St. John's-Kilmarnock School - Interview with School Leadership
SJK was founded in 1972 in response to some of the larger education trends in Ontario coming out of the 1960s, a period of marked educational and social reform. The mission was to offer a rigorous academic program, based in the liberal arts, and founded in a clear set of humanist values. “The founders really felt that we needed more of a focus on the traditional things,” says Maureen Buchanan, Director of Upper School. “Music and the arts program was huge. Science was really big. But academics as a whole were fundamental,” and that remains a defining feature of the program offering today. The later innovations—most obviously the adoption of the International Baccalaureate (IB) across the school, a program that is academically rigorous while also embracing arts and service—were an expression of that initial ideal.
Video: Our Kids editor Glen Herbert speaks about the programs, traditions and culture at St. John's-Kilmarnock School.
Today the school includes a Lower School, comprising Junior Kindergarten through grade 6, and an Upper School, comprising grades 7 through 12. While SJK has never formally described itself as a country day school, in some ways it nevertheless reflects many of the ideals of those that do. The country day school movement, first developed in the late 19th century, is based in creating learning spaces that are inflected with some rural ideals: quiet, collaborative, community based, and including an interface with nature. It experienced a period of renewed growth in the 1960s and 70s, in part because of some of the educational developments that were in the air at the time. There were good things, such as a move away from matriculation exams, though not all advances were equally embraced, such as a move toward alternative styles of instruction. The founders envisioned SJK as a reasoned response to all of it, one not so readily inclined to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
The school grew and developed considerably over the years, now occupying the property that was acquired in 1988. It was a blank slate—there were no buildings of any significance on the site when it was purchased—and therefore the facilities have been constructed entirely to meet the needs of the SJK program in general and the IB specifically. Recent development, completed in 2016, has further affected much of the entire campus. The addition of a learning commons added a unique focal point for school life, one that includes a cafeteria, meeting space, and a library. The outdoor play spaces, too, reflect very recent development, all of it sympathetic to the culture and growth of the school, including the addition of a boathouse to house the environmental education activities. The additions were wisely carried over into the existing facilities, and visitors would be hard-pressed to find the divisions between the old and the new. Throughout, the presentation is crisp, modern, seamless, and up-to-date.
“... what started as a family or two has now grown into a larger group of families—with the intent of developing and introducing a foundation whose sole purpose is to focus on innovation in teaching and learning.”
The location was chosen not only for what it offered in terms of space, but also for its proximity to the communities that the school was serving: Guelph, Cambridge, and Kitchener-Waterloo, all of which are within a 20- to 30-minute drive. As such, the school is transportation dependent. “It’s a commitment to get here,” says Buchanan. “We’re not a neighbourhood school,” something that also contributes to the feel of life on campus.
The current head of school is Jeff Aitken, and he moved into the role in 2014. Prior he spent most of his career abroad teaching in international schools. It was specifically through that experience that he became more acquainted with the IB, and was inspired to pursue a career in its delivery. He did that for 17 years at IB schools in Malaysia, Singapore, Venezuela, and the UK. He was drawn back to Canada because of SJK and its clear interest in developing the program for the Southern Ontario context. His developing family was likely a factor as well, and he now has two children who attend the school.
Aitken speaks with a calm confidence, and is clearly a very natural leader of the best kind: one who is interested in listening as much as speaking. His office is meticulously neat, which probably is also a hint to how he conducts himself within his current role. What will likely continue to distinguish his tenure at the head of the school is both a trust in international learning and a desire to look forward in developing the school’s core programs. “Our potential for the future is related to teaching and learning,” says Aitken. “We’ve been working very closely for a little more than three years with a group of families—what started as a family or two has now grown into a larger group of families—with the intent of developing and introducing a foundation whose sole purpose is to focus on innovation in teaching and learning.”
While still early days for the current plan, some of the initiatives are already having an impact, including a dedication to passion-lead professional development and a teaching mentorship program for new graduates from teacher’s college. Both have been supported by staffing—eight newly-qualified teachers hired in 2017, for one—and dedicated roles, including a new portfolio for director of teaching and learning, Karen Baird.
