Branksome Hall KEY INSIGHTS
Each school is different. Branksome Hall'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
- Home to the Chandaria Research Centre (CRC), Branksome Hall became one of the rare few school-based research centres of its kind in North America, something that supports and strengthens the academic offering.
- Branksome Hall sets high standards, and the ideal student is one who shares its core vision and is able to function in a very diverse, challenging, expansive environment.
- The school offers the IB Programme at all levels.
Our editor speaks about the school (video)
Branksome Hall has a lot to recommend it, including a long history, stellar buildings, and an impressive list of alumni. It’s one of the highest-profile girls’ schools in the country, with a reputation of strong leadership and a vibrant approach to academics. If you asked about the best schools in the country, this is one that would invariably be on every list. Despite all of that, when we asked Deputy Principal Karrie Weinstock what it means to be a good school, she didn’t refer to any of those things. Instead, she said, “It’s a million small conversations” between students, faculty, peers, mentors, and staff. “I believe every girl comes to school every day wanting to be the best she can be. And then to meet adults and peers in that environment who are similarly aspiring—it’s a very good mix. That, to me, is a good school.”
The campus’s heritage buildings add to the lustre, though … the spirit of the school is strikingly modern. Flexible learning spaces have been adopted and developed to foster agency in learning and to integrate movement into classroom instruction. The IB program starts early, as does the view to globalism. There is a buzz of activity, especially in the weekly, monthly, and seasonal events throughout the school calendar. One student told us “There’s always something to look forward to.”
ON SCHOOL LEADERSHIP
Principal Karen Jurjevich came to the school in 1998, beginning a significant term of leadership. She brought experience working in independent schools, as well as public education. … She knows the full spectrum of education in Canada: public, private, coed, single-gender, JK through Grade 12. She has led Branksome Hall, with Weinstock in the deputy principal role, for more than 20 years—certainly one of the longest, most stable, and arguably most productive administrative relationships in Canadian education. “We have a really great partnership,” says Weinstock. “We have a lot of space around each other, and we’re very connected in our approach to things.” Each of them is inspiring in different ways, though both are adept at maintaining a close relationship with the breadth of the student body. Their office doors are open most days, and they are known to the students. Together, they also breathe life into the school, one that has shaped and defined its culture for more than two decades. That is rightly a draw for the families that arrive here.
ON THE SCHOOL’S VALUES
From the beginning, Branksome Hall has seen itself as a women’s institution, not simply a girls’ school, largely thanks to strong women leaders like Margaret Scott, Dr. Edith Read, and the others that would follow. The tradition of inquiry around best practices has been amplified over the years, most visibly in the creation of the Chandaria Research Centre (CRC), which opened in 2016. The CRC is tasked with researching excellence in girls’ education and has almost instantly become an industry leader, offering insight not only into girls’ education but education in general. The CRC is built on earlier foundations, including a decade-long partnership with The LaMarsh Centre for Child and Youth Research at York University and, in particular, Dr. Jennifer Connolly. “One of our key goals is developing a culture of research here within Branksome Hall,” says Heather Friesen, head of curriculum innovation and professional learning, “and to continue to develop that research culture within our faculty and within our community.” With the establishment of the CRC, Branksome Hall became one of the rare few school-based research centres of its kind in North America.
“The emphasis on multiple perspectives goes right back to our roots,” says Jurjevich. Central to the decision to adopt the IB were the curricular attributes it shared with the school’s long-standing traditions. The liberal arts is at the heart of that, which the task force saw as a great strength. “The IB is teaching and learning,” she says, meaning that it describes how the curriculum is both developed and delivered. But she’s quick to add that “first and foremost we’re educators of girls, and trying to understand how girls learn best, what girls need to feel successful, and what does success even mean to any given girl,” including paying attention to “the social-emotional element, the well-being underpinnings that are necessary for a girl to be her best self every day when she comes to school.”
ON THE STUDENT COMMUNITY
Expectations are intentionally kept high. “The more you expect of a girl’s thinking, and her presentation and her behaviour,” says Weinstock, “the more she rises to that.” While that’s not etched on a wall anywhere, that’s exactly what Branksome Hall is about. Still, there’s a human edge to it all. “No child learns math before she learns the connection with her teacher,” says Weinstock. ”If the connection isn’t there, she’s never going to learn as well. This is the enduring value of connection and community.”
