by Cheryl Jackson Friday May 29, 2009

I have shopped for schools.  Several times.

When my son was having a hard time in Grade 3,  his pediatrician suggested he be tested by an educational psychologist.  He was identified as gifted, and although I didn't exactly shop for a school, I did my research on the gifted program he was eligible for, compared it to what his neighbourhood school was offering, and chose the gifted program.  Sure, he had to travel to get there, and the kids in his class came from a wide geographic area, but in hindsight I can say it was absolutely the right decision.  He thrived.

When he got to Grade 6, I once again shopped for schools, thinking maybe there was something even better for him.  After lots of research and school visits, I concluded his public school program was by far superior, and he stayed in the program.  I was very satisfied that he was in the best school for him.

When he was in Grade 7, a teacher recommended he apply for a specialty computer arts program for high school.  Once again, we went shopping, and after lots of research and another school visit, he applied to that program and got in. Looking back, I can say it suited him perfectly.

As my eldest daughter reached the end of elementary school, we once again went shopping.    Our neighbourhood high school offers virtually no music program, but my daughter is very musical. I wanted her to be involved in extra-curricular activities at school, and I thought music would be at the top of her list.  So she applied, through optional attendance, to a school not far from us that has an exemplary music program.  Her name was picked from a hat and she got in.  My youngest daughter will go there too.

I like to think that all public schools could offer all kids exactly what they need to reach their potential, but we have set up a system with specialty programs, so we shop.  I think this is okay.   What I question is parents shopping for schools based on information that may or may not have anything to do with what makes a good school.    I'm thinking of published data on EQAO scores, family incomes, ESL programs, special ed programs, gifted programs and parental education.  All of this information is available on the Ministry of Education's website.  Some of it may be useful, but it actually may have nothing to do with how well the school or the students function.

This is a complicated subject, and we had a spirited debate about it on Your Voice.   Claudia Hepburn and Annie Kidder did a great job of making their points.  In the end, I'm somewhere in the middle.  I wish our public system was built on the premise that every school offered its neighbouhood kids every opportunity, but I'm not willing to bet on it when I know the school across town is perfect for my child.  What do you think?  Should parents be able to shop for schools?  What information is truly helpful in making a decision?  And in the end, does it really matter which school our child goes to?