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Types of Schools: Step-by-step guide to choosing schools

A few truths shared by parents and schools: Choosing a private school takes time and patience. There is no one-size-fits-all answer; each child and each family is unique. The process will likely take longer than you expected. This step-by-step guide will help you through the process.

The private school your neighbour or friend raves about may not be the right fit for your child. The “best choice” for your child and family comes from first-hand research based on your distinctive set of needs and desires—and that process demands an investment of time. However, the return in terms of your child’s education and his or her future is worth it. Not only will you find an appropriate fit for your child, but you’ll also find a school that you and your child will rave about.

Step 1 - Identify your needs
Step 2 - Do your homework and research
Step 3 - Visit private schools
Step 4 - Submit applications

STEP 1 – Identify your schooling needs

Family circumstances and the individual needs of your child will affect your choice of private or independent school. Before you even start browsing through glossy brochures and surfing school websites, decide what it is you are looking for in a private school and why. A compatible fit is all-important.

Private schools are numerous and diverse. There are schools with excellent music and athletic programs, schools that serve religious communities and schools that offer a range of academic programs. Before you can compare what they have to offer, define your own needs, wants and circumstances.

Your Child

  • How is your child doing in their current school? Are they receiving enough attention? Are they being challenged and provided the opportunity for growth?
  • What is your child’s personality, learning style, academic ability, social skills, talents, challenges and desires?
  • What is your child interested in? Arts, sciences, sports, drama… if you are not sure, ask them.
  • Is your child social or do they enjoy being on their own?
  • Will your child thrive in a technology rich or creative and holistic environment?
  • Does your child have special learning or gifted needs? Do they require special attention or therapy, or a particular work environment?
  • Does your child learn better through hands-on activities or textbook readings?

Your Family

  • Do you want a school that is close to work or home? Or are you willing to spend some extra time travelling?
  • What are your family’s values, goals and priorities?
  • Is being taught with a particular denominational (religious) focus important to you?
  • What language do you want your child to be taught in? Is the opportunity to learn another language important?
  • Do you want a school that offers before-school and after-school programs?
  • What is your budget?
  • How much do you currently spend on your child’s school and extracurricular activities? Might some of that be included in tuition?

The School

  • Are you looking for a coed or same-sex, boarding and/or day environment?
  • Are you expecting a traditional back-to-basics curriculum, a more alternative approach or a strong academic setting?
  • Are you searching for a large or small school?
  • Do you want a school that accommodates all grades where your child can stay for many years?

Write down the critical basics you and your child are looking for in a school. This list is your compass, keeping you on track throughout the search process, especially during those moments later on when bells and whistles may sway you. Refer back to your list while researching schools to ensure your priorities are being met.

Your Wish List

Now that you have thought about the basics and your child’s practical needs, it’s time for a little dreaming. Write down the key items on your wish list. Once the basics have been met, the points on your wish list may help you decide between two compelling schools.

STEP 2 – Do your homework: Research private and independent schools

You encourage your children to do their homework in order to be prepared. It’s also good advice when it comes to finding the right private or independent school for your child. Doing your research beforehand will lead to a more informed and thoughtful choice.

Expert Advice

  • Get started early: At least a year in advance is recommended.
  • Do first-hand research: Don’t just rely on the experiences of others.
  • Make good use of the Internet: Most schools have websites.
  • Contact schools directly: Ask them to mail you an information package.
  • Attend open houses and private school expos: They’re usually scheduled throughout the year. Here's a list.

Finding the Perfect Fit: Research, Research, Research!

  1. Dedicate time to the project.
    Good decisions are best made without time restrictions. Research your options ahead of time and discuss them with friends and relatives. Use our helpful admissions calendar as a reference tool.
  2. Focus on the needs of your child.
    Use the priority list you created as a checklist when researching schools. Determine what is a necessity, and what you can live without.
  3. Consider your budget.
    Private schools will vary in cost depending on a number of factors: day or boarding, the size of the school, the level of additional services and extracurricular activities. Determine your financial situation and how much you are willing to spend. We have more information on paying for school.
  4. Read school profiles and check out school websites.
    Learn more about each school. Look at what’s written about the school curriculum, mission, values and philosophy. Read reflections and testimonials from students and parents. Consider the average class size and determine the background and qualifications of the teachers. You can read more than 225 school profiles with links to websites and contact e-mails directly from this website.
  5. Generate a short list of schools
    Using your list of priorities, compile a short list of schools to research further. The advanced search tool is an excellent way to generate a list of schools specific to your needs. Read the school profiles, reflections from students and parents and request additional information by clicking on the inquiry tab.
  6. Request school information packages
    Many schools have additional print and online information packages with more on their school missions, philosophies and day-to-day operations. Download online brochures and watch school videos here.
  7. Ask questions
    There is no silly question. Whatever is on your mind, ask the school about it. They should openly welcome your inquiries. Print a list of questions to ask here.

