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Sacrificing to pay the price

Parents make substantial financial sacrifices

"My house is 14 years old and the basement still isn't finished. So when the first tuition bill for my son's university education came, I was very happy," says Bonnie Kates.

That doesn't make much sense until Kates explains that the university tuition fees are less of a financial burden than his private-school fees were. Both of her sons attended private schools, and the Kates family had to make some significant financial sacrifices to make that possible.

Some parents can handle the fees at private and independent schools without problem; for others, significant sacrifices are necessary to give their children the kind of education they've chosen. For every family, the bottom line is that the money parents invest in private-school education could be used for something else.

When Rowena McDougall and her husband, working professionals with three children, decided Rowena would re-enter the workforce, they had to decide how to use the extra family income. Their sons Andrew, now 20, and David, now 18, were about to enter high school; their 16-year-old daughter, Kelly, was six at the time.

McDougall says she didn't decide to go back to work so they could afford to send the children to private school. She wanted to return to work to fulfil her own professional goals. So when they knew extra income would begin flowing in, McDougall says, "it was a question of what are we going to do with this extra salary? Put it into a house, into mutual funds? No, we're going to invest it in the boys."

With tuition at the boys' chosen school, Crescent School in Willowdale, running at $12,000 a year each when they started and $13,000 by the end of their high-school careers, McDougall says the biggest sacrifice her family made was to put their desire for a larger house on the back burner. Their children's future was, without question, the most important thing to them, she says.

Since then, Kelly has been enrolled in Havergal College, in Toronto, where the annual tuition is $14,950.

With the boys graduated from Crescent School, the McDougalls have seen their investment pay off. "What we were buying was an insurance policy in the form of training. It was a relief when the boys came back from university and told us that what they encountered was no more difficult than anything they tackled at Crescent."

The situation of single-mom Susan Blayney is quite different from that of the McDougalls. Although her former husband has always paid child support for their daughter, Brigitte, Blayney's decision to send her to the all-girls Linden School, with its $10,400 annual tuition, was one she'd have to fly solo financially. And she has since Brigitte completed Grade 3.

A nurse counsellor at the Bay Centre for Birth Control, Blayney says that at the time she was paying down a mortgage and holding her own financially. She justified the cost of private-school tuition, $6,000 back then, because she was already paying a large chunk of income - $4,000 a year - for day care. Tuition for private school also included after-school care. "That was the year (former provincial premier Mike) Harris came into power, so I was concerned about whether there was going to be a (public school) teachers' strike in the fall."

It was important to her that Brigitte attend a school that wouldn't be affected by the looming teachers' strike. So she sacrificed privacy by taking in foreign-student boarders and dealt with the mishaps that sometimes come along with tenants. "You can't always shower when you want and one day one of my tenants picked up a rice cooker at a garage sale for what she thought was a bargain price. It was full of cockroaches."

But Blayney had trouble keeping the room rented and after a couple of years realized that she was sinking into debt. At that point, she applied to Linden for a bursary. She received $4,000, which subsidized a substantial portion of the tuition fees. Since then, her income has risen. Last year she received a $1,900 bursary to help out with the $9,100 tuition.

Blayney, who once belonged to the United Church, says that in the non-denominational Linden School she has found an institution that communicates values in which she believes, including respect for diversity, anti-racism and anti-sexism. Linden is crucial to Brigitte's development because it's a place where she is accepted for who she is, Blayney says.

"At Linden , they actually live their mission statement." Linden describes itself as a woman-centred school that reflects, responds to and promotes the experience, voice and development of women in its policies, structures, program and curriculum. "It is an enriched environment and, at the time, I thought even if I can only afford to 4 send Brigitte there for Grades 4 and 5, that will be fine."

Blayney says that since she decided to sell her house and buy one with a friend who shares the mortgage payments, her lifestyle has changed for the better. She's still sacrificing living space, but her mortgage payments are lower, she shares house expenses with her friend and she no longer needs to take in tenants.

