"Rigid typecasting of independent schools," writes researcher Deani Van Pelt, "is more myth than reality ... the lingering stereotypes are not reflective of the landscape."
These schools prove that point and then some. One was founded by a saint, another by someone who was diagnosed, as a child, with significant learning disabilities. One's in a castle, and another is in a house. One school helped create the country, another shaped the way we learn. All of them add character and depth to the Canadian educational mosaic.
“If we look at a lot of special education programs, the majority assume the learner is fixed,” says Barbara Arrowsmith-Young. “What my program is saying is that we can change the learner so they can learn.”
As a child Arrowsmith-Young struggled to learn, an experience she wrote about in her 2012 book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain. She could understand concrete things, but struggled with concepts, ideas, and relationships. “My world was a series of disconnected bits and pieces of unrelated fragments," she said during a TEDx talk in 2013, "and eventually, my fragmented view of the world ended up causing a very fragmented sense of myself.”
“In Grade 1 I was identified as having a mental block. I was told I had a defect, and I was told that I would never learn like other children. And, really, the message at that time was loud and clear." Namely, that she would simply have to learn to live with her limitations.
Nevertheless, her father was an inventor who taught her that, if you need a solution, you go out and try to find one. And, she did. Based in her study of the research on neuroplasticity—how the brain changes in response to stimuli—she devised exercises to strengthen her weaknesses. Her personal successes lead her to create the Arrowsmith School, a learning disability school, in Toronto, Ontario, in 1980, as well as as second school in Peterborough, ON, in 2005. The Arrowsmith program has also been adopted in schools in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Asia.
Arrowsmith-Young's methods have been met with skepticism, something that continues even today, in part because they are based more in lived experience than objective research. That said, it’s true that the program has been successful, in many cases remarkably so. And, yes, there can be many reasons for it, not limited to neuroplasticity, including how educators approach children who are struggling. “What really breaks my heart,” says Arrowsmith-Young, “is that I still meet people today—children, people who are struggling with learning problems—and they’re still being told what I was told in 1957, that they need to learn to live with their limitations. They don’t dare to dream.” Her life, and the school, is an example of what can happen when you do.
De La Salle College "Oaklands" is a Lasallian school, part of an international association of schools founded by Saint Jean-Baptist de La Salle in France in 1679. Canonized in 1900, La Salle was later proclaimed by the Vatican as the patron saint of teachers. So, in all, it's quite a pedigree. The school--as more than 80 Lasallian schools worldwide--is administered by members of the Lasallian Brothers of the Christian Schools, an order based in Rome. This Catholic school, located in Toronto, Ontario, was founded in 1851, later moving into a building at the corner of Adelaide and George streets. They've moved since, though that building still stands, and still bears the inscription "De La Salle Institute Erected A.D. 1871." Alumni include a chief justice of Ontario, a roster of professional hockey players, and Keanu Reeves.
King’s-Edgehill School is the oldest independent school in Canada, and was founded as King’s Collegiate by United Empire Loyalists in 1788. It was given royal assent by King George III the following year, the first instance that honour was bestowed outside Britain. The initial goal of the school was to prevent young men from traveling abroad to receive an education, men that would be needed to stay to administer and defend the colonies. And it succeeded in that. While the school remained small, its alumni took prominent roles in military, legal, religious, and political life, including two fathers of Confederation. We’ll never know, but it’s possible that King’s was the flap of the butterfly wings, in a sense, that lead to the creation of a country.
The school continues to hold a place in the national consciousness today. Because of the age and importance of the buildings, King’s College is a National Historic Site, a designation it has held since 1923.
As a teacher, Diane Goudie continually locked horns with other educators by demanding that education be based in a sense of equity, especially as girls and women are concerned. She felt she was right, and in 1993 with Eleanor Moore she founded The Linden School. Ever since, the school has done exactly what they hoped it would: provide an example of a school for girls that will make a difference in the students’ lives and, in turn, encourage them to make a positive difference in the lives of others.
The goal, Moore says, is to educate each student to “to speak with courage … [to] be credible, find a community, listen for all voices, change structures, be a leader and above all make a difference.” Goudie and Moore have lead by example, earning honorary doctorate of law degrees from York University in recognition of their leadership in the field of education.
On receiving the doctorate, Goudie addressed the convocation saying “Ask yourselves the tough questions: What do you want to achieve beyond your paycheque? What are you prepared to risk in order to make a difference in your communities or in the global community?”
The interiors are as striking as the exterior: turrets, arches, wood and stone, there’s even a suit of armor outside the head of school’s office. Continuing the theme, the school team is the Dragons, the campus shop is the Dungeon, and Latin is a required course. Trafalgar Castle School is also genuinely old, having been founded in 1874, though the building pre-dates the school.
Yet, as ever, appearances can be deceiving. In contrast to building that houses it, the school's program is strikingly modern. It includes the Singapore math and science curricula; Mandarin instruction; the “i-Think” integrated problem solving initiative developed the Rotman School of Business; and writing instruction based on the program developed at the University of Chicago. Which, perhaps, is proof that you shouldn’t judge a school by its façade.
University of Toronto Schools (UTS) began its life in 1910 as a laboratory school within the University of Toronto department of education. The initial intention was to create at least two schools, hence the plural “schools” in the name, though in fact there has only ever been one. Nevertheless, in the century since that one school was founded, it has educated two Nobel Laureates, twenty Rhodes Scholars, eleven Olympians, and three ambassadors.
UTS also weathered some interesting times along the way, including student protests in the 1960s. At one point a student presented the headmaster with a blank sheet of paper saying “this is a list of our demands.” The school was at the centre of the debates that would, in time, bring some important advances to public schooling in Canada, including the abolition of matriculation exams and the adoption of a 4-year secondary school program (rather than 5).
Those changes, and others, are symbolic of the school’s place within Canadian education and academic life. Most Canadians have never heard of UTS, though it has helped to shape the experience of students across the country.