Once you’ve gathered up information, examine it closely for clues that will help you decide on the schools that seem to best fit your needs and wants. The process should lead naturally to a short list of schools you would like to explore and examine first-hand.

Avoid the "Pick me! Pick me!" Syndrome

  • The aim is to select the best fit for your child, not to make your child fit into a school at all costs.
  • You are seeking to purchase a highly important service, not to sell the school on your child.
  • Do not be blinded by glossy school brochures. It's the institution's job to market the school; it's your job to approach each possibility with a hint of skepticism and a critical eye.
  • Don't get distracted by a desire to please and lose sight of the goals of your child and your family.
  • Put your child's best face forward, but don't try to repackage your child to fit an image you presume will appeal to a desirable school.
  • The perfect fit for your neighbour or friend's child may not be right for your daughter or son.

STEP 3 – Visit the schools

With your research in hand, it’s time to go out and “test drive” potential schools of interest. Before you go, reflect again on your priorities: Let your written lists of needs, wants and wishes from Step 1 serve as a compass, keeping you on track. Organize your questions and don’t be afraid to ask them. Schools will welcome your interest and inquiries.

Most schools have open house events, which are excellent opportunities to tour the school and meet teachers as well as current and prospective students and parents. Schools are also happy to arrange a tour upon request. Plan on making at least two visits: once for an initial look and, if you like what you see, again with your child.

On your visit, be sure to:

  • Ask for an outline of the school's curriculum and to look at textbooks and other teaching materials.
  • Ask for the names and numbers of current parents or alumni, whom you can contact as references.
  • Try to speak with the principal or head of school and teachers. Don't limit yourself to just meeting the admissions officer.
  • Ask if your child can meet other students. Ask for a student to take your child on a tour of the school.
  • Ask to observe a class or other activities.
  • Ask what bursaries or other financial support may be available.
  • Allow your son or daughter to ask questions of school staff during visits.
Read more – A detailed list of questions to ask and things to consider on your open house and school visits. Click here.

School expos provide a wonderful opportunity to meet with a number of schools in a relaxed environment. Attend the Our Kids Private Education School Expos and meet with more than 70 of Canada’s leading schools at these one-day events. Register today for free admission.

STEP 4 – Submit applications to the schools

Armed with first-hand knowledge, you’ve narrowed down your choices and you’re ready to apply. Experts recommend applying to more than one school to ensure the greatest likelihood that your child will be able to attend a private school that’s a good fit for your family.

Submit Applications Early

Once you’ve made your school choices, don’t put off applying.

Be Open to Options

Don’t pin all your or your child’s hopes on one particular school. Your child would likely prosper at more than one school and several schools might be an appropriate fit for your family.

Look Beyond the Bells and Whistles

Consider whether they are important to you. Riding stables or a skating rink may be impressive, but are these your child’s interests?

Be Realistic About Your Child's Academic Abilities

Don’t push them into a school where they will feel overwhelmed.

Be Honest and Upfront

Don’t withhold pertinent information about your child. The goal is to ensure his or her needs can be met at the school.

Don't Stress Out Your Child About the Entrence Exam

Be prepared to deal with less than stellar results and remember most schools will consider more than just test scores.

Be Clear About What You Want

If you are not prepared for your child to be assigned two hours of homework a night, don’t sign up for a school where this would be expected.

Ask About Extracurricular Activities

These are an important component of many private and independent schools. Find out the level of participation expected and consider how this suits your child.

Find Our What's Expected of Parents

Expectations vary and you want to be comfortable with the level of involvement and type of contribution.

Ask Lots of Questions

Admissions officers expect and welcome them, so go in with a written checklist.

Inquire About Financial Assistance if This is a Concern

Bursaries or other financial support might be available.

Learn more here.

What private schools are looking for

  • To ensure they will be a good fit for your child and your family
  • To know your child wants to attend the school and is not just being pressured to do so
  • A clear sense of your child’s ability
  • Your child to become a participating and integrated member of the private school community
  • You and your child to fully understand the school’s philosophy, vision and expectations at the outset

Learn more about the application process here. You can also read our experts' advice on choosing the right school.

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