Failing Grade: why we left Ontario's public Catholic schools

March 13, 2016

As some of my past readers may know, this past September all of our children entered the public Catholic school system here in Ontario. My husband and I had been really hoping that the public system, even with its myriad of problems, would at least be bearable. 

After all, our local Catholic school had scored extremely well on academic indicators (as measured by the Fraser Institute). We were not expecting perfection. We knew there were lots of problems with the public system (to state the obvious: Wynne's outrageous new sex-ed curriculum).

But like many parents, we told ourselves that we could keep our kids on the right path through open discussions. Whenever our children came across things we disagreed with, or even in advance of certain lessons at school, we would just unteach and reteach, explaining how and why our own values were right.

So for the past several months, we tried to go along and get along. Until two weeks ago, when our mounting concerns reached a boiling point, and we made a decision. We pulled out our children and returned to homeschooling for the rest of this year.

It was a painful decision, but inevitable. Our encounter with Ontario's public Catholic school system was a huge disappointment on too many levels.

Constant pressure to conform

Okay, so Tuesdays were "spirit" days when children were encouraged to wear the school colors. That seems like a good way to encourage a healthy school pride.

But I was not thrilled about the points system: kids were awarded points for dressing up, and the class with the most points at the end of the year would win a pizza party. So kids who chose to deviate from the "encouraged" school colors were costing their classmates a pizza party!

That smelled like a setup for peer pressure and learning to conform. Especially since the school colors weren't mandatory, and yet there were rewards attached to conforming to the group. In effect, the whole setup operates as a psychological conditioning experiment: it teaches kids to self-censor, intentionally choosing the behavior (wearing the right colors) that leads to the rewards (pizza party, social approval).

This is the kind of conditioning that can have lifelong effects. It reminds me of totalitarian systems, which view individuality as a threat and strive to inculcate a reflexive conformity in their citizens.

And "spirit" days were just the tip of the iceberg. Almost weekly, "dress up" days kept popping up like groundhogs in an arcade game. There were crazy hat days, sports jersey days, pajama days and many other days, including the whole range of calendar holidays color-coded for us by Dollarama.

What a commercial victory to make harried parents so dependent on this never-ending gear and knick-knacks as indispensable to social approval in schools! My old public school days are pure bliss in comparison. Back then, the school didn't stick its nose in my closet every few days. Imagine, we weren't even "encouraged" to wear a Santa hat for Christmas assembly!

Shortly before we pulled our kids out, they came home with a poster notifying us that as part of their school's participation in Development & Peace's Share Lent campaign, they were to dress as cowboys/cowgirls on a certain day, in pajamas on another day, as "twins" with another kid on another day, and so on. Are these themes coming from D & P? I doubt our school was that original - I get the sense this was all a big factory production, and most likely, Catholic schools across the city were doing the same thing.

(By the way, gotta love the "create a climate of change" pun-intended theme of this year's Development & Peace fundraiser...yech. Check out and search for D & P to learn why to never donate to that leftist organization with a history of funding pro-abortion organizations).

Fighting Climate Change

Speaking of climate pet peeve award goes to the school's action for National Sweater Day. On that day, the school turned down the temperature by two degrees, and kids were supposed to come to school as sweater-clad "planet pals", saving Earth from climate change.

It must have been assumed that all kids (and all parents) would go along with this climate mania. After all, the children hardly had any choice but to dress warm on a day when the school was to be frigid inside. So not only was Sweater Day an education in forced conformity, but it also ensured participation in a certain ideology with which we strongly disagree - the current climate change frenzy. It's the kind of thing I would expect in China, not in a free country. (We kept our children home that day.)

Ironically though, the current Vatican would probably love Sweater Day. It seems to fit perfectly into their recent conference on how to make children into agents against climate change.

And...still more saving the world

Why stop the bandwagon? The school also got all exited about other ra-ra days, like Pink Shirt Day and WE Day. Aside from dressing up in the colors of the campaign, there were also bake sales and other fundraisers organized for those events, and classes might do crafts or other activities in support of those events.

