Understand Your Child
The first step in choosing the right school is to determine what type of student your child is and what environment she will most likely succeed in.
“Before thinking about the features of any particular school, begin by looking at your child’s needs, strengths and overall personality,” explains educational consultant Judy Winberg.
To better understand your child’s learning needs, consider turning to an educational psychologist for help.
“If you’re looking for a psychologist to provide an evaluation or aren’t sure if this is what your child needs, consider asking your pediatrician for help,” advises Elaine Danson, educational consultant and former principal. The psychological assessment can provide an unbiased look at your child’s strengths, weaknesses and abilities.
TIP: Just because you went to a particular school or type of school doesn’t mean it’s right for your child. Always consider the specific needs of the child.
Make a List
Armed with a better understanding of your child, the next step is to evaluate both the child’s needs and the needs of your family.
Do you want a school with small classes? gender inclusive? Transitional programs to bring students up to speed?
Other factors to consider include your child’s interests and talents and what co-curricular activities are available to address these; the values—religious or otherwise—of the school and how they mesh with the family’s values; and the educational tools (for example, technology) that are used in the classroom.
“Think about what’s working in your child’s current school and what’s not working,” Danson says. “Is there anything the child wishes he could do in school but hasn’t been able to?”
TIP: It’s not selfish to consider your own needs during this process. This can include how far you’re willing to drive to get your child to school each day.
Begin Evaluating Schools
Now it’s time to look at specific schools to see what they have to offer. Many parents begin by visiting school fairs and using school guides and websites, which provide an overview of what’s available and accessible to them.
Other forms of research often include speaking with fellow parents. But Winberg advises that what other parents say about a school should not necessarily be one of your deciding factors.
“Just because one child had a positive or negative experience does not mean your child—a totally different human being—will have the same experience.”
Winberg also encourages parents to think beyond school rankings such as those conducted by the Fraser Institute.
“Parents will often say to me, ‘But that school didn’t have a good rating,’ and what I ask them is, ‘What else do you know about the school?’” In isolation, she says, these ratings are not particularly useful.
TIP: Most schools have comprehensive websites, which are often good places to search for information.
The 411 on Applying
From the secrets to successful applications to interview tips, find out about applying to schools.
Visit potential schools. Once you’ve come up with a shortlist of schools, you’re ready to begin touring. The admissions department is typically your point of contact at this stage. Most schools offer tours of some sort to help get families better acquainted with their programs and environment.
“The school visit is the chance to establish what the parent and student’s wishes and expectations are of the school, and what the school’s expectations are of the students,” says Cathy Lee, director of admissions at Bodewell High School in North Vancouver. “Then we look for a match.”
Carefully observe the students, teachers and parents at the school during your visit, Winberg suggests.
“When you’re inside the school, look into the classrooms to see if the kids look engaged. Are they talking with one another, or is the teacher sitting behind the desk while the kids work?” Winberg says. “Check out the culture of the parking lot. What are the other parents like? Do they seem open and welcoming? Is this a community you can imagine being part of?”
Other questions to ask during this time, according to Danson, include what type of parent-teacher communication exists at the school, what qualifications the teachers have (especially if your child has special needs), how financially stable the school is, and whether the administration has changed hands a number of times or if there has been consistent leadership at the school.
This is your chance to ask questions, so don’t be shy. After all, your child will be spending five days a week here, so you want to be sure you understand the philosophy and the policies before you make a choice.
“It really does come down to happiness,” Winberg says. “If the child is happy, there’s a much better chance that he or she will be successful no matter what the curriculum is.”
TIP: Make sure your child spends some time in each school you’re considering before you make a final decision.
Involve Your Child in the Decision
The final decision ultimately comes down to both the parents and the child.
“In the end, parents need to listen to their kids and trust their own gut instincts,” Winberg says. “Can you envision your child being successful at this school? Does it feel right? If so, go for it.”