The Lengths Some Parents Go For Their Kids Schools

by Mike Holman

A recent Toronto Life article takes a look at a popular Toronto public school and the efforts that some parents will make to get their kids enrolled in it.  Since I don’t live to far from this school, the name (Jackman) is very familiar to me.  Anyone who has looked at any real estate listing in the Danforth/Broadview area will have undoubtedly noticed the plethora of listings with the words “Jackman School District” listed.  That area ended up being too expensive for us but we still looked at some houses there.

In Canada, most schools are part of the public school system.  There are private schools available but they are not very common.  The vast majority of students are in public schools.  It’s a common pursuit among parents of young children to find out the “rankings” of various schools and make sure there child is in the “best” school available.  For some schools such as Jackman, the only way to get your child in the school is to live in the area which has caused a mini-real estate boom in the school district.

My opinion is that these rankings are complete garbage.

1) It’s the kids that result in the test scores – not the teachers or the facilities.  Getting your average (or lower) intelligence child into a better school will not result in higher test scores for your kid – if anything they will be further behind if have to go to school with a bunch of brainiacs.

2)  It only takes one charismatic school leader to raise the profile of a school.  Let’s face it – most of us want to be sold something and when someone repeatedly insists that a certain school is better than the others, then given the absense of any real evidence to the contrary, it’s easy to go along with that.

3) Things can change.  I heard a story of someone who had very young kids decided they would move to a different area because the school the kids would be attending was ranked quite highly in contrast to their previous school.  Only problem was that by the time the kids started attending school – their new school had dropped in the rankings and the old school had risen to become much higher rated.  I think the moral of that story is that you should wait until the kids are ready to go to school before moving to a better area.  🙂

4) Public school is partly daycare.  One of the things that I learned from this article was that Jackman is only goes from grade 1 to grade 6.  I was quite amazed because I had assumed that it would only be for high school that people would really differentiate between different schools.  I think grades 1-6 are part daycare/part learning basic skills.  I would be willing to bet that a child could start school in grade 5 and catch up very easily.  I can’t understand why parents would be willing to pay a couple hundred thousand dollars more for a house just so their child can use a superior type of easel for finger painting.

5)  How much of a difference is there in Toronto schools?  In the US, it appears that there is a large gap between different public schools and private schools (which are more common in the US) which is why there might be some validity in trying to school a good school.  In Canada, the funding for all public school is the same so the only differentiator is the amount of fund raising that takes place.  According to the article Jackman raised $80,000 in 2006 which is a very high amount.  It also mentioned that a lot of that money is spent on landscaping and last year they spent $76k on a green roof.  A green roof might be a notable entry in the celebre de jour bragging rights but it probably doesn’t much for your child’s education.

Some other interesting items that came out of the article:

One of the concerns with school hunting is that some people are looking for schools where all the parents/kids are the same (ie same race and language) – a comment from one father when talking about a nearby school “There seems to be a lot of Yugoslavians, we couldn’t relate to the other parents”.  Hmmm…good thing that father is not home-schooling the kids since Yugoslavia hasn’t existed as a country for quite a while.

Portables – because Jackman school has to accept any kids in their area – they are now at 106% capacity and are projecting to be at 120% in the near future.  As a result they have portables and will probably add more.  Portables and a top school?  Seems to me that portables are what you want to get away from – not gravitate towards.

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mr. Cheap

I agree with you 100%, buying a house to get into a specific school district seem a very expensive way to give a very small enhancement to your child’s education, at least in Canada.

A case could probably be made that being one of the smartest kids in their class in a lower ranked school might set a kid up for success more than being one of the dumbest kids in the class in a highly ranked school (improved self-confidence and all that).

One potential tenant for my condo asked me about the nearby school. I couldn’t really discuss it, and went looking for rankings and couldn’t find them. Is there an easy place to look up schools?

2 Emily

I fall in the middle on this. I think if you asked me a few years ago, I would have said I agree, it’s silly to move to an area just for a school. I really do believe that a child’s school experience has a lot to do with the child, teachers, administration, and not all of that can be seen by just a ranking. My brother and I went to one of the best schools where we grew up and we both had bad experiences, he in 5th grade and me in 7th because of horrific teachers. Even good schools have bad teachers and bad schools can have excellent teachers. I also fully believe that education starts at home and while I care who is influencing my kids for a huge part of each day, it’s still only part of their experience.

