Hudson College - Interview with School Leadership
There are many reasons parents choose to enroll their children at a private school, from family tradition to elite sports. Parents who choose Hudson College, however, are less interested in the extremes at the edges of the private education market, and more interested in the foundational elements of a strong academic program and a positive learning experience: consistent social support, a sense of community, the flexibility to address student interests, and a consistent approach to curricular development. Jeff Bavington founded the school “to be a place where students with all different interests can come and feel part of a larger community, feel at home, and where students themselves can help create" the school environment. And it is.
Hudson College is a coeducational day school for students from JK through Grade 12. The atmosphere is supportive and progressive, beginning with a Reggio Emilia preschool program that sets a tone of curiosity and collaboration that is carried through to the upper grades. Students are encouraged to engage with the entire spectrum of curricular and extracurricular programs.
The school was founded in early 2003, and Jeff Bavington, one of its founders, is the head of school. Jeff is young, still in his 40s, and during the playoffs you’re likely to catch him darting through the halls in a Blue Jays jersey as part of school spirit days. His route into education was perhaps a bit reluctant, and he is the first to admit that he didn’t initially intend to pursue a career in education. It was the family business—his father, mother, uncles and aunts were teachers. At family gatherings, he says, “that’s all I’d heard about.”
...a greater attention to individuals and a desire to support all students, not just those achieving in the upper percentiles
That said, that backdrop granted him a front row seat to some of the innovations that would, in time, be adopted across the breadth of elementary and high school education in Canada. His father was a principal at a large collegiate institute in Scarborough. Many of the ideals that informed his work there were considered alternative for the time, such as a greater attention to individuals and a desire to support all students, not just those achieving in the upper percentiles. Likewise, his father was aware that students could easily become lost within a student body that numbered in the thousands. He worked to change that, and Jeff clearly was impressed by the work his father did.
Many of the ideals that are expressed at Hudson—the “be yourself” banner over the entryway, for example—are direct expressions of the work Jeff’s father was doing in the 1970s and ’80s. Typical of other private schools that are young and founded by a single person, many of the school’s strengths come from the clarity of vision that Bavington brings.
The overall atmosphere is one of invention, curiosity, and community encouragement. “When you go to Hudson,” says parent Nicolette Linton, “it’s quiet but there’s a little hum of things going on.” The school is relatively small, with an annual enrolment in the mid 300s, which is a good place to be. Says vice principal Rose Bastien, “the school is big enough, while at the same time small enough, to let kids have a variety of experiences and opportunities.” Students don’t have to be great at sports, but they are expected to give some of them a try. The same is true of drama and the annual spelling bee. “A spelling bee can be stressful,” says Bavington, “but if it is done in the right way, the students learn that the risk of trying something new can be rewarding.” Because it isn’t a typical source of social currency, and sits outside the core curriculum, he feels planned events such as spelling bees can provide some unique opportunities for growing self-awareness around risk tolerance and dealing constructively with disappointment as well as success.
“If you put them in the right type of environment—an inclusive environment, one where they can see that the others around them care about their own success, too—they will have a natural want and need to improve”
That kind of approach has proven to be key to Hudson’s success. “Feeling good about oneself, persevering, facing some adversity and losses,” says Bavington, “those are commonalities across everything they’re doing. … Students will always have a desire to improve. If you put them in the right type of environment—an inclusive environment, one where they can see that the others around them care about their own success, too—they will have a natural want and need to improve themselves.”
“The class topics are enriched and very interesting” says Dylan Castle, a Grade 9 student in his first year at Hudson. “And if students are interested in the discussions, they will become engaged and not bored.” Castle is one of those students that is clearly engaged with what’s going on around him, like a light bulb floating in the middle of the room. He takes the TTC to school each day, and manages his time from there. And he loves it: both the independence that the school gives him, as well as the support.
Still, that sense of belonging is something that he returns to when speaking about the school. “I don’t have to worry about other kids thinking it’s strange,” he says about participating in class. He likes the Mac Book program—every student gets a laptop on admission, and it’s used intensively in class and out—but, while he doesn’t say it explicitly, he likes being in an environment where it’s cool to be engaged, outgoing, and to like school.
Henry Le arrived at Hudson in Grade 9, if a bit reluctantly. His sister had been at the school, and while he also was encouraged to enrol there, he admits that he didn’t want to leave his friends. (And there may have been a little bit of rebellion, he admits somewhat sheepishly as well—not wanting to do something that your parents tell you to). That changed with Grade 9. He says that he began to get a sense of how important the next few years were going to be, coupled with a growing awareness that he maybe didn’t have the skills he would need to really make the best of them. “A big thing was my study habits,” he says. “Being in a large public school, I had really poor study habits” and also lacked the kind of personal attention that could provide the impetus for improving them. The real difference he found, on arrival, was much like what Castle did: this is a place where social currency was, among other things, gained through academic engagement. “Being with teachers who wanted me to succeed” was a new and welcome experience.
