Is private school the best choice for your child?

Parents just want to give their children the best opportunities in life. So is private education the best way to go? Tim Johnson explores the expensive world of private schools. 

By Tim Johnson

Is private school the best choice for your child?
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Proud mothers always love to tell people about their kids' accomplishments, and Miriam Wells is certainly no exception. But looking back on the academic and extracurricular careers of her three kids, even she seems a little surprised at how much they've been able to do.

Her two sons, Fraser and Adam, both attended public school until Grade 8, then switched to Rothesay Netherwood School, a private academy located in the family's hometown of Rothesay, N.B. There, Fraser played varsity hockey and soccer; he also went to the national rowing regatta under a coach who had competed in the Olympics. Adam competed in rugby and hockey, and attended international leadership conferences. Not naturally inclined toward public speaking, he nonetheless rose to the rank of head prefect. Perhaps even more remarkable, because of the school's focus on the International Baccalaureate program – which requires students to get involved in the arts – Adam played a lead role in Rothesay Netherwood's production of You Can't Take It With You, while Fraser, in his final year there, had a solo in the school's staging of Annie. "As a parent, I sat there and thought, That's pretty cool. Because he never would have done that. It's not really his thing," she recalls.

Both of Miriam's sons now hold a coveted spot in the ultracompetitive commerce program at Queen's University. Her daughter, Darcy, who is in Grade 11 at Rothesay Nether-wood, is following in their footsteps. She is singing in two school musicals; playing volleyball, basketball and field hockey; and, like her brothers, participating in the school's Round Square committee, which focuses on service and social justice.

And while they may have been just as active had they attended a public program, Miriam feels that the school deserves a healthy portion of the credit. "It was a huge advantage that involvement is a big part of that school. Everybody plays sports; people join committees. They just get involved," she says. "It's a small school, so it's less intimidating to do so, and the teachers, many of whom live on campus, all serve as advisors and spend a half-hour every day with students one-on-one. You have the same advisor all the way through high school, and they're a consistent cheerleader for your kids the whole way through."

But, Miriam notes, it hasn't come cheap. At about $20,000 per student, Rothesay Netherwood's annual tuition is in the range of a fairly decent new car – something that's crossed Miriam's mind more than once. "I've had to keep my van for a long time," she says. "You do think about it."

Faced with an uncertain economy, and with the choice of so many great public schools across the nation, the decision on whether to send your child to a private school (and to pay the often painful tuition that comes with it) can be a very difficult one. The most important question seems to be: Is it really worth it? And the answer, experts say, is: It depends.

Accessing success

Overall, there is fairly convincing evidence to show that kids educated in private schools tend to perform better – in some cases, significantly better – on international tests. "If you're looking at student achievement, you'd be inclined to draw the conclusion that most private schools do better than most public schools," says Pierre Brochu, assessment coordinator for the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, an intergovernmental body that, among other things, appraises the skills of Canadian students. He cites many pieces of evidence, including the findings of the Programme for International Student Assessment, a study that's been administered in more than 70 countries to evaluate educational systems by testing the competency of 15-year-olds in reading, math and science. It found that, in Canada, private-school students outscored their public school counterparts by 45 points on reading tests – a wide and statistically significant margin that persisted (at 24 points) even when researchers compared kids with the same socioeconomic status in both public and private schools.

Private schools come with all sorts of approaches and philosophies, and experts observe that not all of them are created equal. One major factor in a school's effectiveness is its mission and how closely it fits with the goals of parents and students, says Paul Cappon, president of the Canadian Council on Learning, a national nonprofit that has done research on this and a wide variety of other topics in education. He says that parents shouldn't choose a private school just because it seems exclusive or has a good reputation.

"First, you need to figure out what you're looking for, whether it's art or science or a single gender. Don't just go for the one with the glossy brochure," he says, noting that there is solid empirical evidence to show that when a school is strong in one specific subject area, student academic performance increases. "My advice is this: Be very clear on what you want and choose a school that has a very clearly stated mission, one that articulates its goals and strengths."