Aitken says that “this foundation will really take us to the next level over the next five years.” Given the distance already covered, as well as the momentum that he has put behind it, no doubt it will. The tag line for the current capital campaign is “Inspired teachers inspire students,” and Aitken takes that concept to heart. “The most we can do for our school is to focus on and develop the relationships between our teachers and students, and teachers’ professional development is key to that.”
The current development plan will be completed in 2020, and is based in consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, including board members, parents, faculty, and alumni. The plan is seen as an opportunity in part to take stock, to highlight an ongoing vision for the school, and to increase the school’s visibility outside its immediate catchment area.
The priority is development rather than growth. “We’re not aiming to turn into a school that is 700 or 800 or 900,” says Aitken. “We’re very proud of our community, the type of community we have, the way they interact with one another,” including that between the Lower and Upper Schools. “We have events where JK is interacting with grade 11, and grade 9 is doing a pond-study project with grade 3 … in my experience—I’ve come from some very large schools—and these sort of connecting activities don’t always happen in some of the bigger schools. I think it’s something unique about our community and we want to retain that. It’s part of who we are. … There are no plans to build massive buildings and huge boarding facilities … we want to focus on what we have and developing what we have.” For parents, all of that is understandably very nice to hear. Nicole Brock is an alumnus of the school, an experience that, perhaps more than anything, was the impulse to enroll all four of her children. She wanted them to learn and grow within a personal, responsive, values-based environment. “A place where your voice is heard,” as she describes it.
David Bennett graduated from SJK in 1985, and confirms that the most significant period of growth is, for the moment anyway, in the past. “[T]he school has evolved immensely. It is, quite frankly, a different school in all but name, [though] the principles of a strong community and breadth of experiences remain intact.” Bennett enrolled his children there, and he sits on the board of governors.
The idea for the school, including its academic profile, was first described at a meeting in Elora in November of 1971. Soon afterward a board was formalized, and in September 1972 the first classes were held within the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Elora. There was no formal association between the church and the school beyond the community that gave it a context, shared space, and shared values.
The impulse to found the school was ad hoc, and care was clearly given to ensure that it presented as organized and efficient, with all the various ducks in a row. And, in every way, they were. The Ontario Legislature passed the St. John’s School (Elora) Act on April 25, 1972, after which it was given royal assent; the school was then dedicated on November 5, 1972, by the Bishop of Niagara, the Right Reverent J.C. Bothwell.
Certainly, if you want to inspire confidence at the creation of a new school, that’s how you do it. Where some schools are created in a series of unrelated stages, St. John’s (its name for the first 12 years) had a clear mandate from the beginning, to which it has been faithful throughout its life. Then as now the mission was to serve the community it sat within, adding an important piece to the regional educational mosaic. St. John’s would offer a challenging academic environment that would inspire and support students toward the values of ethical citizenship and community leadership. There has always been an association with the Anglican Church, though the intention was to use that faith tradition as a starting point, rather than an end point, underwriting the values that inform the life of the school, including respect for oneself and others.
The school is based on the Anglican model, though is not a parochial school by any means. There is a morning service a few times a week, and held in the chapel, though the feel is that of a school-wide assembly. It’s a time to celebrate the members of the school community, their accomplishments, and to underscore the foundations of the community they all share. Rev. Canon Robert Hulse is one of the founders of the school, has been Chaplain since 1972, and remains involved in the life of the school today. He teaches World Religions to the Lower School students, a course designed to give them an appreciation of the full range and diversity of faith traditions.
The school quickly grew beyond the capacity of the church. A girl’s school, St. Margaret’s, was founded in 1976, and in 1981 a co-ed secondary school was opened in Waterloo. By 1985 the school had a shared name, St. John’s-Kilmarnock, inhabiting a number of leased buildings, including houses within a radius of 30 kilometres. While the program was academically and socially strong, the division across the various properties created some redundancy within the overall infrastructure, and was becoming a stumbling block to a consistent delivery of the curriculum. A dedicated property would be necessary to the maintenance of the range and quality of the academic and extracurricular offerings. The current property was purchased, a 36-acre lot in Breslau that included green space and the remnants of a quarry. That there are no traces of the quarry today is rightly a point of pride. “It’s a great environmental story,” says Marda van Niekerk, Associate Director of Enrolment. And it is. The campus was dedicated in 1990 by Reverend Bothwell as well as Lincoln Alexander, then the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario (and soon to be named chancellor of the University of Guelph).
