Guide to selecting the right private school

Deciding to send your child to a private school is the first step on an exciting educational journey. Still, the next step is often a lot more challenging: selecting which private school they’ll attend.

“Choosing a school is a big, and sometimes emotional, decision for a family,” says Hilary Adamson, executive director of enrolment at The Bishop Strachan School in Toronto. “All parents want to find a school where their child can be challenged, supported and known.”

With so many private schools available to Canadian parents, trying to narrow down the options–or knowing where to start–can feel overwhelming. So, how do you make the right choice?

First, take a deep breath. Then, remember to keep your child top of mind throughout and carefully consider their unique strengths and weaknesses–academically, socially and psychologically–to ensure the school you choose will be a great fit. “This should include evaluating not only a child’s educational needs, but their interests and talents, personality, learning style and academic ability,” says Adamson.

Here are some suggestions to help streamline and simplify the selection process.

Establish your priorities

When it comes to where your child goes to school, it’s important to figure out what’s most important to you. Maybe it’s class size or extracurricular opportunities. Perhaps intensive university prep is critical. Does location matter? What about the tuition cost? Do you care whether the school is co-educational or single gender? “Parents should ask themselves some key questions to help create a short list,” says Adamson.

Determining your child’s priorities is also helpful, especially if you’re considering a boarding school. “Boarding school offers an educational adventure away from home, but it also comes with a lot of structure and rules,” says Marisa DiCarlo D’Alessandro, principal and founder of Canadian College Italy, an international boarding school in Lanciano, Italy. “This includes wearing a uniform. For some students, it might be too difficult to give up their personal style for class.”

Examine your budget

While money isn’t everything, there’s no denying it’s a critical consideration when looking at private schools, where tuition– along with uniforms, supplies, extracurricular activities and more–can require a significant financial investment. “Parents should consider their budget when selecting the most suitable school for their child,” says Lee Venditti, the principal of J. Addison School in Markham, Ont. “They may desire a specific school, but also need to be comfortable with their finances.”

Consulting with a financial planner before you begin your school search is extremely helpful in determining what you can actually afford, which in turn can help you target schools that fit your budget. And remember: you’ll need to factor in the full extent of your child’s private-school education, which could involve paying tuition for many years to come.

Evaluate your options

Once you have a set of criteria in place, and have determined how much you’re willing and able to spend, you’ll need to start doing your homework. Make a list of the schools that meet the bulk of your criteria, then research them in depth–and do so as early as possible because you’ll need to factor in time to complete the admission-application process once you’ve decided where to apply.

“It’s always best to start your research early,” says Adamson, “but rest assured that the admissions teams are there to help you navigate the process.” Visit the schools’ websites and social media feeds to learn about their core values, curriculums, campuses and all the other nitty-gritty particulars, from what tuition includes to how (and how often) teachers communicate with parents. It’s also important to read through the admission requirements to make sure your child meets the school’s criteria for acceptance.

Explore the campus

Once you’ve completed your research, narrow down your list of schools to identify your top picks, and then schedule visits to each one. “Campus tours and in-person events are a great way to see the school in action,” says Adamson. Make a point of attending any open houses or prospective-student events and don’t feel you have to make a decision based solely on one visit: it’s also a smart idea to request a private tour on an ordinary school day to better understand how the school operates. “Parents [can] gauge the synergy with our school by scheduling a tour and bringing their child to get a good sense of the environment, the staff and the atmosphere,” says Venditti.

While on campus, check out the facilities. Is the campus clean and orderly? Are the classrooms inviting and engaging? What kind of athletic facilities are available and are they well-maintained? Does the campus feel safe? Make notes as you’re going from school to school so you can keep track of what each one offers and take photos to share with your child if they can’t accompany you.

Engage with staff and alumni

Sometimes, the most insightful information about a school can be gleaned from its faculty and administration, its alumni and from fellow parents, who were in your shoes at one point and can relate to any concerns you may have. “It’s extremely helpful to hear stories from staff, parents and alumni, and to be able to ask questions in order to get an authentic feel for what the school is like from different perspectives,” Adamson says. Connecting with staff or parents is also a valuable opportunity to learn about the school’s culture. Hear first-hand accounts of what the student-teacher dynamic might be and, most importantly, find out whatever it is you want to know so that you’re able to make a fully informed decision.

In the end, know that it’s highly unlikely any school will meet 100 per cent of your criteria–but that doesn’t mean it won’t still be the perfect fit for your family. Your best approach is to choose the one that meets the most of what you and your child want and need.

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