Banbury Crossroads School KEY INSIGHTS
Each school is different. Banbury Crossroads School's Feature Review excerpts disclose its unique character. Based on discussions with the school's alumni, parents, students, and administrators, they reveal the school’s distinctive culture, community, and identity.
What we know
- 1:8 classroom sizes, multi-age classrooms, and a self-directed learning approach to education.
- An intimate, family atmosphere teaches mutual respect, active listening and conflict resolution, and non-competitive cooperation.
There are several key elements that set Banbury Crossroads apart from the rest: it spans all age ranges (from JK to Grade 12) and features multi-age classrooms, it offers very small class sizes (typically a classroom has a ratio of 1:8, the highest they would ever go is 1:10), and it instructs using a self-directed, tutorial-style method that empowers students to make decisions and take ownership of their education.
Those who don’t fit into the public system of mass education, or even into a more traditional independent school, will often find a home at Banbury Crossroads.
As a result of the [impacts of the] pandemic, Banbury Crossroads is particularly well-positioned to support students of any age who have struggled with either academics or mental health concerns. This comes as a result of its ability to support and encourage a student’s own intrinsic motivational factors, to connect the school experience to the outside world, and to create a respectful and friendly atmosphere.
“I don’t think I would have been a teacher if I hadn’t found [Banbury Crossroads], because what was going on in the public system was just not tasteful for me. And I think that anyone who’s been here for a long time feels that way,” says principal Karen Harrison, who started teaching Phys Ed part-time for [Founder Diane] Swiatek in the 1990s.
ON THE DAY-TO-DAY
There is ample parking and bussing is offered through two routes, north and south. And while Banbury Crossroads doesn’t have formal before- or after-school care, it does offer a number of extracurricular clubs after school most days, at a nominal extra fee, which typically go to 5:00 PM. Though, because of its size, the school administration has been able to make accommodations for families who are challenged with transportation and timing. Also, parents have often arranged carpools and after-care arrangements with older students who can babysit.
Each morning for elementary students begins with time to set their goals and core subject schedule for the day, which is based on complementary courses like music or drama and a daily outside break (weather permitting). Secondary students arrange their core subject schedules on a weekly basis—again, arranged around complementary subjects like physical education and drama—and choose when to take their morning break. Secondary students also typically spend one day a week at their student internship.
Banbury Crossroads is one of the few schools in Canada to offer a self-directed program, let alone in a class size of 1:8. As a result, there are currently 14 full-time teachers plus seven more who work between two and four days a week, plus, the principal, Karen Harrison, for a co-educational student population of 90-100 across JK to Grade 12 (previous to this current school year, the average enrollment was around 60 students), including local and international students.… The school’s goal is to increase that number to 150 next school term.
ON SELF-DIRECTED LEARNING
The concept of the school is based upon the concept of “freedom with responsibilities,” or as Swiatek often put it, “Liberty.” It does mean that students are in control of when and what they study, but that doesn’t mean that adults aren’t there to reinforce consequences and guide the decision-making process. But that necessitates a deep level of mutual respect and equality between each student as well as between students and staff.
“I can lecture brilliantly to a light post and there’s no learning that will happen. The learner has to be participating,” Swiatek said. “What I want them to do is to develop autonomy.… Young people often complain about being disempowered because they just do what people tell them. But the skills that we’re focusing on here are how to identify goals, manage their time, organize their space and materials, implement their plans, self-assess, and make decisions.”
Alumnus Erik Olsen felt the impact of Banbury Crossroads in university because he was already accustomed to finding the right motivation, creating a plan to get to his destination, and seeing it through as quickly as he could. “When I was supposed to be in Grade 3, I was already doing everything in Grade 4…. That segued to graduating at 16 because I was a full year ahead,” he says. “[In university] I was really interested in genetics, and I remember looking at the calendar and the course descriptions, finding this one that I really wanted to take, and then I mapped backwards how to get there and I just went and did it.”
ON SMALL CLASS SIZES
“I’m not the best at science. And what’s really nice about the school is it’s like almost a one-on-one with your teacher. I’m actually understanding the material,” says Ruhi Jaswal, a Grade 10 student who joined Banbury Crossroads this fall. In less than a year, her grades in science improved by around 30 percent. “If you have a problem, you can find one of your teachers and they will talk to you. They’ll spend a whole hour with you if they need to. They have the time.”