All of that said, where I live, the public schools are pretty poor compared to the rest of the country. And the area I live in has the “worst” elementary school, though it is simply the lowest of the A rated schools. So how bad can it be? At the same time, though, we could move to the area with the highest rated school and live in a comparable house for a comparable price, so the lure is there to just trade across and send my kids to a better school.

I do feel conflicted about it. I wonder what the ratings all mean anyway. I do know that the private Pre-K my daughter goes to now is full of kids with parents that all put a huge huge weight on where their kids will go next year. It’s “the thing” to talk about what neighborhood everyone lives in. It feels really weird and makes me want to stay right where I am to not even enter that world. But then I don’t want to keep my kids from a better opportunity just because I am stubborn about not wanting to keep up with all of that.

How was that for a book? 🙂

3 Four Pillars

Mr. Cheap – I’ll see if I can Mrs. Pillars to post a website for that info.

Emily – wow, that comment was longer than the post! 🙂 Thanks – it is good to get an American perspective – and as you point out, if the prices are comparable, why not move to a better area?

4 guinness416

My mum teaches at one of the most expensive and exclusive boys’ schools in Dublin. They’re currently doing a big renovation and teaching, you guessed it, in portables for the year. I think this is hilarious, but of course she says her mad teaching skillz do not depend on the partition material in the rooms.

There was almost civil war over school “rankings” in Ireland a few years ago. I think they still don’t publish any.

5 Elasticlad

I’m in the middle as well.

I’ve got a friend who is seriously looking into moving because the elementary schools in her district aren’t very good.

I think it speaks directly to the stock market post that was made recently.

Intellectually, you know, in Canada anyway, that the difference in quality between the various public schools probably isn’t that great.

But emotionally you want to give your child the best education you can and if that means moving, so be it.

I know that in a year or so we’re going to start seriously considering starting a family. Doing so will require us to move out of downtown. A big factor about where we end up will be the quality of the nearby school.

6 Vasile

@ Mr.Cheap: Frasier Institute publishes (yearly?) a “school report card”, it’s on their website. For Ontario it’s based on EQAO/OSS results and other factors, not all of them directly measured. But it doesn’t cover every school, unfortunately. And don’t take it as the ultimate ranking.

I agree there’s not much difference between schools up to middle school, but highschool is a different story. There are good and bad and ugly in education, and there is some correlation between neighborhood and school quality. I don’t know about others, but I’m a little more relaxed if my children are not too close to drugs and guns when they’re teenagers 🙂

7 nobleea

Another yuppie story from Toronto Life.

I agree that there is little to no difference between schools at the K-6 level. People have become so accustomed to comparing numbers and keeping up with the Joneses that we MUST be doing our kids a disservice if we don’t enroll them in the best school. Even if it’s just because it has a green roof (again, something to brag about in the yummy trophy mommy group at starbucks).

I believe in AB you can send your kids to any school you want, regardless of what district you live in. I know this is the case for high school.

That being said, I don’t have kids yet. I suspect I’d want them to go to a school where the majority of kids don’t come from broken homes and have supportive parents. I’d say that’s far more important than a school having a green roof.

8 Gates VP

Just to second the quote: In the US, it appears that there is a large gap between different public schools and private schools… this is definitely what I’ve heard. I know that being on the “wrong side of the line” can make a really big difference.

Personally, the only differences I’ve seen in Canada are mostly just “socio-economic”. If you live a “high-class” neighborhood you have parents with more money for fundraisers and things like “ski trips” or “band trips”. If you live in a “non-white” “ethnic” region soccer may be more popular than hockey at your school.

But really, other than IB schools, there’s not much to write home about.

There are a lot of “middle of the roaders” posting here. Elasticlad: But emotionally you want to give your child the best education you can and if that means moving, so be it. And the tension is definitely real (as evidenced by US housing prices).

If my wife were pregnant I would feel that tension too. But my personal approach is different.

Now maybe it’s just because I have an ego (a big one :), but I’m of the staunch belief that parental time and educational support is far more important than that “extra inch” you get from “the best” public schools.

