Merrick Preparatory School THE OUR KIDS REVIEW
The 50-page review of Merrick Preparatory School, published as a book (in print and online), is part of our series of in-depth accounts of Canada's leading private schools. Insights were garnered by Our Kids editor visiting the school and interviewing students, parents, faculty and administrators.
The expression “good things come in small packages” could not be more true than when discussing Merrick Preparatory School in the village of Merrickville, Ontario. The school is indeed small—created that way by design and kept that way by intent—but it delivers outsized benefits for its students, unfailingly setting them up for success both in and out of the classroom and on their further educational and life journeys.
Merrickville, the home of Merrick Prep, is known as “The Jewel of the Rideau” and the school is a hidden academic gem in its midst. Though absolutely charming, Merrickville is not a place where you would expect to find a world-class secondary school institution that is quickly scooping up national and international awards and accolades. Nor does the external aspect of Merrick Prep, though housed in a pleasingly proportioned, historic limestone building, suggest the high academic standards and warm, caring environment one finds within. In every aspect, Merrick Prep exceeds one’s expectations of a school of its size in its location off the beaten path.
Catering to a mostly international student body, Merrick Prep is a coeducational boarding school, with limited day and synchronous online student enrolment—to a maximum of 60 boarders, 20 day students, and 30 synchronous online students. Offering the #1 world-ranked Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD) through the Ontario Ministry of Education curriculum, Merrick Prep provides instruction to students in Grades 9 through 12, as well as an ESL Foundation program and a University Qualification Year specially designed for international high school graduate students who wish to improve their English and academic standing in pursuit of post-secondary education. The programs in place at Merrick Prep ensure that every student is well-prepared to enter top-ranked universities around the world. And they do—with 100% of graduates gaining entry into their first-choice university, and most students receiving some kind of university funding. Indeed, the school is so confident every student will be accepted into a post-secondary institution that they guarantee that outcome with the “MPS Promise” (on which more later).
As much as Merrick Prep emphasizes academic excellence, it also provides an exceptional living experience. One of the most common refrains heard from students, parents, teachers, admin, and supporting staff is that everyone at Merrick Prep is like an extended family and that the school itself is like a home away from home. Students feel known by teachers and staff even before they arrive at the school, and parents need not worry about their son or daughter because they know the level of care they receive at Merrick Prep is on par with what they would receive at home. The small student population ensures that all the students know one another and there is a mutually supportive, warm, encouraging vibe that is impossible to miss. Students make lifelong friendships that span the globe. “Our students tell us that this is their home, and our graduates tell us that their time at Merrick Preparatory School was some of the best years of their lives,” says Kevin Farrell, headmaster at Merrick Prep.
Another aspect of Merrick Prep that is of special appeal to parents (of international boarding students in particular) is the safety of the school and the village of Merrickville. The small size of the campus and student population means that no one gets lost or left out. The character of the village makes for a very secure environment, too. Merrickville residents truly support the school and are genuinely interested in who the students are and where they are from and are often quite keen to learn about their cultures. Merrick Prep students are easily identified outside the walls of the school and are known to village residents through community outreach and student volunteer hours. The slower pace of village life and the integration of the school within it safeguard students in a way that can’t be matched by larger schools in metropolitan settings. Students at Merrick Prep don’t miss out on experiencing large city centres though, as Canada’s capital city of Ottawa is under an hour away, and both Toronto and Montreal are also fairly close by (in the context of Canadian geography!), and the school organizes trips to these larger centres. The school’s location also provides easy access to true wilderness areas, and excursions to experience Canada’s iconic natural spaces are always on the schedule. International students thus have many opportunities to experience varied aspects of Canadian culture, while calling a small, safe community home.
Significantly for a school of its size, Merrick Prep has won accolades and several awards in recent years. In 2021 Merrick Prep was the winner of the Secondary Learning International Impact Award and was recognized as the “Best High School in the World” by the PIEoneer Awards. In early 2023 Merrick Prep had already garnered recognition by three key academic interest groups. K12 Digest identified Merrick Prep as one of “10 Prominent Boarding Schools” to watch in 2023 (one of only two Canadian schools to make this list); Fortune Media placed them on the “World’s Leading Boarding Schools in 2023 List” (the only non-CAIS school listed); and they won the peer-voted “StudyTravel Secondary School Awards 2023—North American School” for their excellence as an outstanding secondary education provider as well as acknowledging their contribution to the StudyTravel industry.
Key words for Merrick Preparatory School: Courage. Compassion. Community.
Merrick Prep is housed in a handsome, two-storey limestone building in a town replete with charming historic and heritage properties, which was acknowledged as “Canada’s Most Beautiful Village” in 1998 by Communities in Bloom. Founded by settler William Merrick in 1794, the village of Merrickville is located on the shores of the Rideau River in eastern Ontario. The river was the source of early commerce in the region, providing power for running a variety of mills that Merrick constructed there, and a thriving community grew up around the milling activity. Construction of the Rideau Canal, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, began in 1826, reached “Merrick’s Mills” in 1827, and was completed in 1832. By the early 1850s, Merrickville was an active industrial centre and it continued to grow well into the 1860s. The grand limestone structure that houses Merrick Prep was built in 1861 as the residence of a local teacher, postmaster, department store owner, and later reeve of the village. The building remained in the family into the 1930s, then fulfilled a variety of roles and underwent numerous renovations and additions over the years. The landmark main street building was purchased in 2012 by the current owners in partnership with the owners of Fulford Academy in Brockville and soon opened as the Fulford Preparatory College, initially offering instruction for Grades 11 and 12. Schooling gradually expanded to include all secondary school grades, and Merrick Preparatory School became a fully independent private school in 2018, quickly gaining a reputation for academic excellence in a nurturing international environment.
