Cheryl Boughton, Head of School: A Decade of Visionary Leadership.

It’s probably a good thing that Elmwood’s Head of School has an easy commute to work every day. Considering the hours she puts in at the helm of Ottawa’s top-ranked independent day school for girls, Cheryl Boughton’s short walk across the school parking lot from the historic Head’s residence she shares with her husband David Boughton is a valuable time-saver. 

Since her appointment by the Board of Governors as our eleventh Head of School on August 1, 2008, Ms. Boughton has managed the day-to-day operations and long-term strategic direction of the institution that was established by visionary educator Theodora Philpot more than a century ago. Only two headmistresses in the school’s storied history—Edith Buck (1920 – 1951) and Joan Whitwill (1969 – 1982)—have served longer terms than Cheryl. 

Even if she were to take early retirement tomorrow, this 48-year-old daughter of school teachers from Dundas, Ontario will have already laid down an unassailable legacy. During her time as Head, Ms. Boughton has taken Elmwood School to a place of high standing in the international education community through her unyielding attention to academic excellence, her collaborative approach to team-building and innovation, and more than anything else, her fierce regard for the well-being of her students and staff. 

One has only to look at the outstanding experience of Elmwood’s 2017 graduating class to see what this looks like in terms of student success: All 49 of the bright young women who graduated last year—86 percent of them as Ontario Scholars—received impressive post-secondary admission offers from schools such as Harvard, McGill and Queens to continue their educational journeys in STEM, the arts, social sciences, business, management and other professional programs. Among them, they shared more than $1.5 million in university entrance scholarships.

This is normal for Elmwood. In fact, look at the performance numbers on anything the school does today and the story is pretty much the same, but trace the statistics back and it becomes clear that something significant changed when Ms. Boughton took up the reins as Head a decade ago.

School historian Janet Uren ’68 said that when Ms. Boughton walked through the doors as the new Head for the start of the 2008 – 09 academic year, the school was reeling financially. Elmwood had lost 20 percent of its senior students during the double-cohort graduation of 2003, and was still struggling to make up the enrolment when the economic recession hit. Not only was Elmwood in a tough financial situation, but morale had slumped badly. Even though finances were tight, Ms. Uren said the school saw the value of Ms. Boughton’s different style of leadership almost right away.

“Cheryl just dug in,” she said. “There was work being done on the roof, there was painting going on, and the school began to look better. There was a sense it was sitting up and taking nourishment—that someone was taking care of it. Cheryl was a listener and a morale healer. She was a team player who felt the community was larger than just the faculty and students. She turned the ship almost immediately.”

Jacob Polisuk, the Chair of the Board of Governors that hired Ms. Boughton, agreed that before her arrival Elmwood had been dealing with some serious challenges. In early 2007, the Board established a senior management team to determine where expenses should be cut, and hired a professional recruitment consultant to begin the search for someone to fill the permanent Head position following the retirement of Helen Spence.

“It was clear to me that there needed to be a number of major adjustments done to right-size the operating model of the school,” Mr. Polisuk said. “We eliminated somewhere around 25 positions, and also started an exhaustive process to locate a new Head of School.”

Determined to do things right, over the next 18 months the Board carefully interviewed about two dozen candidates from all parts of the world, until they were left with their top three choices. As Mr. Polisuk said, the three finalists were all very deserving.

“It became readily apparent through our process that Cheryl was definitely the number one candidate,” he said. “The vote to offer the position to her was unanimous. She offered the right mix of skills we felt were needed to move the school past where it had been, and to set a new path. There’s no question that Cheryl was the right person at the right time, but I also think it was because we went through the right process to get there.”

From her background of private schools in the UK, Mr. Polisuk said, Ms. Boughton understood the different constituencies in a private school system, and did a very good job of connecting to all the various stakeholders in the community and building bridges between them. Her foremost skill, he said, was understanding the leading trends in education, and figuring out how Elmwood could adopt best practices. “At the core of her success is that she’s created that vision of the school,” Mr. Polisuk said.

It might not have been chance that brought Cheryl Boughton to Elmwood at just the right moment, but neither was there anything random about the deep experience in education leadership she brought to the table. Returning to Canada after 11 years of working in progressively senior roles managing independent schools in the United Kingdom, her last as Deputy Head of Bedford Preparatory School, Cheryl knew what excellence looked like. She understood the importance of being respectful of Elmwood’s traditions, but also understood that there was a need to innovate without throwing everything out.

