Written by John Southerst, edited by Allison Grande
A private school education demands commitment from students and their families. Days are full, expectations are high, and there is a financial burden to bear. What makes it all worthwhile?
There are different answers for different students. One advantage is smaller schools and classroom sizes, bringing familiarity among students and teachers. Academic excellence is always evident, usually in the context of a “holistic” education encompassing character and leadership.
Then there’s the plethora of co-curricular activities—arts, music, sports, outdoor education or activities such as environmental clubs, model UN, or coding and robotics. In these pursuits, private schools offer wide choices, often with the option of high-level competition.
“The unique aspect I have noticed is the enormous dedication to professional learning,” says Patti MacDonald, executive director of Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS), the accrediting organization for “independent schools” (the term used when private schools are not for profit). “There’s an unbelievable amount of time, money and thought put toward being leaders in education.”
It comes down to a commitment to the student, says Ed Kidd, headmaster at Ridley College, a K-Grade 12 co-ed International Baccalaureate (IB) boarding school in St. Catharines, Ont. Like many schools, Ridley emphasizes character-building and has introduced a strong dedication to wellness.
“It’s our driving strategy,” he says, noting the school has two dedicated mental-health professionals on staff and a “student success team” approach that includes working with guidance counsellors, teachers, coaches and heads of house to support students. “We talk about inspiring flourishing lives. We talk about positive emotions, being able to see the glass as half full and managing your response to externalities.”
Families may not be aware of the pressures on children today, he says. “We’re trying to be proactive because we’re close to the action and we see a lot of pressure on teenagers. We offer an outstanding global education, but it’s more than cognitive skills. We also need to focus on non-cognitive skills, developing resilience, grit and self-confidence through regular interaction with caring adults.”
That’s a recurring theme among private school educators. Branksome Hall, a JK-Grade 12 girls’ IB school in Toronto, emphasizes global engagement and even has a sister school in South Korea, but the emphasis on wellness is front and centre. Its 68,000-square-foot athletics and wellness centre opened three years ago with two pools, gym, yoga and dance studios, a high-performance fitness centre, dining and a rooftop terrace – all with open sightlines to encourage participation. The school also rejigged sleeping schedules and introduced healthy food options and “active life” activities.
“We knew if we could provide a catalyst for wellness, we were setting our girls up for lifelong success,” says principal Karen Jurjevich. This year, she says, the school is looking deeply into social-emotional learning, a concept that emphasizes mental health and building relationships.
At Lakefield College School, a co-ed school of 365 students near Peterborough, Ont., outdoor activities foster a healthy mindset. “Nature makes us healthier, happier and more creative,” says head of school Anne-Marie Kee, adding that it’s a reason many schools now restrict access to phones. Lakefield’s recently enhanced lakefront campus puts canoeing, kayaking and outdoor expeditions within easy reach. All students are outdoors every day.
Again, Kee says, the success of the school’s emphasis on character comes back to time for inner reflection. At the school’s regular “chapel talk,” many Grade 12 students use the time to address fellow students. “So many times, there’s not a dry eye in the school. They’re thanking their parents, grandparents and friends. Sometimes, I can’t believe this is my job.”
She says many stereotypes of the present generation of teenagers are wrong, but you need to get to know them. “That’s when the importance of relationships becomes apparent. They will always give you the straight goods. Of course, they want to look and be perfect, please their parents, and there can be loneliness and sadness. But they don’t shy away from the big issues. It can be humbling.”
Perhaps that is the biggest differentiator of all: the ability to care, deeply, about their students.
Q&A: Experience and Character
Independent schools often talk about their ability to grow the person – character – as well as the intellect. Innes van Nostrand, principal of Appleby College in Oakville, Ont., shares his insights into this complex endeavour.
Q: How do you teach character in school?
A: First of all, we have the right setting. Independent schools by their nature are relatively small, so we’re able to deliver a greater degree of individual attention. The kids are known. Not just the high-flyers and those who struggle, but also the second and third quartile students. If they have a challenge, we give them the confidence that they can talk to an adult and peers, in order to feel comfortable solving it.
