The York School
While some schools pride themselves on being small, Columbia finds its strength in being large—with a student population in excess of 1800, it is easily the largest boarding school in Canada. What Columbia might lack in intimacy it gains in the ability to provide a wealth of supports and programs that smaller schools simply can't. The school maintains extensive liaison offices, a dedicated guidance staff, and even its own medical clinic. The faculty, through size and experience, is remarkably adept at providing a quality, well-rounded education with an eye to success in postsecondary education. The school provides ESL to students who need it, and liaises directly with universities in Canada and beyond in order to facilitate the transition to postsecondary education. In all, the school excels at doing what it was created to do: to support the university-bound international learner who is living away from home within a culture, and at times a language, that is unfamiliar.
With more than 1,500 students, Columbia International College (also known as CIC) is easily the largest boarding school in North America, and perhaps the largest in the world. With students arriving from more that 70 countries, it’s also by far the most diverse. Says founder Clement Chan, “I’m sure we were the first school in Canada to have high school students from Kazakhstan,” and no doubt they were. The liaison office interacts with parents and students in nine languages: English, French, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Russian, Turkish, Portuguese, and Spanish. Columbia also has more academic partnerships than any other private school, including nine universities in Canada and three further afield: the University of London (UK), the State University of New York, and the University of Canberra, Australia. It tops the charts of post-secondary awards, with graduating students earning in excess of $3 million in scholarship funding last year alone.
Equally impressive, given that broad scope of accomplishment, is that Columbia is relatively young. It began in 1979 with just nine students. When the first student council voted to create a lunch program, it tasked volunteers to walk each day to the corner of Garth and Mohawk Streets to purchase buns, cold cuts, and milk at the local deli. Back on campus, the volunteers made sandwiches, which they then sold at cost. Obviously, times have changed, and no one heads out to the local deli any more. Still, as quaint as the story is, the great strength of Columbia is nevertheless embedded within it: namely an ability to recognize the specific needs of students and a dedication to finding creative, efficient ways of meeting them. As a result, families and students have beaten a path to Columbia’s door.
The reasons families enroll are varied—certainly well beyond those you’d find in more typical private schools, boarding or otherwise. Principal Bill Ironside says, “the parents that we speak to, they want something better for their child.” Admissions officer Viviane Bomfim adds, “many of the parents see Canada as number one in quality of life, in safety. So they feel that they’re sending [their children] to a better place where they’ll have quality education and a better future.” A parent in Vietnam concurred: “The reason to choose Canada is that this is a peaceful and safe country compared to others.” Another from China commented, “they put children’s safety first, which is the biggest concern from parents who send their child to study overseas.” In many countries, including some in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Europe, Canada is perceived as safer—and, in many cases, it is. While it’s a sacrifice, and one that is keenly felt, the choice to board in Canada is based on some immediate and pressing concerns, often far beyond those that Canadians themselves can imagine.
Not all push factors are that dire, and perhaps a majority of the families that look to Columbia see it, and the Canadian context, as a means of accessing a better curriculum and a more progressive style of learning. One student noted that the principal draw was that of a more “well-rounded education.” “For us, the education system in North America is better than others,” a parent says. They see it as offering a strong program that will in turn improve their child’s application to North American post-secondary programs. “They want a university degree that is world recognized,” adds Chan, “and that translates to employability. They want good English so they can work for a multinational company.” The first step, for many, is enrolment here.
There are a range of additional push factors that are equally important. A recent graduate who arrived at CIC from Spain noted that she was drawn by the promise of an ability “to look at life through different lenses.” She’s not alone in seeking a broader experience of the world, and having an opportunity to become intimately, personally acquainted with what it means to be a global citizen. Columbia, yes, is an international school in that it attracts students from around the world, but it’s more than that. It’s also an international school in the way that a global gaze inflects the delivery of the curriculum. “It was fascinating for me to see the world in a classroom,” says Renuka Arun, head of business and guidance. Having taught in two other countries prior, Arun says that the diversity of the student body at Columbia was nevertheless striking: “I would have four classes of international business with a total population of, say, 75 students, and I basically had 50 countries represented. It was a fascinating experience for me because this was a mini-Canada. I was experiencing culture shock, and I had students that were in the same boat as me.”
Having the world in a classroom isn’t perhaps one of the things that the school leads with—it’s more prone to promoting the quality of the academic program as demonstrated through scholarships earned, or to referencing the Total Care program—but, well, they should. It’s clearly one of the key aspects of the Columbia experience, and a uniquely valuable one at that. “I think it’s one of the best experiences, not only from the personal perspective,” says Arun, “but also because this is where they learn to become global citizens. This is where they learn to share their experiences with each other.” She talks about how, in her business classes, students would discuss etiquette, including what is considered acceptable and not acceptable in various business environments. “We’d have these debates, with students from one part of the world saying that it’s very acceptable, while another group would say, ‘no, that’s condemned in our country.’ So you’d have this amazing experience in the class. And we’d reach the point where we all would agree that we don’t always have to be right.”