“There has always been an association with the Anglican Church, though the intention was to use that faith tradition as a starting point, rather than an end point.”
Through decades of growth and development, the original mission statement for the school has remained intact and continues to drive development of the facilities and the programs they house. That includes the growth of the IB programme, with SJK one of just six schools in Ontario offering the entire IB spectrum, and for the moment the only one in Southwestern Ontario.
The IB distinguishes SJK, both within the school’s immediate catchment area and beyond, and is a draw for many families. “The IB programme meant a lot to my husband and I,” say parent Meena Sharify. “We appreciate global pedagogy,” and certainly they’re not alone in that among the school’s parent populationIt’s one of a relative handful of schools in the country that offers it exclusively, absent of a stream for the provincial curriculum. The result is an opportunity to really focus all the activity of the school on the delivery of the IB, both in terms of infrastructure—spaces tailored, for example, to the collaborative elements—as well as supporting the values that undergird it—an international perspective, experiential learning, project-based instruction, and peer collaboration. “I think the IB programme is a benefit to the school because of the way it’s taught,” says parent Jennifer Shingler, “the ideology behind it.”
Classes are small, with teachers working alongside students rather than lecturing from the front of the room. The school has been experimenting with classroom organization, and has furnished one with modular furniture. “Everything can back away, roll away,” says van Niekerk “we’re just trying it out,” noting that the trial has been successful, and more classes will be updated with similar furniture in the coming years. Included are a range of seating options, including rocking stools, and students are free to choose among them.
Smartboards are used throughout the school. The Lower School provides Google Chromebooks for use in classroom, and in the Upper School students bring their own devices. They are used within some strict guidelines, one of which is that no devices are used in the dining hall during meal times. “They are allowed to use cellphones outside of class, but aren’t allowed to use them during class times. We ask that kids don’t bring any devices into the dining hall. It’s family time for us. We have to speak to each other and get along! So devices do get confiscated.” That policy differs from that of many private schools, though one that is appreciated by parents and, perhaps begrudgingly, by the students as well. “They’re actually talking to each other,” says parent Krista Heinze. “You don’t see a lot of kids walking around on their cell phones. They talk to each other. It’s so nice to see that.”
“It’s a conceptually driven program,” says Anne Beveridge, “so we’re teaching to big ideas and concepts. And what we find—anecdotally, incidentally, and through the research—is that kids who learn in this way have deeper and more enduring understanding as they mature.” It’s not just teaching the content, but also how the content relates across curricular areas, authentically, with the lives of the students and beyond. “It really does help develop that outward thinking that we want our kids to have. So they’re not just thinking about themselves and their own experience, but also how that affects them outside of the school.”
“Our belief is that the best way to teach the fundamentals is when things are contextualized, are relevant—you can connect them to other things that make sense to you.”
“Our belief is that the best way to teach the fundamentals,” says David Newman, “is when things are contextualized, are relevant—you can connect them to other things that make sense to you—and so that really underlies that IB philosophy.” Behind the fundamentals, for Newman, who is Chair of Arts, is understanding the process, but understanding the thinking that goes into them. “You’re not just being taught how to read and write, add and subtract. You’re also being taught how to think about those things.”
Everything is a balance, and the program at SJK has navigated it particularly well. Students aren’t required to parse sentences, say, but they do need to know the basics and be able to apply them. “I think it says something about a person when you’re attentive to detail,” says Anne Beveridge in relation to written work, including a correct deployment of spelling and grammar. “It denotes a certain level of respect for yourself and the people who are going to be reading your work.”
There are big ideas, too. Theory of knowledge is a required course, per the IB curriculum, for all students in the diploma programme. “It’s essentially a kind of philosophy course,” says Newman, “but it’s also something that underlies every other course in every other subject area. We are expected to make connections between our subjects and theory of knowledge. So there’s always that sense of how things connect.”