For older kids, our school even organized a trip to the giant WE Day rally and festivities downtown. That event was limited to schools participating in We Schools - WE Day, "which requires students to participate in one local and one global action." At the rally, participants got a pep talk from pretty boy Trudeau about how they can all change the world.

This was all very fitting, since Trudeau is what this school system is really all about. This crowned prince, the young and hip darling of the left, is indeed the consummate WE Day hero. He is the perfect example of what these kids are supposed to become: a man completely in the grip of the most popular tides of his time.

And that realization helped us to make the decision to pull them out.

The secret weapon of the school system

It is one thing to talk with our kids about erroneous ideas and teachings which they encounter in the classroom. We were prepared for that: kind of like plugging up the dam wherever it started to leak. But it is a whole other thing to try to stop a flood with a bucket.

The ideological onslaught of today's public school system is both subtle and relentless, and much of it takes place outside of the classroom. Trying to fight it with words is almost like trying to pin a slimeball with a fork.

For instance, I expect that many parents would probably defend the many days of harmless dress-up that are just "fun" ("What have you got against dressing green on St. Patty's day?" "It's so cute to dress up the kids for pajama day!"). Among public school parents, it seems almost mandatory to share the enthusiasm.

But just then, the school comes along and slips in some ideological whammies ("Don't forget to wear a sweater, planet pals!"). It's a slippery slope, isn't it? We don't want to be the party poopers, and our kids want to dress up and fit in. Pretty soon, parents are agreeing with everything, even stuff that actually goes right against their own beliefs.

There is something else, too. The secret weapon of the school system is peer pressure - and that is one force, I believe, which is next to impossible for parents to counter successfully at the dinner table. If you throw your kids on a de-facto Lord of the Flies island for 8 hours a day, don't expect them to remain unchanged. Conforming is a matter of survival.

Catholicism and strange yoga stuff

In some ways we were pleasantly surprised - for instance, the children did say the Lord's Prayer in their classes on occasion. The school also broadcast a vague meal blessing over the intercom at lunch time. Our first grader had a religion folder and learned, among other things, about the patron saint of the school.

All our children were also taught yoga at school. Our first grader was given a smooth stone to hold in her hand, in some kind of lesson on 'channeling' one's energy while chanting "Maranatha".  While I'm not as strongly against yoga as my husband, and think it's fine if it is treated just as exercise moves, we were both bothered by the stone-holding and chanting. That takes the exercise to a spiritual level and we both see problems with that - click here to read our concerns.

Parents don't really matter - we're not the client

The problems with a publicly funded educational system end up looking a lot like the problems with a universal health care system. Follow the money: the parent/patient is not really the client. The teachers/doctors are actually getting paid by the government, and any individual parent/patient is just a number on their list. Our personal satisfaction doesn't actually matter. If we take our business elsewhere - so what?

We certainly got that sense at our local Catholic school.

Oh, everyone is friendly and things are dandy if you go with the flow. But when I asked to schedule a meeting so I could review in advance the teaching materials for the upcoming sex ed curriculum, my request was brushed aside with the reply that the curriculum was online. The principal made no objection when we requested to exempt our daughter from the sex ed classes, but we were clearly not going to get anything but the bare minimum of civility.

We also wrote a letter to the principal, asking for our children to have an exemption from participating in yoga, and voicing objections to the teaching of yoga in Catholic schools. We never even received a reply - no response at all.

When I finally had a chance to ask the principal if she had read our letter, she just quickly said "oh, that's fine." I was confused - what's fine? Oh yes, she said - they can be exempted from yoga. "But you know," she told me, "yoga is done in other Catholic schools as well." There was to be no budging on the matter of yoga.

What about Parents' Council? People had recommended I get involved as a way to keep on top of things...Well, I did go to one meeting. It quickly became clear that the role of this group was not to make any real decisions about substantive issues like what our kids are taught. Instead, the nine or so moms who showed up to this meeting were planning bake sales, movie nights, and other fundraisers. Why? So classrooms could get more tablets, and kids could spend still more time surfing the unfiltered Internet in schools.

