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Boarding school gives globe-trotting parents peace of mind

Taylor MacGillivary, right, and Jessica use a laptop to chat at Ashbury College in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

When David MacGillivary said goodbye to his two teenaged daughters on the first day of school this year, he meant it.

Jessica, 16, and Taylor, 14, are new boarding students at Ashbury College, in Ottawa, while their father takes up a four-year posting at NORAD Command near Colorado Springs, Colo.

For mobile families in the armed forces and other international professions from diplomacy to business, or those who are simply on the move, boarding schools in Canada offer everything from continuity, Canadian values and curriculums to proximity with friends.

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"It's a great education, with potential for great opportunities," explains Lt.-Col. MacGillivary, 51, a career military officer with the Canadian Forces who specializes in aerospace command and control involving AWACS aircraft. But it can be tough. "We'd prefer to have the girls here with us; this is pretty early for kids to be leaving home," says his wife Dawn, 50

Until now, the family has remained together through various assignments in the United States, Germany and back in Canada. The two sisters moved schools every few years, most recently attending public school in Ottawa for the last three years. Having been told this past January that they would be transferred to the U.S. in the summer, the family decided that Jessica and Taylor would remain in Canada, boarding at Ashbury, while their parents would sell their house and move away.

"It was actually the girls' choice," Lt.-Col. MacGillivary says.

Jessica, a Grade 11 student who is interested in a career in the medical field or business, says she and Taylor, in Grade 9, brought the idea of boarding forward because they "knew how many doors it would open in the future," and they were looking forward to staying put for a while. "Once we see the outcome of everything, the distance is going to be worth it."

Tam Matthews, the headmaster of Ashbury, says that mobile families often opt for boarding school because of the high quality of education it offers, compared with day or public schools overseas. Boarding also gives Canadian children stronger roots in the country, encourages socialization and growth, makes students more engaged in learning and exposes them to "internationally minded" peers. Of the 100 boarders in Ashbury's senior school, which is co-educational and has 500 students in all, 80 come from 27 different countries.

Some parents who travel a lot put their children into boarding for stability, says Tam Matthews, the headmaster of Ashbury, who has expanded the school's boarding program by one-quarter in the 12 years he's been headmaster. New residences have been built, and he says boarding applications have doubled in the past four years.

Paul Kitchen, head of Rothesay Netherwood School, outside of St. John, N.B., which has 143 boarders among its 275 co-ed students in grades 6 to 12, says mobile families especially look to boarding schools to prepare children for Canadian university. "There's a credibility issue that sometimes people who are posted abroad are worried about."

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Some parents face such concerns even closer to home. When he got a new job in Vancouver this year, Don Patterson switched his son Dennis, 17, over from being a Rothesay Netherwood day student to boarding there, so he could complete grade 12.

"He has all of his school chums he has been with there for the last six years, he knows the teachers, he knows the routines," Mr. Patterson says, adding that he hopes the experience in boarding will help Dennis to be more independent and to manage his workload and schedule.

According to the Association of Boarding Schools, boarding students spend more than twice as much time on homework, participate in more extracurricular activities, and are better prepared academically and socially for university.

Living abroad can bring family togetherness, new experiences and new cultures, says Dawn MacGillivary, although children miss friends, and adjustments to new schools can be rocky. Students can get ahead or lag behind in terms of curriculum, she explains, and they can end up missing Canadian content altogether.

Leaving their daughters behind in Ottawa was made easier by the fact that the MacGillivarys have close friends there who can watch after Jessica and Taylor and take them on long weekend breaks, when students are unable to stay in residence. "It adds a degree of comfort," she says, as does the fact that the two sisters are together.

When Barbara and John O'Beirne moved with their four children in 1996 from Calgary to Bogota, Colombia, where Mr. O'Beirne worked on projects building natural gas pipelines, they soon realized that even international schools there had different educational values, with an emphasis on rote learning, and offered limited English and sports programs. Bogota itself posed security concerns. They put their sons Kieran, then 15, and Brendan, then 14, into boarding at St. John's-Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg. Daughter Katie followed for grades 9 to 12.

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The experience of living apart made her family much closer, says Katie, now 26, who works as a health analyst for the government of the Northwest Territories. "It's kind of bizarre," she says.

Her parents, who now are stationed in Merida, Mexico, on the Yucatan Peninsula, while all four children live back in Canada, found that boarding starts a life of independence that's hard to reverse. "The kids don't ever really come home again," says Ms. O'Beirne.

Leaving his two daughters at Ashbury was "like putting them both in university at once," says Lt.-Col. MacGillivary. "It's one thing to anticipate it, it's another thing when you're at the door saying goodbye," he says, though he adds that "we want the kids to be well set up as adults."

Jessica agrees. "I'm being taught independence and time management and co-existing with a roommate in the dorm," she says. "I'll be a lot more at ease going to university now."

She and Taylor "tried not to prolong the goodbye" with their father, and found themselves trying to reassure him, she says. "It was more like: 'Bye, until later.'"

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