It’s perhaps easy to see that the whippersnappers, in particular, will thrive at SJK, though there is a demonstrated attention to a broader spectrum of learner. “The IB programme, particularly at the diploma level, is often perceived as an elite academic program,” say Aitken, “which isn’t fair. It is actually a program that is designed for all. It’s just that, as a school, you’ve got to offer enough different subjects so that there’s enough differentiation for all of your students. So that a student that doesn’t necessarily have the interest to be doing physics, chemistry, and biology has an opportunity to do, maybe, biology and dance and business. That differentiation is very important. We want every student to have his or her own path, and we do that through subject offerings” and service-based projects. Can you be a happy and fulfilled b-student within the SJK program? Aitken answers “absolutely” without taking a beat. “There is this perception, and this impression, that all of our students need to take an academic path. [Rather] we celebrate those students who are opting to take [for example] a college-level design course, or a college-level woodworking course.” The rate isn’t high, perhaps, though it’s nice to see that, both at the administrative and faculty levels, room is made for academic diversity.
“I practice what I do,” says Catherine Paleczny, art instructor for the Upper School. She has studied in Calgary, Michigan, Japan, and Australia, and has been artist in residence at the Banff Centre, the International Ceramic Center in Denmark, the International Ceramic Sculpture Symposium in Poland, and the Experimental Sculpture Factory in China. Her works are found in collections around the world, and she is currently completing her seventh public sculpture in the K-W area, a piece for the Conestoga ION rapid-transit station.
That can seem unique—it’s true that most high school teachers are not also practicing in their fields of expertise—though it’s actually somewhat typical of the hiring practices at SJK. The school takes pride in retaining faculty that are active beyond their work within the school. Chris Cigolea, in addition to teaching at SJK, is the Conductor of the Guelph Youth Symphony Orchestra, Music Director and Conductor for Guelph Concert Band, Principal Trumpet for the Guelph Symphony Orchestra, and trumpet instructor at the University of Guelph. His trumpet solo album "Tribute to An Idol" was nominated for a Juno award in 2006. International teaching experience is valued as well. Anne Beveridge, for example, has taught at international schools in Germany, Saudi Arabia, China, Venezuela, and directed the PYP programme at Branksome Hall Asia, in Singapore, before becoming the director of the Lower School at SJK.
All of that—the international experience, the expertise—adds an authenticity to the student experience. “They are very engaged in what they teach,” says parent Jennifer Shingler. “They believe in it as well. I have yet to have a teacher that isn’t interested in what they’re teaching.”
“That ability to be involved in things outside the school does give you something back,” says Newman. “Part of our belief is that being involved, yourself, obviously informs the work that you do and the approach that you have with students.” Students grow into an awareness of the kinds of things that people do, through a relationship with people who actually do them. “There’s a level of credibility, and that sense that people actually do this outside of school. It isn’t just something that you learn in a classroom.”
“What kinds of things can we bring to our classrooms every day ... that will help our students learn and grow?”
It also increases the interface between the activity of the surrounding communities and the work within the school, something that is a priority supported through active administration. The goal is to reach a bit further than whatever the curricula might allow. “What kinds of things can we bring to our classrooms every day,” asks Karen Baird, “that will help our students learn and grow?” That question has been formalized in Baird’s role as director of teaching and learning, as well as in the concept promoted under the umbrella of passion-led professional development: faculty are supported to explore their personal interests, and challenged to find the means of bringing them into the classroom. More than a concept, it’s a program that Baird has developed and supports through her office. “We’re trying to bridge out … [to] community fellowships or connections where teachers can go to a business or a factory and learn about, maybe, idea generation, or design processes [and so on] and how they work in the real world.” She admits that, within any school, there can be a sense of isolation. “We want to break out of that silo and go and explore what’s really happening in the world, and then bring that back to our students.”
Baird’s position is a new one, though signals the direction that the school is taking in developing the faculty. At its core is an awareness that professional development can mean different things to different people, most obviously between those who have been teaching for decades and those new to the faculty—they have different requirements, and Baird is tasked within addressing them. While newer teachers take part in general professional development, say, more seasoned teachers are encouraged to develop higher-order thinking and teaching strategies, including workshops and courses specific to their personal areas of interest. At the end of the day, the intention is to, again, bring authentic experiences and expertise into the classroom.
Indeed, it’s that aspect of the school that attracted Baird herself to SJK. She says, “I loved the fact that we were given a certain amount of autonomy about what we taught and how we taught it. And we’re given a huge amount of support from our faculty and from our families too. Which just brings back the joy to the teaching.”