Q: When talking about character, what’s the starting point?
A: It starts with personal confidence and self-understanding. You have to allow young people to develop the skills to be successful, so they feel good about themselves. It is essential for them to have the outlook to be a good person, be a good neighbour, be a contributing member of a community. In addition to classroom discussions, we provide that through conversations, community work, global and outdoor education. Looking back, I find that when I ask alumni what was most important in their development, they usually identify a challenging experience – a cultural trip, a service trip, a tough game or solving a big problem. What teachers refer to as “experiential education.”
Q: How do you use that experience?
A: The challenge is to reflect on it and infuse those conclusions into your approach going forward. You ask them to talk about how it went, what virtues it called upon. If it didn’t go well in some way, why and what would have made it work better? There’s time to reflect. Our winter camping expedition is a good example. Ninety per cent of them fear it; all of them do it. Many like it, some don’t – but they’re all proud of it. They’ll talk about the frustrations – of being offline or the tough, menial work in the face of being cold and wet. Some talk about being miserable, but someone else stepped forward and really helped them. Overcoming it becomes self-affirming. The most difficult experiences are the best teachers.
Innovators in Learning
Among private schools’ most compelling advantages is the talent, resources and freedom to innovate. As any headmaster will tell you, what happens in the classroom is critical. Curriculums are set by provincial ministries of education, but with research and better means of sharing best practices, many new teaching methods have come to the fore with private schools leading the way.
Elmwood School in Ottawa bills itself as one of North America’s most innovative girls’ schools. Driving this claim is its embrace of “design learning,” an application of the “design thinking” problem-solving framework developed at Stanford University’s d.school and design consultancy IDEO.
In the classroom, design learning engages students as intelligent participants. Working through set phases of immersion, synthesis, ideation, prototypingand feed-forward, students and teachers brainstorm, connect concepts, generate and share ideas and come up with solutions that they gradually improve in iterations. “The students drive it,” says Cheryl Boughton, head of school. “Students become ‘problem finders’ where not all the information is readily available.”
A Grade 3 class learning about structures decided they wanted to know how birds’ nests are built. They looked at an actual nest, tried to copy it, failed and realized they needed mud to hold it together – a critical ingredient and a critical lesson. An older class in a unit on sound and light interviewed students and discovered difficulties in falling asleep. So they developed a prototype for a pillow that plays music.
“What’s interesting is that it teaches students to take control of their learning,” says Boughton. “You can create missing data with research, and the girls share their research readily. It also teaches ideation and prototyping. They learn how to pitch and sell their ideas to others, and they learn how to hold ideas lightly and allow them to be made better by others’ feedback.”
Boughton says design learning has been so successful that it’s used more widely by the school to improve curriculum delivery, course offeringsand overall school culture. “It has utterly changed my school.”
Cohorts on a mission
St. George’s School, a day and boarding school of 1,150 students in Vancouver, prides itself on boy-centred 21st-century learning, essentially the ability to collaborate, communicate and think analytically and creatively. For boys, focus is sometimes a challenge, and relevance of what is being learned is important. Headmaster Tom Matthews believes the school’s Grade 10 cohort program provides a good example of their approach to teaching boys.
Grade 10 students may choose between one of four different cohort programs, each including 20 boys and a team of dedicated teachers. Connect 10 focuses on global stewardship; Discovery 10 on outdoor education; Express 10 on the performing arts; and Fusion 10 on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
A core group of four teachers works with each cohort. “The boys really get ‘known’ by their teachers,” says Matthews. “The idea is over the course of the year to do a deep dive into their area of interest by participating in an intensive, experiential learning experience. It’s real-world and in-depth.”
Each student undertakes a year-end project that includes original research, and each cohort gets a culminating group experience: a field trip to Vancouver Island for Connect; an extended adventure expedition for Discovery; a dramatic performance and road trip for Express; and an intensive learning experience at the University of Waterloo for Fusion.
“It has affirmed that learning is most effective for boys when it has real-world connections,” says Matthews.
Kids and robots
Kingsway College School, an elementary school in Toronto, has learned that kids love robots.