And he did. He took Grade 12 courses in Grade 11. He joined more teams than he can bring to mind in a moment, and also was able to find time to play rep volleyball outside the school. He’s now in his final year, and, frankly, it’s been good. He’ll be going to McMaster next year, and from there into medical school—a level of success that he credits directly to his experience at Hudson.
The school is currently in its second location, having moved in its third year of operations. It occupies the former site of Earlscourt Public School, as well as schools that preceded it—there is a plaque on the red maple out front noting that there has been a school on the site since 1895. Hudson otherwise sits within a very established community of Toronto, one developed in the early 1900s.
The building itself is leased from the Toronto District School Board, and it was built with Earlscourt, rather than the Hudson programs, in mind. As such the building has all the hallmarks of urban public high school architecture: cinderblock walls, a yellow brick façade, a utilitarian feel. The classrooms, for the most part, have dimensions intended for a more didactic approach to instruction: longer than they are wide, with a clear front and back.
The property adjoins that of Stella Maris Catholic School, a separate school within the public system. The schools sit as neighbours, and share a play space quite successfully as well. “It’s a great symbol of Hudson,” says parent James Hyslop. “It’s a great case study on how two schools have worked to coexist.” The school is very much a part of the extended community, happily sitting within a diverse social and educational context.
“What matters is the kind of staff ... Each teacher is particularly unique ... They all have very unique interests ... they all have interesting lives that they bring to the school”
Adaptations have brought the building forward, making it more amenable to Hudson’s co-operative, experiential programs. Some adaptations are more successful than others. The Reggio Emilia–inspired classrooms within the preschool represent a valiant attempt to house an intimate, activity-based program within rooms that are utilitarian, institutional. The same is true of the senior student lounge on the third floor, where the couches, the foosball and table tennis tables, and the photos on the wall rankle a bit with the bright walls, high ceilings, and fluorescent lighting. In time, that will likely change, but because the building is leased from the TDSB, there is a bit of bureaucracy associated with every physical improvement. One example is significant improvements to the outdoor spaces, to better meet the needs of the physical education program. The project will be completed in the coming year.
Hudson doesn’t present as the stereotype of a private school, something that parents choose the school in light of or, at times, in spite of. Having graduated from one of the most storied, engineered, and moneyed private schools in the country—Lakefield College—Hyslop knows private schools well. As a student there, he came to love what private schools could offer, both at Lakefield and beyond. “Havergal’s got a beautiful pool,” he says. “I had incredibly fond memories as a boy, attending those schools for dances.”
That said, he and his wife toured those schools—the ones with history; exceptional, purpose-built physical plans; and ivy-covered walls. They chose to enrol their children at Hudson because, he says, “you realize that … what matters is the kind of staff that Jeff hires. Each teacher is particularly unique ... They all have very unique interests ... they all have interesting lives that they bring to the school, rather than trying to get away from the school. They bring that life experience in ... we went to this curriculum night, and my response was I really want to go back to the sixth grade.”
The academic program has been built with the understanding that contemporary children won’t have a single career over the course of their working life. Rather, they’ll move between careers, and between different fields. They’ll need a strong foundation in the core curriculum, though they’ll also need to be able to adapt to a range of environments, to adapt to new realities, and to work well with others. Certainly, that concept remains top of mind within Hudson administration. Says Bavington, “What we tell kids, especially in high school, is that the skill set we’re trying to give you—amongst the academic skill sets—is the transferability of different skills. Being flexible, having good communication skills, working well with people, being creative, being able to work independently, but being able to work communally too—because these are the types of things we feel, if you’re in certain sectors or different fields, that are going to be transferrable to other sectors or other fields.”
You’d be hard pressed to find a school that maintains a similar level of ongoing curricular introspection
The recent adoption of a new math program is a case study in how curriculum is assessed and developed. There was a growing sense at Hudson that the math program used in the public system wasn’t meeting the needs of students. That understanding became the impetus three years ago for a year-long study on the efficacy of that program and assessment of the various options. Bastien proceeded with an eye to student success and implementation, such as teacher instruction.