“When I left home as an international student,” says founder and executive director, Clement Chan, “there was no school that met the needs of international students.” It was an absence that he felt acutely. “At that time, there was only one space at university for every 10,000 students in Hong Kong, so many, many students went abroad for education.” At 17, his father gave him $800 and he came to Canada. It wasn’t easy. He says half of the money was gone the moment he arrived, used to pay tuition, and he lived for the next eight months on what was left. There were language barriers and housing issues. He chuckles today when recalling what his life was like during that first year, though he likely didn’t at the time.
It was that experience—of feeling displaced, far away from home, dealing with the challenges of culture and life—that later informed the creation of Columbia. “Schools that were taking in international students in those days were very basic in facilities,” says Chan. “They were in the basements of churches or the second floor of a 7-Eleven store.” When a family member was in touch wondering where she could send her son to study in Canada, Chan decided to create a school that would provide the opportunities that she was looking for.
He still has that letter that he sent to her, noting that decision, and is proud of what it meant to him then as well as what it represents to him today. Columbia, from the outset, would distinguish itself as a supportive environment, one that would promote a rich cultural experience and stellar academic outcomes. “Over the years, we have developed what we believe is the best model to fully support international students,” says Chan. “That’s all it is. Is there a better mousetrap? Is there a better way to help the student?” The school is it. He knows that students don’t come to Canada to sink or swim, but to succeed, and he and the team he created built the school around that principle. It offers world-class academics, but also a sense of belonging and care; it provides opportunities to achieve and learn, while also living a rich, vibrant lifestyle, with ample opportunities for students to cool their jets and smell the roses.
The school is located in Hamilton, Ontario, a city that doesn’t have an international reputation (though it’s probably better thought of in relation to nearby Toronto, which does). There are very many benefits to being near Canada’s largest city, and Columbia rightly makes the most of them. It absolutely doesn’t hurt that Columbia is within an hour’s drive of some of Canada’s foremost universities, including McMaster University, which is essentially across the street from the Ainslie Wood campus. The University of Toronto, York University, and Ryerson University, too, are all a short commute away, and they’re home to some of the country’s primary research institutes.
Columbia has grown to encompass two main campuses, seven residences, and a range of student services: dining halls, libraries, counselling services, on-campus ESL classes, a medical clinic, a student development office, and a dedicated university placement office. Ainslie Wood is the main campus, housing the Grade 9 to 12 academic program as well as the bulk of the administration and outreach offices. The Pine campus is home to residences, recreation spaces, and the Junior Middle School program, as well as the first buildings purposely built to house aspects of Columbia’s offering.
Recently, the school acquired a 50-acre site that was home to the Sisters of St. Joseph convent, which will be developed to include residences and teaching spaces, effectively becoming a third main campus. In addition to extensive green space and access to much more, the property features a four-storey sandstone building that is listed within the City of Hamilton’s register of properties of cultural heritage value or interest. It’s an important piece of real estate in the life of the city, and its acquisition signals the kind of growth that the school intends at this point in its development, namely building out infrastructure rather than enrollment. As Ironside and vice-principal Diana Reid confirm, the school is at the size it should be, and growth of the student body is not currently, and perhaps never has been, a primary goal.
Buses connect the campuses and residences, with detailed schedules displayed on screens throughout the shared spaces. As the transportation program hints, there’s a sense that the administration has thought of everything and has developed solutions to ensure everything runs smoothly and efficiently. Clear lines of communication, understandably, are paramount. “There are so many moving parts here,” says Reid, though that’s an understatement—a single day in the life of the school is a mammoth undertaking.
There is also less division between private, social, and academic life than you would find in a typical day school environment, and the development of life skills and interpersonal relationships is intentionally part of the Columbia experience. On one level, there is greater independence, with students taking ownership for all aspects of their lives; on another level, it’s controlled, given that students are mentored all day, every day, by older students and resident adults.
“I’m a big fan,” says Bomfim of Clement Chan, and she’s certainly not alone. While Chan isn’t the principal, and indeed never has been, it’s his vision, leadership, and personality that have provided the DNA of the school. He’s friendly and approachable. It’s unremarkable, for example, to see him having lunch in the cafeteria, surrounded by other staff, students, and faculty, all casually going about their days. Nobody makes a fuss—evidence that he’s regularly present in the halls and available to staff and students.
Chan is also responsible for the administrative culture of the school. He is firm yet friendly, as prone to listen as to speak, and those values are evident throughout. From the outset, his attention has been to developing both academics and care. “If you don’t have strong academics, nothing else is important. There’s no point talking about safety if they’re not going anywhere after they graduate,” he says. He’s quick to add that a very close second in terms of priority is care: “It is not something that can be left to chance. You have to have a plan, and execution, and staff, [and] resources, and time. Every parent is a shrewd consumer. … There are hundreds of boarding schools in Canada. Why do we become the largest boarding school in North America? We have to be doing something right.”
Bill Ironside is the principal and, as with much of the faculty, he brings a wealth of international experience, including tenure as principal in international schools in China and Malaysia. His office is tidy, organized, and emblematic of his approach to leadership. “I am here to support people,” he says. “There’s a lot of talent here, and [it’s] not just classroom teachers but right across the board, from department to department.”
