Parents browse through brochures at an open house at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto. Photo by Michael Swan

The secret’s out on private schools

  • November 7, 2015

A year ago, Patrick was a struggling Grade 2 student in Ontario’s publicly funded Catholic school system. But after switching to a private school in September he is thriving in an environment that his mother says is smaller and more attentive to individual needs.

“It’s definitely an impact financially, but at the end of the day I think it’s definitely a good sacrifice because in the first month and a half we’ve already seen a difference in how well he is performing,” said Patrick’s mother, Anne-Marie Charron.

Patrick’s story is not unique. At a time when overall student populations are declining, private school enrolment increased almost 17 per cent in Canada from 2000 to 2013, according to a Fraser Institute report released in October. The report, titled “Where Our Students are Educated: Measuring Student Enrolment in Canada,” states that private school populations have grown in nine Canadian provinces.

The steady increase is due to many parents becoming dissatisfied with publicly funded education, said Barb Beirman, executive director of the Ontario Federation of Independent Schools, the province’s largest private school association.

“The more and more that provinces attempt to make public school a one-size-fits-all brand of education, the less parents like it and the more that they will seek out alternatives,” she said. “It seems to be a new trend that the Catholic public schools are not providing what parents are considering a true Catholic education. And they will seek out alternatives.”

In Patrick’s case, his mother said her son experienced bullying last year that contributed to him struggling in class. So they took him to Northmount School, a small private Catholic elementary school (93 students) in Toronto that has seen an enrolment jump of 29 per cent in the past year. Similar growth has occurred north of Toronto at St. Thomas of Villanova College, a co-ed Catholic private school in King City, Ont., that has grown from 26 to 530 students since it opened in 1999.

Charron has been pleased with smaller class sizes, the religious formation and the “well-rounded” program that includes several activities outside the classroom. She and her husband have since decided to place their daughter in a private school when she completes Grade 6 next June, perhaps sending her to Holy Name of Mary College School, Ontario’s only all-girl’s private Catholic school for Grades 5 to 12.

“At the end of the day we think it will better prepare them for higher education,” she said.

Parents select private schools for several reasons, including the smaller class sizes, a perception that the quality of education is better and a greatly reduced likelihood of teacher strikes or work-to-rule campaigns. When the Ontario government introduced its revised sex-ed curriculum, many parents suggested they’d turn to private education, but there are no statistics yet to verify if that has occurred.

Ann Hawkins, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, concedes private schools have an advantage in class size, but otherwise is unimpressed with the Fraser Institute report.

“Education is a public service,” she said. “We have one of the best publicly funded public school systems in this province and in this country. Catholic school enrolment is actually on the rise in several provinces.”

According to the Fraser Institute report, Ontario’s publicly funded Catholic system experienced a five-per-cent decline in enrolment between 2000 and 2013 while the publicly funded secular system lost about 5.3 per cent during that same period. Overall, that’s an 5.2-per-cent decline in public education during a period when the overall number of school-aged children fell by only about four per cent.

Many of those children have been ending up in Ontario’s private schools, where enrolment over this period increased 9.4 per cent to 120,198 students. Many families are turning to private education, often for their first time.

“My husband and I did not go to private school so this has been a whole new journey for us,” said Lianne Castelino-Payette. “The main reason that I would say that we chose a private school for our sons was to give them the gifts of exposure to all kinds of different things. It focuses on preparing the boys for university.”

Her family first investigated private education after their eldest son, now a first-year student at Ryerson University, began having issues at his publicly funded Catholic school.

“We didn’t feel that our son, the first one, was getting everything in terms of nurturing and furthering his love of learning,” she said. “The quality of teachers that my older son experienced over the span of two years while he was there was not the best. Then we started looking at options.”

That led Castelino-Payette to St. Michael’s College School, the Basilian private high school in Toronto that annually takes in 1,020 to 1,050 students. Eventually her second son also ended up at St. Michael’s.

“He started in Grade 9 because he was having a great experience where he was,” she said. “So there was no need but he also benefited
greatly from just the unbelievable number of opportunities opened up to him at (St. Michael’s).”

At St. Michael’s, the daily presence of priests help set the school apart, said Greg Paolini, the school’s director of admissions.

“We have the Basilian Fathers here at the school on a daily basis,” he said. “They’re in a number of different capacities. I don’t know of other schools that have that kind of religious presence like the Basilian Fathers.”

Paolini credited the order for ensuring diversity at the school through a bursary and scholarship program which assists students from various cultural and social backgrounds with annual tuition of more than $18,000.

“The type of boys that are here come from all ranges of life and social backgrounds,” he said. “That is thanks to the Basilian Fathers and them putting their money where their mouth is.”

Both Villanova and Northmount have similar programs and boast having a diverse student body.

“With the foundational support of bursaries we try to bring in families of all economic backgrounds,” said Terry Sheridan, headmaster of Northmount.

Private schools, however, aren’t for everybody. Brian Evoy, president of the Ontario Association of Parents in Catholic Education, believes private school students are missing out on the overall experience offered at public schools.

“They are getting a more worldly education in the publicly funded system,” he said. “They are really seeing the world outside their door where in a private system it is a bit more elitist.”

He’s not worried about the enrolment growth at private schools.

“I don’t see it as a problem,” he said. “If you look at the statistics the number of children that go to the publicly funded Catholic school systems ... in those major regions where there are private Catholic schools they overwhelm the number of students going to private schools.”

More than two million children attend Ontario’s public schools, so the private system, although growing, represents just a fraction of one per cent of the total students in the province.

Evoy rejects that parents are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the publicly funded system.

“The majority of parents that I talk to who’s kids go to a public
school, a public Catholic school, there isn’t a problem there,” he said.

Castelino-Payette is not one of those parents, even though her daughter wishes to remain at her publicly funded Catholic school.

“When I was a kid I went to school in Toronto and it just seemed to be so much simpler,” she said.

“There were all kinds of things that you had access to if you wanted to participate and that systematically seems to be being withdrawn or cutback.”

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