Financial services executive Kim Bridgeman and her husband had agonized for years over their son Harrison’s academic struggles. Harrison had been diagnosed with dyslexia in grade 2, and as time went on, he fell further and further behind. His physical health was compromised by other challenges as well. “We really felt like we were letting him down,” Kim says.
We asked Kim several questions about the process of choosing a school for her son. We covered topics such as her goals, research methods used, challenges faced, and plans for the future. Here’s what she had to say.
Q: When did you first think to send Harrison to a private school?
A: In grade 7. He had been in the public school system until Grade 6, and then switched to the Catholic school system, where we were assured that he would do much better. But he did not, so we made the decision to start looking at private school.
Q: What were your expectations of private school?
A: Of course, at first I thought they were elitist institutions, but the schools that specialize in learning exceptionalities are not. I did expect that they would have a lower student-to-teacher ratio.
Q: What were you looking to get in a private school?
A: We wanted a school that would not limit his ability in any way and where he would be treated with respect.
Q: Were you trying to escape anything in public schools?
A: Definitely. The public schools were not inclusive in any way and often made him feel less worthy. We didn’t get the sense that anyone was listening to us about who he really was and what he could accomplish. And there wasn’t any difference when he transferred from the public to the Catholic school system. They really weren’t any better in recognizing his needs.
Q: Do you know when you “began” your search?
A: Harrison had a tutor for quite a number of years who gave us a list of seven or eight private schools. It really got to the point where my husband and I recognized that we had to do something, that we were letting him down if we did not seriously consider this option.
Q: Was there anything you found annoying about the school-search process?
A: No, it took place during the school year. It might have been harder during the summer months when people aren’t around as much.
Q: Describe the family conversations you had about school choice.
A: Well, we have a daughter as well who is a couple of years older who was at the same Catholic school and it impacted her somewhat. Aside from that, it was a huge financial commitment.
Q: How many schools did you consider at first?
A: The tutor gave us six names, including the local Catholic school.
Q: How many schools did you apply to?
A: Only the one he was accepted at.
Q: How many schools did you have on your final shortlist (and which schools)?
A: There was only one of the three schools where I visited first-hand to see what they were all about.
Q: When exactly did you know which school you would choose? Describe the process. Describe the reasoning. Was it a matter of reason or just a feeling?
A: The school we chose had a wonderful head of school, and offered the opportunity for Harrison to sit in for a full trial-day at the school, which he was able to do quite quickly. As parents, we took our cues from him, especially when he told us that he didn’t want to go back to the Catholic school. It was just such a different learning environment for him; there were only 12 students in the trial day class, which is actually the maximum number of students they will take.
Q: Did you or anyone in the family experience any doubts about your ability to choose the right school?
A: If this hadn’t been the right school, we would have kept on searching. What I didn’t doubt was that the public school system was failing him.
Q: Who was involved in the decision-making process? Was anyone in particular driving the search? Describe how responsibility was divided.
A: My husband travels quite a bit for work and so I undertook most of the research, the interviews, and the school visits. My husband, though, brought a greater level of objectivity to it.
Q: Was the search process what you expected it to be? Did anything surprise you?
A: Of course, the websites always make the schools look great and the principal or staff are going to tell you what you want to hear. One thing that did surprise us is that most of these schools group children with different exceptionalities together. You will have kids with autism and ADHD in with dyslexic kids like Harrison when those two exceptionalities are very different. We did not want any kind of disruptive learning environment, which is how the school we picked stood out from the other schools. They actually have a ‘three strikes’ policy about poor behaviour.
Q: What were your sources of information when doing your search
A: We relied on our tutor to get the names of the schools, and I also did a lot of online research.
Q: What sources of info did you find most valuable during your search? Why do you think you found them so valuable?
A: I’m a cynic, the people who run these schools are going to tell you what you want to hear. For me, the second visit was the deciding factor because of the trial day the principal had set up. Every aspect of the school was geared to teaching to his individual style.
Q: What was your experience like on the school visits?
A: When it came to appearances, the first visit was quite challenging. The school is in a bit of disrepair. I actually thought that the school was in some kind of financial trouble because the lights were dimmed in all of the classrooms, but then I learned it was done so that students are not overstimulated by the environment. Previously, the school had been in the basement of a church, and so this school (a former Catholic school) was a step up.
Q: What impressed or surprised you the most on your school visits?
A: The principal met me right at the front door, walked me in, introduced me to all of the staff. The students all seemed well-behaved; they established eye-contact and everyone seemed well-adjusted. We did not want a school where behaviourally-challenged students mixed in with dyslexic students, since the tools and strategy for the latter to succeed require both focus and concentration.
Q: Do you have any advice for other parents about to visit schools?
A: You have to really know your kids and their challenges. If at all possible, have a student talk to your child one-on-one; our son did so with another child and it was amazing to hear how articulate he was.
Q: Did you have to interview for acceptance?
A: We did a pre-screening, then an interview and trial day with him in the classroom all day long.
Q: Did you have any hesitations about your final choice?
A: Not really.
Q: Did you feel any relief when you made your final choice?
A: Definitely, and that relief has only grown as the years have gone by and he has continued to succeed and surpass our expectations.
Q: Did you find it challenging comparing schools? Did you find it challenging judging the quality of instruction at schools?
A: The teachers I met seemed extremely dedicated, and it wasn’t until afterward that I found out that they have to apply for their jobs year after year. Again, our son was very comfortable from the start, which really helped.
Q: To what extent were you trying to find the best school vs. the best fit for your child?
A: There might be better schools out there but you need to recognize the limitations about what your child might be capable of and set realistic expectations based on that.
Q: What, in your mind, are the keys to a good school?
A: Before we started, we thought about aspects outside of academic life, like ‘what are the extracurricular activities’ and ‘what kind of clubs and athletics are there.’ But that’s not important. It’s the dedication of the teachers that is more important; will they help your child build the skills he needs to succeed in life.
Q: What did you learn about schools and choosing schools from the start to the end of your search process?
A: You must keep an open mind for new information, and your criteria for what makes a good school might change as you become exposed to new information and ideas. Initially, we thought that extracurricular activities and athletics and even languages would be important, but they weren’t. The school’s resources are focused on improving learning outcomes.
Q: Has the school you chose met your expectations?
A: He has been there for five years now and we can’t say enough good things about it. They really take an interest in the kids both in and out of class. The best story I can relate to that is the fact that I was assisting in chaperoning a weekend trip to Quebec. The kids were all so remarkably well-behaved; especially in comparison to these other school kids from another school who were staying at the same hotel. I was so proud of all of them.
Q: How many combined hours did you work on this?
A: I can’t honestly even guess at that.
Read the rest of our parent interviews on choosing a school