Parent interview on choosing a private school: Nicole Morell
Nicole Morell shares insights about choosing a school for one of her children
Nicole Morell has three children. She was looking for a school for her son in senior kindergarten.
We asked her several questions about this process. We covered topics such as her goals, research methods used, challenges faced, and plans for the future. Here’s what she had to say.
Q: What prompted the search for only one child?
A: There were 90 kindergarten students at the public school in his JK year, and he wasn’t happy, and we weren’t happy. He wasn’t getting any of the basic, foundational learning he should have—there were just too many kids. I was the mom whose kid clung to her every morning and cried because he didn’t want to go to school.
Then we found out a couple of weeks before the end of JK that there wouldn’t be enough students in the English program—it has a big French immersion program—to create an English JK/SK split the next year.
I was absolutely determined, full stop, that he wasn't going back there. I had to find another school, and find it fast. I was in a panic, and then my husband realized how serious I was, and he led the search.
Q: How did you start your search?
A: We started with Google and asking around. We only have a couple of friends whose kids are in private school. One of them is not even in province, so that wasn't an option. And the other school that our friends love doesn't start until grade 5.
I don’t know if my husband used the Our Kids site, but he must have. My husband came across a parent testimonial in a Google search and he sent it to me and said, “This is the school.” The testimonial was from a woman who still has a daughter at the school, and I think she commutes from quite far. She talked about how her daughter didn't fit into mainstream school, and how positive their experience at this school has been. It was hearing from another parent in such an honest way.
Q: What were your priorities in a school?
A; The big classes in the public school were what we were trying to get away from, so small class sizes were obviously a priority. But we had to look at everything and be reasonable too. We're not going to drive 45 minutes—we're both working. It had to be something local. So, our search was pretty narrow from the beginning. There were two schools in the community that we considered.
Coming from an underfunded public school with moldy bathrooms, no equipment and a crumbling playground—I'm used to having crappy facilities. It's easy for me to be wowed by a private school that has all the bells and whistles. But I didn't feel like that was my priority.
My priority was: is my kid going to be happy and feel like his teacher likes him? And do I feel like his teacher likes him.
Q: Was it more of a gut or reasoned decision?
A: Apart from small class sizes, I had to have a gut feel about the place and the teachers. I wanted them to speak to my child, not to me. I mean I didn’t want to be told what they thought I wanted to hear.
It had to be much more of an emotional decision for me. I knew that the schools were following the provincial curriculum, so what they're teaching isn't necessarily going to be different. But how are they teaching it?
Q: What did you like about the school’s approach?
A: With our school, it was obvious from the get-go that their teaching approach was different. It's so loose over there for the kindergarten kids, and I love that about them. On fabulous days they go to the park and do their lessons there. They bring in the Humane Society and then raise money by baking dog-shaped cookies and selling them in the lobby.
When we visited it seemed they were very in touch with what kids enjoy in their learning, and then they build on that. And I loved the amount of outdoor time they offered. That was so important to me, because in public school the kids often missed out on their recess. By the time you get the gear on all those kids it’s time to come back in. It’s beyond me how you can’t make sure that four-year-olds have the chance to vent their energy outside. Hearing that our school gets the kids outside three times a day was big for me, and so was the fact that they still do naptime.
Q: What was your school visit like?
A: We happened to tour the school at rest time. It was so peaceful. There was classical music playing and little children on mats and blankets. Some of them were reading books quietly. I thought, “This is what the teacher needs and what the students need: to hit the reset button.” We walked out after that visit and just had the feeling it was right.
We did a one-on-one tour, and it was our only visit. It's funny, because I'm in the school quite often now and I sometimes see kids who are there for the day visiting. I wonder why we didn't do that. Maybe because we had come at the end of the school year there just wasn't the opportunity.
Q: How did you make your final decision?
A: So, we did the tour, got the information package, saw the kids having their naps, and saw other kids in music class. Then we just did a lot of reading online, and talking and comparing with other people, and I think it took us two weeks to make a decision to go with the school.
It was important for me to believe in their whole approach to education. Their philosophy—Belong, Discover, Thrive—resonated with me, especially after such a tricky year where my son was so unhappy and the teacher clearly didn't like him. He couldn't learn because he felt unwelcome and unimportant. He needed to feel like he belonged somewhere before he could open up and learn. Philosophically, I was in tune with what they were saying at the school.
Reputation figured into our decision-making. It is a really small school, and I had some reservations. I thought, “If it's so great, then why isn't it bigger? Why don't more people know about this school?” But my intuition and the appeal of their teaching approach overcame most of those reservations. It’s a little bit of a leap of faith for sure.
We didn't end up going to visit the other school. We looked online. We spoke to them on the phone. It was a joint effort with my husband and myself, but we didn't even end up going. Partly because the tuition was twice the price, and it's a whole other neighborhood vibe over there too which I wasn't so sure was for us. And they seemed to have more focus on academics, which is awesome, but I thought, “Do I need to spend $20,000 for kindergarten?” We thought we might only be in private school for kindergarten to get my son foundationally sorted. Let him have a good year. But honestly, by November I said to my husband, “I'm sorry we have to stay. I know we don't want to be paying for school, but I'm not moving.” The relief that I felt was so profound and the change that I saw in my son was so amazing.
Q: Do you have any advice for families searching for schools?
A: I would say that intuition counts for a lot. I’d also say kids are remarkably resilient. I don't think any kid wants to go to a new school. I'm not saying discount your kids. My son at four years old thought he had friends, and I had some concerns about starting his whole social situation from scratch. But within a week at the new school he was making friends. I would say maybe worry less about that.
I don't like giving advice to people because it’s such a personal thing. Everyone who approaches the decision comes with a different mindset. Some people really focus on academics, or the best computers, but that's not most important to me.
I think I'd also say look at parental involvement and how parents are expected to interact with the school in terms of fundraising and participation and just day-to-day communication. That communication was a huge thing that I wasn't expecting, and I love it so much. We get three or four pictures a day of my son. Knowing what my kid’s doing—I just adored that, especially in the beginning. I felt so reassured. You do not get that in public school, that's for sure.
It was made abundantly clear that I would never be bothering the teachers, and they’d be happy to talk about Charlie every day after school, if I wanted to. The school just felt very accessible, compared to public school where you're given those little 15-minute blocks twice a year to chat.
We feel so lucky to have had our hand forced. We never would have chosen to send our child to private school. It wasn't on our radar. But we're so happy. My older son wishes he could have gone to this school too, now that he's seen it through his little brother.
Read the rest of our parent interviews on choosing a school