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"Ilaria Sheik is not a woman in a job, but a woman responding to a calling"


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Review of: B.E.N. School-House

Gina Vaccaro - Parent    (Jun 13, 2019)

Student Experience

My daughters both attended the B.E.N School-House, until the eldest graduated from grade 6. What my children loved the best, and they truly loved the school and its teachers, was the way they could explore the subjects presented. For example, Art wasn't just philosophy and application, although there was that too; it was finding a subject to draw in the nearby park and cemetery, it was quick pieces (spontaneous work) and pieces that took weeks (allowing for in-depth thought and time to create.) It was also presented through diverse mediums - textiles, ceramics, painting and drawing, architecture, etc. The other aspect that my children loved, was that they were in an environment where they could interact with children of all ages, and be outdoors and active very often. This outdoor and active time helped them develop great physical skill (lots of playing and running, etc.) but also made concentrating and being indoors that much easier. Being with children of all ages allowed them to learn and have friendships that were fulfilling in different ways - like getting to read to a younger child and be the 'bigger kid', and then getting to play and interact with older children they admired.


School Leadership

I first met the school principle after being recommended to the B.E.N by a friend. In all the years since, I can say (and I don't say this lightly) that Ilaria Sheik is not a woman in a job, but a woman responding to a calling. I watched Ilaria guide my children, and all the B.E.N children, with deliberate care, diligence, and a sense of great responsibility that the children be allowed to flower not only as unique individuals in the present, but as future citizens. The environment is steadfastly positive, but built on a strong framework of shared responsibility to the school (students help in chores) and to each other. This responsibility to each other is discussed and embodied by the teachers, and disciplinary issues are handled in ways that are effective and transparent - but that also work to build stronger bonds and bring the students and parents together, rather than coming from a punitive or divisive standpoint. Communication from the school was consistent, and not just related to challenges but also to successes that they wanted us to know about.


Teaching

The intent, as I came to see, of instruction at the B.E.N. was not necessarily to just convey information (which they did - my children got the Ontario curriculum) but to encourage curiosity. This was supported by clear instruction on basics, and then exploration of the subject matter. The emphasis was not on memorizing facts, but observing and understanding the reasons behind the facts. For example, my children grew plants from seeds (Biology - where they learned the basics of what a seed needs to sprout - water, sunshine, soil), planted a garden (Ecology - where they learned more about communities of plants and insects), collected earth worms (studied them and measured them, etc.), and created a worm composting unit. I found that my children weren't challenged in the sense that they had a lot of homework, or needed to achieve a certain mark. Rather, they were supported and encouraged to do their best in a kind and thoughtful way.


Academics

The B.E.N. does not cultivate a demanding academic culture. As is evident in their motto - they are looking to cultivate active learners who love to learn. It's not about the grade, it's about the effort and preparation that it takes to be successful, and fostering habits or ways of thinking that lead to success and happiness. My daughters left the B.E.N. and entered a Catholic school. My eldest finished grade 6 at the B.E.N. and we had to move them both because we couldn't do the travel logistics to get them to two separate schools. My younger daughter entered grade 2. Both of them made transitions into the public system in a way that was better than I had ever anticipated. They are both at the top of their classes now - and are involved in many extracurricular activities like Leadership groups, mental health groups, sports, etc. They both also had powerful reflections on the positive skills what they were able to take from the B.E.N., and how happy they were to go to school. This happiness translated into their next step in life, and let them take it with energy and excitement - both key to being successful.


Extracurriculars

There are many community building events at the B.E.N., but not necessarily competition opportunities. The school, for example, does not have a soccer team at this point that would travel to other schools for a game. There is definitely, however, a focus on being well-rounded. The children did academic work, learned how to cook and garden, spent time with children of all ages, contributed to school chores and clean-up, had time to play and relax, and had a vigorous physical education program (modeled after the Canadian Cadet regimen).


Students

The children at the B.E.N. demonstrated a spirit children do when they feel loved and can be themselves - whether that be a high energy day, or a day they need to have quiet and be slower. As mentioned in other comments, the students spent time not only with their peers, but with older and younger children too. The older children don't act like the younger ones are annoying (although they might get annoyed or frustrated as we all do sometimes), rather they moved naturally into roles where they would care for them (like picking a younger one up who just fell and hugging them or cleaning a younger ones face after lunch). It is an amazing thing to see children arrive at school genuinely happy to be there, and to see my children happily go every day.


School Life

My children loved the B.E.N. My youngest was upset she couldn't graduate from the school, and is adamant that we bring her back for community events - which we all attend. I'm not sure how the B.E.N. could improve its quality of life - I truly haven't found or seen a school like it. In all of the things I appreciate, the quality of life there is the highest. For anyone interested in school life at the B.E.N., I would recommend you go see an average school day, and then go to a community event like the annual Pancake Breakfast. You will see, at the Breakfast for example, over 100 people who are a mix of current families and families whose children left many years ago - but that continue to come back because of what the school has meant to, and done for, their children.


Community

Parents at the B.E.N. are offered many opportunities to be involved - whether it is accompanying a field trip, attending one of the many community events held, attending an information workshop offered by Ilaria and Iskander, or going to a student project presentation. I have formed many friendships over the years with other parents, and find the community warm and welcoming. There are families of all sizes and backgrounds who, I have found, share a philosophy that school can be so much more than it is in its 'standard' format - and who are not necessarily wealthy, but appreciate what the B.E.N. does and are willing to make the choices or financial commitments they need to make in order to give this environment to their children.


School Location

The B.E.N. is a unique school in that it is nestled in a house in a residential neighborhood - but has a large outdoor space. This setting feels secure and safe - a good places to start any endeavor with children. The children often go on accompanied walks - very often into the cemetery nearby (which my children grew to love for its huge trees and peaceful setting), and to the nearby parks. There were trips to the local bakeries and shops (they went to buy groceries when they were learning to make crepes in their French class), and many trips further afield to events like a symphony performance (when the children to take the TTC.)


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