How to Choose a Private School
Choosing a private school is one of the most important decisions you will make for your child. Before making your selection, discuss your priorities, decide what you are looking for, and visit each school. Remember that ranks cannot determine your choice: you need to make a careful consideration of your child’s unique needs and the options available to you. Here are some factors to consider when comparing schools.
Private day-schools range in tuition from under $8,000 to $25,000. For example, tuition at University of Toronto Schools is $15,000, while Upper Canada College (UCC) charges $24,000 for day-schooling. Boarding schools are more costly: $45,000 at UCC and $41,000 at Havergal College.
You may need to ask questions before you can compare schools’ fees. In addition to tuition, some schools charge a one-time “student fee” of up to $5,000 for new students. Others may ask for a yearly "loan" to help pay for upgrades and maintenance, which is returned to you with no accrued interest upon your child’s graduation. Other ancillary fees that can surprise new parents include uniforms, transportation, meals, textbooks, special laptops or calculators, athletic or music programs, after-school supervision and trips. If you are applying for financial aid, inquire as to whether these costs are covered.
In Ontario, the law only requires that children be in a “learning environment” up to the age of 18. Private schools are considered private businesses, and need only register with the Ministry of Education. Only those secondary private schools offering the Ontario Secondary School Diploma are required to deliver the province's curriculum and are under the inspection of the Ministry. Elementary private schools, however, are not.
As a result, parents face a “buyer beware” situation, and must determine for themselves whether a school provides adequate preparation for Canadian or international university entrance. Luckily, however, a number of independent organizations exist to provide oversight. The Canadian Educational Standards Institute (CESI) is a non-profit organization that evaluates schools' performance based on rigorous educational and operational standards. CESI has accredited 60 private elementary and secondary schools in Canada since its establishment in 1987. The Canadian Association of Independent Schools (CAIS) regulates curriculum, as well as employment, admissions and fundraising practices. Established in 1979, CAIS has accredited 79 not-for-profit private schools, and extends membership only to schools operating in a stable and viable manner for at least five years.
Look for accredited schools that have an established reputation, with graduating students who go on to excel in their post-secondary studies. You may want to speak to current students and their parents to determine if the curriculum is academically challenging. You can also compare the curriculum, homework and grading policies with those of other private and public schools. In addition, a good school will ensure that your child is receiving an appropriate education in information technology, so be sure to inquire about the ratio of computers to students.
Private schools offer a wide range of academic choices to consider. Some schools offer the International and French Baccalaureates Diplomas, which are widely recognized university preparation programs that are accepted as university course equivalents at many Canadian and US universities. Many private schools offer Advanced Placement courses, which consist of enrichment studies and examinations that can be used to exempt students from introductory courses at university. British A levels are also offered at some private schools. These exams are recognized around the world, and are accepted as entrance exams at many universities.
Some parents look for a level of strictness and formality in a school, while others are happy to see teachers who sit on the floor or are called by their first names. School dress codes tend to be a main “site” of discipline, and range in strictness from non-existent to relaxed to military. Have a look at the school discipline and dress code policies to see if the rules and consequences seem fair and appropriate for your child.
Look closely at the interaction between students and teachers when visiting schools. Do the teachers seem to enjoy teaching their subjects? Do they show genuine concern for the progress of students? Are students happy to be in the classroom? It’s also important to verify the teachers’ credentials, since private schools are not required to hire provincially certified instructors. Be sure to ask about faculty turnover, which can be an important indicator of how well the school is being run.
Single-sex or Co-education
The benefits of single sex vs. co-education are hotly debated, with many good arguments on both sides. Some parents believe the single-sex setting is artificial, and that co-education offers a valuable opportunity to test out and develop social skills that are necessary beyond high-school. They feel co-education can challenge gender stereotypes by breaking down barriers between girls and boys.
But others believe children benefit from the minimal distractions offered by a single-sex setting. Some studies have even shown that girls’ and boys’ brains and learning needs differ, and that a “one size fits all” approach to education is ineffective. Students may also face less social pressures in a single-sex school, which can allow them to take risks and delve into “gender atypical” studies. For example, boys can take on the arts or languages, and girls can study engineering or technology, without fear of ostracism.
In addition, many single-sex schools offer opportunities for interaction with the other sex, in the form of weekend activities, dances and other social events with a sister or brother school.
Denominational or Non-denominational?
While some denominational schools only require students to attend chapel or sing hymns during morning assembly, others have more demanding religious practices. The more observant denominational schools will usually talk frankly with you about their requirements. Your family’s religious beliefs and needs will determine this choice.
Boarding or Day School?
Boarding school is considerably more expensive than day-school, but it can be an excellent investment in your child’s future. Boarding schools provide a safe, self-contained community where students develop into well-rounded and independent young adults. Most students lose feelings of home-sickness within a few weeks, and go on to develop strong bonds with peers and teachers.
Private schools range in size from less than one hundred students to over one thousand. It’s important to assess your child’s social skills when considering where she or he will be happiest. Smaller schools tend to give rise to a more cozy, family atmosphere, while larger schools provide a larger network of friends for students who make friends easily.
Each family differs in how much time and money they are able or willing to put into travel: some families do everything on their block, while others have no problem commuting across the city. In addition to attending regular school days, your child will want to participate in before- and after-school activities, and attend birthday parties and play dates. Choosing a school that is too far or hard to get to may isolate your child and deprive her/him of extra-curricular and social opportunities. Be sure to choose a distance that is comfortable and that allows you and your child to maintain connections in the school community.
When you visit each school, try to determine how well you will be welcomed to participate in that community. Factors such as ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, disability and other markers of “otherness” may have an effect on your child’s experience in a school. Is it important that your family’s identity be represented in the school population, or if it is enough that the students are similar in personality and goals?
Fit is just as important for parents as it is for students. Parents who don’t “fit in” don’t participate, which can leave their child feeling isolated and less affirmed in the school community. Will your participation be valued if your family is of a lower socio-economic status, or if English is your second language? Does the parents’ association welcome new members? Parental involvement
Some schools require a monthly minimum of volunteer hours from parents, while others have the expectation that parents will sit back and “leave their kids at the door.” If the level of expected parental involvement is too high, you may be left feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. If the approach is too hands-off, you may also feel dissatisfied. You will need to assess each school’s expectations for parental involvement, and whether it matches with what you are willing and able to do.
These are just some considerations you will need to look into when choosing a private school. Your choice should ultimately be guided by your child’s unique needs, and the desire to ensure her or his happiness, growth and personal success.