Balancing act: arts, athletics & academics

Independent and private schools that offer equal portions

Want your child to get straight As? At an increasing number of independent and private schools, that's what all students are getting: Academics, Athletics and the Arts. With the goal of giving students a well-rounded education, these "Triple-A" schools go beyond traditional academic demands, putting equal emphasis on all three areas so students are exposed to a broad range of experiences. "These are three critical areas for students," says Kevin McCarthy, principal of Unionville Montessori Private Schools in York Region, north of Toronto, Ontario. "They augur well for their future." "What we ask of kids outside of the classroom is equally as important as what we ask of them inside the classroom," says Michael Roy, director of admission at St. Andrew's College in Aurora, Ontario.


How schools handle academics, athletics, and the arts depends on the school. All provide a wide variety of academic enrichment, sport or art programs and, while some mandate participation in the latter two, others simply encourage it.

Some schools offer what are often viewed as "extras" after school, while others have fully integrated them into the school day.

And none more than Brentwood College School on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The boarding school's "tripartite" system divides each week into equal time slots for classes, sports, and arts. All are mandatory.

"Because 85 percent of our students live here, we have arranged a six-day school week," says Andy Rodford, director of admissions for the Grade 8 to 12 school.

"On Saturday, students take three academic classes, which has allowed us to rearrange the week so students only have academics in the morning."

During the week, students take five academic classes in the morning. Then, after lunch on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, the whole afternoon is dedicated to the arts. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, the afternoon is set aside for athletics.

"It creates an even grounding at the school," Rodford says. "You may not shine as a football player, but you'll shine on stage as a piano player."

Some students will play on varsity teams, while others will spend their time learning a sport for the first time. Options include rugby, rowing, hockey, mountain biking, aerobics, skiing, and badminton.

On the arts side, students can sing in the choir, learn pottery or Chinese, or take photography. A new performing arts facility has led to classes that teach students to work backstage.

But academics aren't allowed to suffer. Students who fall behind may be required to use up spare blocks of time for remedial classes.

"Schools talk about the well-rounded program, but we wanted to mandate that roundness," says Rodford, so students aren't forced to choose between basketball or band simply because they are offered at the same time.

McCarthy of Unionville Montessori, just transferred from the public system and agrees that funding and education ministry directives often force athletics and arts to fall by the wayside. At this Montessori school, the focus on academics means students are working one grade ahead all the time—even in preschoolas well as in gifted and extracurricular enrichment programs, such as robotics and entrepreneurship.

Students are also expected to take part in at least one intramural sport. As for the arts, drama is part of the curriculum, and art teachers are artists themselves. Before- and after-school programs include ballet, piano, karate, dance, and gymnastics. Even the youngest children can take on extracurricular activities, such as the 'singing circle," where a small group learns different songs and actions to go with them.

At St. Andrew's College (SAC), a boarding school for boys in Aurora, Ontario, the three As are called "centres of excellence" and students are expected to take part in sports and arts programs throughout the year.

They may be involved in music or drama or art classes during the day, practise with the soccer team after school, then rehearse with the wind ensemble or take part in a drama production in the evening. Athletics are usually scheduled after school and other programs in the evening so the two don't conflict.

These "extras" are a privilege, however, and students treat them as such. If grades slip, involvement may be curtailed says St. Andrew's College Roy.

Whether simply encouraged or integrated into the curriculum, schools are finding that students reap the benefits from a well-rounded education.

For Jared Leslie, St. Andrew's head prefect, extracurricular activities have included soccer, hockey, rugby, baseball, and drama.

The 18-year-old, who was at St. Andrew's for six years, graduated last June. "The academic portion of SAC has also been crucial to my success at St. Andrew's College" as the school offers the Advanced Placement program, Leslie says.

"It is busy when you are involved in all the areas of St. Andrew's College life," he adds. "You really have to commit to the school 100 percent."

"I am usually at school until 8:30 or 9:00 at night, participating in one of the areas of activity. I always try my best to balance out each area so I am able to keep my marks up while contributing as much as possible to each area."

"It gives you experiences that allow you to become more confident as a person,' adds Leslie. "You get an opportunity to stand on stage in front of people who want to be entertained. It takes patience and hard work to pull off a play or to win a championship.

"I like the well-rounded education because it gives me the ability to try new things and find what I like and don't like. It keeps me busy, allowing me to improve my organizational and time management skills."

Christopher White, director of admission at The Country Day School in King, Ontario, says that "while ultimately we are a university preparatory school, we do want children to have the opportunity to explore themselves, beyond the traditional "academic." We want them to have that balance - (to get to a place) where they know what they like."

The day school, which accepts both boys and girls from junior kindergarten to Grade 12, doesn't mandate extracurricular participation because more than 90 percent of students in Grades 4 and up take part voluntarily.

"It's a part of the school culture," he says, adding both boys and girls participate in arts and sports equally.

To make sure students are able to participate in both arts and sports, the band, for example, is guaranteed at least one-time slot a week where everyone who wants to be involved can attend a practice.

"On that day, the band comes first even if the student is on an athletic team," says White, who also coaches girls' softball. Similarly, time is set aside for rehearsals for dramatic productions.

Rodford of Brentwood College, in Mill Bay, BC, says a lot of universities are now asking for student interests outside of academics. Students at Triple-A schools already have it.

He also points out the tripartite system eliminates peer pressure that discourages teens who are hooked into a particular crowd from trying new things' a "jock" crowd, for example, might put pressure on boys not to participate in art or music activities, such as a school play or choir. At Brentwood College, some of the school's best potters are male, Rodford says. He adds with a laugh: "This (system) gives you license to admit you are in the chess club."

—Kristin Rushowy
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