Ryan Taylor answered the phone with a groggy voice, having just been roused from sleep. It was mid-afternoon in late August and he was resting before starting his evening job delivering pizzas. When that shift ended at midnight, he would start his second job at a grocery store. "It's good money," he said, which he needs for the school year.
The 17-year-old high school student from Port Alberni, B.C., is in his final year at St. Michaels University School, a private boarding and day school located some 200 kilometres away in Victoria. A gifted student, Mr. Taylor remembers being bored during his years at a public elementary school and often landing in trouble for disrupting the class. He had heard about St. Michaels from a friend and longed to go. But, for many years, he discounted the possibility because financially, he says, "it wasn't realistic."
In the end, though, he applied and, to his surprise, qualified for scholarships and financial aid, which cover almost all of the hefty tuition he pays as a boarding student. Last year he travelled to Scotland and Ireland and this year he plans to take advanced placement courses. At St. Michaels, he says, "I've done so many things that I never thought I would do."
Once the exclusive domain of the well-to-do, private schools are starting to see more students from lower- and middle-income families, in part due to an increase in financial assistance that the schools offer.
Improving accessibility and diversifying the student body are top priorities for many private schools, says Anne-Marie Kee, executive director of Standards in Excellence and Learning (SEAL) Canada, the association that represents private and independent schools. "They are definitely looking to broaden their student base," she says.
St. Michaels awards about $1.6-million a year in financial aid, up from about $200,000 twelve years ago. Of its 930 students, 18 per cent receive financial aid, compared with just 6 per cent 12 years ago. "We chose to do it precisely to build a more representative student body; one that wasn't just the preserve of those who could afford it," says Bob Snowden, head of school.
Many private schools are putting "an incredible focus on increasing the amount of financial assistance that is available for students," adds Sarah McMahon, interim head of Lakefield College School, located near Peterborough, Ont. "Schools are trying to provide the opportunity to attend to a broader audience."
Lakefield awards about $1.7-million a year in financial assistance. About one-third of its 365 students receive aid, similar to historic levels. But, Ms. McMahon says, the average amount received per family has increased substantially over the years. "Financial assistance used to be a sort of top up for families who couldn't quite make the last 5 or 10 per cent of the fees," she says. "Now we are seeing families who need more financial support for their son or daughter to be able to attend."
This is due in part to rising fees. Annual tuition at LCS runs about $26,700 for day students and $46,500 for boarding students. But, Ms. McMahon adds, the trend also reflects the fact that families are more aware that support is available and more likely to seek it out than in the past.
One reason schools are looking to attract a broader array of students is because, like all elementary and secondary schools, changing demographics have meant that enrolments are on the wane. "Generally, we can't work under the assumption that we will have a greater demand for our schools than we can accommodate, which has been the case in the past," Ms. Kee says.
The economic downturn has also made it more difficult for families to meet the cost of a private education.
But the main reason for the move is philosophical, says St. Michaels School's Mr. Snowden. Private schools want "to build communities that reflect the diversity outside their walls," he says.
Still, even with increased financial assistance, the cost of a private education is a struggle for many families. Many seek additional support from the student's grandparents and other family members, says Lakefield's Ms. McMahon. They do so, she says, primarily because of the emphasis that private and independent schools place on academics. Small class sizes and individual student attention are "very important for a lot of families," she says. The breadth of programs offered is another draw.
A 2007 study published by the Fraser Institute found that the most highly rated reason for choosing a private school was the emphasis on academic quality. More than 90 per cent of those surveyed also cited dissatisfaction with the public school system.
At Sacred Heart School of Halifax, a Catholic school that offers single-sex instruction for its 500 students, the main attraction for many parents is the division of boys and girls from Grades 7 through 12. "That and the fact that we are a religious school," said Patricia Donnelly, headmistress.
Parents are attracted by the choices that private schools offer, such as single-sex classes, religious education or an emphasis on athletics, Ms. Donnelly adds. "I think there is a broader range of interest in private and independent schools among a segment of the population that in the past did not consider an independent and private school education," she adds. At the same time, many families are enrolling their children later than they would have in the past, typically in Grades 5 or 6, because of the high tuition costs.
Ms. Kee, whose two children attend Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ont., counts herself among those who in the past wouldn't have considered private education. But, she says that she, like many parents of her generation, wants the very best for her children and is willing to make the necessary sacrifices. Ms. Kee says she loves the academic rigour that Ridley offers and the breadth of co-curricular and athletics programs.
"For us," she says, "there's no looking back."
Special to The Globe and Mail