Columbia makes no bones about aiming for excellence, as a display in the main hallway attests. There, portraits of students are shown with the cumulative scholarship dollars they were offered for post-secondary studies. The wall is vast, and the amounts are jaw-dropping. In 2019, for example, the aggregate total of awards offered to graduates was in excess of $7 million. It’s hard not to be impressed with numbers like that. Admittedly, the metric of scholarships earned isn’t the be-all and end-all of the academic program, but the message is nevertheless clear: this is a school that intends to get students into the universities of their choice, and administration is amply able to prove their ability to deliver on that promise. Given that many students are learning English while mastering the course content, there is a very stated dedication to academic support.
The tutorial offices are centrally located and nicely visible, with glass walls dividing an array of comfortable, well-lit study spaces. Apart from being efficient, the design delivers some important messages, principally that there’s no shame in seeking extra help. Tutorial sessions aren’t seen as the thing you do when you are sliding a bit, but rather, simply, as the thing you do: you stay on top of things, you ask if anything is unclear, and you work with others through the material. Instructors make themselves available before and after class, in the tutorial spaces by appointment, and via email or direct messaging. We’ve yet to see a school that has a clearer, more robust dedication to ensuring that all students are able to ask questions and to have them answered.
The delivery of the academic program is student centered, intended to ensure that each student is an active agent in their own learning. Instruction is collaborative and discussion-based, with latitude for more traditional forms of classroom interaction, including formal lectures, as directed by the needs of the students and the demands of the content. For many students, Columbia presents a new way of learning, and an unfamiliar relationship between instructor and student. Many arrive having only experienced a traditional, forward-facing, “chalk-and-talk” academic approach, with instructors as the sage on the stage. Here, they’re positioned as mentors and partners in learning. For some students, becoming acclimated to that can present an initial challenge.
Instructors are aware of the broad range of experiences that students bring with them into the classroom, and they offer support to those who may need it around collaborative practices, time management, and public speaking. “I do convince them that this is what you’re going to have in university as well,” says Arun, a past instructor now head of the guidance and counselling department. “I tell them, ‘don’t think of it as an obstacle; think of it as a stepping stone.’ And I understand that very well, because I also came from a chalk-and-talk environment, and I was planted into a whole different arena.” For a time, she lived and taught in Saudi Arabia, where she was required to cover her face. “So it was a whole different story … [and then] I was thrown into Canada, where I had to stand in front of people and talk. So I understand the process of that initial fear. But it’s what they’ll face in university, so it’s best that they learn that here so they can move on and be successful. … You have to give them time to be able to adjust, and once they do, they are quick learners.” She adds thoughtfully after a pause, “they will adjust.” It’s clear from her demeanor that this is something she truly knows about and has seen repeatedly during her career at the school.
Just as students are challenged to consider new thoughts, perspectives, and ways of learning, the teachers, too, speak about having their assumptions and teaching strategies challenged in all kinds of meaningful, and ultimately useful, ways. The fact that they are flexible and open to new ideas, experiences, and practices is something that grants an agility to the academic program. “In any classroom, you’ll have a much wider range of skills and techniques,” says Bert Susin, head of social sciences, including variance in fluency in the instructional language, “and it requires a different approach.” He, and indeed all the teachers we spoke with, value their experience at Columbia precisely because it challenges their own assumptions and practices and, in turn, makes them better teachers. “It’s one of the joys of working here,” says Tim Luymes, head of the math department. “I saw a lot of co-operation in the classroom, a lot of understanding.” Arun says of what struck her when first teaching at Columbia. “And I think it was a great experience for me as well, as a teacher in the classroom, to see these dynamics where students disagree and are learning how to agree to disagree.”
Students are asked, explicitly and implicitly, to consider the place they have within a truly multicultural environment, and by necessity grow the skills that will allow them to thrive and learn best within it. While not all the instructors have a wealth of international teaching experience (though the majority of the instructors we spoke with did), they nevertheless have grown into a heightened awareness of what international students need from them. Susin recalls working through a lesson plan that he felt was excellent, yet very quickly realized was missing its mark. It was based in communication skills and learning about the proper way to communicate across competing perspectives. “The lesson was about not being aggressive in the way that you talk to people. And halfway through, I realized that, of course, this is a very Canadian perspective. So we broke down the lesson and, instead, started a conversation about what you would say in this situation in Vietnam, or what would you say in this situation in Nigeria, and so on. That kind of thing makes for a very rich student experience.” Where other instructors might have forged ahead, oblivious, he chose to change course. He feels that experience became a touchstone for the approach he’s taken ever since, namely to really be cognizant not only of the range of perspectives and ideals that the students bring, but to really consider those that he, perhaps unwittingly, brings as well.
Of all the impressive things that Columbia is—and, frankly, there are lots of them—that’s perhaps the most telling: a desire to keep an open mind, and to continually adapt to the needs and experiences of the students, both in the classroom and beyond.
