Or, as is the case of Nancy Campbell Collegiate Institute, can't.
"Our school is a very humble building," says principal Cora McNamara. "It's not posh and we don't care." It's in downtown Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Festival and a town with more than 800 acres of floral parkland.
But the school itself? Plug ugly, McNamara says with affection. Built in 1920, a red-bricked rectangle, it used to belong to the YWCA. Now it nurtures up to 160 co-ed students, who don't have a lot of room to run and play and who do have to trek to the Presbyterian church across the street for dance classes. But who love the place.
"I can hear kids laughing outside my door now," McNamara says on the telephone during noon hour. "Here they can walk in; they don't knock."
The school started in 1993 with 13 students. One of them was the oldest daughter of Gordon Naylor, a businessman who decided to create a school where his daughter and her friends could feel comfortable. A member of the Baha'i faith, he was spurred into action after his daughter encountered drugs, promiscuity, violence and back-biting gossip in her Grade 7 class in a public school.
McNamara says he wanted to create a safe environment for his daughter and others like her, where they could be themselves without being afraid of being labelled losers.
And, McNamara says, that's exactly what he's done.
The youngest of the world's independent religions, the Baha'i faith is followed by five million people in 235 countries. It promotes the unification of global society and believes there is only one God, for whom there have been many Divine Messengers.
One of the fewer than half dozen Baha'i schools in the world, the Nancy Campbell Collegiate Institute, named after a former dance teacher who was something of a mentor to Naylor in his faith, it is not exclusively for children of the Baha'i community. Fewer than half the staff and only about 40 per cent of the students at the school are Baha'is. "We are non-religious," McNamara says.
Officially, no class has more than 20 students; in reality, the maximum class size is 18. There are some iron-clad rules: No substance abuse, no swearing and students have to wear school uniforms, even though many hate them.
"They think the uniforms make them look ugly but we have kids whose families work three jobs to send them here," McNamara says. "If we didn't have uniforms, there would be obvious differences."
But every one is committed to what McNamara describes as the school's Baha'i-inspired belief in the "essential nobility of the human being" and in the goal of "personal transformation through service to humanity." Along with advanced-level math and science programs, the curriculum has seven components, one of the most important of which is the 100 community service hours each student must put in every year.
"Teenagers are very anxious to help people. They get a bad rap," McNamara says. The school emphasizes leadership as world citizens and students study everything from virtues to all the world religions to lessons on how to be proactive against poverty and prejudice. It leads and, McNamara hopes, adds up to "a world-embracing vision" and to students who believe they are world citizens with global responsibilities - not bad for a school that eschews private-school trappings, as well as membership in independent-school organizations, to stay put in its humble red brick building.
When headmaster Paul Kitchen arrived in Rothesay, New Brunswick, in 1987 to take over the reins at the renowned, respected and redoubtable Rothesay Netherwood School - it was founded in 1877 - he discovered that, in this case, the mighty had fallen.
The second oldest school in the Maritimes, the once-proud Rothesay Netherwood School had a projected enrolment of 67, an all-time low. The paint on some buildings on the beautiful College Hill campus overlooking the Kennebecasis River was peeling; the roofs leaked. "I saw a tired school," he recalls.
It went deeper than that. The Maritimes had never really received its share of the post-war economic boom that helped propel so many independent schools in other parts of the country. On top of that, the animosity from the fractious 1972 unification of the boys' Rothesay Collegiate Institute with the girls' Netherwood School had never let up.
In 1984, the school came close to closing; only an injection of last-resort activism by a group of parents saved it, but it was just barely limping along.
Clearly, the situation called for changes, which Kitchen has delivered. He credits the school's loyal alumni, who spearheaded a $1.5-million fund-raising campaign - and netted $1.7 million. In 1996, alumnus Jim Irving rounded up another $7.2 million. "The loyalty to this school is incredible," Kitchen says, adding that 32 per cent of its alumni contributed to the last campaign.
The now-vigorous school was totally redone - starting with the campus that had barely changed in a century. It now covers 160 acres, thanks to the purchase of 20 acres to its south, and boasts a new gymnasium, a refurbished arena, a new performing-arts centre, five new houses for staff, a renovated girls residence and three new full-sized athletic fields.
Last June, the school opened a new junior residence, in which every room has an en suite washroom. In most schools, this would go against a tradition of seniors always getting the best. "I know that," says Kitchen, who was himself a student at Ontario's St. Andrew's College in Aurora and taught there and at Ridley College in St. Catharines. "But the juniors are the ones who need the most privacy, gentleness and support."
He has also upended the prefect system: Now all Grade 12 students must apply for the prestigious post, and must have a faculty mentor and a meaningful mandate of what he or she wants to achieve that's meaningful to the school. "Traditionally, private schools pick extroverts, but I think a good leadership program should offer everyone a chance."
Affiliated with the Anglican Church of Canada - which took over the school from James F. Robertson, who had bought Thompson's School 16 years earlier and renamed it Rothesay Collegiate School - the school now boasts Muslim students and a Jewish assistant head master.
Yet Kitchen is proud it retains its long-time Anglican affiliation. "One of the worst things an independent school can do is give up its traditions," he says. "We still wear uniforms, the students attend the same chapel service every morning, they still come to the dining hall for a sit-down lunch and the students who serve it are still called the draggers."
And at Shawnigan Lake School on Vancouver Island, students daily pass by a gate on which is inscribed one of the core beliefs of the school's founder - that boys are "rough diamonds" needing just a little polishing here and there.
David Robertson, the present headmaster, tells of the founder, Christopher Windley Lonsdale, writing a newly widowed mother to tell her to make sure her boy came back to the school - and not to worry about the cost of her son's Shawnigan tuition.
Lonsdale died in 1952, but his spirit is alive. "Lots of schools forget their founder, but C.W. Lonsdale is talked about regularly," says Robertson.
The son of a clergyman and a graduate of London's Westminster School, he came to Canada and settled in Duncan, British Columbia. Lonsdale started a small school, which grew to become Shawnigan Lake Preparatory School in 1916. It was a carbon copy of Lonsdale's alma mater, and was devoted to developing the whole person. To Lonsdale, that meant plenty of emphasis on sports and character building.
"His style was low key, not flashy, not boastful and that's still our style at the school," says Robertson. "I think he'd be delighted to see the school in its present shape. He wanted to produce people who have a positive impact on the world."
Robertson says he also thinks Lonsdale would be delighted that Shawnigan Lake is now co-ed and that the 300-acre campus where he built the rugby field himself out of the bush is still in the heart of the country. Shawnigan Lake is still foremost a boarding school, with 240 boys and 155 girls enrolled. Day students are limited to 39 - of whom 21 are the children of staff. "Day students are almost treated as boarders; they're here six days a week, seven when there are inter-house competitions," Robertson says.
Every student must take up some form of sport four afternoons a week, and participate in one of the many fine-arts program offered another two afternoons after school. Two hours of homework, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. every night, is also compulsory.
Although sticking to Lonsdale's founding vision of a school that produces fine minds in healthy bodies, Shawnigan Lake has also changed itself dramatically. Determined to bring much of the real world to it students, it has brought in as speakers political commentators, people who work with homeless youth and even some street kids. And it has instigated discussions based on real-life events, such as the murder of an East Indian school girl by her classmates in nearby Victoria.
Small groups discussions are held on everything from bullying and racism to how the students are developing their own core values and morals.
What's interesting - and, to Robertson, ultimately satisfying - is the fact that the speakers come to the school chapel to address the student body, and the small group discussions occur in the traditional prefect-led houses, two of the most important touchstones of this school with its illustrious past.