The historic character of Merrick Prep’s home is evident throughout the building; the exposed limestone walls lend a sense of weight and tradition to what is in essence a thoroughly modern, progressive school filled with creative energy and community spirit. Prominently situated in the entryway beyond the grand double front doors is a wall display proudly proclaiming a long list of top-ranked universities to which Merrick Prep graduates have been accepted. A caption indicates the total value of scholarships those graduates have received to date—a figure that was nearing the $1 million mark by mid-2023. As you progress into the common areas of the school you can feel that it is a comfortable place, with inviting seating areas, a busy, well-stocked snack bar, and the sounds of friendly activity as a reassuring undertone. You sense that this is a place that encourages the well-rounded development of every student within a caring and supportive community.
Within the original 1861 building are most of the common areas of Merrick Prep, including on the main floor the reception area, the headmaster’s office, dining room, kitchen, and snack bar. Here the students congregate outside of class and study hours, with many group activities taking place in the dining room. The large dining room has wooden tables and comfortable seating, and flags of each nation currently represented at the school line the walls. Other levels of the original building feature administrative staff and teacher offices, as well as some classrooms and additional recreation facilities for the students. Of the latter, students can take advantage of a weight room, yoga room, several common rooms with ping-pong and pool tables, a foosball (table soccer) table, large-screen TVs, game consoles, assorted board games, and a piano. There are outdoor playing fields and courts, and the school plans to expand the campus through the development of a new gymnasium and sports facility. There are also plans for a new science and technology lab. Mere steps away, the Rideau River provides opportunities for additional recreation and quiet time in nature.
The largest addition to the 19th-century building is a three-storey brick structure that houses the rooms and living facilities for the boarding students. At the time of this writing, the rooms on the third floor were all being renovated (in anticipation of post-pandemic growth in enrolment), ensuring that all rooms are up to date and, like all the suites, above industry standards for boarding accommodation. Each room houses two students and is very generously sized with plenty of room for two double- or queen-sized beds, two desks, chairs, tables, and dressers. Each is graced with large windows, a 4-piece ensuite bathroom, and individual climate control. Every boarding student we spoke with agreed that the rooms are extremely comfortable. Neema, a day student in Grade 10, enthused that she loves to hang out in her friends’ rooms when not in class. Boarding students have access to in-house laundry facilities and are expected to do their own laundry as well as to keep their rooms tidy. For those boarders who attend Merrick Prep for more than one year, they have a new roommate from a different country each year, so they have even greater opportunities to learn about and come to appreciate another culture during their tenure at Merrick Prep.
State-of-the-art technology in the classrooms enable teachers to integrate digital teaching platforms and are in proportion to the small class sizes maintained by the school. With an average of 10 students per class, every classroom is large enough to not feel claustrophobic, yet small enough so that every student is engaged and involved in the daily curriculum. Notably, Merrick Prep also has (in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic) a robust remote synchronous learning program that is second to none. Designated classrooms are fitted with highly sophisticated cameras that follow the teacher’s movements, and sensitive audio equipment allows synchronous learners to feel as though they are right in the classroom with everyone else. Each distanced student can ask questions, engage in group discussions, and participate in group work and presentations, live and in real-time with their fellow students. Moreover, synchronous learners earn credits toward the OSSD and can easily transition to becoming an in-person scholar at Merrick. As the parent of one student who followed this route attests, the synchronous learning environment was as close to being physically in class as it was possible to be, with all the benefits of close contact with teachers and peers and attendant academic rigour. His son’s transition to being a boarding student was virtually seamless once pandemic restrictions were eased.
In one of the common areas of Merrick Prep, mounted prominently on an oft-seen wall, are the words “Courage,” “Compassion,”, and “Community”—the three pillars and core values upon which Merrick Prep is based. Of the three, community is the one most often cited when anyone associated with the school is asked to provide one word to describe it, but they are all intertwined, and integral to the school’s philosophy and way of operating. Merrick Prep’s headmaster is passionate about everything the school has to offer and eloquent in describing just what the three pillars mean when it comes to students and staff at Merrick Prep. Farrell’s sense of conviction is very real, and his enthusiasm for the school and the success of its inhabitants is contagious.
Regarding courage, Farrell quickly acknowledges that right from the outset it takes a great deal of courage for someone to come to Merrick Prep as a boarding student. These teenagers are leaving everything that is familiar—their family and their home—and travelling sometimes halfway around the world to attend school in Canada. Often there is something of a language barrier that can contribute to anxiety, too. But as everyone eventually learns, Farrell says, “Life always has challenging moments, and we gain courage in the face of adversity.” By coming to Merrick Prep every student has already begun to develop courage, and to learn that “without experiencing challenges and overcoming them with courage, there is no personal growth.” The challenging curriculum at the school reinforces this particular life lesson, as does the multicultural nature of Merrick Prep, in that it can take courage to encounter cultures other than your own and to live harmoniously with them, without prejudice. Developing courage in the face of a multitude of challenges produces students with great self-confidence, independence, and hardiness, as well as boldness in the face of the unknown.
The courage to embrace difference is where compassion comes in, at least in part. In Farrell’s view, students at Merrick Prep learn to employ three main types of compassion on their path to becoming global citizens: compassion for self, for others, and for the Earth. In an academic environment that is quite rigorous, Farrell notes that compassion for self, “taking care of yourself, and going easy on yourself when you need to,” is critical for individual student success to avoid burnout. It’s a healthy approach that is part of the nurturing culture of Merrick Prep, where every student’s well-being is paramount, and support and care are unstintingly given whenever they are needed.
Compassion for others is woven into the fabric of life at Merrick Prep, especially given the number of different countries and cultures represented at the school in any given year. Since its opening in 2012 with a deliberate focus on international enrolment, students from more than 42 countries have called Merrick Prep home, so learning to live with others goes with the territory. Indeed, Merrick Prep students gain strength from the diversity of their classmates because they must acquire an understanding of differences, as well as develop empathy and humility to successfully, productively, and helpfully cohabitate with their peers. As Farrell notes, “You may not fully understand someone else’s background, but you can develop empathy and the means to work with them successfully.” Compassion is the key component in this success, and it is lived and practiced every day.