So no thanks - Parents' Council may be a way for overworked parents to feel more involved in their kids' education, but it's a lot more show than substance.

What would things look like if our views mattered?

There was one incident which highlighted for me just how different things could be when the school's administration took our objections seriously.

One night, our daughter mentioned to my husband that one of her teachers had divided up the children into four groups for a play. It was shortly before Christmas, but in a politically-correct twist, this play was not just about Christianity but also about Hinduism, Judaism and even anti-Christian Kwaanza.

Yet the play that was supposed to showcase "tolerance" shipwrecked in execution. Our daughter said that her teacher had divided up the children "by skin color". Our daughter had been told that because of her darker skin, she should go to the "Hindu" group (naturally, she had been hoping to be in the Christian group). The teacher delivered this message openly in front of the class. The teacher also explained that due to another student's African heritage, he was being placed into the Kwaanza group.

We could hardly believe what we were hearing. We were outraged at such blatant racist prejudice, and wrote a strongly worded letter to the principal, CC'ing the school trustee. The very next day, I received a personal phone call from the principal. She listened carefully to my concerns, promptly launched an investigation into the matter and scheduled a meeting with us. Even the vice principal attended.

The principal was at first inclined to excuse the teacher and let the matter go (apparently the teacher was mortified, as she considered herself very tolerant and only wanted to make the play more "authentic"). Still, she treated our objections very seriously.

Eventually, the principal personally called us at home again, to inform us that she had pulled the plug on the play.

We felt like we were really heard, and like our concerns mattered. Of course, it wasn't really us - the principal knew this was a matter that would not be taken lightly by the Ontario College of Teachers and the Ottawa Catholic School Board. Cancelling the play was a compromise - it satisfied us while also protecting the teacher from further action that could leave a black mark on her teaching record.

Now, imagine that we had written a different letter to the principal

This time, not a letter of protest against racism, but rather protesting a Christmas play being diluted into a secular mini-course in world religions. Imagine if we had protested that Kwaanza should not be making any appearance in a Catholic school at Christmastime, as it has specifically anti-Christian origins. 
I think I know where that letter would have ended up - in the trash pile, right on top of our letter about yoga. 

There are certain things the principal can't ignore, like racism. She knows that racism is like bullying, "zero tolerance", and her seat is in the frying pan on that issue. 

But our concerns about Catholic schools not being really Catholic? Yawn. 

Can we really trust the bureaucratic behemoth?

The public school system is a colossal machine. It functions on such a huge level that even individual principals, and certainly teachers, are just replaceable cogs in the wheels. Standing up against this bureaucratic behemoth is such a David-v-Goliath struggle that it reminds me of that iconic image of a solitary man blocking a whole procession of tanks in China's 1989 Tienanmen Square protests (check out CNN's Youtube footage of that incredibly courageous moment:)

The teachers are like those tank drivers. They don't really have much say in changing the system, and there is surely a lot of pressure on them to conform to the reigning ideology. 

Parents are even lower on the food chain, because we literally have no say. As far as decisions about what is taught to our own kids, our contribution on the level of individual schools hovers tightly around zero. 

Our only real decision-making power is to pull out our kids from objectionable classes - though even that is getting harder, as some Ontario public school districts have announced that portions of their new sex ed programs will have mandatory attendance. 

Ending our children's innocence

Much ink has already been spilt on this issue of Ontario's new sex ed program, and we will soon see how it plays out in practice. Our school was set to cover the sex ed materials as part of its Fully Alive program in March/April, and while we were planning to exempt our daughter from those classes, this fact still played a role in our decision to pull out from the system.

The fact is, we were not confident that pulling our daughter out of a class for that hour, or even keeping her home for a few days, would really keep her safe from the aftershocks of Fully Alive's newly explicit lessons and vocabulary. The teachers can't ensure that what happens in the classroom for that time period will stay in that classroom. Kids will talk! Older kids will talk to younger kids! Recess is uncensored. 

Click herehere and here to read more about our concerns with the new sex ed curriculum.

