Category Archives: Day School

In Praise of Small Senior Elementary Schools

As a consultant and a Director of Enrollment I have encountered the problem of parents second guessing the value of a small school for their children as they approach the senior elementary years.

It is usually a question of balancing a tween’s social needs with their educational needs. Socially, senior elementary students are looking for more activities like dances and more athletic opportunities, things smaller schools can struggle with or are unable to provide. Yet Grade 7 and 8 students are not quite ready to be mainstreamed with Grade 11 and 12 students. Academically, smaller schools generally produce students well prepared for secondary school because they have had all important teacher time in an environment appropriate to their age level. They also have more¬†opportunities to begin experiencing leadership roles as the ‘senior’ students in a small school.

Parent anxiety about their child gaining entry to selective secondary schools can be the primary reason for leaving the benefits inherent in a small senior elementary program. If a private secondary school offers an elementary program that feeds the high school, they will want to take students as soon as possible to secure their secondary enrolment. This has made it difficult for many small schools I have worked with as the high schools siphon off students at Grades 5 and 7 or wherever they add a section of students to their enrolment.

Parents take a position earlier, not because they doubt their small school, but they are afraid of space scarcity at the Grade 9 entry level. In these instances, I suggest families contact the high school and ask about the typical profile of a student gaining entry at Grade 9 and ask about the projected number of spaces that will be available. A good number of our Grade 9 day students come from three small private elementary schools. Often, the Directors of the schools can give a family a good idea of whether their child is on a path to be admitted to a particular independent high school or whether they might be better to try to gain entrance to the school at Grade 5, 6 or 7 because they may not be strong enough for Grade 9 competition.

One of the indicators of the strength of a small school is the number of their ‘graduates’ who have gone on to selective¬†entry high schools.

What about the sports and the dances? Ask, is the sports program at the bigger school better than you can find in your community for this age group? For the truly athletic, community athletics up until at least the varsity high school level are going to be essential for a student with college bound or greater aspirations. I have yet to meet the school Director who has solved the small school challenge of holding a dance with a dozen Grade 8 classmates that doesn’t feel like dancing with your sister or brother.

A matter of size – “the right size” school for every student

School size can be a key factor in school selection. It can also be a defining characteristic of a school, so much so that in LCS’s case, the Trustees have decreed that the school shall not have a student body of more than 365. Sometimes we end up at 366 when the dust settles at the end of our offer period, but to end up with 367 we have to get Board Chair approval. We don’t bother asking about 368 as we know that is out of the question. Why is size so closely guarded? It can matter in so many ways when choosing the right school.

Overall School Size
Overall school size limits what classes can be offered. It is great to have a high school of over 400 or 500 when offering the IB as you need more students to ideally and affordably offer everything at the higher and standard levels. But if you could have a more intimate school experience wouldn’t you want to? LCS’s Trustees recognize this as a hallmark of the LCS Difference, where the Head of School can know each student and every student can be known by their teachers and classmates.

A school needs to be just large enough to easily offer the courses that matter to getting into the best schools worldwide in any field of study – this is what LCS does. Too small, and students have a very limited range of courses. LCS may not have quite as many course offerings as larger schools but we have everything that gets you to where you want to go.

Size of Residences
LCS averages 23 students in its eleven residences, most other schools I have worked or consulted for have had 40 or more students per house. LCS uses Head of Houses and Assistant Head of Houses to provide supervision and continuity that most closely approximates a family environment with two adults interacting daily with the students in the residence. Larger residence setups of forty or more often have ‘duty teams’ of teachers or dons who take turns providing supervision sometimes working one night every two weeks in a rotation, supervised by the Head of House.

Size of Class
LCS averages between 16 and 17 students per class on a year to year basis, not 12 or 24. Sometimes, but not always (such as the case with a few schools with very large endowments) class sizes averaging 10-12 students can represent a school for students with greater learning support needs. Smaller classes give teachers and students more one to one time and time to digest course content.

Class sizes averaging 20 to 24 or more can sometimes indicate large grade sizes with multiple sections of every course. More students in class means less time for discussion or one to one time with teachers. Students need to be more self-directed and proactive about seeking assistance and more comfortable with holding up a larger group to clarify understanding of content. If students are less inclined to do so, this is when parents might like to pay closer attention to class sizes when selecting a school.

The middle ground seems to be a class average around 16 to 18 students. There is still time for one to one clarification, students will be called upon frequently to contribute in class, it is difficult to hide or get lost and teachers can easily differentiate their instruction to meet different learning styles and needs within their classrooms.