She and other faculty have found a welcome flexibility in what they’re able to offer students, informed particularly—as in Baird’s case—by a previous teaching career within the public system. “Every year in grade 3 you taught this, and every year in grade 4 you taught that … At this school we’re able to think more conceptually. We’re able to say ‘let’s take this and this and put it together because that makes sense—it’s a big enduring understanding—and it gives us more flexibility to shuffle things around.”
The outcomes of the provincial curriculum are certainly met and exceeded, though they are met in different ways and, at times, at a different schedule or pace. French instruction, for example, begins at SJK in junior kindergarten, rather than grade 4 per the provincial curriculum. Therefore, “we can’t follow those grade 4 expectations in grade 4,” says Baird, “so we shift them down and we do them in much earlier grades, because that’s when our students are doing them. … We love the fact that we can do what we need to do, and more.”
“They still have to learn multiplication and division ... Memory work being good for the brain: There is a part of us that needs that kind of stimulation. But to have it alone, by itself, would be meaningless.”
That’s emblematic of the IB programme, though also of the ways that SJK chooses to promote it. “You teach to concepts, but you need the content to really hang your hat on. The content has to be conceptualized, but what we do is we start with the conceptual piece, and the content and the skills pieces fit into that. You can’t have one without the other: you can’t teach conceptually without having something real and meaty to get your hands into.”
“They still have to learn multiplication and division,” says Anne Beveridge, “Memory work being good for the brain: There is a part of us that needs that kind of stimulation. But to have it alone, by itself, would be meaningless.” She voices a thought that seems to be shared generally among the faculty: “There’s a time and a place for everything.”
Each of the IB programmes ends in a culminating project, presented at the Exhibition, that students work on over the course of their final year within each programme. “It’s totally student-driven,” says Carey Gallagher, the MYP director, who was overseeing the setup of the exhibition when we visited the library. “They figure out what their passions are, and we develop their lines of inquiry, questions. They’ve been off campus visiting places and talking to experts. A group went to the humane society. We have a group looking at brain health, so they’ve been to SHIFT, which is a concussion clinic. We have a group that went to 10000 Villages and a fair trade coffee shop. One group connected with a skype call with the Vancouver aquarium to talk about animals in captivity.”
They’re big topics. Child labour, animal cruelty, consumerism, environmental impacts. The intention is the develop the students’ curiosities and interests, empowering them to contribute to a solution within their communities, and to develop leadership opportunities within the school.
The school supports the projects in a range of significant, and often surprising ways. One group chose to live a day animal free, during which they worked with the kitchen staff to develop and prepare vegan meal options. “Tomorrow’s the big day,” says Gallagher, “they’re just putting their displays together. They had to do creative pieces, some of them have written songs, created pieces of artwork. We give them the framework and off they go.” Delightfully, one of the students was presenting on rock music, and during the setup was practicing classic, heavy-metal licks on an electric guitar. His talent was clear, though so too was the fact that his interest was taken seriously, and he was supported in using that as a way into a project around music and culture. “I just found AC/DC and I went from there,” he says. It was as lovely as it was impressive; teachers are clearly keen to meet students wherever they are, and then move ahead from there.
“That’s one of the things that I like about the school: there’s more of an opportunity to impart your personal flair to what it is you’re contributing. Your own passion.”
—Leanne Dietrch, Director of Athletics
Outdoor education is focused around the boathouse and the pond. “They go outside even in the rain,” says parent Krista Heinze. The pond is used for pond studies in the fall and spring, including a 24-hour pond study for the grade 7s, where they camp out there overnight. In winter the pond is maintained as a skating rink. The adjacent green space provides an opportunity for instruction and recreation, including a maple sugar program each year. At graduation, the grade 12 class celebrates by jumping into the pond.
“Our teachers really look after our areas,” says David Newman. Conversely, there is freedom to develop programs, with oversight provided by department heads, of which Newman is one. “Compared to the schools around, we’re quite small. When I tell people our numbers for JK through grade 12, for some schools in the area, that’s their grade 10 class.”
“One of the biggest things that we feel is working well here,” says Newman, “is that we’re small enough to have that sense of being one community.
“There is a sense that everybody knows everybody else. There are certain times in the year when the entire school is together for an activity or an event, and I think that’s actually one of the strongest bonding forces in the school as a whole, and it unites the school right from JK to grade 12. And I think it is a really positive influence at both ends of the spectrum.”