In the case of the Wells family, Miriam and her husband, David, knew exactly what they wanted. All three kids did very well in public school without putting in maximum effort. "I worried that if they didn't encounter hard work in high school, they wouldn't know how to deal with it in university," she says, noting that the kids were very much a part of the decision-making process and that she gave them the final call on whether to switch. She says Rothesay Netherwood's International Baccalaureate program was definitely the drawing card. "We wanted to make sure that they were as competitive as possible in a competitive world."

The benefit of single-gender schools
Cappon says another way in which private schools can give students a boost is by providing single-gender education. Studies have shown that when the conditions are right, this can contribute to enhanced academic performance and better overall wellbeing.

Heather Blair, an expert in language and literacy education at the University of Alberta, has observed that boys and girls tend to take more risks with literacy tasks and speaking out when they're surrounded by only their own gender – and that's usually a very good thing in the classroom. "Really, that's what learning is all about," she says. "I mean, if we're not comfortable taking risks, we're never going to learn anything." In addition, Blair says that single-gender schools allow teachers to gear their teaching methods, subject matter and classroom culture toward one gender; girls get more space to speak and talk through concepts, while boys don't feel as stigmatized for being (or aspiring to be) the smartest kid in the class.

While a few single-gender schools do exist within the public system, most parents seeking to enrol their children in one turn to private schools, where the options are more plentiful. In Halifax, mother Bonnie LeFrank says the all-boys education provided at Sacred Heart School, a private academy there, is a big factor in her son's success. Bonnie's son, Sebastian, 17, has been at Sacred Heart since Grade 2 and moved into the all-boys section (called Fountain Academy) in Grade 7.

"They have a whole different way of approaching education for boys," she says. Fountain's classrooms offer students a good deal of hands-on activities, plus learning materials (including fiction and nonfiction books) that appeal to a male mindset. She adds that the teachers there serve as strong male role models, while the school also gives space for the boys to get up and move around in the classroom – something that studies have shown can help young men learn. That has been big for Sebastian, she says, as boys sometimes find it hard to sit still. "It really does play to his strengths."

But while she believes that the school has benefitted her son in a number of important ways – he has excelled in his studies and is a comfortable, confident and well-spoken young man who has competed in several national debating championships – the expense has definitely been a challenge. While most schools offer scholarships and bursaries, parents, including Bonnie, say the biggest portion of that steep tuition comes from sacrificing other luxuries. "We do without a lot of other things in order to send him there. It's not killing us, but we live a simple lifestyle. We only go out to dinner once a month at the most, and we have to keep the car for 10 years," she explains. "But we make it work because we love our children and want the best for them."

She adds that Sebastian himself has been a huge help by earning a major scholarship that provides about half of his annual $14,000 tuition.
 
Added value for your dollar

While there's no getting around the fact that most private school tuitions add up to a hefty sum, some parents feel the financial issue is not quite as simple as it would first appear. Just ask Anne-Marie Kee. Her son, Jacob, 14, attended Ridley College, an independent school in their hometown of St. Catharines, Ont.; her daughter, Kathleen, 12, is now enrolled there. As Anne-Marie points out, the tuition (which she admits gobbles up most of their earnings after essential expenses) includes a lot of other out-of-pocket expenditures – music lessons, sports leagues, extra tutoring and even lunches. "If a family seriously looks at all those things they aren't paying for, plus accounts for the scholarships and bursaries that are available, they would be really surprised at how accessible independent schools are."

Anne-Marie says the other benefits, like the fact that Jacob could play squash and eat healthy lunches every day while he attended Ridley, are priceless. Plus he's made lifelong friends and developed a love for learning. She says that when her kids switched from public to private education four years ago, her family was able to immediately cut out all nonschool activities, meaning they had a lot more time to enjoy together while saving on that extra cost. "When my husband, Kevin, and I get home from work and school, we're home for the evening. I'm no longer a taxi driver. Instead, we go for walks together. It's changed our life," she says.

