If only picking a private school was easy. “It’s a big decision, and it can be confusing for parents because there are a lot to choose from,” says Patti MacDonald, executive director of Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS). There are almost 2,000 independent and private schools in the country, which is why she recommends kicking off your search about 18 months before your child is set to enroll. Here’s where to start.
Examine your family
“As with most things, you need to look inward before you look out,” MacDonald says. Think about your values as a family, specifically your values in relation to education. “The greatest benefit of independent schools is the fact they are independent, and each one has its own unique vision, mission and values—in the end, the fit is the most important thing and it’s where parents should start.”
Talk to your friends
Word of mouth is the way most people choose schools to look at for an initial visit. “Talk to friends and colleagues and find out about the decisions others made and why they made them,” MacDonald says. “Then turn to the schools’ websites to dig in more deeply and help you build a list of places you want to visit.”
You really don’t know what a school is like until you get onto the campus and into the building, MacDonald says. And you need to look at more than one (she recommends visiting a minimum of three). “I’ve heard this so many times from parents: ‘You just feel it when you walk in that the fit is right.’” Make sure you’re open to those experiences, she says, and, if possible, plan your visit for when the school is in action and children are there. “It’s good to see whether kids are engaged and having a positive experience because that’s something you just can’t fake.”
Ask the right questions
Ask questions that will give you a sense of the school’s philosophy, mission and approach to education overall.
What makes your school special?
“Each independent school is founded for a specific reason—often something the school’s founders felt was missing,” MacDonald says. “Find out what that unique value or overarching philosophy is.” Ask about the school’s approach to academic and co-curricular programs, for instance are they more traditional with a focus on academic knowledge, or do they tend to be progressive and innovative? Do they focus on specific areas, or have a robust “whole child” approach across academic, co-curricular and service programs? “The greatest benefit of independent schools is their capacity to personalize the experience for each child,” says MacDonald. “For example, if they need extra support or enrichment opportunities, what would that look like at the schools you’re considering? Or if your child is an athlete, how would they support your child in competition?”
What’s included in the tuition?
Some schools’ tuition covers everything, while for others there are added costs for different programs, field trips or equipment. Many schools also offer financial aid, so find out for which grades and how much help is available.
Is the school accredited?
“Just the fact a school chooses to be held to a high standard says something about the school,” MacDonald says. CAIS is an accrediting body that holds schools to a high standard (12 standards in total, from academic programs to governance at the school and how it ensures long-term sustainability).
Who are the teachers?
Teachers are a school’s most important resource, MacDonald says, so it’s important to find out as much about them as you can. That includes what kind of professional development and learning opportunities they’re offered to help them stay current.
Involve the kids
“There’s a growing trend of including middle and senior school children in the decision-making,” MacDonald says. “At any age, it’s important to ensure students have an opportunity to visit the school—during open house season in the fall is a good time—and feel included in the process.” Get them to help create a list of pros and cons for each institution you visit. The only common mistake to avoid is letting kids choose a school because it’s where their friends are going. “Choose the school that best fits your child, not your child’s best friend.”
Where do I start?
Word of mouth is an effective way to learn about independent schools. Talk to co-workers, family members and neighbours. Internet searches, educational directories and national organizations are great one-stop shops for information. Visit sites that accredit private and independent schools, such as CAIS and The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS).
How do you schedule a campus visit?
Once you have a few schools of interest, schedule a campus visit by contacting the admissions office. Schools will schedule a personal tour or direct you to open house or information sessions. Provide a bit of information about your child, such as the grade they are seeking and specific interests, so the admissions office can tailor the visit. For the most part, campus visits are scheduled within the academic day so families can truly get a feel for the school.
What happens on a visit?
You can expect to have a walk through the school, watch a few minutes of classes, and speak with the admissions office. Some schools will have you speak with teachers or shadow a class. Many schools will use the time to conduct the child’s interview and do the student assessment.
Whether you’re just starting to research, seeing the school for the first time, or are partway through the application on a return visit, treat each visit as a chance to make a first impression. (Remember that while you’re looking at the school, they are considering you, too.) Even if you’re in the early stages of your search, let your child know why you’re there; it’s important she or he is on board.
Originally published in the 2019 Private School Guide.