As teachers get a closer perspective on the educational requirements of their students from small class sizes, they also benefit from closer personal relationships. At a time when another major motivating factor for families looking for alternative schools revolves around mental health and anxiety, having open and communicative relationships with teachers is more important than ever.
When issues do arise, teachers are able to notice and act quickly. While any type of bullying or retaliation isn’t tolerated, the administration follows a P.E.T. (Parent Effectiveness Training) problem-solving approach and draws from their Conflict Resolution Policy to address the conflict with understanding and respect on both sides.
Like alumnus Thomas Kaune puts it, “It doesn’t mean that positive outcome is guaranteed, but what does guarantee is that you’re not just a number.”
ON MULTI-AGE CLASSROOMS
At Banbury Crossroads, students are grouped in classes across larger age ranges: Grades 7 to 12, Grades 2 to 6, and from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 1. But the size of the school means that students are in constant contact with those of all ages.
Not only do multi-age groups better reflect the real world, as Swiatek noted, but they also remove the social penalties of either advancing quickly or taking a slower process to one’s studies, because the overlap in subject matter softens the parameters of what “success” or “progress” looks like. In fact, older students often step into the role of tutor.
“I’ve been pretty shocked to see how very different grades, like from Grade 12 to Grade 7, are able to become friends. Because in my old school, it was very rare to do that,” says Grade 9 student Hans Lau.
ON THE SCHOOL CULTURE
“I’ve been in a lot of schools. I have never felt the atmosphere that happens here,” said Swiatek. “What I want here is for the kids to have a voice and for people to listen to them, and for them to listen to others. Every single child here is important. They’re most important in the world to their parents, but everybody else is important, too. And they have to learn that.” Banbury Crossroad’s current leadership and board of directors are intent on continuing the spirit of the school for decades to come.
“It’s neat because she can be one of the weird kids, or she can be one of the smart kids, or she can be one of the whatever. There are no bullies, there are no cliques. It’s a unique experience,” says parent Rhiannon Boyd.
There are policies in place at Banbury Crossroads to create a culture that acknowledges and celebrates all aspects of a student, not specifically their academic achievement. For example, the annual Grad Day picnic (a favourite tradition for both the student body and teachers) brings the whole school together at the end of the year to celebrate the graduating students. It also gives each student a moment to shine with a creative award named specifically for each individual.
Inside the school’s walls, Swiatek and her team went to great lengths to create a comfortable, cozy atmosphere. But to Swiatek, it was equally as important to complement that environment with strong connections to the real world. “If kids don’t have real-life learning it makes me wonder what we’re doing. Because the whole point of school is to teach kids about the world outside. So why do we put them in four walls and block up the windows in many cases?” she said.
Banbury Crossroads School’s wide range of ages, from JK to Grade 12, means that there is no typical student profile. In fact, the main mission of Banbury is to appeal to a child on their own terms, so a “typical” student is antithetical to its core operations. Nevertheless, a successful student at Banbury Crossroads will be independent and naturally interested in learning.
Banbury Crossroads School’s wide range of ages, from JK to Grade 12, means that there is no typical student profile. In fact, the main mission of Banbury Crossroads is to appeal to a child on their own terms, so a “typical” student is antithetical to its core operations. Nevertheless, a successful student at Banbury Crossroads will be independent and naturally interested in learning.
Banbury Crossroads School follows the Alberta Programs of Study as its core curriculum, though teachers have the ability to tweak, slow, or advance a student’s lessons as they see fit in the student-paced, tutorial-style instruction method it employs. The school is actively pursuing accreditation as an IB World School by 2027.
Teachers choose to assign projects or assessments that are tailored to a student’s strengths or interests: they can have the option to complete an essay through writing, video, or presentation, for example. Teachers are also compelled to rethink projects or lessons each year in a multi-age classroom: when students return to the same teacher year after year, they can’t do the same assignments each time.
THE OUR KIDS REPORT: Banbury Crossroads School
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