Students are also instilled with the importance of compassion for the Earth. As Farrell somewhat colloquially remarks, “We’re hooped if we don’t look after it,” and part of the vision of Merrick Prep is to teach to add to the global good. By providing a thorough grounding in sciences and business, as well as by furnishing creative tools to express new ideas, Merrick Prep is enabling students to do their part in creating a more sustainable future. The globe-spanning relationships made here will also help facilitate those ends, through enduring friendships that can develop into effective professional networks.
Community is the bedrock upon which Merrick Prep sits and is a common thread through all conversations about the school. Most anyone who has spent time at Merrick Prep either as a student or in some other capacity will at some point say that everyone there is like a second family and that the place is like a home away from home. Communal living and shared experiences will foster that almost anywhere. But respect, mutual support, compassion, service to others, and shared goals—all of which are part and parcel of life at Merrick Prep—result in community-mindedness that becomes habitual. Upon arrival at Merrick Prep, each student is placed into one of three Houses (Barnard, Rickers, or Clarke), and each month the Houses compete in fun activities to earn points toward the annual awarding of the House Cup. The monthly challenges promote creative problem solving, school spirit, and teamwork, and are just one way the school promotes a cohesive and inclusive family environment. In this and other ways students also come to understand, Farrell says, “that you can’t go far without support, and that an individual can’t make significant change without community.” And because of the international emphasis at Merrick Prep, that sense of community becomes global.
The three core values described above are more than noble concepts to which only lip service is paid. Kevin Farrell definitely walks the talk and firmly believes that for the most effective learning to take place it is not what you learn, but how you learn it—which is one big reason why the core values are emphasized. The headmaster’s office is in the thick of school activity, just inside the dining room and across from the snack bar. His door is always open, and from there he can connect with everyone in the school—keeping in touch with the pulse of Merrick Prep. Farrell himself clearly provides one source of the energy with which the school is imbued, an energy he shares and transfers to nearly everyone he encounters. When he engages with the students, he reinforces the core values of the school in both words and deeds—even pitching in to wipe down tables after lunch when one student’s partner in the task (assigned to all students in rotation) was unable to assist. As Farrell remarked, everyone shares equal responsibility for maintaining the school environment, and there is no assigned task beneath anyone in the school.
The teachers at Merrick Prep are equal partners in advancing the vision and values of the school, working together and in their classrooms to bring out the best in each student. Every teacher is both a qualified, licensed instructor and a certified guidance counsellor, shaping academic adventures and shepherding individual students throughout their Merrick Prep career. At the very start of their tenure at Merrick Prep, each student is placed in a Grade-specific adviser group with one teacher advisor and 6–8 other students, with whom they will remain for as long as they are at the school. Students meet with their group and adviser for one hour each weekday for tutorial assistance and other support. Once each week the adviser delivers a life-skills session, providing information and guidance in such areas as physical and mental health, hygiene, time management skills and study habits, finances and banking, nutrition, online safety, stress management, conflict resolution, and leadership—all important subjects for the development of a well-rounded and capable individual. Once a student reaches Grades 11 and 12 the focus shifts to university guidance, selection, and the application process. By this time the teacher knows each student in their group extremely well and can make informed suggestions regarding post-secondary institutions and programs, as well as scholarship opportunities, that would best serve the aims and ambitions of each student. It is one of many ways that Merrick Prep engages with students to help them get the most out of their stay at the school.
Leadership at the school goes beyond the classroom and focus on advising. At a weekly round-table meeting, all the staff discuss the progress and success of each student and raise any concerns or red flags that may crop up. As teacher Becky Murry notes, there is an element of surveillance and necessary vigilance when it comes to potential problems with or among the students, but because the small community is so tight knit there is a genuine positivity to this type of observation. It springs from a compassionate desire for the well-being of each student and serves to resolve problems before they become serious issues. Another teacher, Jens Devolder, adds, “There is great support from the rest of the faculty. Kevin [Farrell] is made aware of any problems, and we all work together to solve them.” There is focused attention on how the faculty and staff can help each student to be their very best and to realize (and exceed) their potential.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the academic side of Merrick Prep is its small class sizes. From the outset, the founders of the school deliberately intended to have an international student body, with limited enrolment to ensure small class sizes for focused, individualized attention. Merrick Prep has stayed true to this ideal, making it one of its most unique and advantageous features.
With a maximum on-campus enrolment of 80 students (60 boarding and 20 day) across four grades and the university qualifying year, the average class size is 10 students. This makes for a very comfortable student-teacher ratio, and from any perspective, small class sizes tremendously benefit both students and teachers. Across the board, each of the teachers we spoke with said that the small class sizes are something they particularly like about teaching at Merrick Prep, and several of them were attracted to teaching at the school for that very reason. Molly Russell, French and ESL teacher at Merrick Prep says, “I love the small class sizes because it allows for individual attention, and you get to know each student quite well. This can present some challenges, of course, but overall, it helps to create a team atmosphere.” She goes on to say that the small class size can be overwhelming for some students at first because there is “nowhere to hide” with so few people in the room, but that it is especially rewarding to see the growth in these students. Other teachers echo these sentiments, adding that the small class sizes facilitate a mutually supportive environment among the students, who gain confidence in all subjects through help and encouragement from their peers. Teachers see each student clearly, and describe them as focused, open-minded, serious about their studies, responsible, and mature, all qualities that mean there is generally little need for strict classroom management.
The small class sizes also mean that teachers can provide a more tailored classroom experience within the OSSD curriculum, a flexibility that results in a quite rigorous and extremely thorough education, regardless of the subject. Compared to significantly larger classes in public school systems, the small class sizes at Merrick Prep allow “room for critical thinking and cogent discussion,” says Calvin Berting, a social studies teacher. While ensuring that every student has full comprehension of the material, teachers are also cognizant of each individual’s well-being. Small class sizes allow for one-on-one attention, where teachers “build confidence and nurture understanding, with a little bit of pushing beyond comfort zones, because that is where growth happens,” relates Murry, who also teaches social studies. An inquiry-based approach to learning develops, “with the teacher as a guide, not a director, which lowers the barriers between teacher and student,” says Murry. Every student’s individual educational path is taken into account. The format is indisputably successful, producing independent thinkers at ease with critical inquiry, who can express their ideas clearly.