Public and private high schools in Ontario, including Columbia, follow the Ontario curriculum, fulfilling the requirements necessary to earn the Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD).
In Canada, curriculum and graduation requirements are mandated at the provincial level, not federally. The Ontario Ministry of Education also provides oversight, and it legally requires all private schools in the province to register, provide annual statistical reports, and file a yearly Notice of Intention to operate. The ministry inspects all private secondary schools annually in order to authorize them to award credits toward completion of the OSSD.
To earn a high school graduation diploma in Ontario, students are required to complete at least 30 credits in Grades 9 through 12. A credit represents the completion of an entire course, not a portion of it. To earn the OSSD, students complete 18 mandatory credits which represent the core of the high school curriculum: English, math, science, history, geography, arts, health and physical education, French, career studies, and civics. The remaining 12 credits are subject to students’ discretion and chosen from a list of recognized courses. These include technology and computer studies, graphic and performing arts, world studies, international languages, social studies, and co-operative education. These discretionary credits allow students to design a course of study that reflects their interests and to prepare for their post-secondary career. At Columbia, they are chosen in consort with guidance staff, ensuring that students will have all the prerequisites for their intended post-secondary study.
In addition to course work, students are required to complete 40 hours of volunteer community service, and to pass the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT). It is a standardized test that is written every year in March or April and is intended as an objective assessment of students’ reading and writing skills.
The OSSD is highly regarded, and it’s ranked in the top 15% of high-school diplomas among developing countries (PISA, OECD, 2014). The OSSD is accepted at all post-secondary institutions in Canada and is recognized internationally as an admission standard.
While there’s a bustle to the daily life of school, the activity of the campus doesn’t feel onerous. Rather, it feels like you’re part of something bigger than yourself, as the students regularly report and clearly appreciate. Athletic events continue the theme. On game day, the stands are full, vibrant, and spirited. It’s an instance of where there really is strength in numbers. Attending a basketball game at Columbia, for example, is a happeningone that spectators love and that the athletes are empowered by. The impressive halftime shows and the raucous cheers are as good a window into the life and spirit of the school as you could hope to get.
Unlike the majority of boarding schools in Canada, Columbia’s residences stay open during winter and summer breaks, and there is a full set of activities scheduled to keep students active and busy. There is never downtime in the annual calendar, and while many students travel home for the holidays, many others don’t. This means the experience of remaining on campus is shared—no one is left feeling like the odd one out. That’s something the residence staff, too, work very actively to ensure.
“The one thing that we find early on,” says Luymes, “is that the students find that they do have a lot of common ground. …They see the benefits of working together, and even in the math classroom, being able to develop their English skills, talking to each other, and working through the concepts.” They experience the same challenges, including language learning and being away from home. One student commented to us that all the students may be different, but they are different in the same ways, experiencing the same joys, challenges, and aspirations. They also tend to be very realistic about the challenges they face and the decision that they’ve made. “I knew that there would be a lot of drawbacks of studying away from family,” noted a recent graduate. “But the benefits outweighed it all.”
“From the guidance perspective,” says Arun, “what I see that unites them all is that they are here with the common goal of getting into the top universities. They are extremely hard-working students, very academically focused as well. And I think they see this as a great opportunity for them to develop themselves as an all-rounder.” The students tend to be high achievers and very self-directed. When we asked a parent from China what encouraged her to consider Columbia for her daughter, she said that she didn’t—her daughter found the school herself and said, “this is where I want to go.” “I review all their marks on a regular basis,” says Arun, “and I’m amazed at their performance. Because if I were sent to China, for example, I would have struggled. It’s not easy learning a new language, and then using that to express yourself, and comprehend things in another language. Their aim is to get into the top universities, and they work really hard for it.”
The students we met value their beliefs, their heritages, and their practices, rightly, but they never have a chance to see them as dominant. That’s perhaps true particularly for the students arriving from across Canada. All live and learn in a true multiplicity, with no clear divisions between majority and minority populations within the overall student body. Says a graduate, “There was a constant exchange of knowledge, traditions, and customs—I celebrated Lunar New Year with one of my roommates, and tried Mexican candy with another, while I would share with them a part of my own culture. … Being a part of Columbia was like a privilege of getting to escape the boundaries set by what I know and [stepping] into a world of what I have yet to learn.”
Where other boarding schools might attract a few students from various countries—it would be unusual to see more than a single student from, say, Turkey or Martinique—Columbia hosts sizeable populations from a majority of the countries and regions it draws from. In every other school in Canada, as good as the work that they do might be, the experience of international diversity is set against a background of a Canadian, English-speaking majority, including the boarding schools in Quebec that address international clients. Here, that’s not the case, and it adds a value for all. For many parents—perhaps particularly for those whose first language isn’t English—that is understandably attractive. For some students, attending a school that includes a familiar cultural community can mean the difference between struggling and thriving, failure and success.
Where other schools might have separate offices for extra- and co-curricular programs, Columbia has combined them into one: Student Development. In part, this is simply logistical, a way of dealing with the extent of programs needed and combining all the operations—transportation, booking, and coordination—into one. At other schools with smaller student bodies, those things can be handled on an ad hoc basis; at Columbia, the sheer scope of the programming requires a dedicated staff.