Kingsway introduces coding in kindergarten and runs coding clubs from Grade 2 up. Also from Grade 2, it’s being incorporated into an increasing number of subjects, including an extensive LEGO EV3 challenge for all Grade 7 students that’s been running for 10 years. An increasing number of competitive and non-competitive coding teams, clubs and electives, including participation in the First LEGO League, are offered as students get older.
But it’s not just a school for techno-nerds. Andrea Fanjoy, assistant head of academics, says the school is committed to four pillars of academics, arts, athletics and citizenship and has unique programs in each area So why coding? “We embraced it four years ago not just to make it available to kids who are interested and not because we think that’s where the jobs will be,” she says. “It’s because we wanted to develop lifelong learners and successful habits. Coding has infinite possibilities for creativity. It encourages disciplined and algorithmic thinking.”
It begins with block-based coding with “Dash and Dot” robots in kindergarten. In higher grades, the school utilizes additional online resources, internal expertise, and external providers who come to the school to help teach programming languages, provide support in its Makerspace, and give instruction in using Arduino, a prototyping platform for electronics. “When you make these tools available, children understand them very quickly and run with them,” says Fanjoy.
Global Education: The World At Your Door
Private schools are uniquely able to make the world a classroom through international affiliations with other schools, student exchanges, service and adventure trips, attendance at global conferences and diverse student populations from around the globe.
“A focus on global competencies is more important than ever as education and societal predictability change,” says Chris Shannon, headmaster at Lower Canada College in Montreal. “To prepare kids to be successful in today’s world, they have to feel grounded in different cultures.”
The school is well placed to fulfill that mandate. Its elementary school conducts half its classes in French and many courses are available in French in the senior school, which also offers a rich program in third languages such as Spanish and Mandarin. It also pursues an International Baccalaureate program, overseas service trips, student exchanges in Grades 8, 9 and 10, and membership in the international Round Square organization, an affiliation of about 200 schools worldwide stressing global citizenship and collaboration.
Through Round Square, students can participate in regional and international exchanges, leadership conferences and service projects in different age categories. Last September, a group of six LCC students attended a Round Square symposium in Cape Town, South Africa, addressing a drought possibly exacerbated by climate change that could lead to the city actually running out of water.
“Their experience coloured the dialogue of the six kids [in Grades 10 and 11],” says Shannon, adding that it became a jumping-off point for broader global citizenship and sustainability studies. “It was used as a case study in our certificate of sustainable global leadership program” – a special certification for senior students at the school who must meet certain international study, seminar, travel and essay qualifications.
The international component has become so important that many schools are expressing a desire to give every student an outside-Canada experience. At Appleby College, it’s now a requirement. “We have always offered a blend of international experiences,” says principal Innes van Nostrand, “Now, every student by graduation must have international experience through Appleby.”
This is covered by tuition, and students can choose the year and the experience – intercultural, adventure trekking and service trips, academic exchanges of four to eight weeks, and Round Square conferences.
While excellent international opportunities are available at many schools, Branksome Hall in Toronto has taken a novel approach to overseas affiliation. An IB girls’ school of some 900 students – including about 60 mostly international boarders – Branksome Hall actually has a sister school on the South Korean island of Jeju.
A global mindset is a key part of the school’s education strategy, says principal Karen Jurjevich. This fits with the school’s IB focus from JK to Grade 12, so when Branksome Hall was approached by the South Korean government to be part of a global education village on Jeju, there again was a fit.
They call it the Global Leaders Program. Students begin working with their Korean counterparts in
Grade 8, doing some curriculum units together. In September of Grade 9, the Korean students come to Toronto, where the focus is on arts and literature, working with the Integrative Thinking team at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. There’s also an outdoor-education segment in northern Ontario.
When the Canadian girls visit South Korea in February, the curriculum becomes STEM-themed, with a focus on integrative thinking and leadership. In teams with their Korean counterparts, students build wind turbines – appropriate in the windy environment of Jeju Island.
This year, with political tensions in the region, the school took a different tack. Demonstrating an admirable ability to quickly organize international connections and resources, the school set up a week-long trip to Silicon Valley with a focus on women entrepreneurs in technology and innovation in the fields of energy, environment, transportation, health and inequality.
