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Peggy MacLean says, "We had no choice." Peggy, a sales clerk, and Alan, her contractor husband, felt that sending their two daughters, Emily, 17, and Rachel, 15, to Halifax Grammar School was the only answer—no matter what the financial sacrifice.

"I know my children are bright and academically strong," says Peggy. "Both excelled to the limit at public school. But in the public system it's cutting back and cutting back." Sending them to Halifax Grammar was a difficult decision financially, she says. "But we always put education first."

How do they afford it? "We don't travel," says Peggy. "All our money goes to education." Working part-time now, she is looking for a full-time job to help pay school expenses.

At that, Peggy and Alan, living in the Maritimes, are paying probably 40 per cent less in school fees than if they lived in Ontario. Because the costs of a good private education vary widely between schools and between regions, it means independent education becomes accessible to families who don't fit the stereotype of being well off.

Even at Upper Canada College in Toronto, Ontario, Chantal Kenny, UCC executive director of admission, says, "Many are working parents. We are seeing a trend where these families decide to put education first. It really does become a question of priority." Karen Hacker, a Toronto lawyer, for instance, says her entire income goes to pay fees for her two sons to attend UCC while her daughter goes to Bishop Strachan. Karen and her husband face what she calls, "a huge burden."

Increasing cost is a source of dismay, not only to parents, but to schools. "It's a hot button issue," says Paul Bennett, headmaster of Halifax Grammar. Especially in the Maritimes, where there is little private school tradition and few endowments, schools have to do more with less. "Flat out, I am concerned with what a school like ours can do with the dollars," says Paul. "And it comes right down to focusing on where they will do the most good--in the classroom and on the teachers."

So what are parents getting for their money? Chantal says small classes and the quality of teaching are often mentioned by parents as the biggest independent school advantages. Karen and her husband feel too that their children are attending schools that reflect the same ethical and behaviour messages they hear at home.

Especially in older private schools, financial aid is often available to assist strapped families, and about six per cent of UCC families get help. Stephanie Ling, principal of Cornerstone Preparatory School, a Montessori school in Toronto, Ontario says where a family has difficulty coming up with the money, her board will sometimes seek private funding from donors who believe in the school.

Sometimes, too, school fees include activities that parents would otherwise be paying for. Cornerstone, for instance, includes before- and after-school care, a cooked meal and textbook rental.

Ultimately though, it's academic results parents are looking for. "The girls are delighted (with their school)," says Peggy. "They are both excelling. They will be able to do whatever they want."

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