More significantly, though, is how the school would like students to perceive and engage with extracurricular activities: as central and essential. Given that students are away from home, these programs aren’t simply nice-to-haves, but need-to-haves—and the faculty and administration know that a student’s ability to thrive is directly proportional to their integration and involvement within the culture of the school. Simply being kept busy is important, too. Beyond that, the school also uses student development as the central element of the delivery of character education. “To become a person of character,” says Chan, “to experience leadership, and to become a global citizen. That is why we have student development.” Leadership opportunities abound, as does the grounding of all the various activities within a growing sense of the benefits of leading an active, engaged life, such as helping others and helping yourself.
It’s also exceptionally fun. When we asked a recent alumna what aspect of the school she’d want to show a visiting family, she said, “I would unquestionably show them the student development area. It may not be the most fascinating room to look at when empty, but when it’s filled with people, that room is pure joy. The staff in charge of the extracurricular activities are there, and they are super friendly.” We met with two directors who work out of the Student Development office: Cathy Cheeranjie, the head of the program, and Brandon Lewis, the student life coordinator. Certainly, they are enthusiastic in all the best ways, and they are able to proactively, energetically bring the benefits of the student life program to the entirety of the student body. They make a point of not only addressing themselves to the keeners—for example, the elite athletes who will find their way onto the team of their own volition—but also to those who may be less inclined to join in by finding and capitalizing on individual student interests.
The result is a much broader offering of extracurriculars than you would typically find. And at Columbia, the numbers astound. Where other schools might field one or two (at most) intramural basketball teams, Columbia fields 15. There are upwards of 30 clubs on offer each semester. They range from the usual suspects, to varsity ping pong, to mural painting, to crochet. “They love it!” says Lewis, perhaps as astonished as anyone about the popularity of crochet. “When it was first proposed, I thought, ‘come on!’” he says, laughing. “I didn’t know if we’d be able to draw students for that. But, sure enough, we’ve run it every semester since.” Students are invited to come forward with ideas for clubs and, when they do, they are given opportunities to run them in partnership with Student Development staff. For example, a senior student suggested offering a different style of beading each week, each reflecting a different cultural and artistic tradition. Together with the Student Development directors, she made it so. “We have 14 weeks of clubs, and she has 14 different regional styles of beading!” Lewis tells that story with a clear sense of glee, and he’s right to. It’s delightful.
The OSSD requires completion of a minimum of 40 hours of community service. In typical academic settings, finding the volunteer positions would be the responsibility of the students and parents themselves. For all the obvious reasons, students at Columbia work with student development staff to field placements. It’s a big job. “With 1,500 students,” says Cheeranjie, ”that’s 15,000 hours a year that we’re planning. For two members of our team, their full-time job is simply to find these opportunities” or, barring that, to reach out to partners in order to create them. An example is Hamilton Victory Gardens, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to transforming empty city lots to provide fresh produce to local food banks and meal programs. Students work within every level of that program, from preparing the beds to distributing the food.
Throughout, Cheeranjie works to ensure that students aren’t just filling the time, but learning about community and the values of volunteerism. “We want them to understand the ‘why’ of what we’re doing,” she says. “Kids don’t often walk away from an activity going ‘oh my God! I can’t believe what I learned today.’” Every service project begins with a one-hour training session and, at the end, is followed up through a detailed debrief. “Through creative questioning, or creative activity, we try to make sure they understand what they did and why it was cool or important.”
She sees that work as central to the provision of the school’s program of character education. “It doesn’t matter what degree you have, or where it’s from—when you go into an interview, they’re looking at the person. And that’s a big part of what we try to instill and why we focus so much on the learning from the activity, and not just the list of things you did.” The perspective is laudable, to be sure, and contributes to the success of the program. Students aren’t simply putting in their time and meeting the requirement, but engaging substantively with the concepts of volunteerism and community service.
Bark Lake Leadership and Conference Centre began its life as the Ontario Camp Leadership facility at Bark Lake in 1948. Run by the Ontario Ministry of Education, it grew and developed, particularly through a sizeable capital development campaign in the 1980s, adding all-season accommodations and a year-round conference centre.
As run by the provincial ministry, the site served as a retreat for students from throughout the province, and was the signature location for the province’s outdoor education programming. Further, it was designed to showcase best practices and facilities for camps in Ontario and, to some extent, across the country. Each of the four areas of the camp demonstrated a different style of camp architecture, from very traditional cabins to brilliantly modern. Students attended sessions throughout the summer, with shoulder sessions for training counsellors and outdoor education instructors.
That Clement Chan was able to buy the facility as a place to focus the Columbia outdoor education program was, frankly, a bit of a coup. The school started running programs there in 1997. Comprising 283 hectares of pristine forest, with a significant lakefront to match, it’s a stellar setting and rightly the envy of many. It’s hard to imagine a better layout, location, and facilities to introduce students to the values and the joys of outdoor activity and environmental stewardship. Programs are run by a dedicated staff of certified outdoor instructors. Columbia’s varsity teams have retreats here, as do the leadership teams, including student council. Duke of Edinburgh participants attend in order to complete the adventure trip requirement. “It really changes their perception, and how they act and think,” says Susin. Activities at camp are followed by debriefing sessions and workshops so students understand the challenges they faced, the skills necessary to address them, and how that learning can be applied to challenges they will face in the future.
