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When moving to a new home, probably the first question on any parent’s mind is schooling. Like most of Canada, schools in Hamilton, Ontario cover Kindergarten to Secondary (or high) school level (known as K-12, or ‘K through 12’).

Hamilton boasts a strong ‘Public school’ system, which in Canada refers exclusively to government-funded free education, rather than a category of private schooling, as in the UK.

Provinces bear most of the responsibility for primary and secondary education in Canada, and the systems can vary significantly between provinces. Across Canada, schooling is mostly co-educational — with boys and girls educated together throughout K-12 — and public school attendance is significantly higher than private school attendance. There are three stages of pre-university education: kindergarten, elementary (grades one through eight) and high school (grades nine through twelve). In Ontario, there are two years of optional Kindergarten: Junior or JK (age four) and Senior or SK (age five), and schooling continues up to Grade 12. Education is compulsory up to the age of 18, or until your child graduates high school (in rare cases, this can happen earlier than 18).

Public schools are funded by the federal and provincial governments, and follow a standard curriculum established by the Ontario Ministry of Education. Public schools in Hamilton and the surrounding area fall under the purview of the Hamilton and Wentworth District School Board, or HWDSB, whose 104 schools in Hamilton and the surrounding area educate almost 50,000 K-12 students.

The school your child will attend is usually determined by where you live. Children are generally placed in a school close to their home, and each school covers an assigned area, or ‘catchment area’. The HWDSB provides maps of each school’s catchment area on its website.

In recent years, subject-oriented programs have been better integrated in order to allow more children to focus on particular areas — for example, French immersion or sports academy programs — that are offered at schools outside their catchment area.

As your child’s school may play a large part in your decision of where to live, it is important to get to know the options when looking at properties and neighbourhoods. Contact the school board to learn more about how and when to register your child for school in Hamilton – this should generally be done at your area school as soon as possible upon arrival.

While schools in Hamilton and across Canada largely operate with a secular mandate, Catholic school boards are common. The Hamilton and Wentworth District Catholic School Board (HWDCSB) runs 55 elementary and high schools with a  Catholic-focused curriculum. In Ontario, Catholic school boards also receive provincial funding and are attended by a growing number of non-Catholic students (estimated at six to seven percent in the 2016/2017 school year).

What to expect at a Canadian school

While many elements of education in Canada may be similar to schools around the world, it is important to have some idea of the environment your child will find in a school in Hamilton.

Homework is a recurring feature in Hamilton schools from elementary school onwards. Class sizes at elementary level are generally small, around 20 to 25 students or less. Students at elementary level study a range of subjects that includes the arts, French as a second language, health and physical education, mathematics, science subjects, social studies, native languages, and more. Find curricula and policy documents for the elementary level here.

There are far fewer high schools than elementary schools in the Hamilton area, and so school and class sizes typically increase when a student enters grade 9. Teenagers in Canadian high schools are expected to be increasingly independent in their studies, and longer projects and group work become more common. The range of subjects taught at the secondary level also increases. Your child may study the arts, business studies, Canadian and World studies, languages, computer studies, literature, science, native studies, and much more – the Ministry of Education provides a full list of subjects and curricula.

Many of the stereotypical traits of American high schools so popular in movies are also present in Canadian high schools. Hallways lined with lockers and busy cafeterias are omnipresent – and realistically, a certain number of cliques and subcultures find their way into daily life too. Chances are your child or teen will find a group of friends with shared interests, no matter what those may be.

The classic yellow school bus is a common sight in Hamilton: transport for schools in the HWDSB and HWCDSB is managed by the Hamilton and Wentworth School Transportation Services, or HWSTS. Eligibility for a spot on the school bus depends on where the child lives: if the walking distance to school is greater than 1km (for Kindergarten students), 1.6km (for elementary students), or 3.2km (for high school students) the child may be considered eligible.

Higher Education

High school is a defining period of life for many teens, so it is a good idea to know a bit about what to expect if your child is going to high school in Hamilton. The quality of education among Hamilton’s high schools can vary, as any educational environment is greatly affected by the enthusiasm and aptitude of the students, as much as by the staff.

There is generally a healthy focus on “extra-curriculars” (activities like sports or music) in addition to academics. A creative range of specialized programs including subjects like bike repair, health support services, construction, cosmetology, and arts programs ensure students have access to career training before graduation. International Baccalaureate and university preparation courses may also be available, depending on the school.

Many students in the Hamilton area excel academically, and universities in southern Ontario, Toronto, and Montreal  – in addition to the well-ranked local McMaster University – are popular among Hamilton’s high school graduates. Many other students leave school for work or college programs, and Ontario has one of Canada’s best-regarded community college systems, including the local Mohawk College.

Private schools

Private education, while less common, is still a strong option in the Hamilton area. Private schools range in cost from about $7,000 to $21,000 a year, depending on the school, the age of the child, and various other factors. Montessori schools fall within this category, and there are close to a dozen in the Hamilton area. While there is no central board or website for information on private schools, you can find a list of private schools in Hamilton here, which leads to more information on each school.

As in any child- or teen-dominated environment, friendship groups will form and break up. Some kids get in to sports, some get into music, some may be out with friends constantly and some may never leave their bedroom. In this way, school life in Canada may well be in essence like school life anywhere. Your child may love or hate it, but whatever their opinion on it, the curriculum and opportunities provided by a school in Canada are world class.

We hope this guide to schools in Hamilton was useful to you. If you have any suggestions, you are welcome to contact [email protected].

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