“The question I asked,” says Bastien, “was what are the skills needed to help our kids do well in high school? What skills should our kids have when going into middle school?” What she found was that kids not only need the academic skills, but also note taking, documentation, and executive functioning skills. This reflection resulted in the implementation of Hudson’s Middle School Preparatory Program, which formalizes and consolidates these skills for middle school students in order to better prepare them for high school and beyond.
Bastien came to the school as a Grade 2 instructor, though she has since been promoted to vice principal, head of curriculum, a position created specifically for her. “Every year we look at one aspect of the curriculum,” says Bastien, using the same process as they did with the implementation of the math program. This, frankly, is impressive, and you’d be hard pressed to find a school that maintains a similar level of ongoing curricular introspection. “Last year we looked at science,” says Bastien. “This year we’re looking at language. The focus is writing and critical thinking as well as enriching the curriculum. I brought in the tiered learning approach, again an American-based program. Rather than simply enriching by going a grade above, you enrich by going deeper.”
No school can reflect all possible interests, nor do they intend to, and that’s true of Hudson as well. The extracurricular programs are intended to support the entire student body, rather than to develop elite athletes or to engage in high-level competition. That’s a function of intent as well as the size of the school.
The school maintains that there is no one ideal student, and that’s perhaps true. By the same token, there are some students and families for whom Hudson may not be ideal. “They will never have a competitive hockey team,” says Hyslop. “If that’s your thing, there are better schools… If you want your kid to be a hockey player, it’s not the right place.” (This was particularly interesting to hear given that Hyslop was, himself, an elite athlete, and attended Lakefield on an athletics scholarship.)
In some ways the offerings are more varied and diverse than you might find in even a larger school. Partnerships with local businesses and the city allow the school to offer a range of activities, including robotics, martial arts, swimming, and skating.
The teachers, too, are seen as a vital resource for ancillary programming. While there are some core offerings that remain year to year, instructors are also encouraged to share their personal interests with the students. “They all have very unique interests,” says Hyslop. “One of the teachers works part time for the Maple Leafs, as a video guy,” something that he has shared with the students. “They all have interesting lives that they bring to the school, and rather than trying to get away from the school [at the end of the day], they bring that in.” For example, two of the staff created a cooking club last year, for which they brought in a professional chef to assist in their culinary skills.
The athletic program is broad, with an impressive list of activities on offer, particularly in light of the size of the school. There is a good range of facilities, and administration has been creative when building programs, reaching out to community partners to augment the offerings on campus, including alpine skiing, golf, martial arts, swimming and ice hockey.
There is a team-spirit granted to the athletics program, focussed on the Hudson Huskies. It provides a sense of identity and belonging within the program, as well as a sense of competition. The school has both house-league and intramural teams, and is a member of the Small Schools Athletic Federation (SSAF), an association of 65 area independent and private schools.
The outdoor education program, too, benefits from partnerships with established camps, including Camp Muskoka, Camp Wenonah, Bark Lake, and YMCA Camp Wanakita. Says Bavington, “I often found, as a child, I looked forward to the camps that I went to in school or in summer time and I wanted that to be a tradition here.” Students go up each year, “so they get to be outdoors, they get to do team building games, they cook morning breakfast at campfire, and do sing-alongs at night under the stars.” He gets a bit wistful saying that—he uses descriptors like “sojourn” when discussing these programs—which is as charming as the program itself. “There are always a few parents who will say to me, ‘Yes, but Jeff, they’ve never gone away from me, they’ve never gone anywhere,’ and I say, ‘ Well, that’s why we’re sending them.’ I see it as a growth experience.”
For many years the school has sent the grade 4 to 6 students to Camp Muskoka. The grade 7s and 8s attend the outdoor education program at Camp Wanakita, which represents a step up from the earlier years, and as kids grow through into high school, the trips become progressively more robust. The upper school makes annual trips to Bark Lake and other camps in the Haliburton Highlands, ultimately culminating in a true outdoor trip experience.
All of it, from physical recreation, to team sports, to outdoor education, has been developed as an expression of the core mandate of the school, namely to provide opportunities for students to grow their interests, to discover new ones, and to experience the full range of school life. The athletics mission is to provide a “variety of experiences in athletics while instilling the core values of physical literacy, respect, leadership and integrity.” “I encourage all our students to participate in our competitive and recreational programs,” writes the athletic director, Marco Reda, while also ensuring that “there is a place for everyone who wishes to participate.” It’s a very admirable goal, and parents confirm that the program succeeds in reaching it.
