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Alternative models can be the right fit for some students

Todd Royer, a teacher at Toronto Waldorf School, with animals on the school's property.

Courtesy Todd Royer

By the time her son Andrew entered the third grade last year, Susan Ward was already on the hunt for a new school. She narrowed her search to private schools around Toronto, despite the prospect of paying expensive tuition fees.

"My son's grades were phenomenal, but he seemed to be getting lost in the public school system," says Ms. Ward.

Andrew would frequently complain that he was bored because he didn't feel academically challenged. Dissatisfied by the response from Andrew's teachers, Ms. Ward decided to find a school that would encourage her son and draw the reserved nine-year-old out of his shell.

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This September, after researching for a year, Ms. Ward enrolled Andrew at the Toronto Waldorf School in Vaughan, Ont. "The impression I was given was that there was a true concern for the development of the individual," she says.

For parents who choose to put their children in the private school system, finding the right fit can be a challenging process.

Alternative teaching styles like Waldorf's often focus on providing a child with a holistic education, which include non-traditional concepts, such as encouraging children to work at their own pace rather than sticking to the same chapter or book as the rest of the class, or including multiple grades in one classroom, like the Montessori system.

"Creativity is infused in everything we do," says Todd Royer, who is Andrew's Grade 4 teacher at the Toronto Waldorf School. Thinking creatively is central to the Waldorf philosophy, he says.

Part of Waldorf's teaching method includes its nature-themed decor to emphasize the connection between nature and education and a "looping" system where teachers move up with their students from Grades 1 through 8.

At the Toronto location, teachers take advantage of the school's large property, which includes a garden, bee colony, brick oven stove and farm with roosters, sheep and goats. Every grade has responsibilities, says Mr. Royer, which give students real-life examples of what they learn in the classroom, whether it's a biology or social studies lesson.

"It's not that we're an arts school. People sometimes make that mistake about us," says Mr. Royer. "It's that the arts bring a component to science and math that help to sharpen our thinking and develop our senses.

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The Montessori system, on the other hand, requires parents to take a step back and allow their child to explore and learn the activities they engage in, rather than being told what to do by listening to instructions, says Pat Gere, the director of the Ottawa Montessori School.

"Children learn what they do through their activity," says Ms. Gere. "The activities become more and more abstract so that gradually, children come to do things on paper."

Montessori children learn about multiplication, she says, by using number rods so that they see how and why the process works as they begin to understand the concept.

The system works for Charlene Laporte because it provides her daughter, Morgana, with the kind of education that she thought she missed out on when she herself was in school.

"I had a public school education, and everyone did the same thing. You would either just sink or swim," says Ms. Laporte. "In a Montessori classroom, you have three different levels. The younger children learn better from watching the older kids. Later on, the older children become leaders. It kind of happens organically."

Ms. Laporte says that flexible learning environment stimulates her daughter's passion for visual arts and the multi-grade classroom helps her learn from her peers.

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I found that I used to struggle with math a bit in Grade 7," says 13-year-old Morgana, who is now in Grade 8. "The eighth graders in my class helped me a lot last year. They sat me down and helped with the questions because they did it before."

"There are some much more prestigious schools here in Ottawa that my daughter's peers have gone to but I can't see my daughter sitting well in there," says Ms. Laporte, who enrolled Morgana in Ottawa Montessori's toddler program when she was 18 months old. While Ms. Laporte liked that the schools were academically focused, she found that they were too strict and offered additional discipline that she didn't think Morgana needed.

But Ms. Laporte doesn't think Montessori is for every child. "I've seen some situations where it didn't work out for kids," she says. "You have to look at what you want and what your kid wants, and find the right balance."

Parents can begin by prioritizing what they want for their children, says Zahra Rasul, an education consultant based in Vancouver. Most of Ms. Rasul's clients contact her after doing some initial research, such as reviewing the Fraser Institute's annual school rankings.

"In terms of fit, the best way to do it is to go to the open houses, talk to the students after, ask yourself whether you can see your kid here. Does it feel right to you?" says Ms. Rasul.

"It's kind of difficult to tell by just looking at the rankings."

For some educators, finding the right school includes assessing whether the parents are the right fit, along with their child.

"Parents who come to us are already looking for something more than rote learning," says Bonnie Young, who operates Green Learning Academy in Calgary. "They're looking for their child to grow in more ways than just academically." Parents, Ms. Young says, have to be comfortable with letting their children make their own choices.

Using a structure that's similar to the Montessori system, Ms. Young says that the school encourages its students to become 'entrepreneurs' so that they step outside their comfort zone and are responsible for their work, such as keeping track of their individualized assignments.

The point of this kind of alternative learning, she says, is to prepare students to be confident and successful, not just inside the classroom, but outside, as well.

"It's about giving kids the opportunity to know what they need without being told," says Ms. Young. "In the real world, you have to know how to figure it out without someone telling you what to do."

THE PHILOSOPHIES

Montessori

- Multi-grade classrooms are set up with three grades per class at the elementary level, two grades per high school level.

- Starts at 18 months and can go up to Grade 12.

- Students are encouraged to learn through discovery by using classroom materials, work independently at their own pace.

- Direct academic learning begins at the preschool level, where children use materials such as jugs to learn practical life skills like pouring water.

- There are no grades or marks at the elementary level.

Waldorf

- One grade per class.

- Three programs: preschool, grade school and high school.

- Grade school class teacher moves up with students from grades 1 through 8.

- Students are encouraged to think creatively and work with their peers as a community.

- Use of electronics is generally discouraged until high school; instead, students learn to be in touch with nature.

- Direct academic learning begins in Grade 1.

- There are no grades or marks at the elementary level.

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