A big focus for independent schools is not siloing the students’ learning experience within the four walls of a classroom, but rather building out-of-classroom programs and activities that complement academics to help shape well-rounded graduates.
A school that is based in an urban setting helps immensely with that focus. The Rosedale Day School (RDS) is in the heart of Toronto, located at Bloor Street West near Bay Street, allowing it to offer much of what the vibrant city has to offer.
“I love that I can drop off my daughter on the way to work,” says one RDS parent. “What’s even better is that she’s in a nurturing environment with small class sizes. She might be at the ROM [Royal Ontario Museum] one day, RCYC [Royal Canadian Yacht Club] the next and the TSO [Toronto Symphony Orchestra] after that. She learned badminton at U of T Athletics this year from professional coaches, and she swims there, too.”
Rosedale is known for its STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) program, in which its students enter city-wide design competitions against other independent schools. In addition to music, art, and French, RDS has strong athletics and outdoor education programs that run throughout the year.
“We offer a flexible and adaptive learning environment that accommodates individual differences so that all children can participate at grade level,” says Julia McCuaig, the school’s student success co-ordinator and learning strategist co-ordinator.
“We believe that ‘fair is not equal, fair is everyone getting what they need to be successful.’ Some students require 1:1 support while others thrive in a small group environment. We recognize this and take great care to support the unique learning journeys of our students.”
According to Sara Gardner, a humanities and Integrated Canadian Experience (ICE) teacher at The York School – a fully accredited junior kindergarten to Grade 12 International Baccalaureate world school, based in Toronto – it’s important to help kids get outside of the school.
“Being in an urban centre, the opportunities are just endless,” she says. “In the city, we can connect students to a plethora of experts and locations that are relevant to their studies.
“So, for example, let’s say we’re looking at land use; we can very easily step outside of the walls and see every type of land use … and the kinds of decisions that were made to ensure that the priorities of the city are being enacted. We can find out who the stakeholders are that contributed to it, the consultation process that saw these changes come to fruition.”
If they’re studying the implementation of bike lanes, for example, students can talk to local businesses about how they have impacted their business. Or they can learn firsthand the impact of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT on area businesses and residences.
“What’s most important is the kids are learning about things outside of the textbook,” she says. “They can actually feel like they’re investigators, doing primary research to really understand and inquire into the roots of the kinds of issues we discuss in class. When we take kids out of that traditional learning environment we see incredible growth in their character and in the way they learn.”
Going outside the classroom gets children more energized and engaged in learning, says Daphne Perugini, head of school at Walden International School in the uptown core of Oakville, Ont., just west of Toronto, which is an independent school with 200 students from junior kindergarten to Grade 8. That in turn translates to better in-class learning experiences.
Being in an urban setting doesn’t mean not reaping the benefits of nature. Perugini says Walden’s campus has plenty of green space and proximity to nature trails, so the school can build in such programs as Wellness Wednesday, which allows students to do activities that are active or mindful.
“There are so many indoor tasks these days and we feel like when they have an opportunity to go outside, that’s when their true personality comes out, and they’re more uninhibited,” she says. “They learn so many different skills. They get to appreciate what the environment has to offer. And a lot of our programming is built around the inquiry process. We have a rich extracurricular program, in terms of field trips.”
One of the advantages at St. Mildred’s-Lightbourn School, also based in Oakville, is its rich internship program, according to Catherine Hant, head of school.
“How many high school students graduate with Bay Street experience on their resumes?” she says. “Our location means students have access to professional internships in Canada’s financial centre. Our location also means we have the entire Golden Horseshoe available to us, which means we can accommodate all of our students’ interests – even beyond finance and business.”
Toronto French School’s location also provides for robust urban and natural experiences.
Located at Lawrence Avenue and the Don Valley Parkway, the school has the benefit of being adjacent to a 26-acre ravine. Tamara Smith, the school’s director of service, stewardship and sustainability, says that plays significant role in shaping the educational programs, particularly a ravine restoration project the school is working on.
“We’re able to connect with community experts to help make the quality of these experiences that much richer,” she says.
“When you give students problems that they’re being a part of solving, now they’re curious, they want to be part of the solution, and take action on it.”
Toronto’s Bayview Glen, located at Don Mills and York Mills roads, just south of Highway 401, is another urban school with nature right in its backyard. The setting is ideal for five program elements: outdoor pursuits, leadership and teamwork, environmental sustainability, healthy living and nutrition, and safety.
“Providing students with these opportunities is not only allowing them to step outside of the traditional learning environment, but out of their comfort zone – while perhaps not even realizing they are learning,” says Julia Warren, health and physical education teacher, Lower School, at Bayview Glen.
According to Derek Logan, head of school at Kingsway College School in Etobicoke, Ont., their program – with a junior school at Dundas Street West and the newer senior school on Lakeshore Boulevard West (which just won a 2023 Metamorphosis Award for architectural excellence) – is highly focused on taking advantage of the facilities and people in the community.
“We don’t have space for our own fields [at the junior school],” he says. “There are facilities all around us that we can tap into that are quite frankly underutilized during the school day. Most teams, sports, clubs, are in the evening, after school.”
The senior school is over two floors of commercial space in a condo tower, leaving no room for a gymnasium.
“So we built some partnerships with the Argonaut Rowing Club, the Boulevard Club, Eurostep [a basketball facility],” he says. “At the Boulevard Club, for example, the courts there are world class. We could build those ourselves, but it would cost us millions. We want to have a balance between being in class and getting out and about, and down on Lake-shore, we have the whole lake, and access to the bike and walking paths. We can be downtown in 15 minutes.”
Students take field trips to such places as the ROM and the Science Centre in Toronto, or for canoeing and kayaking trips on the Humber River.
Kingsway is able to tap into a wide network of volunteers who act as mentors for the students, taking them to their places of business or on photography field trips in Toronto’s Graffiti Alley or to do science work in different labs.
Children retain more information when they get out as opposed to just reading a book, Logan says. That becomes possible when the city is your school’s backyard, adds Kathryn Anderson, director of student life at Holy Name of Mary College School (HNMCS) in Mississauga, Ont.
“Students meet at locations, and again we’re talking about that independence,” she says. “They spend time doing different projects downtown. Next semester I am teaching an arts-based course where students are going every week to Hamilton Craft Studios where they will learn a different artistic skill, like woodworking, which we can’t offer on campus.”
History students will meet at the ROM, for example. Kids find projects that interest them and the school helps them get to those locations and have those experiences, instead of just talking about them in class.
“When the kids start to see the city as this storied place, with multiple perspectives of different stakeholders and experiences … they become really engaged citizens, because they take an ownership and a pride in the city than when they started with us,” Gardner says.
In the ICE program, in which students study Canadian identity, she says teachers have a lot of time with the students and occasionally will weave a visit to an exhibit or museum or gallery into what they are studying. Being in the city gives them that option.
“Learning happens all the time, and everywhere,” adds Elissa Kline-Beber, associate head of well-being at The York School. “If we’re in the business of making lifelong learners, then that’s a win.”
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