ON THE ACADEMIC ENVIRONMENT
“We don’t just have lofty aspirations,” says Weinstock. “We’re prepared to do the hard work with each girl to take her where she wants to go.” She adds, “part of that is greeting all the students as they arrive each day, and saying ‘Hi, we’re glad you’re here.’” That’s exactly what Weinstock was doing on the days that we visited: standing outside the main doors, saying hello.
Conversations with students and faculty invariably come back to the concept of gaining a voice and the confidence to use it. The middle-grade students have opportunities to present a “My Remarkable” during monthly assemblies. “It’s to show that there are so many talented people in the Middle School,” says a Grade 7 student, though it’s more than that. “This year I was asked to do a My Remarkable. … I was really nervous to go up and speak, and everyone was cheering for me. So, I wasn’t as nervous, and by the end, they were still cheering for me. … They’re supporting you even if it didn’t go so well.” Another adds that “in that moment, that’s the most important thing: cheering them on. Because that’s what the assembly vibe is. It’s a lot of people taking risks and being vulnerable and sharing something they care about.”
ON THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT
The campus includes about a dozen buildings, some of which are heritage homes that predate the establishment of the school (including the three that are now home to Branksome’s 64 boarding students). But the campus also boasts some strikingly modern facilities, including the Athletics and Wellness Centre (AWC), completed in 2015. The AWC has the feel of a commons and provides a focal point for student life. Designed by MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects, it’s intended as a statement of the values of the school, particularly around the integration of academic, social, and athletic activity. Per the architect’s brief, the building was designed to “encourage students to pass by and see athletics—inspiring involvement in the athletic community … with visual connections to nature and the ravine.” It does that and more.
The campus is a bit of a miracle, given where it’s located. It includes buildings in a range of styles, all nevertheless sympathetic to the overall ethos of the place. Outside, there’s a section of Carolinian forest with an outdoor classroom, four tennis courts, a regulation athletics field, a track, and three playgrounds. Views from the classrooms are idyllic—you’d never know that you’re within walking distance of the bustle of downtown Toronto. It’s possible that many people who work nearby have no idea that the campus is even here. It’s nicely inconspicuous.
The Junior School facilities, too, make inspired use of the varying styles and ages of the architecture. A main area includes the wall and gable of one of the original buildings; once exterior, it’s now an interior element. The art room sits within it, and its placement there—with all the angles of the original home— feels masterful. “I got to design it,” says art teacher Allyson Payne. “I also designed this piece of furniture,” she says, gesturing to a central element that holds work and supplies. That day, we watched Payne teach a lesson on cognition, where students would do two-handed drawings to demonstrate the interaction of the two hemispheres of the brain. It was kind of magical.
ON THE ATHLETICS PROGRAM
The athletics program is focused on long-term athlete development. It starts at a young age, building the skills necessary to become competitive athletes, with an eye to introducing habits that inform lifelong activity and well-being. A primary goal of the program, says Kimberly Kniaz, head of the Senior and Middle Schools, is to expose students to different activities and experiences so that they are able to find something they enjoy that can be used to create a foundation for ongoing fitness, nutrition, and well-being. Leadership skills and competencies are also foregrounded through team sports. Fun is a key priority as well. It’s about “having that joy in your day,” Kniaz says. “We want the program to set them up for success in personal well-being,” she adds. “It’s not about what you can do now; it’s about what you understand about well-being in a way that helps you evolve as you move forward.”
Inclusivity is important, and faculty are keen to involve as many students as possible. To do that, a lot of sports and activities are offered relative to the size of the student population. In the Junior School, there is a no-cut policy— anyone from Grades 4 to 6 who wants to participate on a team is able to. At the Middle School level, there are green teams, groups of students who are allowed to come to practice, practice with the team, and develop skills, but who may not be given opportunities to participate in competitive games and events.
THE OUR KIDS REPORT: Branksome Hall
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