Since 1998, she has sacrificed her spare time by working part-time in addition to her regular 9-to-5 job and earns an extra $2,000 to $3,000 a year. Although her mortgage and home expenses are less now, the amount of time she must dedicate to her part-time job has increased because of new responsibilities and that means less time for herself as well as less time spent with Brigitte.

"Brigitte goes to school with very affluent children but she knows that Linden is a tradeoff. Even if I could afford to give her everything she wanted, I don't know that I would.... I've been driving a 15-year-old car and just got rid of it because it rusted out. The car was embarrassing. I just bought a five-year-old car, which will hopefully last."

Meanwhile, Liza Horowitz is at the beginning of her experience with the private-school system. As a full-time working mother of two young children, aged three and five, Horowitz says she considered enrolling them in community-run programs for children under four. But that would have made it very difficult for her to plan her work schedule; the length of classes varied from 45 minutes to two hours maximum and she would have had to enter a lottery for admission every four months. In addition, it was difficult to transport her children to and from the programs and with children under three, the programs demanded a caregiver accompany the child.

Now, her five-year-old is in junior kindergarten at a parochial school for five half-days a week - at a cost of $3,300 a year - and also is in a kindergarten class at another school for three half-days a week at a cost of $2,460 a year. Her three-year-old attends pre-school for two half-days a week, at a cost of $1,640 a year.

"You can't plan out five days per week for the whole year unless you pay," Horowitz says.

Horowitz says lost friendships is one of the prices she's paying for having her kids in private school. She makes friends with other parents in her kids' schools, only to find that once her friends have three or more children, they can no longer afford the school and move their kids to the public system, so the parents' paths no longer cross.

She and her husband have made the typical sacrifices - they don't go out much and they don't go on vacation. And private schools often also call on parents to offer time in addition to money. "There is a lot of teamwork among the school, parents and children," says Horowitz. "In their eyes, there is no such thing as being too busy for your kids."

As great as the sacrifices have been, Horowitz says they're worth it because of the learning environment her children are exposed to. "Eventually, (kids) all learn their alphabets, but it's the environment. You hope the philosophy will be instilled and that's definitely worthwhile."

The school emphasizes community work and parent involvement and teaches the children that they're lucky to have what they have and be where they are, Horowitz says. "It's a very hands-on approach and every part of their curriculum involves giving to others."

Bonnie and Michael Kates's eldest son, Marc, now 26, always went to a private school and they say it really paid off for him. He was used to a heavy workload, so he was well prepared for the reading and work required at the post-secondary level.

Their youngest son, Lonny, now 21, started in the private Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto (CHAT), but switched to public school for Grades 3 to 8.

During Lonny's initial stint in a private school, Bonnie Kates says, she
recognized that he was learning research skills as early as Grade 2. "We took him to the library on three or four occasions. He was doing better projects and better presentations (than his public-school peers)."

Once he switched to a public school, the Kateses were sure he would continue in the system, especially since a new public high school had been built in their neighbourhood. They began to fantasize about using the saved tuition money to renovate their basement.

But the unexpected happened. Lonny told them that he wanted to transfer back to CHAT. Because Lonny showed initiative by researching prerequisites and setting up interviews, the Kateses felt certain he was serious about his decision.

"We'd never had a finished basement, why start now?" Bonnie Kates asks with a laugh.

The transitional Grade 9 year was a challenge for Lonny, and Kates admits that she was unsure Lonny would reap the same rewards from private school as his brother had. But Grade 10 at CHAT was a different story altogether. Lonny's perseverance and dedication paid off and he went to being an A student from being a C student.

Kates and her husband made the necessary sacrifices and watched their friends move ahead of them financially. "When we moved into our first house, our friends were moving up to their second house." But when the Kateses were ready to move up from that first townhouse, they had already paid it off, "so we were in a much better position when we purchased our second home."

Those sacrifices don't compare to the satisfaction the Kateses experienced when their sons returned home after having done extremely well in first-year university. "They juggled 11 subjects in high school, so five subjects in university was light by comparison. The kids realized that they were better prepared for university."

The Kateses are still driving cars that are more than 14 years old. As for that basement renovation.... Well, eventually it will get done.

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