Camping is a distinctly North American experience. Bark Lake provides a unique opportunity for students to get outside the city and to immerse themselves in the outdoors, complete with canoeing during the day and stories around the campfire at night. Leadership opportunities abound, though a chance to get to know fellow students and instructors in a more personal way is a key takeaway as well. “They all come back from Bark Lake with a different perspective,” says Susin. Bark Lake is an accredited member of the Ontario Camping Association.
“Imagine having a parent sitting in front of you, saying ‘this is my 10-year-old,’” says Denice Garell, head of the Junior Middle School. “And the question that you get is ‘can you assure me that my child is in good hands?’” There is no larger question, and, in a nutshell, it’s the reason for the program of care that Columbia has developed over the course of decades. The administration has worked to put the safeguards in place such that, when a parent asks, they can answer with absolute confidence “yes, she is.”
The development of Total Care (a trademark that Columbia has registered) has become a defining feature of the offering and an indelible aspect of the Columbia brand. The Total Care concept is based in a belief that, especially with kids who are arriving from overseas, it’s imperative that the school go beyond—in some instances, far beyond—simply providing a room to sleep in, food to eat, and a classroom in which to study. In addition to those basics, the program of care includes access to consistent health care, including dental services, academic and career counselling, and social support and development. But it’s more than that, too. “Parents always want to know if they will make friends and how they will integrate,” says Bomfim, which is a way of asking if they will feel cared for and come to see themselves as a valuable part of the school community. They ask about extracurricular activities and trips, not simply health care and guidance. As well they should. The Total Care program has been created to address, consistently, everything that contributes or affects the quality and enjoyment of a student’s experience throughout the duration of their time at the school.
It’s a big challenge and the school meets it through what is, by any measure, a Herculean effort. All schools have regular meetings of the care staff, perhaps weekly or monthly. Elsewhere, there might be three or four people around the table. At Columbia, it’s orders of magnitude larger, and exponentially more detailed. We attended a weekly meeting of the care team—it happens every Thursday morning—and there were just shy of 30 people around the table and in chairs set along the walls. They represented seven or eight departments, including residence staff, faculty, wellness, liaison, security, medical, academic counselling, and support staff.
On Thursdays, they gather to discuss specific students that are perhaps beginning to slip in some way, or are at least raising some kind of academic or emotional concerns. As we entered, they were all engaged in exactly that, discussing a boy whose file was displayed on a screen at the front of the room. Shown was a photograph and various metrics that gave a sense of his academic standing and his involvement in school life. The file is part of a detailed tracking system that was built specifically for Columbia, specifically for this purpose. “What we see in the classroom may differ from what we see in student development, or in residence,” says Reid, noting that no single member of the staff would be party, in the daily course of events, to all aspects of a student’s life. The tracking system is updated by all members of the care team, “so it gives us a better sense of what we can work on and what we can improve.” In this instance, counsellors and others who had daily contact with the student described the nature of the concerns. Others then offered opinions and suggested next steps. In all, the attention to the student’s needs was detailed and informed; the response was reasoned, deliberate, and sustained. Parents will of course never see those sessions, though it’s too bad that they can’t. It’s difficult to imagine the level of professional attention on hand—we’ve certainly never seen anything like it—and the degree of engagement the staff and faculty have with each student. It’s profound. To see it in action would certainly quell any concerns they might have.
While the Thursday meeting is primarily to review students at risk, the team also meets every three weeks specifically to touch base on the students who are achieving precisely as they should: they’re doing well in their classwork, are engaged in a range of activity, and are getting along well with peers and mentors. The risk with this group of kids, Reid explains, is that they can too easily slip below the radar. The squeaky wheel gets the grease—the kids that come first to a principal or a vice-principal are those that are struggling—while others can potentially go unnoticed. The tri-weekly meetings are a means of closing that gap and ensuring that all students are cared for, successes are tracked and celebrated, and long-term goals are adequately supported. “You’re bringing in guidance,” says Reid, “you’re bringing in the university placement office. … You’re giving them the same attention as a young person who is just homesick, and just needs a better choice of roommate, say, or needs to be invited to a piano class or some other area of interest. … To me, it’s different but the same. All kids need to be addressed and supported in a variety of ways.” As such, no child is ever truly beyond the gaze of a member of the staff or faculty, with the meetings providing all the checks, balances, and redundancies to ensure nothing is missed, including all the joys and the celebrations that animate a student’s personal experience and inform their sense of themselves.
