Parent interview on choosing a private school: Sabine Kussman

Sabine Kussman shares insights about choosing schools for her children

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Sabine Kussman has two sons in elementary school. Her private school search was for both of them.

We asked her several questions about her school-choice 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: Tell us about your sons.
A: I have two sons, an eight-year-old and six-year-old, and they’re now both at the same private school. My younger son has special needs, he has Down syndrome, so that factored into part of our decision in terms of how we went about choosing a school.

My older son was at a daycare centre that provided a kindergarten program in Etobicoke, and at the time he was in JK we had also registered my younger son at the daycare. It was then that we were looking at our options for schools, and we then started my older son in SK in our chosen school and he's been there for almost four years.

Q: When did you first start looking at schools?
A: We first started looking at private schools when my older son was about three. We knew we wanted to register him for kindergarten and we were looking at different options. We first looked at the public schools in our area. And we weren't happy with what they had to offer.

In the back of our minds we knew that our youngest son would have some learning delays and that he would need some accommodation.  On the other hand, we really wanted both our boys to be at the same school—somewhere where they would both thrive. And we wanted a school that would treat our youngest son as—I'm not sure what the right word is—but as “normal” as possible.

I mean we wanted him to  kind of be mainstreamed with all the typical kids. That was really important to us. And we got different advice from various people around us. Some people said it's not fair, or not realistic, to have both boys at the same school. And they said your younger son has special needs and probably needs to go to a special school or a public school where he'll be in a special class. But we wanted to see what was out there in terms of our vision for having both boys at the same school at the same time having a good experience, not just putting them at the same school and that's that.

Q: What didn't meet your expectations in your local public school?
A: Definitely the large class sizes. When I heard that in kindergarten there could be, you know, 30-plus kids in a class.

I have a lot of friends who are teachers . . . and my older son, he's very bright but he's very, very active. I wasn't sure how one or two teachers could keep a class of 30 under control.

What also really worried me was hearing how a lot of kids with special needs aren't adequately accommodated in public schools. The lack of resources and government cuts concerned me as well.

One of my friends mentioned that in her class there are a couple kids with special needs and that while she's teaching, for example, history, the kids with special needs will sit at the back and colour maps. That made me sad, because what if they have more potential than that? 

But at the same time, I sympathize, because in a class of 30 how can a teacher accommodate everyone? My philosophy is that every child has special needs. To have one blanket curriculum doesn't jive with that.

It was really the class sizes and the resources that I was concerned about in public school.

Q: What were your must-haves in a school?
A: Being able to have a collaborative approach with the teachers and the school. And having good communication with the school, and it being a fun environment in addition to being enriching.

Q: Do you remember when you began your research?

A: Yes. It was when they were both still at the daycare. My older son was in the kindergarten program. The first step we took was we looked through Our Kids magazine because we get it through our subscription to the Globe and Mail. Then we went to their private school expo, the Peel expo.

Q: Who was driving the research?
A: I was driving the research. I have more flexibility with my work. I work as a consultant, so I have more flexibility to construct my day than my husband. He was open to letting me do the research and present what I found to him. But we both went to the private school expo and we took both boys.

Q: What were the main stages of your research?
A: I wanted to see how all the people who we spoke to at the expo would interact with them. That was my first indication of whether we'd pursue a longer conversation or not. And our first question was do they accommodate kids with special needs, which eliminated a lot of schools that we spoke to.

We were able to come up with a shortlist of four schools, and then our second step was to do a tour of the schools, and to meet with the administration to ask them questions.

Q: Did you use any analytical techniques in your search?
A: We weren’t overly analytical in our research or too casual; we're kind of in the middle ground. We had a list of all our questions, with things like price and location factored in as well. But the most important criteria for me was how my boys would act there on our visit and how they would talk to our boys and relate to them.  

Q: Did anything surprise or impress you in your school visits?
For one of the schools something that surprised me was seeing how the admissions director related to the boys. This had been an important factor for me, but I didn't realize how big it was until this experience. This school actually had a special needs program, and so we were pretty hopeful about it, and it was a top choice initially. Then we met with the director and she mentioned that she had an older relative with Down syndrome, and the way she talked about it just completely turned us off. She was really respectful to my older, typical son but the way she related to my younger son was a complete turnoff. And that was disappointing, because the school looked so good on paper.

And then the two other schools—we were pretty impressed. In the beginning, one school was at the bottom in terms of price and location, because it was the furthest away from us. But the way the meeting went I just was so amazed and impressed with how they treated our boys. I remember saying to my husband, “In my heart that's where I want them to go to school.” But in my mind, I worried about those key cost and location factors.

Q: How did you make your final decision?
A: The school had everything on our checklist, but it was the location and that they were at the top end of our budget that worried me. But our gut reaction was positive, and I usually do make decisions like that. We ultimately went on our gut reaction.

We knew it was right, but we did mull over the decision for a few months. Then when it was time to register I told myself that all we can do is try it for one year and see how it goes. We can all change our minds if it doesn't work out.