Her own formal education at Queen’s University and the University of Toronto during the 1980s and ’90s had shaped her teaching career with specialties in English, History and Education. She did a four-year stint as an English teacher in the same (Hamilton) Wentworth County school board she attended as a girl, and where her mother taught, before stretching her wings in 1997 to teach English at Kent College, Pembury, an all-girls school 90 minutes southeast of London, UK. It would mark the start of her personal development toward becoming a specialist in girls education, and with the International Baccalaureate (IB) Programme.

Her journey was not without a few bumps along the way. One of the most profound lessons she said she learned occurred when she moved to Bedford School in 2005. Having taught mainly older girls since her arrival in the UK eight years earlier, she found her classroom management skills with an exuberant bunch of young lads at the all-boys school to be somewhat lacking. Her classroom was in chaos.

“It was a serious conundrum,” Cheryl said. “Here I was the Deputy Head in charge of discipline for 450 boys at Bedford School, and was struggling to keep twenty 10-year-olds in line in my own English class. I didn’t have much control over them.”

Cheryl said she discussed the problem with her husband David who, with what might have been be his natural British forthrightness, suggested she go to the bookstore on the weekend and purchase whatever references she needed to figure it out.

“So that’s what I did,” Cheryl said. “I sat down and analyzed my problem, read the research on how to deal with it, and walked into school Monday morning with a system. My life changed in a day. The kids were happy, and they were engaged in their learning—it was great. What this taught me, more than just classroom management, was that no problem is insurmountable. I learned that whatever it is I need to do, I can do it.”

Ms. Boughton says she benefited from strong, inspirational female leaders during her time in the UK, one of whom was Barbara Crompton, Head of Kent College, Pembury (1990 – 2002), who taught her the importance of being humble—a reference to her perceived “Canadian forwardness.” Another, the person she calls her greatest influence, was Clarissa Farr, Principal of Queenswood School (1996 – 2006), who fostered a teacher development program that would see Ms. Boughton move on to become a deputy head in less than five years.

“It was the most remarkable thing,” Cheryl said. “It never occurred to me that I would be anything other than an English teacher and a housemistress, and here was Clarissa helping all of us to become leaders. This taught me how important it is to invest in people’s personal development. Clarissa didn’t just run a school, she created an environment that made leaders, and that’s what I’m trying to do here at Elmwood.”

Few people in the Elmwood community likely understand the nature of Cheryl Boughton’s development as an educator and administrator better than James Whitehouse, her Deputy Head for Middle and Senior School. Before joining the Elmwood leadership team in 2012, Mr. Whitehouse was Assistant Headteacher at Seven Kings High School in northeast London, one of the top-achieving state schools in the United Kingdom. He said that the pedagogy being taught at Elmwood today is not so different than what is delivered on the other side of the Atlantic, and that Cheryl drives it to ensure it gives the girls exactly what they need.

“First and foremost, Cheryl has an absolute love of education,” Mr. Whitehouse said. “Head teachers don’t always have that passion for education and the practice of teaching, and she came here steeped in that. She’s a teacher, and you see that in everything she does.”

Mr. Whitehouse said that Cheryl has an amazing ability to build teams, listen to everyone’s opinion and internalize it all before making her decision. Under her leadership, he added, the school is not only thriving, but getting stronger every day.

“Her focus on making Elmwood an academically excellent school is relentless,” he said. “The girls are absolutely number one for her. Every decision she makes is framed on what’s best for the girls, and she’ll challenge anybody on this. She doesn’t accept mediocrity. I think her biggest achievement is where we are right now—a school thatis academically top-notch, sustainable and growing. We are out-performing other schools in terms of our IB results, and have an international reputation for excellence.”

As Head, Cheryl Boughton brought stability to the school by establishing a positive and collegial learning environment, growing the enrolment, developing new revenue streams and reducing waste and inefficiencies. She has improved the quality of the academic program through effective teacher hiring, constant evaluation and mentorship, and by championing special
IB innovation teams to create new courses, expand interdisciplinary learning and increase opportunities for team teaching. On her watch, Elmwood became the first school in North America to offer all three levels of the IB Programme.

“I’m very open-minded with whatever path the girls eventually want to take,” she said. “We don’t always have a crystal ball that shows what opportunities will be out there for them, so the more we can teach them transferable skills, the more successful they can be anywhere.”