Communication is regarded as essential, and faculty and staff are visibly and very vocally proud of their ability to provide it. “Everybody has a part to play in a student’s life here, from the beginning to the end,” says Priscilla Tamaklo, an admissions officer that has been with the school for more than two decades. She notes that admissions is the first point of contact parents and students have with the school, and it remains the primary point of contact for the duration of a family’s time there. Tamaklo gives a recent example of a student who needed to be seen by a doctor. Something presented that wasn’t foreseen, and within minutes of the initial symptoms, Tamaklo received an email from the parent. The student had reported, the parents were contacted, and their instinct was to immediately get in touch with Tamaklo, their personal point of contact. And it all happened literally within minutes of the first presentation of symptoms. Following on, the student saw a doctor and was discharged back to her residence, and everyone slept well that evening, parents included.
That’s seen not only as the best case, but literally the only case—that is the kind of response the system has been created to achieve. Parents and other stakeholders were appraised in real time, meaningfully, by a familiar voice speaking their language. Tamaklo says “that communication is key.” Ironside adds, “I’m comforted by the fact that, while we have in excess of 1,500 students living and learning with us 24-7, we have hundreds of employees, and very committed people, who can all speak to different levels of care.” No doubt parents are comforted as well. In this, particularly, the school doesn’t just talk the talk, but walks the walk. “I think of it as a triangulation, a triangulation of care,” says Garell. “It’s tenfold here,” in comparison with other academic settings she’s worked within. “It’s the eyes of everyone, and it really is ‘eyes on.’”
Guidance counsellors take appointments, though they also are required to maintain an open door policy, with students free to walk in and meet with a counsellor whenever and as often as the need may arise. “I want them to feel comfortable and safe in a space where they can talk,” says Arun, who oversees the guidance teams. Counsellors are bilingual, so students are able to speak with them in their own language. “Sometimes I encourage that, even though we have an English-speaking policy at the school,” says Arun. “If they wish to speak in their own language, I encourage that. I’ll even get a translator if they have to speak about something very sensitive.” She adds that “we walk with them very closely,” and it’s heartening that she describes it in that way. She doesn’t see guidance as a service, but as a relationship. Attention is given to empathetic communication, not simply language—counsellors are trained to be sensitive, informed, and aware of the culture differences and practices that can inform a student’s worldview. Says Arun, “I meet with students from Africa, whose mindsets are very, very different from, for example, the students from Iran, who understandably are very sensitive based in whatever situation is happening at home. But we have been trained to be culturally sensitive to be able to address those issues … [and] my team of counsellors have been specifically selected with that in view.” It’s too bad that parents will never be in that room, and they’ll never attend the interactions between Arun’s staff and the students, because it would certainly ease their minds.
Ultimately, success (academic and personal) and care are seen as intertwined, and faculty members are keenly aware that you can’t have one without the other. “For the younger ones,” says Garell, “success is really defined by adjustment. … I’ve lived overseas; I know how difficult it was for me to go as an adult—all the adjustments, the culture shocks. To do that at such a young age, to me, is success. If you can navigate this, at this young age, then the world is open to you. And so that’s success to me: watching them flourish under the care that we have here, and getting them to take advantage of what’s made available to them.”
As you might expect in speaking with parents, the first thing they’ll mention is communication and care. There is no parent in the world who relishes the thought of sending a child halfway around the globe to go to school, despite the myriad and compelling reasons they have for doing so. “Our family has no relatives in Canada,” said a parent we contacted at her home in Vietnam. “Therefore, we feel more secure when our child is living on campus, under the close supervision of the school and the residence.” She adds that “the close communication between the school and family is always something we highly appreciate. … Although I am geographically far away, I still feel close to my child.” She adds, “parents expect their children to succeed and CIC is helping our children to realize their goals.” Says another of the academic reporting portal: “I do like the EZReport Card online system, which helps me to understand my daughter’s academic status in a timely way.” Parents rightly desire any opportunity to follow their child’s academic success, and that online reporting, accessible by password through the school site, is appreciated.
Not all parents accompany their children to the school or visit during the instructional year (which is understandable, due to the challenges that travel presents), though many do, and certainly visits are both welcome and encouraged. One told us that “the school welcomed all the students and parents during orientation week very warmly. We had lunch together with the students, and at the residence, the parents were able to visit their child’s bedroom and the cafeteria. That has become such a happy memory.” She also noted that it helped ease her mind to the whole concept, which no doubt it would. Visits by parents, to the extent that they are able, are highly recommended.
There is no formal alumni association as such, though graduates tellingly seek to have an ongoing relationship with the school. They are welcome to visit anytime, and indeed many do. Columbia alumni may visit for events (such as the Model United Nations Conference), to speak to students about their post-secondary experiences, or simply to reconnect with mentors and instructors.
Everything at Columbia has been developed with the international learner in mind, and the admissions process is no exception. Where many schools only admit students at the start of the school year in September, Columbia has six intake points to reflect the scheduling of various school systems around the world. Admission is selective based on academic performance, though the school isn’t oversubscribed, so students are able to enter when it’s appropriate for them, rather than waiting for a space to open up.