If parents can effectively gauge the self-directedness* of their child (homework completion, organizational skills, curiosity, and maturity), average class size can be a very useful indicator of a potentially good school to bring out the best in their child.

*Note: For parents with students with identified learning differences, average class size can still be an indicator. Generally, the smaller the class size the less time a student with learning support needs will need to spend outside of regular class time with resource teachers, tutors, and supervised study. Generally, the larger the average class size, the more the student with identified learning needs may need to spend with learning support resources outside of classroom hours. This can make daily participation in after school activities difficult to manage.

Size of Grade Level
The overall size of a grade level can have an impact on how much that grade mixes with another grade level. At LCS, thanks to the small residences which are a mix of boys and girls from Grade 9 through12, they are closer to their housemates in different grades than when they are in a large house where grade level distinctions can sometimes have younger students excluded. Outside of their house, older and younger housemates bridge the “grade divide” and lead to a school community where anyone can feel comfortable hanging out with anyone of any grade level.

Size certainly matters in defining school culture. It makes a difference in the residence and in the classroom. Luckily, it is one of the easiest things to look for when researching schools as most schools will mention the size of their student body or average class sizes in their short descriptor. These two websites help parents quickly find information about school size and average class size. The first for the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools allows you to search by overall school size. The second for Our Kids provides average class size and overall school size in each school profile.

http://boardingschools.ca/school-finder/

http://www.ourkids.net/school/

Choosing an independent school – respect deadlines but don’t feel you need to jump the gun

While searching for a boarding or day school, many parents and students get anxious and cloud their judgement by perceiving pressure or a need to conclude a process as quickly as possible (maybe just to be done with the stress of the search). My advice would be to remember that ultimately, the choice rests with a family over which school to attend.

Ideally, a family should try to manage their various admission processes to coincide with one another. If say you have decided to apply to three schools, try to end up sitting with all three of your decisions at the same time so that you can make a decision without the pressure of conflicting response times.

Toronto Day Schools/USA Common Offer Dates

Toronto day schools and many US boarding schools coordinate their offer dates to coincide with one another to help them manage their admission process. It also helps families to end up sitting with all of their offers at the same time. Many schools offer a re-visit day prior to the response required date (usually a week to ten days for day schools and about a month for boarding). These schools also have specific application deadlines to be met!

If you are also planning on applying to a boarding school with a ‘rolling’ admission process (no set application date), as a back up, or you just aren’t sure about readiness for boarding while also applying to local day programs, ask the boarding school if applying to coincide with the day decision date is possible, i.e. would you lose out on a space if you waited to apply for boarding. Most schools should be straight forward with you. While we like to complete our enrolment as soon as we can each year, we all begin to run out of spaces at different times of the year. Most often, this coincides with the location of the school and their specific enrolment practices, e.g. do they have all of their day students complete a year of mandatory boarding, or are they recruiting a small number of students a year due to the relative size of their boarding program, etc. Hopefully it will work in your favour to have all of your offers in your hands at the same time.

Accepting multiple offers (sacrificing deposits to ensure choice)

A practice that is not uncommon is accepting multiple offers from schools because they are all on different timetables. For example, while at a former school it was not uncommon to have a family accept an offer from the Canadian school in January when they really wanted a school in New England that didn’t make its offers until March 10. In order to hedge their bets the family paid a non-refundable deposit to hold the Canadian space until they heard from the school in the US. My advice would be to speak to the Director of Admission and ask if you can have an extension on the reply date until after the other school’s offer date. This accomplishes two things, it lets the first school better manage its enrolment and second, it also lets the first school know that you may need more information to better assess the Canada v. US school choice. In the end, you are going to end up making a decision based on what is best for the student without duress and with ample information.

If there is no possibility of extending an offer because of a tight enrolment picture, then families sometimes do need to be prepared to lose a deposit to keep their options open. Again, it may not hurt to inform an Admission Director you are prepared to do this. The chance of having your money refunded is greater this way if it is not a surprise in April when the Admission Director is scrambling to fill the space you have just created by withdrawing. Most schools want students to get into the school they feel is the best fit for them and will be understanding of your final decision.

Playing one school against another

A final scenario is more common in situations where student athletes are involved, many families view their son or daughter as the next CIS or NCAA champion or professional sports star and, like an agent, feel they should be trying to get them the “best deal.” Certainly, a student that brings a special talent in athletics, academics, or arts to a school is a desirable thing.

