It used to be that parents registered their child at the local neighbourhood school, in early September, sometimes on the first actual day of school. The only choice available back then was whether to send a child to public or catholic school, but to some it was not even a choice as tradition imposed a certain norm in the family and all was sometimes predetermined.

Registering a child in school in 2015 is quite a different era. Parents have many more choices than just the local neighbourhood school. Many people believe that Ottawa is the best place in Canada to educate your child according to school scores by the Fraser Institute. Why is this? Four school systems (English Public, English Catholic, French Public, French Catholic) and many private, specialized schools that cater to parents who can afford the tuition on top of their taxes. More and more parents look up scores from the Education, Quality & Accountability Office test scores for schools ( EQAO provincial testing scores for grades 3, 6, and 9 and the grade 10 literacy test) to help them decide, much like choosing a university.

But parent choice has also become very arbitrary due to more elements out of their control, such as choosing an established school in an older neighbourhood which becomes closed, due to declining enrollment – or choosing to buy a home in a new subdivision that has not even been built yet. The perception that a new school building will automatically guarantee a good school,   feeds a myth. Also, families buying new homes in areas where a new elementary school is to be built often never even have their child attend in the proposed school, as the wait is so long the child has moved onto high school before the school actually opens. In other instances, the child is used to the school where they started in kindergarten and want to remain there, but staying in the same school sometimes is not a choice, as school boards redraw attendance boundaries as soon as a new school opens and families are redirected to the new school regardless of any sentimental reasons. And forget about ‘grandfathering’ children of the same family into the same school, a courtesy often extended in the past to help parents by adding a little convenience to an already busy family life. No more convenience courtesies either, as school boards frankly don’t care if you have three children attending three different schools.

Is it any wonder then, that parents will shop around for the best school for their child?

Welcome to choice and competition in the education sector. Parents have embraced the concept, school boards have not. Many a parent has been told they can only visit a school if their child is registered there and ‘school shopping’ is scornfully looked upon by school personnel as an insulting concept in the entitlement culture of the education sector.

With competition comes customer service – another foreign concept to some school and school board personnel. Some parents have been encouraged to take their child to another school board by ill-advised school secretaries, school principals or teachers. Wow, watch your precious government funding walk out the door. High schoolers vote with their feet and go where their friends go, if parents allow it. Don’t feel they are treated nicely? Not the right program offered to meet their interests? Out the door those adolescents go and more funding is lost. School board have just started to capitalize on the youth market by aggressively advertising the various High School Specialist Major Programs (HSSM) offered in each high school. But in elementary schools, it’s service and quality staff that tip the scales in favour of a particular school. Customer service, the greeting you get from the front line workers in the school – the school secretaries, the teachers who happen to be on the spot, the custodian, the visible principal. Parents want their children to be as nicely treated as they are walking through the door. And so it should be.

Some parents do so much research they bet their real estate purchase on it, moving into neighbourhoods with high performing schools. This is a trend particularly seen in Toronto and Ottawa where price tags on these decisions are astronomical. Yet these parents do not realize that all can change with a sweep of a school board administrative reorganization exercise and the school can close, get a new principal and experience extensive staff turnover. All of these factors can contribute to making a high performing school plummet.

Some tips to keep in mind when choosing the education path for your child:

  1. Myth #1 – A school in a good neighbourhood is a good school (you have no idea if kids are being bused in from other low income, diverse or problem neighbourhoods).
  2. Myth#2 – A school’s EQAO scores are high, so it is a good school (the scores for one year reflect that student cohort only and not the one your child will be with when they write in the testing year).
  3. School administrative staff and teaching staff now have very high turnover rates (even mid-year) creating chaotic and disrupted learning environments with various expectations imposed on staff and students.
  4. Access points to certain optional programs only happen at certain grade levels in elementary school and are not flexible (French immersion, extended French, congregated gifted programs).
  5. Special education classes or programs can be relocated anytime to different schools (Autism classes, Learning disabilities classes, Life skills programs).
  6. Talk to the parents waiting outside to pick up their children at a school. Their opinions and observations on the school’s daily operations, communication, learning and teachers will be far more relevant than any statistic.

 

Education is a long term investment for your child and should be guided by her interests, strengths and needs. Decisions need to be in favour of what is best for her, or an opportunity that may not become available later on. Navigating the education system to follow the path that a parent has chosen to benefit their child can often involves personal sacrifice, additional costs and inconvenience. Ongoing monitoring of local education issues and decisions on school board websites and in media, help parents stay ahead of the curve and make timely decisions when necessary.

Websites:

Fraser institute report on schools
http://ontario.compareschoolrankings.org/ChooseReport.aspx

Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) test scores
http://www.eqao.com/categories/home.aspx

Horizon Educational Consulting
www.horizoned.ca

Monika Ferenczy, BA, BEd, MEd
Education Consultant
Horizon Educational Consulting