In math, Hudson scores within the top 99.3 percentile nationally. “I love that,” says Bavington, though he’s also quick to make some qualifications. “I don’t want it to be the only barometer of the school. Ultimately the teacher you put in front of your child that year, the resources you give that teacher, and the overall guiding philosophy that you put in place—those are truly the factors that are going to help your child be successful that year.”
“Some parents feel academics is the sole purpose to affix as the top priority for a school,” says Bavington, “what they can often forget, I think, is what it was like to be a teenager or a child. You want to do well at school, but you need other things to feel good about, which in turn helps your academics … Yes, we want to teach them well academically, and to build their academic skill set, but we don’t want to do that in a vacuum of other skills [such as] leadership skills, public speaking, trying out on an athletic team … we try to give them every opportunity to be able to try different things.”
And they do. Says Bavington:
“Part of it is really understanding the individual child, but also having the child, as they mature, understand themselves so they can address what they see as weaknesses. Writing is a good example. It’s a skill you have to practice all the time; it’s very rare to be an automatically good writer. The only way you do it is to constantly practice. And so we give students the opportunity to do that over time. It takes time and patience. It’s not a light switch—you can’t turn that student around immediately, but [rather] through a process of working with them individually, seeing some successes, and then building on those successes; so that part of their academic self-esteem will improve their overall attitude.”
“Math is one of the subjects tied most to self-esteem,” says Bavington. “If you feel poorly about your math skills, you tend to perform more poorly.” One route to confidence, esteem, and success, he feels, is through math.
“Oftentimes students, in the middle grades, will find some things challenging. Math is a good example. But to understand, over time, what presents a challenge for them in that particular subject will help build their academic skills. For some students, that challenge could be test taking; they could have test stress. For others, it could be the fact that they’ve arrived here and their underlying numeracy skills could be lacking. We find students who are brought through the public system—the Math Makes Sense program and discovery-based math approach that they use—in our opinion, doesn’t provide a good foundation in numeracy. So now, you’re in Grade 5, you have fractions, you have numerators and denominators, order of operations—and if you’re still trying to count on your fingers, or you’re still trying to find that 5 times 7 is 35 and you can’t do it automatically, math will become a very tough subject for you. So, a skill or a subject that could be a strength becomes a perceived weakness. And that perception of themselves, academically in that subject area, can really start to drive how they perform.”
That’s something Nicolette Linton found after moving her daughter Sasha to Hudson from the public system. Despite not having any academic problems, “her confidence was on the floor.” Linton describes Sasha as a very physical and visual learner, and those learning styles weren’t supported at her public school. “And now, four years later, this is a girl who has way more confidence to believe in herself. The academics are very important, obviously,” but weren’t the sole source of Sasha’s overall success.
“...now four years later this is a girl who has way more confidence to believe in herself.”
“As a founder and principal,” says Hyslop, “Jeff is incredibly accessible. One of the gifts that anyone who finds something that they love to do, being an educator and a role model for young students, his passion shines through. I know he’s really accessible to all the kids. He knows them all by name. I assume he knows all the parents. That only comes with a small school.”
Certainly, size can be a real benefit. Where larger schools institute advisory programs, in a smaller school, and with the right approach, individual attention is more consistent and comes with less effort. Hudson provides a good example. The environment is intimate, with a very rich interface between students and instructors. That sense of belonging is supplemented by the house system. Beginning in Grade 8, the students are placed within one of four houses on admission, and they remain within their assigned house throughout their time at Hudson. The houses are named after four of the major geographical regions of Canada: Maritimes, Great Lakes, Prairies, Rockies. The goal of the house system is to foster a sense of community, belonging, and camaraderie that encourages healthy competition, develops school spirit, and rewards positive actions initiated by students by awarding points for participation in extracurricular activities.
Parents are welcome to participate in all aspects of the life of the school, including everything from attending school events, to participating with in-class instruction
That said, as with curricular development, the administration is not keen to rest on their laurels. This past summer, Bastien looked at options for creating a peer mediation program to formalize dispute resolution between students, giving them strategies to work through issues that arise in their day-to-day lives. She enlisted one of the best: long-time educator Geraldine Mabin, who is also the founder of the Mabin School. “I asked her if she would come in and train our grade 7s,” and she did through her Friendship in Action program. The program promotes the development of positive social/emotional skills through interactive workshops in elementary schools.
“Children are resilient,” says Mabin. “Sometimes when they have to learn to adapt to a situation, that’s a good thing.” There were some lessons for the teachers as well, and otherwise some confirmation of the environment that has been created at Hudson. “If there’s a burst out of a room and they’re noisy,” says Mabin, “that’s often because they’ve been kept under wraps. They should be the same out of the classroom as in it.”