“Our students really see themselves as global citizens,” says Jurjevich. “It’s a lens through which to apply all disciplines.”
Q&A: A Parent To All
Many parents worry about who will actually look out for their child in boarding school. Teens can take a wrong turn. Who will notice? Lakefield College School’s John Runza is assistant head of school life. He is also an Anglican priest.
Lakefield has 265 boarders among its 365 co-ed Grade 9 to 12 students. While every teacher at Lakefield is dedicated to students’ well-being, Runza is the one who steps in when someone isn’t making wise life choices.
Q: Do the kids view you as the “good” policeman?
A: It’s like mission work. Working with youth is at the edge of the sacred and the profane. Kids see me as both a pastor and a parent to all. We’re a small school and we’re all pretty close. So my conversations are not just about rules. We care about them. There’s affection and respect.
Q: How do you get to know them?
A: I live on campus, and I talk to their leadership classes and conduct regular “Grove time” [reflection] sessions. But I’m always around teenagers and I’ve been doing this for years, so I can see the signs when something isn’t right. I also do orientation sessions to make them aware of rules we have – some of our international students may have different cultural attitudes toward beer, wine or smoking.
Q: What happens when there’s a problem?
A: When there’s a problem, I work with our permanent on-staff health and counselling support staff to talk one-on-one. I see it as guiding them to who they want to be versus what they should be doing.
It’s one of the value-adds of coming to an independent boarding school. We can be more informed and capable of taking action than many parents are, or than what’s available in the public system, because we have people here 24-7 who know what’s going on in the sub-culture.
Q: What’s your top challenge these days?
A: Vaping. It’s a new technology marketed and intended to distribute nicotine to kids. A small cartridge can be equivalent to a pack of cigarettes. Kids blow through them sometimes in an hour. A lot of parents think it’s better than smoking cigarettes and don’t know how detrimental the effects of vaping can be.
Outdoor Education: Outside the Box
Many private schools give their students opportunities to learn about the outdoors – and themselves – on staff-led expeditions or in the natural environments that are part of many schools’ settings.
Meadowridge School in Maple Ridge, B.C., is one such school, blessed with 27 on-campus acres of forest, fish-supporting waterways, gardens and two greenhouses in the Fraser River Valley. Its setting is unique in the midst of some of the most fertile land in British Columbia.
An IB Continuum school with 625 students from JK to Grade 12, Meadowridge is well suited to “experiential learning” that’s entwined with the academic programs of all grades. Connecting its forest to campus is a 1.5-acre garden. Tended by students and staff, it supplies beans, cucumbers, kale, lettuce and many other vegetables for the enjoyment of students, families and even the school cafeteria. Alongside, a greenhouse outfitted with computer-controlled lighting, water feed and temperature control bustles with students conducting experiments comparing variable conditions. There’s also a hydroponic unit that can replicate the productivity of many acres of land.
“Some of their work is directed and some is self-directed,” says headmaster Hugh Burke. “They are expected to conduct multiple independent inquiries between Grades 5 and 12.”
A creek winds through the forest itself, part of a ravine the school restored using indigenous plants. Students frequent a network of trails and bridges crossing the creek for everything from orienteering exercises to plant identification, reforestation, erosion studies, or water cycle observation. There’s even a campground for about 15 tents with an outdoor kitchen and fire pit for longer stays.
Subject disciplines tend to intertwine in the outdoors, says Burke. “Kids’ experiments in their sciences often bleed into their cultural geography course, economics and so on.”
The setting affects every aspect of school life. Classrooms have doors directly to the outdoors, and classes are conducted both indoors and outdoors with canopies for days when it rains. Students in Grades 6 to 12 have two weeks a year of “classrooms without walls.” Not to mention camps, expeditions as a class, and international service trips such as supporting animal sanctuaries in Northern Thailand.
“There is concern that modern education is centred in classrooms using computers, while children learn best by moving,” says Burke. “For us, outdoor education presents a way for kids to become much more independent and resilient and also more compassionate with a greater understanding of the world.”