From student and alumni perspectives, the small class sizes are also one of the best things about the academic experience at Merrick Prep. When talking to current students at the school each one agreed that the small class format is great because it gives every student easy access to the teachers, and the teachers get to know each of them as individuals. Suzanne, a Grade 10 student from Syria, relates, “The small class size is good because it makes you feel like the teacher has time for you as a person, and isn’t rushing between too many people.” The close attention teachers give to individuals is significant for all the students we spoke to, who appreciate the importance of this one-on-one communication with their teachers. The small class sizes provide “an opportunity to really understand what you’re learning,” says Grade 9 student Sasha, with Rell, a Grade 10 student from Panama, adding that it is “a much more effective learning environment” than larger classes in other schools.
Merrick Prep alumni also sing the praises of the small class sizes. Rishi, a 2021 graduate, says, “The small class sizes were very positive! They allowed the teacher to focus on individuals and to develop a direct relationship with each student,” which was of great personal benefit. In a similar vein, another alum notes that “teachers spent a lot of time ensuring that each student was performing to their maximum potential, and were very patient, allowing time for things to be properly understood.” This created an environment especially conducive to learning, though it was still very challenging. With respect to what was learned, many alumni report that they entered university ahead of their peers academically, though as another 2021 grad, Dahyun, reflects, “Now that I am in university with hundreds of students in one class, I feel that Merrick Prep’s small class size was the best for me to focus and interact with teachers.” That said, another common refrain among alumni is that Merrick Prep instilled excellent work and study habits that continue to serve them well in their post-secondary education.
The learning environment at Merrick Prep and the structure of each day are instrumental to student success. Where most secondary schools in Ontario might manage 110 in-class instructional hours per course, at Merrick Prep that total is 140+ hours per course. Those extra hours translate to a greater breadth and depth of knowledge and subject matter expertise, which are invaluable to those pursuing post-secondary education. Indeed, the rigour of the courses is near or at the university level, and alumni report that a great deal of what they are covering in first-year university they already learned in classes at Merrick Prep, making the overall transition to university life quite a bit easier. There is also the story of one alum (2022 grad Konstantin) who, upon passing a European university entrance exam with flying colours, was allowed to skip the first year of his chosen program and entered directly into second-year studies (saving himself much time and tuition). Such is the impact of academics at Merrick Prep.
It is not only in-class instruction that sets Merrick Prep students up for success—a lot of it is attributable to the structure of their days while at the school, where they acquire tools and adopt habits that continue to support them once they graduate. Current students are very clear that the daily one-hour multi-subject instructional period (MSIP, which incorporates the adviser group program) before weekday lunch is extremely helpful. During the MSIP sessions, students have access to the teachers and can ask for assistance with any difficulties they might be having, and it is during those sessions that students also support each other. There is an active mentoring mindset within the school, which is deeply rooted in the overall sense of community. In addition to the MSIP sessions, five evenings a week there is a two-hour study period during which only schoolwork is undertaken. The workload is such that focused time is necessary, and in the words of one student, most everyone finds that it provides “great structure—there is no excuse to not do the work.”
Through routine and instruction, students learn time management skills and to prioritize tasks—tools that hold them in good stead after they graduate from Merrick Prep. As alum Dahyun reports, she still makes use of many of the study tips and other skills she learned to keep up with everything in university life, time management being key. “University is different. I must keep my own records and make my own time to study and do other things. If I had not learned these skills while at Merrick Prep things would be very difficult for me in university.”
The importance of routine—not just study hours, but getting adequate sleep, nutrition, and physical exercise—was brought home to another alum, 2020 grad Yazeed, in his first year of university when he fell out of the good habits he had developed at Merrick Prep. “The lack of routine negatively impacted my studies at university. I wasn’t getting enough sleep or any exercise, and I was eating a lot of poor food. It ended up that I couldn’t concentrate on my studies, and my marks weren’t very good. Once I realized what was happening, I got back into the routines I’d learned at Merrick Prep, and everything improved.” He adds that all the personal resources and social skills learned at Merrick Prep continue to contribute to his well-being, including “physical and mental health, self-discipline, and tidy habits—the small things add up to big consequences.”
One of Merrick Prep’s greatest strengths is the individual improvement of each student. “We shine at taking a 78% student to an 88% student,” Farrell says, with most achieving even higher academic standards. Much of this is attributable to the quality of the instruction delivered by the world-class teachers at Merrick Prep, as well as by the progressive methods employed in the classroom and elsewhere. Every teacher has of course received their certification from the Ontario College of Teachers, and several teachers spent years teaching abroad before coming to Merrick Prep—an experience that is a distinct advantage when it comes to the international student body because they are familiar with the academic environments that many of the international students are coming from and can respond accordingly. “We have also been very fortunate,” Farrell says, “in the good examples set by some of our female teachers who had professional careers in science and engineering before coming to teach at Merrick Prep. They are great role models for our female students, and this is reflected in the academic paths many of our female students take when selecting and attending a university.”
The teachers as a group are very supportive of one another, which is notable in a larger community that is already very tightly knit. As Russell says, “There is a unique collaboration between all the teachers, and we play to each others’ strengths.” Communication between the teachers and staff is very good, and in the weekly round-table meetings the teachers discuss any problem areas that have been identified, work together to find solutions, and support each other in putting those solutions into effect. “There is excellent transparency between the teachers, the headmaster, and all the staff,” Berting affirms, “and all the teachers are just great. The headmaster has very progressive ideas for a school of this size, and the quality of the teaching is very high.” Similarly, others say that compared to their experience teaching in public schools there is lots of communication between everyone, and the headmaster is there to support the teachers. “This is the best school I have ever worked at,” is Devolder’s assertion—a conviction echoed by others.