An important event in the annual calendar is Eaglemania day, a games day organized by the senior student council with help from the Parent's Association. Students compete with their houses, so all age levels are integrated throughout the day. When Newman describes it, his appreciation for the event is palpable, particularly in light of the cross-grade interaction. “You’ll see a grade 12 with a JK on his shoulders, moving around with their team, going through all these activities. There’s a great sense of bonding and togetherness.” There and elsewhere, Newman notes that there isn’t the kind of isolation—between the middle and upper years, or the upper and junior years—that is perhaps typical in a majority of schools across the province.
Throughout there is an appreciation of individual voices, as well as an emphasis on the strength of diversity. There are rainbow stickers on some of the doors within the school, “It’s a small way for our school to say that everybody is accepted here,” says van Niekerk. There are many subtle yet persistent reminders—from meal choices in the dining hall, to the focus of the world religion course, the names of the houses, to the topics raised in chapel—that quietly reinforce the diversity of the student and faculty population.
“She thrives on academic challenges,” says Holly Huehn of her daughter, Emily, now in grade 6. “She enjoys the sports and the arts. SJK can offer those opportunities, and she’s keen to take advantage of those.” While the program admits a broad range of learners, that is perhaps something that is common throughout: the students who do best here are those who respond well to challenges and are keen to make the most of the opportunities that the school provides. “I think our biggest goal for our son at the time was just that I never wanted him to be bored at school,” says Jennifer Shingler, and certainly he hasn’t been.
The school is very much a university prep school, and the curriculum is delivered with post-secondary education very firmly in mind. There are students with identified learning disabilities, but all are able to reach the academic program, and thrive with the level of challenge the school presents. “We’re a small school, and we’re not the perfect school for every student,” says Buchanan. “Some students have interests where they want to delve much further into certain areas, or really specialize, and the IB programme is really much more about a liberal arts type of education.”
There are supports available to address learning differences, including ADHD and processing issues. More important, though, is the attention that faculty give all students, and a willingness within the culture to provide individual support. “They are set up just to help give that little extra help,” says parent Krista Heinze, mother of a son with a language-based learning challenge, speech apraxia. Heinze had been looking for a school for her son in the knowledge that the public system wasn’t going to be effective. “Most of the teachers that I had met up until that point just kind of said ‘we don’t know what that is’ … but in SJK the teacher was able to talk about what apraxia was, and she then took the time to find out how they could help best.” He’s thrived in the SJK atmosphere, getting the support that he needs, quietly and expertly, says Heinze, without it otherwise overshadowing his academic and social life.
“I don’t hear kids saying, as they’re writing their exams, ‘did you study?’ Because, of course they studied. Of course they’re trying to do their best. It’s a different atmosphere.”
The size of the school, with an annual enrollment of 375, sits at the mean for schools of its kind in Canada. As such, the enrollment is large enough to ensure a broad offering of curricular and extracurricular programs, yet small enough to ensure that all students are known within the school. “It’s not like a huge high school,” says Anne Huntley, a current parent of the school. “Everybody knows everybody.”
About 25% of the Upper School population is international students, all of whom homestay with local families. The school has a policy of placing students with families no further than 20-30 minutes from school, and all are accessed by the school’s busing routes. ESL and TOEFL classes are provided within the school.
The student body and faculty is divided into four houses: Brant, Brock, Tecumseh, and Simcoe. It’s also divided into two divisions, with preschool through grade 6 designated as the Lower School, and grades 7 through 12 the Upper School. Each has its administration, with Lower and Upper School directors filling the role of principal for each, and reporting to the head of school.
Academic achievement isn’t the only means of gaining social currency among the student body, though there is a shared appreciation for the value of academic work. Says Buchanan, “I don’t hear kids saying, as they’re writing their exams, ‘did you study?’ Because, of course they studied. Of course they’re trying to do their best. It’s a different atmosphere,” one in which academic desire, and academic success, is shared across the student population. Coupled with the fact that all students are in the IB programme, “The students feel that sense of camaraderie. They work together, we don’t set them up in competition with each other. … we try to keep the lens on doing your personal best.” She continues noting that “it’s part of the strength of a school that the kids have an overall common goal: they want to do well and they’re allowed to try.”