If you spent one hour / night with your children doing homework / education related materials, that amounts to 200 hours / year. That’s like an extra 5-7 weeks of “schooling”, just by application of your own time. But it’s also an opportunity to do things that a school would never do: like talk about personal finance :), learn about proper weight maintenance, go exploring, be creatively constructive on bigger projects (I built a playhouse with my dad).

Most teachers are reasonably good at what they do (I even know some excellent ones). But it’s 12 years to graduation so it’s more about consistency than it is about any one year.

But that’s just my two cents.

9 Caroline

Not sure if this was mentioned, but the book Freakonomics looks at this topic and found that good or bad schools don’t make a difference. It is the childs willingness to learn that matters.

10 Four Pillars

Guinness – I think not publishing school rankings is a great idea.

Elasticlad – good comment – I should clarify that I don’t think parents should totally ignore the school that the child goes to, but rather don’t resort to extreme measures for little or no benefit.

Vasile – the “nicer” the high school is the more money the students have for drugs – you can’t get away from it.

Nobleea – I agree – while I don’t think the difference between half decent schools matters that much – if the school is really horrible then you should try to avoid it.

Gates – I think the parental involvement is very important too. Spending time with the child whether it is doing homework or playing at the park with them is the best way to help them.

Caroline – I still haven’t read that book yet (I will) – I agree that the child’s willingness to learn is critical. Another big factor is ability – if your kid isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer then don’t turn the family upside down to move to a ‘better’ area.

11 nobleea

Definitely read Freakonomics. a great read, and definitely worthy of a book review (and book giveaway doncha know)

12 Four Pillars

Definitely read Freakonomics. a great read, and definitely worthy of a book review (and book giveaway doncha know)

I will – but I’m not sure if the library will appreciate me giving away their book! 🙂

13 nobleea

I’m sure we would appreciate you giving away their book. 😛

14 Mr. Cheap

Vasile: Thanks, I’ll check that out!

Gates: I was going to mention the idea of putting your time / money into teaching your child more at home too. I agree with you.

15 Shevy

As a parent with both adult children and a kindergartener, I couldn’t disagree more! Education, especially early education, is vital. The younger the brain, the more plastic it is. The classic example is language, including reading skills. (Look for statistics on children who don’t successfully learn to read in or before Grade 1 and graduation/dropout rates.)

English is a foreign language to a baby born today in Toronto, just as French is a foreign language to a baby born in Montreal, yet each of those kids will speak their respective languages fluently in 3 to 6 years. If you first studied a second language (say French) as a teen, how’s your command of the language today? How about your accent?

I know one girl, currently 4 years old, who speaks 3 languages. Her folks speak Spanish at home, her day care provider spoke to her in Hebrew and she gets both English and Hebrew at school.

If a child is not learning anything substantive in school it’s because the curriculum is dumbed down. Either find a better school or supplement at home with interesting projects, videos, books, etc.

Actually the most important things parents can do is to model good behavior (like reading books and reading to their children on a regular basis) and to get involved in their childrens’ schools.

But many schools have to spend most of their time and attention dealing with children who have uninvolved parents, learning disabilities or ESL issues. Your average child can easily fall right through the cracks.

Don’t let that happen.

16 Mrs. Pillars

The C.D. Howe Institute does school rankings. Here is a link about the schools.
http://www.cdhowe.org/pdf/ebrief_39scoresupdate2007.pdf

Here’s a link about the social aspect of the schools.
http://www.cdhowe.org/pdf/ebrief_39profilesupdate2007.pdf

17 Mr. Cheap

Mrs. Pillars: Thanks very much!

18 guinness416

Attention CD Howe: that .pdf would be a whole lot more user-friendly with page numbers and applying the column headings across pages. Back to detention for youse.

Apparently the school around the corner from me is really good at grade 3 and really bad at grade 6. Now what are we to make of that. I wonder if the influx of all the reasonably high-earning yuppies (presumably buying into the Toronto Life striving) round here over the last few years will change the results up or down. Or at all.

You know, I didn’t do a single exam (or recieve a grade beyond “good”/”fair”/”bad” – bad was knitting, in case you’re wondering) until I was 13 years old. I wonder what my results would have been like in third frickin grade.

19 Mrs Pillars

Guinness, I agree that it is hard to read the files without column headings.

