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New kid on the block

Parents happy with the switch to private school

Val Steinmann describes herself as a strong supporter of public education. But she and her husband knew they needed to find an alternative after their son Kieran had spent two years in kindergarten at a Toronto neighbourhood public school.

The Steinmanns pulled their son from the public system and enrolled him in Discovery Private School (DPS) to start Grade 1. So far, they have no regrets.

Kieran, now seven, has a quick temper and was easily provoked, especially in a big class with minimal supervision. In the public school, classmates took advantage of him, his mother says, and the staff soon had him labelled as troublesome. It's different now.

"I've seen dramatic results, not only with our child, but others as well," says Val Steinmann. "The teachers there really believe each child is capable of learning. There's a real commitment to making sure each child is challenged."

DPS is a new school with a junior kindergarten to Grade 8 program and, for the time being, it's small. Founder and director Marisa Ferrera, who has spent most of her career as an educator in the public system, opened her doors in September 2001, with a single student. Enrolment has since grown to 16 children, aged four to 13, and she expects to have 30 students for the 2004-05 school year. She rents space in a former public school in Toronto's west end, and can accommodate up to 100 children. But regardless of how many students enrol, class size will not exceed 15, Ferrera says.

Many new private schools across Canada

DPS is one of dozens of new private schools that have opened across the country over the past decade. In Ontario alone, according to a spokesperson at the Ministry of Education, 766 private schools registered with the ministry in the 2001-02 school year and a total of 112,653 students enrolled. In September 2003, there were 834 registered schools, an increase of nearly nine per cent, although final enrolment figures are not yet available. Elsewhere, there has been growth, though less dramatic. In British Columbia, there were 352 private schools in 2002-03, an increase of six over the previous school year, but the number of students jumped to 63,387 from 62,601.

Private schools were once seen as expensive and tradition-bound institutions reserved for the children of the wealthy. Many parents picture uniformed youngsters attending classes in aged stone or brick buildings. Such schools do exist, but they are a small minority, says Elaine Hopkins, executive director of the Ontario Federation of Independent Schools, which counts independent, religious, Montessori and Waldorf schools among its members. In Ontario, she notes, there are only about 35 to 40 high-priced, elite schools. The rest, she says, cater to hard-working middle- or lower-income families and charge tuition fees averaging $7,500 per year.

Experts say several factors have driven the growth of private schools. For one thing, smaller, two-income families have more disposable income than large families with one working parent. And many people have become disenchanted with the public school system.

"People are fed up," Hopkins says. "Fifty per cent of the kids in Ontario can't pass a literacy test! The government comes in and imposes its views on everyone. You can't have one system of education to meet the needs of such a diverse group of students."

Still, Hopkins advises parents to do their homework before selecting a private school, and has compiled a list of 23 pointers to help people make the best choice. She recommends collecting as much written material as possible, and asking questions about staff training and turnover, student-teacher ratios, curriculum and codes of conduct.

The challenge for many parents is assessing the claims of educators in what has become a highly competitive marketplace. Jim Christopher, executive director of the Toronto-based Canadian Educational Standards Institute (CESI), says secondary schools, whether public or private, must adhere to a provincial curriculum and are monitored by ministries of education everywhere except New Brunswick.

However, elementary schools are unregulated, Christopher says, and there has been a sharp increase in the number of private elementary schools over the past decade especially in Ontario, Alberta and the B.C. lower mainland.

"I get lots of calls from parents asking me which is the best school for their child," he says. "I ask them about the child, his or her strengths and weaknesses, as well as experiences and interests. I can usually give them the names of a handful of schools that might be a good fit."

CESI exists largely to conduct independent assessments and has created an accreditation program based on comprehensive inspections. To date, CESI has accredited 55 schools, a tiny minority of those available (over 1,600, according to a 2003 Statistics Canada report), and another 30 have begun the accreditation process that is good for seven years when acquired.

"We're just getting started here, but the accreditation movement is huge in the U.S., "Christopher says. "Canadian parents are becoming more sophisticated consumers. They are starting to realize you can"t just go by what people in the community are saying."

Starting a school not easy

Despite the startling increase in the number of schools, many educators say that getting a school started is not easy. It requires passion, vision and a willingness to take financial risks. Ferrera financed Discovery Private School with her own and borrowed money until she began generating revenue through tuition. She did it to pursue her ideas of holistic education based on a program that addresses social and emotional needs, as well as intellectual capabilities.