Friendship in Action has proved to be an excellent fit, and Bastien intends to bring the program, through Mabin, to other grade levels.
Parents are welcome to participate in all aspects of the life of the school, including everything from attending school events, to participating with in-class instruction. Some parents also choose to participate on the parent council, which meets regularly with an eye to the ongoing development of school practices and programs. Feedback in all forms is welcome.
Students are assessed in the typical metrics that we associate with private school admissions. All families are required to visit the school, and students from JK to Grade 8 are asked to spend a day there, attending classes as they would once enroled and completing an assessment that focuses on math and language skills. For students applying for the upper school (Grade 9 to 12), students are also asked to come in for an interview with the principal. The deadline for complete applications is March 1 for enrolment within the upcoming academic year. That being said, Hudson works with rolling admissions with applications being accepted at any time during the year. Applicants for key intake years—Kindergarten, Grade 7, and Grade 9—are advised to submit their applications as early as possible to ensure that a space will be available for them.
The admission process is clearly organized around fit, from both the family’s perspective as well as the school’s. “Every school is different,” says Bastien, “there’s a right school for every kid. So whether or not it’s our school, I think the most important thing for parents is to be able to say this is the right choice for my child.”
For the school’s part, they are looking for students who embody the values of the Hudson community and who are willing to avail themselves of all aspects of student life. They don’t have to be great in all things—and certainly no student is—but, as grade and age appropriate, they should be open to trying new things and discovering new things about themselves.
Fee schedules, of course, can vary widely between schools, often including a range of incidental costs and fundraising. Again, this is something that Hyslop knows intimately from experience, past and present. “Guys I went to Lakefield with who have kids at Lakefield say that it’s not the tuition that’s crippling—it’s the extra billing.” And while “other private schools are continually trying to fundraise … Jeff’s never asked for a penny.”
In part that’s because Hudson isn’t a not-for-profit institution, as many private schools are. That said, it also has a lot to do with being financially savvy, coupled with a desire to keep the fee schedules clear, fair, and free of any surprises. The only incidental above annual tuition is a $600 annual materials fee. Textbook costs are covered up until Grade 8.
“Cost was a factor for us,” says Nicolette Linton, though she has found the fee schedule to be fair and manageable. “It’s not a huge amount for what you’re getting,” she says in reference to the one-on-one care, the individual attention, and the quality of teaching that she’s seen since enroling her daughter four years ago in Grade 1.
...it also has a lot to do with being financially savvy, coupled with a desire to keep the fee schedules clear, fair, and free of any surprises
Initially, Hyslop’s wife wasn’t entirely sold on the idea that private school was the right thing for their daughter. “It took her some convincing. She would say that some of my negative qualities came from private school [laughs]. She was worried about the negative stereotypes that are associated with a private school education, and concerned that our kids didn’t become a cliché.” The results, however, were incontrovertible. “We put our daughter in and within weeks we saw her open up and grow. … It became a no brainer for our son to attend. … Above all, better than anything else, I see the difference the school has made in my children’s lives.”
The decision was ultimately not whether to go to private school, but whether to go to Hudson. No school is typical, and that’s certainly true of this one. “Jeff’s philosophy is that it’s not just about academics,” says Bastien. “It’s about friendship, and being able to experience [new things] … We would never say ‘no, you can’t be part of the play.’ We would find a place for that child. And I think that’s the beauty of the school. It’s just a really good place to grow up in. Kids are happy here. And what parent doesn’t want that?”
Hudson’s reputation is one for supporting learners who are capable, academically, but who have yet to find an environment that allows them to express their personalities and their interests. “One of the things that I’ve found particularly joyful in all my years of doing this,” says Bavington, “is seeing the wide array of students that we’ve had.” A story he likes to tell is when a boy was visiting the school with his parents and asked, “Mr. Bavington, can I like art and history here?”
“His reasoning was that he was already very tall, and he wasn’t that great at basketball. He wanted to learn more about art and history. At his previous school, everyone made fun of him, due to his perceived [lack of] athletic skills, and for him that became a defining element. He wanted to know from a 10 year old’s perspective, ‘Can I just be me?’” That child will graduate at the end of the current school year, and will be heading off to university to study art and history. It’s significant that, when asked about the ideal Hudson student, that’s the story that Bavington tells. Where some schools express their success in Rhodes scholars, or members of parliament, or professional athletes, for Hudson, the greatest barometer of success is an ability to allow children to grow in their own ways, to find their own voices, and to be themselves.
Photographs provided by Hudson College in combination with images by Peter Bregg for Our Kids Media