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How to Select a School for My Child

One of the most important decisions parents have to make is to select a school for their children. This decision becomes to a large extent more difficult in a society such as ours with so much information and so many interest groups and experts in the field. The truth is that the system of education in Ontario is under serious scrutiny and nobody really seems to know where it is leading us; and this level of dissatisfaction has nothing to do with the shortness of financial resources or large size classes as professed by the media. What we have is a huge and very complex bureaucracy that is run, to a great extent, by very dedicated people but which, unfortunately, has lost its “Vision.”

Knowing all that, how do we go about selecting a school for our children? Where do we go to find assistance and who can really help us find the right school? The real answer is, it has to start with you. You have to take the time to do your homework and research the system, school by school, starting with your own set of criteria. You can read all kinds of articles and books that will outline shallow recipes that tell you what to look for in a public or private school and you can attend as many conferences and workshops as you may wish before you realize that it is so much more complex and confusing.

As a parent of children who attended French schools, English schools, French immersion and private schools and who went on to graduate studies at the university level in Ontario, and as a passionate educator who spent over thirty years of his life serving the system in a variety of positions from that of a Physics teacher to that of Superintendent of curriculum, research and continuing education in a Public Board, I can tell you that you will know which school to select for your child if you put your mind to it and if you research the system methodically.

In a consumer society like ours, you should apply your knowledge of consumerism by drafting a list of issues and values that are important to you and your family and stick to them at all times. You will end up finding the school that suits your needs and provides your children with the kind of education that you aspire to give them. You will eventually find very good schools in the public, Catholic or private systems of education. But how do we assess those schools and on what grounds do we make our choice?

When we generally talk about education, we usually confuse two things, education and instruction. Education is the field that deals with the overall holistic development of the child and the formation of his/her character. Instruction, on the other hand, like training, is simply the field of transmission of information and skills. In our modern consumer society, all schools attempt in one way or another to provide instruction in a relatively successful way while trying with very limited success to leave a positive imprint on the children. There is no need to dwell on the issue; one can only look all around in our society to see the end result. Children may learn more science or programming at an earlier age in one system or another but are they cultured, disciplined and caring, and do they know the difference between right and wrong? Are they capable to compete nationally and internationally and can they unlock the doors they need to open to succeed?

In a multicultural society such as ours with so many first and second generation Canadians desperately wanting to give their children the break they may need in a land of opportunity, the choice of a good school and the promise of a university entrance with high grades is simply very tempting. Although the vast majority of parents cannot afford private schools, many are increasingly willing to make the sacrifice and to consider private or independent schools for their children as a serious alternative to the public and Catholic systems. But how do private or independent schools in this province compare with private schools many of us have known in other countries? Only you will end up knowing the answer when you will differentiate those that are businesses from those that are truly educational institutions. And of those selected, can you differentiate those that are exclusive and elitist from those that are genuinely committed to modernity and intellectual development as a proper goal for all children, not just the gifted?

The first item on your list must be related to Education as it correlates to the issue of values, discipline and character education. When you look for a school, look beyond the sales pitch and the flashy gimmicks and try to appraise its value system. Is this system compatible with your family’s value system? Will the school be an extension of your home away from home or will you, in the long run, have to fight your children to keep them on the right path? Visit the school and observe the staff in action in the classroom. Look at the children under their care and look in their eyes. Are they happy? Are they learning?

In that perspective, a good school is a school that has a broad orientation which is translated by well-crafted policies that target those inner values that go hand in hand with a stable society. A good school sets simple but clear objectives that increase the students’ self-confidence by allowing them to succeed more often while allowing them to learn from their failures and mistakes. Finally, a good school is one that creates a healthy environment that aspires to positive impressions, that treats the children as human beings and that promotes a spirit of cooperation and success for all. As children today are confronted with the age of electronics and mass media and as they are driven to spend a great deal of passive time in front of a television or computer screen, they need to socialize and to be taught to live in a community so that they may learn to dialogue and become skilled at resolving conflicts.

However, if you are expecting a school to bear the full responsibility of your child’s education, you will be disappointed by all types of schools. Teachers are able to instruct and educate, but they are unable to do it alone. You must consequently be ready to commit to the philosophy of the selected school, support it in its orientation and become a real partner in its overall educational mission.

Once you have identified the schools that offer a holistic environment based on sound values that are compatible with your own, it is important then to focus your attention on the curriculum offered by the school and understand its mode of delivery.

When one looks at the curriculum, it is important to understand that it is but a set of ministerial objectives that must be achieved by the student through a selected subject. Knowing that, one must also understand that what is being provided on paper may not always correspond to what is being taught in the classroom. Hence, you should be wary of curriculum documents which only outline content or the index of a book and which proudly purport to teach advanced and complex issues. In my opinion, there is no real reason for a Grade 3 student to build a computer and for Grade 5 students to study nuclear physics. Children should be doing things that are meaningful to them and should be given the opportunity to apply them, to comprehend them and finally to internalize them. And that takes time. And that is why I do not favor the semester system at the secondary level.

Consequently, I highly recommend that you visit classrooms and ask to see children’s books, notebooks, agendas, projects, essays, homework tests, exams and report cards. And yes, children should be taught to study, to do homework on their own, to manage their time and their work, and above all, their anxiety level. And yes, they also need to learn to write exams. And when looking at children’s work, notice the teacher’s comments, linguistic proficiency and marking scheme as a way of obtaining an insight into the school’s pedagogy and standard and then you can extrapolate. Keep in mind that teaching, the delivery mode of the curriculum, is, on the other hand, a very complex process that requires knowledge, know-how, classroom management and, above all, nurturing.

Once you have detected the true nature of the curriculum and seen the end results in children’s work, look for specifics that differentiate the school from any other school. Are the premises and grounds secured? Is the place conducive to learning and is it bright and colorful? Is the school clean and are classes organized? Visit the washrooms, the lunch room and the staff room and inspect the playground. Look at the way the children wear their uniform and notice the teachers’  implicit dress code. Are classroom doors open? Do you hear teachers yelling and children crying or do you perceive sounds of laughter and singing? Does the school have a computer laboratory that is really being used by all students and teachers and does it promote the use of computers in the classroom? Does the school support a resource center and a well-equipped library? Does the school have a music room, an art room and a science laboratory? Does the school communicate regularly with parents and are memos posted for all to see? Do you feel comfortable and welcome in the school?

Finally, you should investigate the overall standard established by the school and inquire about its commitment to superior education and services. Does the school have a clear vision, defined values,  and some enthusiasm? Does the school encourage experimentation with a willingness to excuse failure? What kind of leadership subtends the system? Does the school management support teamsmanship with its staff and partnership with its parents?

I have so far provided you with more questions than answers and I stand by the fact that you will eventually find the right school for your children. My final comment transcends the shopping list or the investigative process and takes you into the realm of intuition. You should finally ask yourself two last simple questions. The first question is, “Can I trust this Principal or Headmaster to make a life and death decision on my behalf regarding my child?” And the second one is, “Can I entrust these people with my most precious treasure?” Everything else is really secondary.