Teachers at Merrick Prep get high marks from alumni, too. As 2022 grad Konstantin says, “The teachers were all extremely passionate about their subjects, which made learning incredibly fun. This is not to say that the learning was easy. On the contrary, it was challenging and difficult, but with the support of the teachers, learning difficult topics was made fun and engaging.” Another recent Merrick Prep grad echoes these sentiments, saying that the teachers are enthusiastic in their teaching and that they are there to help each and every student succeed.
The benefits of close, individual attention also extend to the parents of students at Merrick Prep. Parents receive weekly “Friday emails” from every teacher with whom their child has a class. In the email, the teacher describes what was covered in class during the week and what is coming up in the next week. The student’s progress is also addressed, including areas where the student might be struggling as well as where they are having success. If parental assistance is required, some mode of video chat is arranged. In fact, regular video-chat meetings are the norm, in which parents, students, teachers, and administrators meet to discuss any concerns any of them may have, long before there is any difficulty. Farrell adds that the weekly emails are amplified by “detailed monthly progress reports and report cards, [and] we host parent-teacher interviews after every report card.” In addition to all this, a parent is welcome to speak with staff at Merrick Prep, including teachers, administrators, residential life supervisors, kitchen, and maintenance staff—whoever they like—if they have any concerns at all. A parent’s peace of mind is just as important at Merrick Prep as the success of every student, and every effort is made to keep parents well-informed and free of worry. As the mother of Mieme, a current student from South Africa, remarked about the close attention they receive, “They make you feel like you’re the only parent, and they are very responsive and attentive.”
Reflecting on what their children have achieved at Merrick Prep, parents also have high praise for the teachers and the quality of the academics and instruction. “I am delighted with the attention, care, personalization, and specialization that teachers have with each student, and that they are very aware that they advanced organically in their day to day with their studies,” says Maria’s mother from Mexico, adding that she appreciates that every teacher is happy to answer any questions she may have. Another parent says that they find the academics quite advanced and are pleased by the experiential nature of the instruction the students receive. The parent of day-student Neema believes that Merrick Prep has “the best teachers anywhere,” and says that the teachers’ high qualifications give parents great confidence. He goes on to say that Neema was not reaching her full potential in public school, but that her grades and attitude have both improved since starting at Merrick Prep. “It has been a very good experience for us. There is great access to the teachers, who are all very helpful and supportive.”
Parents of both current students and alumni corroborate Merrick Prep’s talent for transforming an average student into a high achiever. One parent who enrolled their child at Merrick Prep primarily so that they could gain international experience and become more self-confident and independent (which they did), also saw the added benefit of their child going from being a “C” student to an “A” student. Students find the classes challenging and are motivated both by the teachers and their classmates. More than one parent has observed that their child has gained maturity, responsibility, and independence and that their approach to questions and larger world issues is very analytical and based on reason. Most would agree that they have seen huge advances academically due to the rigour of the curriculum and the diligence of the teachers at Merrick Prep.
As a preparatory school, Merrick Prep’s raison d’être is, of course, to get students ready to continue their education at a post-secondary institution, and this is another area where Merrick Prep really shines. Academics at the school, as has been discussed, are advanced and thorough, with many alumni reporting that they found their first year of university relatively easy because of the rigorous academics they received and study habits they learned at Merrick Prep. But it goes beyond academics at Merrick Prep. Here every student gains not only a solid academic foundation but also acquires the knowledge to see which university might be most appropriate for them, as well as developing the productive habits and life skills needed to succeed once they get there. One of Merrick Prep’s stated goals “is to facilitate each student’s acceptance into their first-choice post-secondary institution. Unlike other schools where one person is responsible for handling all the students’ university applications, with virtually no knowledge of the individual, at Merrick Prep each student’s adviser becomes their university guidance counsellor. Our dedicated staff come to know each student’s interests and career aspirations, thereby ensuring the right ‘fit’ for their university choices.”
Regarding Merrick Prep’s university guidance, alum Konstantin notes that “the university counselling program was very detailed, providing students with guidance on what to expect, how to apply, and how to maximize their potential in further education.” As part of this Merrick Prep “arranged for representatives from many universities to visit the school to talk to students about their institutions, enabling students to ask questions on anything they were unsure of as well as understand what a university offers and what they can expect if they choose to apply there.” The program for university preparation really is “the whole package,” says Justin Irwin, Merrick Prep’s recruitment officer. “Students develop good routines and habits, independence and life skills, as well as having the unique benefit of university-level courses while here,” all of which prepare them for the next step. This is possible because “We have outstanding staff, and the best teachers anywhere,” Irwin adds.
Merrick Prep also offers a university qualification year (UQY), which is designed for international students who have already graduated from high school in their home country and who want to improve their English and academic standing to better their chances of admittance to their university of choice. These students have the opportunity to earn the OSSD while also gaining a deep understanding of the North American pedagogical approach and curriculum. They receive intensive English language training from a dedicated ESL specialist and, along with every other student at Merrick Prep, get three hours of International English Language Testing System (IELTS) training and one hour of Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) preparation every week. All students must pass the OSSLT or take the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Course (OSSLC), which is a requirement of the Ontario Ministry of Education. The one-on-one academic guidance provided to students in the UQY results in a competitive IELTS score, which in turn helps ensure post-secondary placement and enhanced scholarship opportunities.
So confident is Merrick Prep in the success of their university placement program, supported as it is by the social experience and academic programs at the school, that they have what is called the “MPS Promise.” Since the school’s inception in 2012, they have maintained a 100% placement rate to world-ranked universities for their graduates, and Merrick Prep guarantees the same outcome for every student—that is the MPS Promise. Should a student not be accepted into a post-secondary institution, Merrick Prep invites that student back for a free year of study.