“You’ve probably heard about the bubble,” says Leanne Dietrich. Certainly, we had; the defining feature of the athletics program in the past, at least in a good-spirited way, was the athletics bubble that had initially housed the sports programs. It had an air lock, much like on a space station, something that faculty also like to recall with a chuckle. The bubble, alas, is long gone now, replaced in 2001 by a sparkling new facility, sadly without an air lock. It’s a 15,000 square foot facility that includes a double gymnasium, a combatives room that is also used as a dance studio, and a fitness centre. In time a track and a turf field will be added, something that the property can easily accommodate.
The school prizes activity, as signaled by the play fields and the outdoor ed facilities that are front and centre. The staff and faculty, too, promote activity, both in their classrooms and their lives. Ian Carswell, head of guidance, is a particularly good example of that. He has represented Canada in long-distance running, and also is a member of Harvard University’s Athletic Hall of Fame, recognized as Harvard Athlete of the Year in his graduating year. Not all the faculty have those kinds of credentials … it, um, goes without saying … though they all, to varying degrees, promote physical activity and provide examples of the benefits of active lifestyles.
Dietrich joined the faculty in 1998, and for many years, as now, has served as director of athletics. She’s charming, and happily not at all the barking basketball coach of the Hollywood stereotype. Competition is part of the program—the school competes with other independent schools via CISAA, particularly competing with teams from Toronto and its surrounding area—though she’s a very vocal proponent of the values of activity, participation, and outdoor education. There’s a strong core of team-based offerings, and an equally strong promotion of overall health, something that Dietrich helps lead through her participation on the Health and Safety Committee.
The athletics participation rates are higher than those in public schools—the school reports that nearly 90 percent of the students participate in the competitive varsity program—something that reflects the mandate that students are involved in a range of co-curriculars. “A lot of it comes down to the head of school and what their priorities are,” says Dietrich. “Our previous head of school was really invested in physical activity and athletics,” and that’s something that continues.
The school has access to a local area rink for its hockey program, though a rink is created on the pond each winter by the Director of IT, Andrew Duszczyszyn. It’s used for recreational skating, including a family skate, which is as picturesque as it sounds. “He spends probably 70 hours in the late evenings of February,” says Aiken, “to do an ice-rink on the pond so we can have a family skate. That’s not a part of his job description.”
“We're a small community,” says parent Jennifer Shingler. “I’ve always said to my kids that if you are misbehaving I’m going to find out. It’s been very much that kind of experience.” As such, the care granted at SJK derives from the context that it has created for itself, and a result is that the students are, by and large, respectful and self-regulating. Many parents drop their children off each morning, and pick them up each evening, allowing them all to get a sense of who each other are. Those transition times also afford a regular, casual interaction with other parents and children. Parents speak of the strength of their children’s friendships, ones that carry over into their lives outside the school.
The houses, as well as the daily community assemblies, further contribute to a sense of community and regular contact with peers, mentors, and faculty. In many ways, all of those things offer the front line of the program of pastoral care within the school.
The goal of hiring at SJK is to hire teachers and staff, says Aiken, “who want to be here for the right reasons.” Those reasons include the desire to have a positive effect on the life of a child, as well as to grow professionally within the teaching profession. He notes that some teachers are drawn by the latitude that the school allows them, something that is somewhat typical of private and independent schools, perhaps, but has found its way into the mission of SJK. He’s also very keen to know that all the staff, not only the faculty, contribute to the culture of the school. There’s certainly some nice evidence of that: that rink on the pond, the director of communications sewing the costumes for the middle years’ musical. Throughout the school diversity is present and demonstrably supported. All those things reflect well on the health of the school environment and, consequently, the emotional support that it confers to the students within it. The guidance department includes wellness services, as well as academic counselling, and is accessed regularly by students.
The student body is, again, remarkably self-regulating, again due to the nature of the overall school culture. Discipline, when required, is handled empathetically, swiftly, and effectively, and in line with the overall values of the school. The parents we spoke with had no reservations at all in regard to the application of disciplinary action. “The kids learn that there are rules and they are meant to be followed,” says parent Anne Huntley.
“Parents speak of the strength of their children’s friendships, ones that carry over into their lives outside the school.”