The admission process begins with an online form, to be submitted with the student’s academic record or transcript. Applicants are then contacted by an admissions officer, and the process from that point on is handled very personally, with the officer becoming both contact and champion for the family within the school—a relationship that remains throughout the family’s experience at Columbia. One parent of a child from Iran effused, describing his liaison officer as “my good and great friend Mr. Richard Wu,” which is lovely. Said another, “we are very pleased with the timely updates and the enthusiastic support from Ms. Kate.” Parents are able to monitor their children’s academic progress online, view marks for each subject, as well as see the daily attendance and absences in each class. All reports indicate that it’s a comfortable, enjoyable process, and students and families feel that their needs are well understood and taken into close consideration.
All students arriving to Columbia are required to sit a series of diagnostic tests. These provide detailed assessments of facility and level in math and English. The Junior Middle School diagnostics are given in an age-appropriate manner by the students’ teachers during the first week of school. Results are used to identify proficiencies, as well as areas of need, and to inform any tutorial work.
For those entering the secondary program, Columbia administers the SLEP (Secondary Level English Proficiency) test to measure the English language proficiency for non-native speakers. Developed and set by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), it’s the gold standard, as it has been for more than 60 years. The diagnostic assesses listening, speaking, reading, comprehension, vocabulary, and grammar, using means of questioning designed to be culturally inert.
Most students arrive with some level of proficiency in English, though not all. “Sometimes we do have students that arrive with, you know, just ‘yes’ and ‘no,’” says Jeremy Galea, head of the ESL program, “or maybe they need help with the alphabet.” Most, however, arrive with a bit more than that. They are then assigned to one of five ESL courses, with curricula outlined by the provincial Ministry of Education.
ESL is typically delivered in small group sessions, rather than one-on-one. “There are benefits to having small classes, say of three. There’s a lot that can happen. But there’s also a lot more that can happen in groups of 10 to 15.” The classrooms at the Cedar campus are smaller than at the Ainslie Wood campus, which serves the program well. It’s more conducive to the content to have a smaller student-to-teacher ratio. Of course, native and fluent English speakers go directly into the academic English program.
The Mathematics Diagnostic Test (MDT) is a multiple-choice test, taken onscreen but invigilated in person, and is designed to evaluate students’ knowledge of core mathematical principles and concepts. Results are keyed to the outcomes of the Ontario Ministry of Education mathematics curriculum. The results of the diagnostics are used just to get things started, and they’re not intended to provide anything beyond an initial guideline. Faculty report regularly on each student’s success and adjust delivery as needed.
Tuition at Columbia sits at the mean, being neither the highest nor the lowest nationally for full-year boarding. All fees are calculated à la carte, with line items for everything from tuition, to medical insurance, to internet access, to bus passes (allowing access between campus and residence sites). Parents confirm that there are no surprises, and that all is accounted in detail and up front.
All fees must be paid in full before a letter of acceptance is offered. Knowing that an acceptance letter is a requirement for visa application, a full refund will be granted if a student visa is refused by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
Incidental fees for trips, special programs, and the like are discretionary and handled through the student office. A deposit of $2,000 is taken when students enroll to cover incidentals, such as textbook purchases, uniform replacements, and taxi rides. The deposit can be topped up as needed, and whatever isn’t used is refunded at the end of the year.
Financial aid is available, as are sibling discounts. Applicants will be made aware of any aid they may be eligible for by their admissions officer. Disbursements are needs-based, and financial aid programs are created as a means of broadening the student population and attracting those who will contribute the most to the culture of the school.
Is it worth it? “I do think it was the best investment made,” says an alumna now enrolled at the University of Toronto. “In university, I have come to realize how much CIC has helped me with my life. … At CIC, I gained a lot of independence. They try to ease your way into making the best choices for yourself. Now in university, I am able to plan my day accordingly to balance all the aspects of life, and I do believe that is thanks to the school. If it was not for them, I would not be able to make time for my academics, health, clubs, sleep, and social life here at university. They taught me how to do it, and I believe that is a crucial skill in life.”
The best schools are the ones that do what Columbia has done: offer a specific service to a specific type of student. The National Ballet School isn’t the right school for all students, though it’s by far the best school in Canada for the students who attend it. Likewise, Columbia was formed in an awareness of an acute need and has spent the subsequent decades addressing that need. The school, very deliberately, represents everything that Clement Chan wishes he could have had when he first arrived on Canadian soil all those years ago: a world-class education, a vibrant lifestyle, and stellar care.
Students leave the school with a degree, yes—but in many ways, that’s the tip of the iceberg, representative of a much larger experience. “It accustomed me into an international environment while making me open-minded, and honed my self-restraint and discipline,” noted a recent graduate. “I became comfortable with working in teams and grew into being more empathetic and understanding,” something that, in her case, was informed by a service trip to Ecuador where she spent 12 days helping build a water purification system.
In ways large and small, Columbia students achieve in ways that, frankly, most students don’t. They come from overseas. They learn a language or two. They learn to work with others who have different perspectives, different beliefs, and different cultural practices, and they learn to respect those differences. They learn to advocate for themselves and to chart their own path. As the stories of alumni attest, with all the various tools that the school offers them—confidence, comportment, character—they find their own way in the world.