Merrick Prep is a small school and intends to stay that way, with a maximum in-person student population of 60 boarder and 20 day students, and up to 30 synchronous students joining in the online classrooms. One of Merrick Prep’s slogans is: “Distinctly Canadian—Uniquely Global,” and it is evident that the school adheres to this identity. A significant percentage of the student population consists of international students, with an average of about 20 different countries represented at the school in any given year. The international student component is one of the principal reasons many parents and students choose Merrick Prep for their high school education. International students enrol to benefit from small class sizes and focused academic attention while staying in one of Canada’s safest communities and experiencing Canadian culture. Domestic students choose Merrick Prep so that they can broaden their global perspective within the context of international education. All are there both for top-flight academics and for the opportunity to come to know and understand different cultures and lived experiences. In the course of their time at Merrick Prep they truly come to learn that “In Diversity there is Strength.”
The cultural diversity within Merrick Prep is one aspect of the student population that receives regular, positive comments from students, their parents, alumni, teachers, and staff. As alum Dahyun says, “One of the biggest benefits I acquired during my time at Merrick Prep was that I got to experience diverse cultures through friends and teachers. This was a new thing for me because I was never exposed to such diversity and cultural differences. This taught me a lot.” Cultural diversity broadens students’ views and often brings individuals out of their shell. As one parent observes of their daughter, “She used to be a bit of a loner, but now she has a lot of friends and goes out. She sees things differently now, by experiencing other cultures.” Another parent echoes this comment, finding that their daughter now interacts easily with anyone because she has been exposed to different viewpoints, cultures, and religions. She is getting a “global picture” that will hold her in good stead in years to come.
The combination of Merrick Prep’s location in Canada and its diverse student population is often the deciding factor for both parents and students when it comes to choosing a secondary school. One student, Rell, who did his own research and selection of schools to attend, wanted a broader knowledge of the world and wanted to experience it in a small, safe, diverse, and inclusive environment. Merrick Prep fulfills all these requirements, and his parents say that the compassionate, community-oriented approach of the school has allowed their son to “learn for himself about diversity and inclusivity,” and that he “feels comfortable talking to everyone. He can relate to people of any stamp and understand them.” Students themselves say that the multicultural aspect of the school is one of the things they like best about Merrick Prep. “The school is full of different cultures and perspectives,” says Rell, “which gives everyone a lot of new experiences and learning opportunities.” And because the diversity of the student population is coupled with inclusivity, most students “feel comfortable asking questions about others’ cultures and sharing their own experiences.”
The multicultural community within Merrick Prep provides great “opportunity for personal growth” says math and science teacher Devolder, and “its diversity is a major strength. It broadens minds and provides a true richness of vision and experience,” due in large part to the attitude with which it is addressed. Students are “confronted with the differences in a nurturing and caring environment, and it is always approached with respect and understanding.”
Multiculturalism within the student body is not simply embraced; the international aspect of Merrick Prep is regularly celebrated, and efforts are made to regularly share information about different cultures. One way of doing this is through food. Students often bring recipes from home (sometimes also bringing special ingredients with them) and ask that they be prepared to share with their classmates. Merrick Prep’s chef, Carey Oberman, says that she has on occasion prepared food while on a video call with a student’s parent or grandparent, to make sure a recipe is done absolutely right (the biggest compliment she can receive is, “that’s just like how my mom makes it!”). Students can get involved with the preparation as well, and there is often an educational component surrounding food—such as during Ramadan when some students observe fasting during daylight hours and everyone else observes the same practice one day each week through the course of the month; or when there are prohibitions on certain foods for religious or other reasons. Students thus gain a unique perspective on another culture.
Cultural diversity and the international character of Merrick Prep are also celebrated within the larger community of Merrickville. At the time of our visit, the students were preparing for International Day, with students from particular countries teaming up to create displays providing information on their culture, history, notable figures, and other unique characteristics such as culturally significant attire. The wider community is invited to the open house event, which was also to include culinary samples from each country. There was palpable energy where the students were working, with teachers also engaging in the process and making their own discoveries about students’ cultures. From all accounts, it is a yearly event that everyone in the greater community looks forward to with enthusiasm.
In addition to its diversity, the size of the student body is a defining characteristic of Merrick Prep. Among other advantages, the small population means that everyone knows everyone else—from the headmaster to all the teachers and staff, to the newest student at the school. The sense of community is so strong that the people living and working there become (as clichéd as it might sound) like a big family. Describing his experience at Merrick Prep, alum Rishi says that what continues to stand out for him is that “I felt that we became part of a family, and I felt very safe there. I’m still connected with everyone who was there while I was.” There is general agreement that everyone at the school gets along, and that there is a true sense of belonging and equal participation in the life of the school. Several students also commented (with perhaps a bit of wonder) that unlike other schools, there are no cliques at Merrick Prep, and any disagreements between students that might crop up are extremely short-lived. “Everyone is so nice,” Maria says, “and very welcoming.” This strong sense of family and community translates into lasting ties between alumni, who remain friends after graduation and whose common connections can lead to positive networking opportunities in their later professional careers.
Athletics & Co-Curriculars
Attendance at Merrick Prep is not all about academics, of course. The school offers a wide range of co-curricular and athletic opportunities for all the students, which take place several evenings each week. While some activities are seasonal, students can always choose from team sports, arts and music-related activities, personal growth opportunities, fitness programs, and volunteerism. In addition to weekly co-curriculars, there is an activity or outing each weekend that is arranged by Merrick Prep’s residential life supervisors, with mandatory participation by all boarder and day students every fourth weekend. The co-curriculars, particularly the weekend events, are designed to generate a sense of belonging, inclusiveness, and community, as well as being lots of fun for everyone involved.
Some of the co-curriculars are defined by the students and the current makeup of the student body and its interests, and there are a great variety of special-interest clubs and activities for students to participate in. Merrick Prep students create and run the student council, which helps to facilitate many activities such as the monthly House Cup Challenge, fundraising activities for local causes, creation of the yearbook, planning and implementation of the graduates’ Farewell Party, and annual projects selected by the students to leave their signature (so to speak) on the school. Additionally, “our students participate in the Model United Nations at the University of Toronto, contend in mathematics competitions through the University of Waterloo (in which Merrick Prep students have placed in the top 2% of over 18,000 entrants), and enter projects in local science fairs,” says Farrell. Volunteerism within the community of Merrickville is also enthusiastically embraced by the students (who frequently complete more than their required 40 hours of volunteer service) and the people of Merrickville, all of whom learn to value and appreciate one another.
