Summer 2024

Counsellor’s Corner – Taking a Private School Course while Remaining in Day-School:  A Grade 12 strategy or just playing the system?

Grade 12 is a milestone year for all students. It is their final year of high school and is marked by several significant events: grad photos, prom, graduation, and applying for and getting into college, an apprenticeship, the workforce, or university.  Although college and the skilled trades are viable options for many students, the post-secondary destination that produces the most anxiety is still university for many.  Everything matters: every grade, every assignment, every test, every exam.  Students are consulting with teachers and begging for and negotiating every grade they receive.  Suffice it to say, grade 12 university-bound students and their parents/guardians are the most frequent flyers in the Guidance Department.

Case in point:  I have a grade 12 student (let’s call him Ryan) whose been coming to see me a lot of late.  Ryan’s goal is to get into a prestigious Canadian university.  However, Ryan’s English marks since grade 9 have always been in the mid-70s.  A proficient English student, Ryan’s essays and analyses of texts are very good; B+ quite respectable.  However, the programs he is applying to require him to have 90s. Ryan requires 15-20% more in English and also needs his grade 12 university math and science courses to be in the exceptional range. 

Ryan’s parents frequently call me for strategies.  I oblige and offer essay writing support, give contact information for tutors, suggest peer tutoring, and offer after school help.  Ryan and his parents feel they can’t take the chance with these suggestions and opt for a solution they know other grade 12 students in similar situations have pursued; that is taking the grade 12 English course in a private school while remaining a full-time student at our school.  

In Guidance departments across my school board, we are seeing this trend increase.  What was once an exception, to go outside of one’s regular day school to obtain a private school course, is gaining traction and becoming the norm for many families who can afford the cost of paying for the “one-off” credit.    Parents are spending up to $1,000 (at times more) to accredited private schools for their kids to take these singular courses.  So, Ryan took his ENG4U at a private school, (a course that we offer at our publicly funded high school) and obtained a 95%.  Ryan’s peers who took the day school English and earned an 85% are now at a disadvantage. Or are they? 

There are several advantages in taking a course or two at a private school outside of regular school hours while remaining in day school to reap all the benefits of the grade 12 year.  Firstly, students can earn the credit in six weeks at most of these schools, so the course length is much shorter than enduring an entire semester. Further, taking a course in a private school gives students flexibility as many of these private schools offer these courses virtually or a combination of in-person and virtual.  Students can plug away at these course and work through their units on the weekends or over holidays.  Also, and this is significant, many of the private school marks are inflated.  I can say this with confidence as a guidance counsellor of 18 years.  I have seen many students who earned a 60% in grade 11 math taken during regular day school and then took the grade 12 university math at a private school and earned over 90%—a massive disparity.  Time and time again, parents are choosing this option for their children, so they have a competitive advantage over students who take all their courses in publicly funded day schools. 

Along with the advantages of taking these private school courses, there are some glaring disadvantages, beginning with the cost per course.  Some private schools charge up to, and at times more than, $1000 per course.  For students whose families do not have the financial means, they are automatically at a disadvantage and cannot participate in this type of learning.  Furthermore, because students in many cases are taking these courses virtually, students lose out on the benefits of the in-person learning experience and environment. These include the discussions that take place once a lesson is taught, taking up tests, and group assignments completed with classmates.  Students that take private school courses are often doing so on their own. There is a teacher that assigns and grades their work, but they don’t have all the perks that come along with being in a physical classroom.

Aside from these drawbacks, in my view, the primary disadvantage of enrolling in these courses at a private school manifest in three distinct ways:

  1. Students are unable to fully comprehend the intricacies of the course because a lot of the lessons are taught online, and students must learn independently.
  2. The second piece is that students get an inflated mark that helps them achieve an inflated grade 12 average which helps gain entrance into the program of their choice.  However, because of the over inflated grades, in year one of their program, many of these students struggle and, in some cases, are put on academic probation. I know this because many of these students will come back to the high school to ask for a transcript when they decide to change programs and, at times, schools.
  3. The last, and most impactful consequence for those choosing to take courses privately, concerns the inflated grade assigned to the student that allows them to take a spot away from a student who didn’t get the same marks while taking their courses in day school.

So where do I stand on this topic? 

There are instances where these private school courses are quite useful and might even be necessary for some students. Please know that I am not referring to students who must take courses individually because of mitigating factors, such as an illness that keeps them away from their day school.  Another instance where taking a course in a private school would occur, and be supported, is when a student’s regular day school or school board does not offer that course.

Whether you view these private schools as an available resource to be used or whether you view them as manufacturers of marks, at the end of the day, students are being disadvantaged on two fronts.  Firstly, students taking the private school courses aren’t experiencing the breadth and depth of learning that occurs in the full semester of day school. Consequently, students develop a false sense of academic ability.  Secondly, we have the rest of our grade 12 students, the ones who are who are chipping away at these challenging university level courses at day school, earning outstanding marks in the 80s and 90s, which still might not be enough compared to the private school students. In other words, the private school students are taking the spots and pushing the day school students out of programs.

I have thought about this dilemma for quite some time. I am obviously biased as I am a guidance counsellor in a publicly funded school system and do not encourage this practice. But in the name of fairness, I thought I would flush out both sides, the pros and cons of taking these courses in a private school while remaining in one’s home school.  For years, counsellors, teachers, parents, and students have engaged in this ongoing debate. With the proliferation of private schools in Ontario, this is a subject I’ve been eager to address.  In the coming weeks, as grade 12 students receive offers from various post-secondary programs, my hope is that they are adequately prepared for the challenges ahead as they enter their next phase of learning.  Will they have the knowledge to achieve success? Or the work ethic?  Only time will tell.

By:  Anna Macri