: Did you have to interview for acceptance? Did you have to take tests?
A: After we applied, and it was determined that there was a spot, my daughter and I were invited in to meet with the coordinator and the principal for a tour. The principal wanted to observe my daughter to see how she learns, interacts, and engages. We had time in a classroom and an office. There were no formal tests or assessments. But I believe the principal was doing a bit of a developmental checklist to see, at a high level, where my daughter was in terms of their expectations. But it was an informal assessment.          

Q: If you were to quantify the ratio of “head” to “gut” in your decision-process, what would it be?
A: I’d say it was equal. The school met all the criteria I’d set out for my school search, but I also just went with my gut feeling that it was the right fit for my daughter.                     

Q: To what extent were you trying to find the best school vs. the best fit for your child?             
A: I’m not from Toronto, so I didn’t have any peers who went to the private schools I was looking at. I went in with no prior expectations, influence, or bias, because I had no frame of reference. I did a bit of research on the schools’ histories, but their reputations didn’t play a big role in my decision-making.

You can send your child to a school because everyone in your family went there, or the neighbours loved it, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right fit for your child. Those influences and connections can be a factor, but they shouldn’t be a deciding factor or the bottom line.

Q: What, in your mind, are the keys to a good school?
A: The facilities are important, of course–whether the school is bright, spacious, warm, and welcoming. The environment should be child-friendly and accessible. The way teachers interact with the children is crucial: are the kids happy and engaged and always responded to? And what happens when something goes awry–toddlers fight–how do the teachers cope and help the kids learn from problems?

Q: What did you learn about schools and choosing schools from the start to the end of your search process?
A: The most important thing is to follow your instinct. You know your child best, you know what they need, where they’ll excel and where they’ll struggle. I think we owe it to our kids to set them up to be successful, and to provide that opportunity for them.  

Q: How many combined hours did you work on this school choice?
A: I couldn’t even begin. I sent hundreds of emails, did a dozen visits . . . it was a part-time job!

Q: Did you try to find a school that would play to your child’s strengths or correct your child’s weaknesses?
A: The only area where I hope my daughter will grow through the school we’ve chosen is through socialization. As an only child, that was something I needed a school to provide–but I wouldn’t call that a weakness that needs correcting. More important to me was to value her for who she is and help her be her best self.         

Q: What impressed or surprised you the most on your school visits?
A: At one school I showed up for the appointment and they had no idea I was coming. But at another school they had a special little gift for my daughter–a pinwheel for her to carry–and that really impressed me. It was an extra little touch that I thought was sweet and welcoming.

I also appreciated the schools that followed up my visit with an email or phone call to ask if I had any further questions. Because you don’t know the questions you’ll have until you see the school, so having the admissions people take the extra step to reach out and communicate after the tour is helpful. It shows their appreciation that you came out, too.

Q: Do you have any advice for other parents about to visit schools?
A: Come with all your questions and more. Be picky, be selective. There’s no shortage of schools in this city, so if you start your search early, you’ll be able to find a spot that suits your child. And trust your gut. I looked at one school that seemed great on paper, and I had great conversations with the people there, but once I got home from the visit I just knew it wasn’t right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew it wasn’t for us. Follow your instincts.

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’LearyCatherine WangShantiKim BridgemanFelix WongSabine KussmanNicole MorellZoe MitchellShemin Jaffer

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