Merrick Prep students also compete “in a variety of sports with other private schools across the Greater Ottawa Region and eastern Ontario,” says Farrell. Some have had top-three finishes in eastern Ontario track and field meets, as well as in eastern Ontario badminton tournaments. “Our basketball and soccer teams, while not getting on the podium, have impressed with their heart, drive, and commitment to sportsperson-ship,” he adds. The size of the campus limits some extracurricular sports activities, but students have access to local sports fields and other facilities and make the most of them. “Extracurricular activities were extremely fun!” reports one alum, “Things such as [soccer] and hockey were always the most popular and competitive, and everyone had a lot of fun playing against each other. Merrick Prep also played in tournaments in [soccer] against other schools, which all the students had a lot of fun in.” Pick-up hockey and soccer games between students and staff are also not unheard of, with the students usually carrying off the honours amid much good-natured rivalry. On the less sporty side of things, there are weekly “town runs” to nearby Kemptville for shopping and necessities. Then, of course, there are also regular outings to Ottawa, with Toronto and Montreal visited through school-organized trips for arts and cultural, academics, university events, and more.
Students report that there is a good balance between school and co-curriculars, which are acknowledged as being great for new experiences, especially for international students. While interests vary and some of the mandatory weekend activities may not stir enthusiasm in everyone, most would agree that they are rarely at loose ends. Some students admit that Merrickville itself is not very exciting for a teenager, but they are quick to add that it is good because it offers few distractions. On the other hand, Merrickville is situated less than an hour from Ottawa and all that Canada’s capital region has to offer, including museums, galleries, festivals, cultural events, and many sightseeing opportunities. It is also within easy reach of many wilderness areas, with opportunities to explore some of Canada’s iconic wilderness while skating, skiing, hiking, canoeing, camping, and white-water rafting. In fact, two multi-day outdoor and experiential field trips are built into every school year, so that all students gain an understanding of that part of Canadian culture.
Wellness & Pastoral Care
One of the most notable things about Merrick Prep is its holistic approach to the student experience at the school—everything is directed toward student success and well-being. From a parent’s or student’s first contact with the school, Merrick Prep commits to timely responsiveness and genuine, attentive communication—a feature that continues throughout a student’s tenure. Merrick Prep prioritizes treating each student as an individual and ensures that he or she is well-known by every teacher, administrator, admissions, residential life, kitchen, and maintenance staff person there. It is an emotionally safe environment where students grow and flourish, developing well-rounded social skills and self-understanding along with strong academics.
The touchstone words at Merrick Prep—courage, compassion, community—are the foundation upon which student care rests. Courage to face challenges and differences, compassion for self and others, and community for support and success—they are parts of the whole experience at Merrick Prep and are what makes everything work so well there. From the moment a student is accepted to the school they begin to feel known. The small school and class sizes foster a strong sense of belonging, reinforced by experiencing a welcoming, tolerant, and open-minded community. All the staff at Merrick Prep live and breathe that deeply caring environment. It is no exaggeration to say that almost anyone associated with the school will tell you that it is like a big family. As several students related, “You go to Merrick Prep for the academics—you stay because of the people.”
The parent experience of Merrick Prep is one of incredible peace of mind, knowing that their child is safe and well cared for in an environment where student well-being is at the fore. “There is great communication with the school,” says Mieme’s mother, “which gives me a real sense of security and confidence in my daughter’s overall safety. She says that Merrick Prep is like a home away from home and that everyone there is like family, which makes me very happy.” Other parents relate similar sentiments, saying that the teachers, the headmaster, and all the staff will bend over backward to facilitate communication with their families and that they are always in tune with the needs of the kids. “Everyone at Merrick Prep is very genuine, and they provide sincere depth of care and professionalism in every facet of life at the school. It is the next best thing to parental guidance and care,” says Mieme’s mother.
Adding to the overall sense of security is the knowledge that there is responsible 24/7 supervision from staff members at Merrick Prep. The headmaster resides on-site, and there are always several residential life coordinators and supervisors staying at the school during non-class hours. Every teacher and all residential life personnel have qualifications in guidance counselling and are always open to help in whatever way they can. “They are incredibly dedicated to the students as well as to the school,” recounts alum Konstantin. “They were always there for us and understanding of any situation where we needed help, which was a really good support structure for us to have.”
Residential life staff confirm that they are “always looking out for the student’s best interests” in every aspect of their time at Merrick Prep. From looking after any medications a student may require, to being a sounding board, the residential life staff serve in part as surrogate parents outside of class hours. They arrange weekend co-curricular activities and volunteer opportunities, supervise the evening study hall, perform room inspections, and provide room maintenance as necessary. As Nick Lee, a residential life supervisor, says, “Everyone is set up for success on both sides, and though there are definitely rules to follow, there are virtually no behaviour issues. We are here to really help work through any problems a student might be having (like homesickness), and the community here really pulls together to create a sense of belonging and participation.” Raj Nair, residential life coordinator, adds that “There is great socialization between all the grades, and everyone gets along. I am consistently pleasantly surprised by the good personalities of all the students.”
As might be expected when dealing with this particular demographic, food is of key importance in the overall boarding school experience. And while there are always those who are especially particular about their food, most students and alumni we spoke with said that the food served to them at Merrick Prep is always very good and plentiful and that the kitchen staff are very accommodating. There are, for example, always several choices of food at mealtimes, including vegetarian options, and the school chef accommodates any food-related cultural prohibitions as well as any food allergies students may have. As in every other area of the school, the kitchen staff has very good knowledge and awareness of each student, and it is their goal to keep them healthy and happy by serving nutritious, varied meals. School chef Carey Oberman makes every effort to source fresh, locally supplied food and is excited by the scope for international cuisine. “Some of the students are shy at first to make requests,” she says, “but most are very keen to have some home-like ‘comfort food’ and to share their culture’s cuisine with their friends, so we fulfill requests whenever we can.” Students can take part in meal planning and prep if they wish (within the bounds of health regulations), and parents also sometimes get involved by providing family recipes or preparing special dishes for everyone to try. “Mealtimes are very important,” Oberman points out, “and are seen as a family and community event. No distractions from the meal are allowed—so no phones, hoodies, or anything else that will take away from the sense of community at mealtimes. We also make sure that everyone is attending meals and is eating well and is healthy. We really are like a big family.”