Q: Did you have an interview? How did it go?
A: Our first visit at the school was with the admissions director, and then we had a subsequent meeting where we met with the principal and got to tour the classroom. They interviewed all four of us, even my younger son, because we had him at an affiliate preschool, and said if all goes well we wanted to register him for the following year. We wanted to be certain that they were on board with that.

We were definitely very nervous about the interview. The advice I would give is to go with your gut and see how the person who you're meeting with interacts with your child.

At some schools they’d say things like, “Well we have a lot of expertise.” But at this school they were different. They said, “We're not going to be an expert on Down syndrome. We've actually never had a child with Down syndrome at the school.  But we’ll get to know your child and collaborate with you to come up with the best possible experience for him.” That impressed me. I can see how for some families it would be reassuring by schools having specific expertise, but I like a collaborative approach more.

What I was concerned about initially was like, okay this was a great meeting, but is it actually going to be this good when we get there? And it has. It's been amazing.

Q: What did you find most difficult about the search process?
A: Just initially when we went to the private school expo it was a bit disconcerting to hear the number of schools that said they can't accommodate a child with special needs. We were surprised and a bit disappointed hearing school after school tell us no. There were still a lot of good responses, and we were happy about that. There was never any kind of rudeness. But it was a hard process to go through.

But now when I talk to parents I tell them not to be discouraged. They’ll find a place if they just look at their criteria and at the fit with their child. It's possible to be successful in finding a good school.

Q: What resources did you find helpful in your school search?
A: Our Kids magazine does list which schools accept kids with special needs, so that was helpful, and we had earmarked those before we went to the expo. But we found that when schools talk about accepting kids with special needs they’re often thinking of kids with mild autism or emotional needs like anxiety.

In fairness, it's probably hard to pinpoint which schools take which kinds of special needs, or all special needs. There’s a whole spectrum.

We just went to the expo asking schools if they accepted children with special needs, just in case they had left that off their profile.

Q: What were the family dynamics like around the school search?
A: My husband was okay with me doing the research and coming along to meetings at the schools. We were pretty much on the same page. When it came down to finalizing our decision there was a bit of a discussion about location in terms of how we’d handle the commuting back and forth.

There was disagreement from other family members: our parents on both sides were pretty against the whole idea of sending the boys to private school. They were like, “Both of you went to a public school and you did fine. You have a public school that's right across the field from your home. Why would you consider private school?”

We just stuck by our decision, and then later in the year the school had a lot of events where they invite families. So our parents got a chance to see the boys. My dad really was the strongest in his opinion about not having the boys in a private school, but he said to me, “You know you made the right decision.”

Q: Other than the fit with your boys, what attracted you to this school over the other schools you looked at?

A: I really liked the wide variety of things that they had available. They offered gymnastics and martial arts, and we’re a very active family, so I wanted a lot of different options. It was the same with their arts program. Also, of course, the core focus on reading, writing, and math. There was also a focus on community and teaching kids to interact respectfully with their community.

Q: What surprised you in the search process?
A: I was surprised by the variety of private schools that are out there. It really surprised me. Occasionally, when we meet new people and they get to know our family and they hear our kids are in private school, they have a negative impression. Like of course we must be rich. And there are definitely schools that cost a lot of money, but there's a wide range out there and it’s more financially possible to have children attend a private school than a lot of people think.

The other thing was some friends would say, “Oh they're just going to be around one group of people who are all alike and all wealthy.” But they kids are exposed to different cultures, just like in a public school.

Q: How much time did you spend on this search?
A: It was intense at the time, though I can’t count the hours. And it went on for about a year and a half.

Q: How has the school met your expectations?
A: It's been great. It's even better than I hoped it would be. We had high expectations and I'm surprised that they've surpassed them.

Both boys have really changed since they started going there. My older son was always really active, but he’s become involved in a competitive gymnastics program. Last year he trained 9 hours a week and this year they want to increase it to 16 hours. We spoke to the school and said we want to make sure that he continues to do well academically, but how can we accommodate his gymnastics? And they've been great in doing that.

With my younger son, we knew that he had learning delays, and we weren't sure how he was going to learn. So just to see him being able to now start to read and write is amazing. His teacher gives us input about how she gets him to learn things, which has been interesting.

We’re still in the frame of mind that we're taking things one year at a time. Recently our school started offering high school. If the boys could be there until grade 12 and have things go this well, I'd be over the moon. But I know the academics are going to get more demanding and more challenging, and I'm not sure how that will impact them going forward.

The good thing is the teachers and administration are constantly communicating with me about their progress. Already there’s a plan in place for my younger son for Grade 1. We've had several meetings about that. With the cooperative approach, I’m more reassured that things could still go well for them in the future.

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 McCabeCaitlin O’LearyKarim and ShafreenCatherine WangHolly WykesNicole MorellShantiKim BridgemanZoe MitchellShemin Jaffer

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