Ferrera and her staff of four develop individual programs that take into account each student's abilities, and they work to instill confidence in the children. "They end up learning faster than they would if you expect too much," she says. "I've had parents say they can't believe how much their children are learning."

Individual programs and instruction also distinguish Oxford Academy, an elementary school that serves students from junior kindergarten to Grade 8. Now in its sixth year of operation, it has grown from 16 students to 105, and graduated from a strip mall setting in the former Toronto suburb of North York to a 10,000-square-foot building leased from the Toronto District Catholic School Board. Principal Gary Cheong formerly operated an Oxford Learning Centre franchise, which provided tutoring for struggling students, and started the school at the suggestion of parents who were impressed with the results he was achieving.

Cheong says he developed an individualized approach to education while running the learning centre and successfully raised many struggling students to their grade level. His school limits class size to 16 and offers a daily study hall program for children who need extra help. "We're here to make a positive difference in every child," he says, "not just the exceptional kids."

Parents who choose private over public education are looking for results and, in the case of secondary schools, that means preparing graduates for university and college. From that vantage point, The School of Liberal Arts (SOLA) in midtown Toronto has an enviable record. David Ferguson, co-founder and principal of the 15-year-old, coed institution, says 98 per cent of graduates go to university. The school, which has an annual enrolment 4 of 230 to 250 students, has earned a reputation for rescuing students who were underachievers in the public system.

SOLA adheres to the Ontario secondary school curriculum, but offers a program enriched by a wide choice of options, including native studies, philosophy, art and music. Classes are small - no more than 15 students - and teachers attempt to produce rounded graduates with top-notch analytical and critical thinking skills. The school uses an interdisciplinary approach to learning, in which subjects such as religion are taught by showing how spiritual values influenced the art, music and politics of various historical periods.

Ferguson attributes the school's success to its program, but adds that a non-traditional setting helps as well, especially with students leaving the public system. SOLA occupies about two floors of a six-storey, glass and metal office building a stone's throw away from the bustle of Toronto's Yonge Street. "We have had a great deal of success getting students in the last two years of high school and getting them turned around," Ferguson says. "One of the attractions is the setting. It isn't like the school they just left."

SOLA also stacks up well against other private schools, according to some parents who have had experience with competing institutions. Shauna Gundy's 16-year-old daughter Charlotte has been enrolled at SOLA for Grades 9 and 10, and her two older daughters also attended the school for part of high school. The girls attended other private schools and spent time in the public system as well. "We've had a fair amount of experience with various schools and we're very, very pleased with SOLA," Gundy says. "It provides extraordinary value."

Setting is an important part of the educational offering at The Dragon Academy, a coed school for students in Grades 6 through 12. Founded in 2001 (the Chinese year of the dragon) it is located in a three-storey, late Victorian, brick home in downtown Toronto. Founder Meg Fox, a PhD in English who has taught in both public and private schools, chose a house hoping the intimate setting would foster a sense of community.

The Dragon Academy offers what it calls museum-based, integrated learning, which was also a factor in its location. Students can walk to the Royal Ontario Museum and several other important museums, while the Art Gallery of Ontario is about three subway stops away. Teachers frequently develop lessons or projects based on the study of exhibits and artifacts, which are then incorporated into classroom instruction in art and history courses, among others.

The school uses an integrated approach to teaching that draws connections between related subjects such as literature, history and philosophy rather than treating them as separate disciplines. For example, students in Grades 6 and 7 take an English course on mythic literature that includes Hebrew and Egyptian myths, as well as science fiction and works of fantasy. A senior English course on the literature of liberation includes St. Augustine's Confessions along with modern novels such as Moby Dick, Lord Jim and Siddhartha. "I love teaching here," says academic chair John Vervaeke, who holds a PhD in philosophy.

That type of enthusiasm is infectious. "We're absolutely thrilled with the academy," says Raymond Bisha, whose 13-year-old daughter Alicia has completed Grades 7 and 8 there. "She gets up every morning and can't wait to get to school."

Rona Abramovitch, whose 14-year-old son Jake Freedman is a Grade 8 student, also gives the school rave reviews. "I love the fact that the curriculum is genuinely integrated," she says, pointing to the end-of-year student-organized Shakespeare production as a prime example. "These kids aren't bored," she says "because the school has created an environment that is genuinely interesting."

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