Pastoral care at Merrick Prep is a major part of what makes the student experience there so rewarding and fulfilling. The knowing of each individual student, the sense of community, the deeply caring environment, and the solid structure of routines make Merrick Prep a place where students can grow into themselves, gaining maturity and self-confidence in an emotionally safe place. The experience is summed up by 2021 graduate Rishi, who says, “Unlike other larger schools, Merrick Prep is like a family, and I immediately felt welcomed by everyone there and felt very safe. The chef was very understanding and accommodating (I am vegetarian), and the people of Merrickville were also very welcoming. All the staff are very invested in you and the school—they are very caring, like parents almost, and want very much for you to succeed. My parents were always kept in the loop as to how I was doing, and really, there was nothing to worry about.”
Merrick Prep’s existing promotional material includes the following statement: “Whether your child is excelling or not reaching their potential, our inclusive, safe, diverse and caring community, with individualized academic attention, will result in improved academic standing with enhanced confidence and self-esteem.” Unlike some schools where entrance is largely focused on an incoming student’s GPA, at Merrick Prep the important thing is that the school is the right fit for the student—that they will benefit from the programs Merrick Prep has in place, and that the school’s format and curriculum are suitable for that student. In fact, there is no GPA requirement at Merrick Prep, but the school does look for certain qualities in a student, as they are revealed through the detailed and thorough application process. In addition to the usual, requisite application forms and documents, Merrick Prep requires a personal profile handwritten by each prospective student and conducts interviews with both the student and his or her parents. A big part of what makes Merrick Prep so effective is that the school is dedicated to creating a specific type of atmosphere, which starts with recruitment. The student must be a good fit for Merrick Prep, and Merrick Prep must be a good fit for the student.
Johanna Ziegler, director of admissions at Merrick Prep, makes the point that “it is important to us that the student has academic potential and the motivation to get to university. We are looking for students who can do well, even if they need help and support to get there.” It is perhaps a unique position to take, but it is one that is working well for the school, with 100% of graduates entering their university of choice, usually with some kind of scholarship in hand. The school is committed to staying small so that they continue to know every student by name and as an individual and can maintain the close-knit community they have established there. “Our community is really one of our strong values and sets our students up for success,” says Ziegler, “so we will continue to make sure we know each of our students well.”
The current admission rate relative to applications is fairly high. “Right now, our focus is to get back to the numbers we had before COVID (60 boarding students), and now additionally we are working on 20 local day students, which we hopefully will achieve in the coming years as well,” says Ziegler. This is not to say that every applicant to Merrick Prep will be offered admission. That their students are essentially like-minded is of great importance to the school, so they are looking for students who show an inclination for academic excellence, or those who are keen on doing better than they are in their current situation, wanting a fresh start. Sometimes it is that the student applicant shows great potential, or especially desires an international experience along with their academics. Some kind of connection should be made between the applicant and the school, and there is always “honest communication about what Merrick Prep can and can’t do for a student,” says Ziegler. And if it doesn’t work out, “we will help a parent find a solution if Merrick Prep is not a good fit for their child.”
From the first contact with an applicant, Merrick Prep is exceptionally responsive and very quick to answer any and all questions about the application process and the school itself. Parents relate similar experiences, saying that the school’s communication is “responsive and attentive, with a warm, welcoming contact, and personal attention that gave us the confidence to decide on Merrick Prep.” For international students, “immigration was fully explained, and Merrick Prep provided help with forms, and everything was arranged,” says another parent. The student experience is likewise positive. As one alum says, “The application process was very smooth, with great communication. During my application process, I had talked to pretty much all the staff before I had even attended the school, which helped a lot with getting to know everyone and feeling comfortable when entering a new environment. The admissions team is very knowledgeable and diverse in terms of international experience and helps ensure students have a good experience.”
Merrickville Prep comes with a fairly large tuition fee, though given what it offers, it’s more than reasonable. Many parents report that they find the tuition reasonable, especially considering the very positive outcomes for their child—benefits that go beyond university placement and considerable scholarships to encompass the development of great maturity, self-confidence, life skills, and appreciation for global difference. Even where their home currency is weak compared to Canadian dollars, parents express satisfaction due to the very high academic standards at Merrick Prep, as well as how the school helps to mould students into truly compassionate global citizens. There is consensus that there is very good value for the investment in their children at Merrick Prep.
Merrick Prep does offer some bursaries and scholarships based on academic performance, as well as some funds from a referral program now in place. Payment plan options are available, and the recruitment and admissions team is always happy to answer any questions and provide detailed information on any aspect of tuition and school life.
Among a host of private preparatory schools in Canada, what makes Merrick Prep stand out is its absolute dedication to the success of every student, in every facet of life at the school. The rigorous academic program produces independent, creative thinkers who are well-prepared for university. The strong sense of community with its international flavour builds a uniquely supportive second-family network in which students thrive. The development of compassionate, caring individuals who can easily relate to and confidently work with others makes for alumni who will face the world with courage and fortitude.
Student success is the thread that runs consistently through the very fabric of Merrick Prep, and the school equips students to succeed in all aspects of life—in fact, there really is no choice but to succeed. Based on a foundation of courage, compassion, and community, Merrick Prep takes great pride in everything that they do at the school for the success of the students there. “The ability to influence our students to believe they can reach beyond their grasp and achieve their dreams is especially important,” says Farrell. “What they learn here has an impact on the rest of their life, so we create an environment that positively impacts our students’ confidence, sense of belonging and purpose—and that lasts a lifetime.”