As a former head of admissions at two competitive boys schools, it was not uncommon for parents to be shopping their son around to multiple schools. Most schools use the same third party financial assistance process and should come back to the family with a similar offer (Apple Financial Services in Canada and SSS by NAIS in the US). What usually backfires on a family is saying School X is offering $X in financial assistance and looking for more assistance from a second school.

Ultimately schools want students to make decisions based on where they most want to be and where they feel they will do their best both academically and athletically. If parents have a firm amount of money in mind that they can afford, they should be upfront with a school about this amount. Sometimes the difference between what a family wants to pay and what they can actually afford does not match. Often, the family feeling their child is a commodity, feel they should be compensated to have their child attend a school and are disappointed with the financial assistance recommendation. Some schools will pay for play, however many CAIS schools have Boards of Directors to answer to with specific policies regarding their endowed funds supporting only needs-based financial assistance. These schools often have a higher academic level compared to the schools that offer “sports scholarships” v. “needs-based financial assistance”. This can be difficult for families to understand that the way to an NCAA scholarship also has an academic component, it is not just about playing the sport. What seems like a deal or free may not qualify their child academically to attend the school of their dreams.

Most Admission Directors and Directors of Financial Assistance I know refuse to get into a bidding war. We prefer that it come down to a family decision about where they feel their child’s needs and hopes will be served best. Many times, I have been “out bid” with respect to a student and ultimately had the family choose my school because it was where the student really wanted to be. This student and family came more invested because they were having to pay a little more, make a few more sacrifices, and ultimately wanted to be there. This is the scenario that most often works out best for all involved and contributes to Admission Directors avoiding bidding wars.

 

 

 

 

 

Admission – The Movie

I spend quite a bit of time on flights travelling across Canada and around the world to meet our future boarding students. I am usually catching up on reading, trying to adjust for jet lag by sleeping or getting caught up on movies. I love movies. One I had wanted to see when it came out was “Admission” with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd. The film revolves around a Princeton University Admission Officer played by Fey’s character. Rudd plays the director of an alternative school and has a student with an unconventional background he thinks Princeton and Fey’s character should consider.

Admission is a film I could identify with after sixteen years in admissions myself and its content could certainly prompt several blog posts. “The secret to getting in”, “the Admission process”, “parent hopes and dreams leading to over-programming their child’s lives” are but a few. Another is how callus the nature of admission decisions can become when there are more denials than acceptances. I have seen it reduced to formulas or schools using a test score as a cut off when there is too much demand. (I will reserve another post to deal with this one.)

Near the end of the film, Fey is telling an interviewer, “I worked in college admissions for 16 years. I used to spend my days passing judgement on young people who were way more together than I was at their age.” I have felt this exact sentiment when the reason for the denial has simply been too many other more qualified candidates.

Luckily, thankfully, partially due to the rural location of LCS, its smaller size and being one of Canada’s “best kept secret” CAIS boarding schools, our demand usually runs in the three to five applicants per boarding space. If it gets much more than this, I feel there is a recruitment problem in our materials or communications with families that does not help them to self select whether or not we are a “best fit” for them. Marketing independent schools isn’t about ‘going viral’ to get a million applicants, it is about attracting the type of students in the right measure that will build upon the values of your community. Don’t get me wrong, a million inquiries would be great provided we had the personnel available to manage parent and applicant expectations sufficiently to allow appropriate self-selection. You want to remain an Office of Admission, not the Office of Rejection.

Life in Admissions can be exceptionally rewarding and also filled with incredibly sad situations. Near the end of the film the Princeton Admission Officers are flip charting a list of the top negative and positive reactions they get from the applicants while making phone calls on their decision day. It’s not far from the truth from an independent school perspective and I cannot imagine the range of emotions some of the real life Princeton Admission Officers must go through or even some of my US boarding school colleagues that work to a March decision day where all boarding decisions are communicated on a single day. The process avoids schools being played off against one another by candidates and makes life in the Admission Office easier and more predictable for office staff. A big challenge is estimating the number of offers to over offer accounting for the students that will choose another school they are hearing from the same day. This happens in larger day school centres in Canada as well. As soon as a certain number of students decline offers, Admission Directors can begin going to wait listed candidates.

LCS works on a rolling admission process where we gather completed applications and have monthly Admission Committee meetings rendering decisions. Rolling or defined decision day admission processes can be a clue to how closely you may want to look at a school’s materials to see if it truly is a best fit for you or your child. A single decision day may point to a volume issue due to a prestige brand, or where not enough families are realistically able to figure out their chances of acceptance leading to many families being disappointed. Imagine Princeton of the movie but on a smaller scale.

Did you see the movie? What did you think of it?