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Extracurricular programs can make the difference

Sophia Niewerth belts out a tune at Victoria’s St. Michaels University School.

chad hipolito The Globe and Mail

When Sophia Niewirth set her sights on attending Victoria's St. Michaels University School, her family was already familiar with the institution's strong academic reputation.

After all, Sophia would be following in her big sister's footsteps, who also studied at the prestigious private boarding school.

But what particularly interested the teenager were St. Michaels' after-class programs. "My whole decision to go here was based on extracurricular activities," the native of Whistler, B.C., says. "I used to go to public school, and we didn't really have that much available to us. The drama and art programs here are awesome."

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Of course, the school's strong academic credentials were a prerequisite for mom and dad, but after seeing the benefits St. Michaels' extracurricular activities offered her sister, both Sophia and her parents were sold on the move.

She's since been active in St. Michaels' extracurricular drama program, indulged her inner entrepreneur by helping run the on-campus coffee shop, The Daily Grind, and worked with the charity group Free The Children.

It's no secret that private and independent schools have long offered impressive extracurricular programs to their students, a public-private gap that has only widened as provincial governments continue to slash education budgets.

While school boards struggle to maintain core reading, writing and arithmetic standards in the public system, after-school activities have often fallen prey to the budgetary axe.

At the same time, private and independent school tuition fees have continued to increase.

It's the reason why nowadays, parents don't stop at asking about the potential academic return on investment for the money they'll shell out for their kids' educations; they also want to know what opportunities exist for students to learn and grow outside the classroom.

"I think the old philosophy was that kids sat at a desk all day and then maybe played a sport after school," explains Anne-Marie Kee, executive director of the St. Catharines, Ont.-based advocacy group Canadian Accredited Independent Schools.

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"A wider choice of extracurricular activities results in stronger effort in academic programs because [students']individual needs and interests are carefully thought about and developed," she says.

In response to increasing parental scrutiny, private and independent schools have not only bolstered their after-school offerings, they've started to introduce innovative new programs.

At Vancouver's Stratford Hall, for example, students can participate in a Cirque du Soleil-style circus program where they learn the fine art of tumbling and trapeze work both during and after school hours.

At Glenlyon Norfolk School in Victoria, students have the opportunity to learn the finer points of sailing, while Toronto's Branksome Hall lets students make like Scorsese with a film club to complement the school's film classes.

For 17-year-old Grade 12 student Oona Nadler, film had always been a major part of family life – her dad is a long-time movie buff. It's the reason a future career behind the camera was very much on her mind when she was enrolled at Branksome Hall in Grade 7.

"I wanted to be a director when I first came here," she says. Thus far she's been able to make a short film, visit the Toronto International Film Festival and ask Canadian director Deepa Mehta about her technique when she visited the school last year.

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"We got to ask her about decisions she made about things like camera angles and lighting in her movies, and that was very interesting," the teen says. Overall, she regards film club as a way for her to enhance her in-class cinema studies, then spend time studying her favourite flicks – Alfred Hitchcock's classic Psycho nears the top of the list – with friends.

As Branksome Hall, film teacher Jill Strimas points out, extracurricular programs such as this one offer students the opportunity to broaden their horizons and embrace their passions. "It gives students the opportunity to take what's been taught by the teacher and make it part of their own lives," she says.

In addition to more cutting-edge clubs, most private and independent schools offer expansive sports programs, civic participation clubs such as Model United Nations, and chances to join drama, music or other arts clubs.

At Armbrae Academy in Halifax, participation in extracurricular programs such as the theatre club is high, thanks in large part to the school's inclusive policy. Students are never cut from teams or the school's big annual theatre production. Those who want to participate are guaranteed some role in their preferred activity.

"The statistic that I always find interesting that over 75 per cent of our students are in either athletic or non-athletic extracurricular programs without any nudging," headmaster Gary O'Meara explains. "There's a lot of crossover, and students don't just do either sports or non-sports activities."

After the school engaged the local Zuppa Theatre Company to help run its drama program 10 years ago, Mr. O'Meara says most of his students – last year, around 134 of the school's 230 junior and senior pupils – have been actively involved in producing shows for Armbrae's annual Shakespeare Festival and other productions.

While Mr. O'Meara points out that improvements to Armbrae's extracurricular activities have always been meant to enhance the student experience, they often help sway parents who may be struggling to decide which private school is the right one for their child.

But an important questions remains: with so many extracurricular options, how is a student supposed to find time for them in an already-jammed academic schedule? Sophia Niewirth's advice to her fellow students is blunt: Plan your time wisely.

"You have to keep on top of your game, and it's made me a lot more organized," the Grade 12 student says of her impressive extracurricular credentials. "My grades have really improved a lot."

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