A school visit is recommended. Prospective students are invited to shadow another student for a day, and that, as well as attendance at one of the open houses, is also a great first or second step in getting acquainted with the school. SJK is interested in mission-appropriate students, those who are able to get the most out of the program, while also feeling at home within the school community. There’s a reciprocity—they want the right students, and parents want the right school—that goes well beyond academic ability.
The admission process begins with the completion of an online application, and SJK begins accepting applications on September 15th for the following September. Atypical for private schools, SJK does not have an application deadline, instead stipulating that the process is on a first-come, first-served basis. Once spaces are filled, no more applications will be accepted for the upcoming school year.
Successful applicants are notified by the school, and are then requested to set up a school visit and the provide supporting documentation. Students enrolling in grades 6 through 10 are asked to write an entrance test. Also fairly atypical in the world of private school, students are then asked to attend a day of classes, during which they are paired with an enrolled student. This occurs in the school year prior to the one that the student is applying to enter.
There is no cost associated with application, though a non-refundable enrollment deposit of $2,000 is due on February 1st for the following year. Only successful applicants pay this fee.
Tuition covers instruction and all activities associated with the delivery of the core program. Not included are bus transportation, uniforms, school supplies, and fees associated with extracurricular activities. That can sound like a lot of incidentals, though parents reliably report that there are few, if any, surprises along the way, and that prices are fair.
“We haven’t had any additional fees,” says Krista Heinze, a mother of a student who has attended through JK and SK, and is now entering grade 1. This year, she says, the one additional fee is that for the food services, though she finds it’s a particularly reasonable one. “My husband worked it out and it’s $4 a day.” Quarterly and monthly payment plans are available.
“There is a cost to coming to the school,” says Britt Leeking, Director of Enrolment. “But we are continuing to work to make this school accessible to students who would benefit from it.” As such, financial aid has been a focus of the strategic plan. There are a number of scholarship and bursary opportunities for students, and the plan includes a desire to augment them. “We’re not just looking for the kids who are the straight-A students and are doing well,” says Leeking, “we’re looking for students who can benefit from our program, and who can reach their potentials because of our environment.” The financial aid initiatives will help bring those mission-appropriate students to the school.
The parents we spoke to, virtually without exception, spoke glowingly of the culture and the community that the school provides. “We connect well with the other families there,” says Holly Huehn. “Right from day one it's been a very welcoming community. That sense of caring … The school really cares about our child and the education she receives.” The connections between parents, too, are significant, encouraged perhaps by the events that dot the school calendar. “I don’t think I’ve ever missed a carol service,” says parent Anne Huntley of the holiday event.
Families report that communication with the school is regular, and while there are weekly e-newsletters that go out from each class, email with teachers is typical. Parents and even grandparents feel welcome to participate through a range of volunteer positions.
Perhaps understandably, many parents turn to private school for academic reasons, and that’s true of SJK as well. The IB programme is a draw, particularly because the school offers the full continuum, but also because it only offers the one stream: all students are in the same IB boat, as it were. That offers a good focus for the school, unequivocally set on the IB curriculum and the values that inform it. As you see in the display near the front foyer, this is a school dedicated to that one approach, and is appreciative of all that it offers the student population.
That said, parents with a longer experience of the school are more likely to talk about the community and the culture of the school, often in stridently glowing terms. “It’s that feeling I have when I drop her off in the morning,” says Holly Huehn, a parent of the Lower School. Beyond that, it’s the physical plan (“She’s got 35 acres to learn upon”) and the values of a faculty dedicated to “preparing them to be citizens of the world.” She gets a bit wistful. “It’s just that philosophy I guess,” one that takes seeks to broaden students’ horizons, quietly, supportively, day after day.
“It's about the quality of education, knowing where my kids are at all times. The continuity,” says Jennifer Shingler. “I feel envious my children get to do their education in that environment.” Ask any parent what they appreciate about the school, and those are the kinds of things, in our experience, they are most likely to say about SJK. Yes, the athletics facilities are excellent, the curriculum challenging, but you’re equally apt to hear about the family skate on the pond, and how the IT Director makes the rink. Parents appreciate all of that, and certainly the students do, too. SJK has a lot to offer, including simply belonging to a community that shares a set of core values and a perspective on the world. For many students, that alone is a transformative experience.