“We may not be big, but we're small,” is the motto of Stuart MacLean’s fictional record store, the Vinyl Cafe. Some schools are like that too: while they may not have the benefits of being large, they nevertheless gain the benefits of being small. The schools below are, without a doubt, great examples of that — none of them has an annual enrolment greater than 100 students. They all, too, demonstrate that their size is their strength, allowing them to provide personal, flexible, and unique educational experiences.
Historically, a liberal arts curriculum comprised a course of study required by citizens in order to take an active part in civic life. It included not just what a person would need to know, but how they would need to be, including an understanding that the cultivation of intellect is a worthy goal unto itself. The Abelard School was created to reflect those kinds of goals. In 1997, a group of seasoned teachers founded the school in order to deliver the basics of a secondary education—the knowledge and the skills required to move on to university life—as well as to impart a love of learning and to encourage creative engagement across the academic spectrum. Those ideals, and indeed those teachers, remain today. The school is small—there is a total enrolment of just 50—and whatever it may lack in terms of a breadth of programming it gains in depth and individual attention.
Wildwood was founded in 2002 in order to serve primary and middle-grade learners who require more support than they would find within a traditional classroom. The environment—both physically and pedagogically—was designed address the needs of students with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder, dyslexia, and Autism Spectrum Disorder. In some senses, that describes quite a range of students and abilities, including those who may function both above and below their peers. While the classroom setting and extracurricular activities provide opportunities for social development, the pace of instruction is individualized. The intention is to prepare students for high school, developing a personalized suite of strategies and skills necessary for them to make the most of academic life once they leave Wildwood after grade 8.
The Dragon Academy was founded in 2000 to appeal to a very specific kind of learner, one who is intellectually omnivorous, creative, and academically gifted. The school began with just 12 students in its first year, and it remains very close-knit and intimate. Instruction is discussion-based, hands-on, and it makes the most of the wealth of learning resources that are nearby, including the A.G.O., the Gardiner Museum of Ceramics, and the ROM. It has a lot to offer, though, again, for a very specific kind of learner. The right student will find the Dragon Academy to be a home, arriving within a community that contrasts with their prior school experience in some very significant ways. The focus is on engagement and curiosity. While the program is progressive, at least from a modern perspective, it’s also in some ways exceedingly traditional, with a focus on the classics and Socratic investigation. The Dragon Academy is truly a school like none other. It’s not every student’s cup of tea, though of course no school ever is. For the students who attend, the program can be transformational and supportive in all the right ways.
The Element is that rare bird of secondary education: a Montessori high school. The Element grew out of a primary program at OMS Montessori, building into the intermediate grades and, ultimately, through the high school grades. In 2012, The Element, in Ottawa, Ontario, became distinct unto its own, offering a consistent program from grades 7 to 12. Then, in 2015, it moved into its own space, becoming physically distinct as well. Nevertheless, the foundational principle remains across all grades, providing learning that is self-referential and student directed. The ideal student is one who thrives within a very hands-on environment, who is guided by their curiosity, and is able to make the most a greater range of academic independence.
Dianne Johnson founded the Junior Academy in 1988 in the belief that small is better, and indeed the school has remained small, with an annual enrolment of just 100 students. Johnson still leads the school, lending a continuity to the program and keeping the focus clearly on the quality of the students’ learning experience, and maintaining, above all, an atmosphere of care and support. While not all students arrive from the immediate area, the school prizes its position within the community, and encourages parental involvement within all aspects of the life of the school.