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Parent interview on choosing a private school: Caitlin O'Leary

Caitlin O'Leary shares insights about choosing schools for her children

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Caitlin O’Leary is a single mother living in Toronto, employed by the Ontario government. She was looking for an elementary school for her daughter Robyn, in Grade 4.

We asked her several questions about this process. We covered topics such their goals, research methods used, challenges faced, and plans for the future. Here’s what she had to say.

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Q: Describe the process from not searching for a private school to searching for a private school. 
A: My daughter attended a neighbourhood public school from junior kindergarten through to grade 3. She was lost with the big class sizes and I could see her starting to withdraw into herself, and I was worried that she might be depressed. 

I would get these report cards that gave her good grades, but it was obvious that she hadn’t learned anything. There were issues with the teachers; it was a challenging situation due to continuity. Two of her four teachers had to leave part way through the school year and it just seemed that they never engaged with the kids. Two of the four years were a complete waste of time. I also knew that some parents would spend a lot of money on tutoring and I thought the money might be better spent on enrolling in a private school.

Q: What were you looking to get in a private school? What were your priorities? 
A: My mother and father had both attended private schools and my mother, in particular, had not had a positive experience and had rejected it. I certainly never thought that I would consider sending my daughter to private school. I would never consider myself a parent who would even consider a traditional private school, but the school we chose is not a traditional school.

I wanted to see my child flourish in an academic and social environment where kids were valued for who they are, and are not just seen as students. I wasn’t really worried about the academic side of things; there are a lot of books in our house, we’re quite literate. But because of the discontinuity of her education, I began to fret that she was not connecting with her peers, that she was alienated and even worse, that she was dumb. That damage to her self-esteem, she might never recover from. 

Q: Do you know when you “began” your search? 
A: Near the end of grade 3, in May.

Q: How did you begin it? 
A: A friend at work had a girl who went to a private school, and frankly, made it sound wonderful. At that time, I was not really looking at private schools, but once I did, I went on their website. The website (which has been updated) was not terribly helpful. I had to go and see for myself. There were no handouts or brochures.  

Initially, I went and visited on my own, without talking to my daughter, and talked to the principal who gave me a tour.  The school was an all-girls school that comes to the world from a feminist, social justice perspective. Several of the staff there are working on their PhDs from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). Their emphasis is on how girls learn, and on developing critical thinking skills. These were values that lined up with my own.

Q: Was there a moment you made the decision, or was it gradual? 
A: Yes, there was a moment, I think. On our school tour I really noticed that the girls in the classroom would turn around in the door and look at you welcomingly and say hello—a few of the girls introduced themselves and they all seemed so happy. They were comfortable talking to an adult, or a new person. It really was a gut feeling, the kids were proud, and comfortable in their own skin. I knew that’s where I had to send my daughter.

Q: Did you have to interview for acceptance? 
A: It was more of a conversation as opposed to an interview. I had no idea what to expect. My daughter brought in her sketchbook. 

Q: How did it go? 
A: During the interview process, I saw how well my daughter connected with one of the teachers who, as it turns out, is the head of the curriculum. My daughter is interested in sewing and so the teacher said, “we could start a sewing club.” We had a tour, but my daughter took to it right away. I was just following behind this teacher and my daughter. 

Q: Any tips for families?
A: Trust your gut feeling. The majority of families who go here would not be applying to a traditional private school. It appeals to bright, quirky girls who enjoy being challenged and who will benefit from the small class sizes. 

Q: What did you find most difficult about the school-choice process?
A: Not much, it was pretty straightforward.

Q: Did you use any analytical techniques to weigh your options, list pros and cons, or write down your reflections? 

Q: What were your expectations of private school?
A: Small class size and individualized learning. Social belonging was important.

Q: Describe the family conversations you had about school choice.
A: I didn’t say anything to my daughter until after I’d made the first visit, but she was quite excited once I raised the idea.

Q: What impressed or surprised you the most on your school visits?
The behaviour and warmth with which the kids themselves greeted us.

Q: To what extent were you trying to find the best school vs the best fit for your child?
A: They were very much one and the same. The teachers, their research-based approach to best practices in teaching, and social acceptance were more important than academic excellence.

Q: Did you try to find a school that would play to your child’s strengths or correct your child’s weaknesses? 
A: I knew that she was academically talented, I just needed a school to bring that out. 

Child-specific advice on school choice
For child-specific insights on choosing a school, read our guide. We explore how school choices crucially depend on kids' unique traits, such as their mental and academic focussocial tendenciesactivity level, academic interests (such as art and STEM), and other attributes (such as giftednessspecial needslearning disabilities, and social issues).

To get school-choice advice customized to your child's unique traitscreate a child profile through your user account.

Read the rest of our parent interviews on choosing a school: Catherine MauleJennifer ReynoldsLisa McCabeKarim and ShafreenCatherine WangHolly WykesFelix WongNicole MorellShantiSabine KussmanKim BridgemanZoe MitchellShemin Jaffer

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