Anne-Marie is a former public school teacher who now serves as executive director of Canadian Accredited Independent Schools, a network of more than 90 independent schools in Canada, Bermuda, the Dominican Republic and Switzerland that requires a rigorous accreditation process to ensure high levels of care and education. Anne-Marie advises parents to ensure that the school they choose is accredited by an independent body, and to take a close look at its facilities and overall philosophical approach to curriculum. Anne-Marie is among those who note that really good private schools tend to have small class sizes, a personal approach to teaching and counselling students, and a real sense of community, where parents are invited to be a part of the education.

Teachers first
But the biggest way to find a quality school (and get good value for your money), says Cappon, may seem obvious: Make sure the school has good teachers. "The data is
pretty clear. Other factors – including things like infrastructure, facilities and the number of computers at the school – pale in comparison," he says.

He adds that private institutions definitely have an advantage here. While public schools do very little research on teacher success, private ones tend to be much more meritocratic; ineffective teachers are often dispensed with rather quickly. Cappon advises parents and students looking for a private school to do their homework before enrolling: Get the facts about teacher training and qualifications, the school's commitment to professional development and the students' success later on, after they have graduated and entered university. All of this info tends to be more transparent at private schools. "The schools should be able to show you the research," says Cappon.

Stephen Johnson, headmaster of St. John's-Ravenscourt School (SJR), an independent school in Winnipeg with a strong focus on university preparation, says he is always happy to demonstrate for parents SJR's intangible and tangible strengths – the latter with a spreadsheet. "Parents want us to prove it," he says, noting that the kindergarten to Grade 12 school, which was founded in 1820, has been tracking student success at the next level since 2000.

The school also keeps close tabs on one of its biggest selling points: its university admission rates. Peter Brass, the school's director of student services, notes that since 2000, there hasn't been a year when fewer than 100 percent of the students who applied were admitted to university. More important, though, is whether those graduates received their first choice of program and university. Last year, that number stood at 99 percent of qualified graduates, and it has never dipped below 94.9 percent. Brass says this isn't something commonly tracked by public schools. "Their clientele are coming, one way or the other," he says. In addition, students who are in their first year of university – taking on a tougher curriculum and plenty of life changes – typically see a 15 percent dip in their grades, but SJR students do much better, seeing a grade drop of only about eight percent.

Johnson adds that teachers are carefully vetted and are expected to wholeheartedly buy into the school's overall mission of providing university preparation and a strong extracurricular program. They are required (and given the support) to pursue constant improvement through professional development. "Parents are looking for a school where it's cool to be smart, where a culture of achievement and student successes is celebrated, and there's a real sense of shared values between parents, teachers and students," he says. "Here, that's what they get."

Back in New Brunswick, Miriam Wells says that all of those things are abundantly true at the Rothesay Netherwood School. But in the end, she's simply glad that her kids have had a wonderful high school experience – something she says is truly priceless. "I don't think every kid can say that they had a really great high school experience," she says. "And my kids? They loved it."

Public or Private?
Here's a look at some of Canada's luminaries – and where they went to school.

Gillian Mary Apps

Both: The two-time Olympic gold medallist attended public elementary school and junior-high school, then enrolled in Havergal College, an all-girls private prep school in Toronto.

Justin Trudeau

Private: He attended Montreal's elite College Jean-de-Brebeuf, among other private schools.

Margaret Atwood
Public: She did not attend school full time until Grade 8, then went to Toronto's Leaside High School.

Roberta Bondar
Public: She graduated from the now-closed Sir James Dunn Collegiate and Vocational school in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Wayne Gretzky is another notable graduate.

Stephen Harper
Public: He attended public elementary school and high school in Etobicoke, Ont.

George Stroumboulopoulos
Public: Strombo graduated from Ascension of Our Lord, a Catholic secondary school in Malton, Ont.

You can compare the costs of private schools across Canada. And if you're considering a French immersion program, we've weighed the pros and cons.
                                               
This story was originally titled "Ahead of the Class" in the October 2013 issue.
           
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