School psychologist Mary Polychronas has spent 20 years working with teachers and students in the private and public sectors, and is a staff psychologist at Weston School, a combined elementary and secondary school in Montreal. She has taught in both systems.
Polychronas believes both the private and the public system are committed to doing the best for children in their care. Mission statements in both sectors stipulate their goal is to meet the needs of the student. "Both sectors want to turn out good citizens with morals and with values," and both offer resources to do so. However, she says the private sector is often better equipped financially to meet students' educational needs, particularly during key years that can set children up for future success.
Polychronas says private schools often have the following advantages:
Children clearly have different education needs at various points in their development, Polychronas notes. The toddler years are a time of rapid growth and exploration, but she thinks the critical years for the best-quality learning environment start in Kindergarten and continue through primary school. "I find those years are crucial. This is when children are developing their learning styles and learning habits. Private schools offer small classes that can nourish these young learners," she says. "Those good, appropriate learning habits are easier to learn in a smaller setting."
Private schools usually have more outings and extracurricular activities, and more chances for younger learners to explore the world around them. For those reasons, Polychronas says she would lean toward encouraging parents to invest in private education during the early elementary years, if at all possible.
Still, Polychronas says, the teenage years of rapid developmental change can also be an important time to seek a more supportive learning environment. "There are a number of teenage issues that very often affect a child's learning. A private school can be more supportive during this vulnerable time of development."
She views Grade 9 as a particularly tough year for teenagers to cope with changes and social pressures. "They're not Grade 7s or 8s anymore, but they are a lot less mature than someone in Grade 10 or 11," Polychronas says. "They're trying to find out who they are and where they belong. There are a lot of identity issues in Grade 9, so it is a key year for getting extra support. A private school can help smooth over this difficult developmental year, further a child's education and prepare him or her for the rest of high school."
Teachers in private schools typically have more time to spend with each student, to support them academically, she says. "The private school is looking toward the individual child and the individual learning style." This also gives teachers a greater opportunity to develop a strong relationship with students. In turn, Polychronas says, this supports better classroom management, which leads to fewer behavioral issues.
In the end, Polychronas says, she encourages parents to view themselves as the experts in determining their child's education needs and deciding what environment at what age would be the best fit. "Parents need support and information, but they have to decide what is best for their child because they know their child best."