Cheryl said she is especially proud of her first five-year strategic plan, in 2009, that rearticulated the school’s values and outcomes for graduates, and adopted the current mission statement: To inspire each girl to reach her full potential. Creating that plan and sticking to it was exactly what the school needed, she said. Under her inspiring leadership Elmwood’s faculty has used global research on best practices to create a learning environment for the 21st century. As a result, Elmwood’s classrooms are vibrant with an excitement for learning that is shared by teachers and students alike. Cheryl’s decision to establish a school-wide commitment to design-thinking has had a transformational impact on student experience. Students from Kindergarten through Grade 12 now use design-thinking principles and collaborative opportunities to engage deeply and critically with the subject matter. Cheryl’s educational vision for Elmwood has also enabled teachers to learn from experts such as JoAnn Deak and Rachel Simmons to ensure that the latest brain research and exemplary practices for educating girls are infused into Elmwood pedagogy. As a result, Cheryl and her faculty have established a dynamic culture of continuous improvement that has positioned Elmwood as one of the foremost IB Continuum schools in North America. Cheryl’s educational vision now encompasses the School’s physical plant; she is overseeing Phase I of an innovative campus master plan to enhance the learning experience and to maximize the school’s resources.

“When we started refining the curriculum, and using new ways of thinking and engaging with people through design thinking, it was like we’d picked up an extra gear,” she said. “We’re in a different place now.” The campus master plan will be an exciting expression of this new reality.

It is exactly this type of boldness and flexibility in identifying, exploring and implementing leading-edge ideas in education and teacher development that current Board Chair Peter Hudson says is a key element of Cheryl’s success. It is also what helps keep Elmwood identified as one of the best IB schools in North America, and qualified as an Apple Distinguished School year after year.

“This was always a good school,” Mr. Hudson said, “but Cheryl had a lot of experience with the private school system in the UK and really pushed the academics. The academic outcome over the past 10 years is her greatest achievement.”

Mr. Hudson said that next to the academic success of the students, it is the sustainability of the school itself that is the Board’s highest priority. In fact, since 2008, Cheryl has led the school from deficit to strong annual surpluses each year in part by developing new sources of financial income, such as a summer camp for girls that generates both revenue and new enrolment. Her numbers are off the charts.

In 10 years, for instance, she has grown the annual giving campaign sixfold.

A major part of the sustainability initiative now includes a physical update for the Elmwood campus. With the Board’s mandate in hand, Cheryl collaborated with an architect to design the phased campus master plan to re-outfit the school’s classrooms and labs with everything that students and teachers need to succeed in a modern learning environment, and to start new construction to join the junior and senior school buildings. A new cafeteria and learning hub are also in the plan.

“We want Elmwood to be relevant and flourishing a hundred years from now,” Mr. Hudson said. “Cheryl understands the school, and she has confidence in her leadership team. When she proposes we go in a certain direction, we trust her lead. She has a lot of credibility.”

As if creating a supportive all-girls environment where students have the freedom to stretch themselves, learn to manage their setbacks and move on safely weren’t work enough, Cheryl somehow finds the time and energy to take on community leadership roles. She is a member of the CIS Ontario Board of Governors and Chair of the Programs and Services Committee, a member of the eLearning Consortium Canada Board, a member of the Rideau-Rockcliffe Community Resource Centre Board and a member of the Finance Committee as well as a member of the CAIS Accreditation Council.. She is also completing her Masters of Education degree through Queen’s University and has recently been elected to the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools Board of Trustees. It all adds up to a daunting workload, but Cheryl appears to take it in stride.

“I like to keep a personal journal where I can reflect and set goals, and I do yoga and listen to music,” she said. In their spare time, Cheryl and her husband also enjoy the cultural opportunities offered by life in the nation’s capital, and are frequent visitors to the NAC.

For the past 10 years Cheryl has had her feet firmly planted in the two vastly different worlds of tradition and innovation, and she seems to have found a workable balance.

“My job is the perfect mix of everything I love,” she said. “I consider leadership to be an evolving, exciting challenge, offering the potential to develop similar qualities in those on the journey with me.” Creating a shared passion for educational excellence with her faculty is one of Cheryls most significant achievements. “I’m so proud of everything our school represents and what we’ve achieved together.”

As Elmwood’s Head of School wends her way homeward across the parking lot at the end of the day to relax for a while with her husband David, who has his own busy schedule as Director of Capital Projects for The Ottawa Hospital, Cheryl Boughton should take comfort in the knowledge that the Elmwood community looks to her as the very embodiment of the school motto: Summa summarum—highest of the high— being the best she can be.

By Brian McCullough