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Roberta Longpré, Head Student Services of Branksome Hall, talks to Grade 12 student Kimmie Green at the learning centre.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

When tests showed that Jan Whitelaw's Grade 4 son was gifted, the family opted to send him to private school for the learning support he could receive there.

"We enrolled him in Hillfield Strathallan College [in Hamilton, Ont.] based on what they could offer in terms of differentiated learning," says Ms. Whitelaw, an executive at an environmental consulting firm in southern Ontario. "We're big public school supporters, but this is what he needed at that particular time."

Canada's private schools are breaking new ground in teaching and learning methods and research. Across the country, private schools have been opening and expanding learning centres, where students, teachers and the academic community can absorb practical new skills and share techniques for success.

"One of the big movements in education is the whole move toward the personalization of education," says John Wray, head of Vancouver's Mulgrave School. The learning centres that are growing in private schools across Canada are in some ways an extension of these schools' ability to provide individual attention to their students.

Successful centres at independent schools provide services and programs that may have been available before, but are now better organized and more accessible. These include:

Individualized learning plans

This goes beyond what used to be called "extra help." Today, learning support teachers work directly with students to help them tackle their schoolwork, focus, and really understand what they're studying. Plans can range from how-to-do-homework workshops to providing a quiet, stress-free place to take a test, to enrichment activities and beyond-the-curriculum pursuits, such as debating or environmental activism.

Support for teachers and staff

Learning centres help teachers modify their lessons and classrooms so they can apply individual support throughout the day. At Upper Canada College's Wernham West Centre for Learning, for example, all the Grade 5 classes paid a visit on the first day of school to primary co-ordinator Tina Jagdeo. The purpose of the visit: to learn how to organize their own agendas.


Good learning centres tend to use the "it takes a village" approach. The centre will work with school guidance counsellors, psychologists and outside liaisons, such as university recruiters, who can explain the virtues of their programs to older students, and show them how to apply.


Conducting and sharing research in brain development and neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to build new pathways and absorb new ideas) is key at many learning centres, and it can bring results. Toronto's Branksome Hall girls' school, for example, conducted its own peer-reviewed study of girls' sleep habits and how this affects their learning. "We presented it to the teachers and the school community and it led to us changing our timetable," says Roberta Longpré, head of student services. "Wednesday is now 'recovery day,' when school starts at 9:30 and runs later." This research is about to be published in an academic journal.

Supporting students through learning centres is not just about helping them get high marks, says Susan Elliott, executive director of Toronto French School's Learning Commons. "Our students and families come to us with high expectations," she says.

"We provide a broad range of support. We're here to help each student succeed in their own way, not just academically, but as a balanced individual."

Smaller classes and individual attention are helpful, but only a start, says Catherine Hodgins, Learning Strategist at Ottawa's Ashbury School. Brain research has led her school to make sure the students, many of them boarders in Ashbury's case, to have physical activity for eight days out of the school's nine-day schedule.

"They're also involved in the arts almost every day, and we insist that each student is involved in a co-curricular activity — a club, a sport or something else that occupies them in after-school time," Ms. Hodgins says.

Private schools have come far, and are moving fast, to provide differentiated learning, says Hal Hannaford, Head of Selwyn House School in Montreal.

"Good teachers in the 1940s were good differentiated instructors, but now we know more," he says. "We set aside resources to provide the support," in his school's case, having two learning strategists and a social worker on staff.

"We think this makes us a better school, and the strategies are transferable to everyone."

"There has been a shift," agrees Mary Gauthier, executive director of Upper Canada College's Centre for Learning. "In the early years there were a few students who would have received extra help. What that usually meant was a small classroom down the hallway and it had a bit of a mystery— what happened in that room?

"We know more about the brain now, and what happens in the classroom is good for every student."