Lowest common education

Our local school scored surprisingly high on academic indicators in Fraser Institute's survey. Having seen what that means in practice, it's rather surprising that our school's mediocre academic instruction is really among the best in the city.

I homeschooled for about 1.5 years before sending the children to school, and our oldest was already reading and writing well by the time she entered Grade 1. The reading instruction in Grade 1 was far too easy for her, and by February, her careful handwriting, which had been shaped by Handwriting Without Tears, had actually regressed into a scrawl. Her math education was negligible, and can't be compared with our at-home Singapore Math program. She seems mainly to have done a ton of crafts. 

The main benefit of Grade 1, in retrospect, was the French, which is something our daughter was not getting at home (the same thing was also true for kindergarten).

And, at least on the lowest elementary school levels that we experienced, another benefit of public school was the socialization. Our children made some good friends at their school, some of whom we will try to continue a friendship with even in our new circumstances.

Is socialization the public school's trump card?

Socialization in the public school system is a yin-yang. Obviously, most people in our society send their kids into this system. As a result, there is a large pool of kids in every grade, and this provides children with lots of opportunities for social interaction with their peers. 

Every day in the public system, children have the opportunity to make friends (and enemies), to interact, cooperate and resolve conflicts with many different personalities. They can develop a thick skin (or be eaten alive), and so on - all the pluses and minuses of socialization are certainly there. 

On the minus side, the public school system definitely leans towards excessive peer socialization. That causes peer orientation, which is harmful for both the kids and society. Dr. Gordon Neufeld and Dr. Gabor Mate explain the costs of peer orientation really well (check out Hold On To Your Kids, or watch this video. Or read one of my blog posts on this topic).

While the public school system is a mixed bag, homeschooling comes with its own difficulties, for instance in the area of socialization. It can be hard for homeschooling parents to provide adequate opportunities for their kids to form deeper friendships (outside the family). This was the main reason why we originally decided to send our children into the school system. 

It's true that "socialization" means more than peer interaction, and it's important for kids to engage with all different age groups. But I also believe that it is important for children's development and even happiness to develop the kinds of close friendships with other kids (not just their siblings) which happen effortlessly and spontaneously through frequent and regular contact and play.

And while our homeschooling was covering the bases for elementary academics, it was getting to feel too lonely in the childless desert that our city becomes during the daytime. With school-age children in tow, it became painfully obvious that there was not one kid over the age of three in any playground until after 4 p.m. Even kids' activities have migrated from daytime hours to evenings or weekends, to fit in with busy school kid schedules. 

What's next?

We are back to homeschooling for the time being. This time around, we will try to develop more of a social network with other homeschoolers. And if that doesn't work out, then we are considering private school for September. We are fortunate here in Ottawa to have some very good Catholic and Christian private schools in this city, and those may be the best answer of all. 

For parents who may be considering that route but worried about the cost, consider that many of these schools are really charging the bare minimum. They also often charge much less for siblings, and they take family income into account and reduce their fees accordingly.  

For comparison, a fairly average before and after-school program in the city costs $300/month per child. That works out to $9000 (3 children, 10 months) - and that's only buying a couple of hours of playtime. Some of the private schools listed below are priced so reasonably that they might actually cost less!

Here are some private school options for Catholics and Christians in the Ottawa area:

Figuring out the schooling options for our kids in this messed up culture feels more challenging than solving the Rubik's Cube.  Each family needs to come up with the patchwork of educational solutions that will work best for their needs, and the answers might well change over time.

Many families do not have the option of homeschooling or private school either. That's a tough situation. Even for such families, I'd like to encourage them to think outside the box and to consider options that they might have thought were closed to them. 

There are no silver bullets, and no matter what educational choices are made by parents, we all know that the pull of our culture is strong and children are tempted everywhere. Certain choices may stack the deck more or less in our favor. But in the end, no matter what educational path we choose to follow, Dr. Neufeld would surely tell us that the best way to hold on to our kids is to build a close-knit family, helping our children stay adult-oriented in a peer-oriented world.

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We provide commentary on the cultural decline of the Western world, from a conservative perspective.