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Private schools: what’s the return on investment?

Robert Lee remembers many discussions about his education with his parents during his years at Toronto's York School. The annual costs were significant, more than the Lee family paid during his years at university.

Lauren Shanahan

Robert Lee remembers many discussions about his education with his parents during his years at an independent school.

Now 23, Mr. Lee is a product of Toronto's York School, having attended from Grade 1 through graduation. The annual costs were significant, more than the Lee family paid during his years at university.

The private-versus-public debate for the Lees revolved, like it does for so many parents, around the concrete costs compared with "free" public education, against a backdrop of private-school benefits that include enriched academic opportunities, smaller classes, dedicated teachers, parental involvement, extracurricular opportunities and a safe environment.

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"I think they probably just felt that because it was private education there was kind of a baseline level of quality and that there was a little more control," said Mr. Lee. "They got to know the teachers, they could be more involved in the school, and the quality of arts and music and trips was more assured and secured."

For Mr. Lee, the experience at York, which is operated on a non-profit basis, making it an independent rather than private school, proved worthwhile. He went to Queen's University, earned an engineering degree in 2011, and for the past year has been working on Bay Street as an associate with corporate advisory firm Boston Consulting Group.

For parents considering private school, here are some benefits worth considering:

Enriched academic opportunities:Because they have more resources than the public system, private schools can offer more advanced placement courses to fast-track kids at university and, similarly, International Baccalaureate programs that give them first-year university credits at many post-secondary institutions in Canada and the United States.

That pays off in virtually all private school grads attending the university of their choice in Canada and elsewhere. "I applied to seven schools and I got into all of them. ... One hundred per cent of my graduating class went to university," said Mr. Lee.

Smaller classes:The York School touts average class sizes of 18 to 20 kids, significantly smaller than what is typical in the public system. Private school advocates commonly cite a 2002 U.S. study on class size linking smaller classes with improved student performance on academic achievement tests.

Dedicated teachers:"I do think our teachers are better because there is a little bit more watchfulness over them," said York School head Conor Jones. "We can be a bit more selective and have actually a better relationship and provide the teachers with all the tools they need to do their job." A 2007 study by the Fraser Institute found that 91 per cent of parents said dedication of teachers was their main reason for choosing a private school.

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Extracurricular activities:Many private schools put a focus on a well-rounded education and encourage participation in extracurricular activities such as sports, music, arts or clubs. A Stanford University study found that students involved in the arts are more motivated to learn and are three times more likely to win a school attendance award. Independent and private schools also have the funds to send students off on world-view-altering international trips. "My daughter at age 15 was in Tanzania for two weeks with two teachers," said Tammy Brown, who has two children in the York School in grades 11 and 9. "Where else can you get something like that?"

A safe environment:Some parents may consider private schools as a safer option than the public system. A lower staff-to-student ratio can allow for better observation and control of school grounds.

Better preparation for university:Private schools often teach university level courses in higher grades. Students are also taught "university style" and typically have the disciplined study habits to succeed in university from the start.

Mr. Lee credits his success at university to his independent school education. "I was with an entire group of people who were all doing a very difficult course load, almost everybody did the full [International Baccalaureate] diploma. We were all planning on going to university and I think that environment really energized everybody academically. Nobody was being ostracized for kind of being a nerd because everybody was a nerd."

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