The school that our little darlings will attend sounds the same as the one near you with grade 3 scoring better than grade 6. I think your guess may be correct. 14% people moved into the area in the last year and 43% in the last 5 years.

I can’t really recall my grades before high school, but I sure can remember my best and worst teachers. Alas, we never got knitting at school. Did you keep it up?

20 guinness416

Mrs P – I’m sure very few kids knit at school any more. Sadly those early experiences were aggravating enough that I never took to knitting. I’m the eldest child (and hence, experiment) of a true montessori method believer. So I was never good at being sat down and told to concentrate on something I didn’t want to do 🙂

21 Thicken My Wallet

I always read anything in Toronto Life with about 16 grains of salt. Its a fluff magazine to me.

As someone once wrote, there’s lies, damn lies and statistics. Most people I know who are well-adjusted in life attended good and bad schools (the smartest person I knew in undergrad went to an absolute terrible school in Malton). The only common factor is that their parents didn’t abdicate the responsibility of raising their kids to others and created a stable home environment. I am not sure how you capture that in a ranking.

22 telly

I agree with Caroline:
“It is the childs willingness to learn that matters.”

All I can really use as an example is myself.

I didn’t go to a great grade school.

I don’t remember having any outstanding teachers that stick out in my memory (except for a French teacher in my later high school years and I’m still horrible at French).

My parents didn’t even check my homework, much less help me with it (my mom was taking ESL classes while I was in grade school and she only completed up to grade 6 in “the old country”, my dad – grade 3).

My parents never encouraged me to go to university (although they learned to be quite proud when I did). My mom’s ambition for me was to be a secretary or a nurse (no offense to either profession of course).

But still I went to university and obtained two Science degrees and eventually became a mechanical engineer (my dad’s initial reaction was that it was for men 😉 ).

In grade school I was a huge bookworm. I remember winning a read-a-thon contest (I read the most books in my entire grade school :)). All the books were borrowed from the library that I was never encouraged to visit. My prize was a shopping spree at a book store. I couldn’t have been more thrilled.

Maybe I’m naive but I can’t help but think that sometimes we’re just wired a certain way, regardless of the school, the encouragement received, etc. When I look back, I’m glad my parents let me be who I wanted to be. They let me have fun and never pressured me to read or do homework and maybe that’s why I actually liked school.

Just an idea but take this with a grain of salt from someone with no children of course. 😉

23 Four Pillars

Telly – great comment! You don’t have to have kids to have an opinion.

I was quite the bookworm as a child as well.

24 Gates VP

Guinness:You know, I didnt do a single exam … until I was 13 years old. I wonder what my results would have been like in third frickin grade.

Wow you opened a whole other can of worms there! But definitely a big one. Many years ago, Manitoba instituted provincial standardized testing for grades 3 & 6 & 9. It rattled a lot of cages, but it’s still going on (based on my sources in the industry 🙂

That concept of percentage-style or letter grades for young students has always really irked me. And I think it’s because it’s fundamentally flawed, because early learning is way more about competence than about gradients of quality. If a child only knows 80% of the 9×9 multiplication tables (yeah down from 12), that’s a big problem when they get asked to do something more complicated.

At best, I can see three reasonable “grades” here:
– Can do (really fast)
– Can do
– No can do (a sign I may be failing English)

I don’t want to start teaching kids volume if they don’t understand the mult tables perfectly.

Much of this knowledge is cumulative and some of it is “experiential”. Trying to “grade it” seems kind of pointless, shouldn’t the system be about achieving specific cumulative aptitudes? (where specific aptitudes need only a pass/fail)

But hey that’s just back to my original reply. It’s about repetition and consistency. (for the computer geeks it’s about continuous integration and testing). It honestly kind of baffles me how we organize these grades. Esp. b/c there a different types of skills we expect children to acquire.

We should be grouping kids one way for “goals to achieve” (learning multiplication tables, reading / writing) and another way for activities to undertake (playing sports, doing crafts…)

But hey that’s just one of my many rants against the education system. I’d probably end up home-schooling my kid just so I can have fun 🙂

25 Nora

I cannot take seriously an article commenting on the value of various schools when there are two basic spelling errors in the first two paragraphs of the article (as well as others throughout and grammatical mistakes). Perhaps a better elementary school for the author would have assisted.

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