REVIEW OF Branksome Hall BY Alum, Sara Akbari
- Date of Review
January 24, 2024
- Grades (year)
JK - Gr. 12 (1995 - 2009)
- University (major)
University of Mary Washington (English)
(5) Overall Experience
My experience at Branksome Hall overall was wonderful. I had many supportive teachers throughout the 14 years I attended, many of who I model my own current teaching practice after. From my Kindergarten teacher teaching me to love nature and stay inquisitive, to my Grade 5 teacher who taught me I am greater than the setbacks I might face and to always keep my head held high, to my Grade 9-12 history teacher who found ways to captivate my easily distractible brain. I think back fondly on these teachers, and many other teachers I had the luck of having through the years, who went beyond the curriculum to learn about me as a person to help me navigate school (academically, emotionally, and socially). The skills and knowledge I learned, as well as the evolution of who I am now, is a true testament to what Branksome offers. It's hard to think about one aspect of Branksome that I loved best -- clubs, sports, Spirit Week, Clans, Branksome Green, Big-Sister/Little-Sister all were favorite parts of my time at BH. I to this day carry the same sense of pride being a "Branksome Girl" as I did when I attended. It is this pride that made me come back to work in the Junior School when completing my Masters of Education at the University of Toronto and why I continue to maintain my connection through my time on the Branksome Hall Alumnae Association.
(5) School Leadership
During my tenure at Branksome, both as a student, employee, and active alum, I have seen the evolution of leadership at the school. I was in Grade 2 when Karen Jurjevich became our 7th principal, and since that moment I have seen the amazing growth, strength of leadership, and innovation of the school and community. Not every school has a leadership team that students feel comfortable and safe to go to no matter the problem. I personally spent time sitting in an office or two when I needed advice, had a question, or just wanted to chat. This feeling of comfort and safety was also felt when the school responded to events within the school community or outside the school community, ensuring leadership always takes the necessary steps to foster a positive school environment.
Branksome Hall has always offered a high-quality education, where the faculty and staff have always been exceptionally knowledgeable in their field. I think back on my time through the Junior School when I had the most exuberant and thoughtful librarian, who helped me tap into my love of books. I think of my time in the Middle and Senior School when I had a biology teacher who took time to catch me up when I didn't understand a concept and made each lesson engaging by showing his own excitement about the subject. I think of my rugby coach who helped me fall in love with the sport and gave me the encouragement to continue to play in college and my guidance counselor who always knew how to help me focus on my goals and not be discouraged by a low grade or a conflict with a peer. As a teacher myself, I model many aspects of my own teaching practice after the remarkable teachers I had. Teachers' ability to get to know each student, and remember little details from their lives, even after graduation, speaks to how each faculty member truly cares for their students. Even now when I go back and see a teacher I once had, they ask about certain family members or reminisce on moments from my Branksome days (15+ years ago!).
I was one of the first few cohorts to take the Middle Years and Diploma Years Programmes when Branksome became an IB World School (Primary Years Programme was adopted once I was in the Senior School). The academic rigor and excellence have always been in place, but the adoption of the IB program helped to elevate student learning. Each class, led by faculty who are excited by and very knowledgeable of their subject, provided students with rich learning engagements. When reflecting on a time I was challenged, but supported, I think back to when I was writing my Extended Essay. My teacher encouraged to select a topic that intrigued me, even if it meant it would be challenging because she would be there as a support to ensure I was successful and that it was a manageable task. Incorporating my interests, while supporting my learning, allowed for rich learning and low stress. The preparation in terms of writing skills, note taking, test taking, asking thought-provoking questions, and consistently reflecting on learning are a few things that helped prepare me for not only my next step in university but also graduate school and my current employment.
I don't think it would be possible to list all the extracurricular activities I did at Branksome as a kid! There was a club for every and all interests, and if there wasn't one, Branksome encouraged students to propose one. In the Junior School, I loved being in the Nature Club, where we explored our own Woodlot and the critters and plants that call it home. I also loved as a kid having a "Big Sister" in our Big-Sister/Little-Sister program, where Middle and Senior School students were buddied up with a Junior School kid to do an activity. Then, as I crossed the overpass to the Middle and Senior School, I was engaged in various extracurricular activities (Classics Club, rugby, Slogan, Environmental Club, SSUNS, debating -- just to name a few). Being able to participate in a variety of extracurricular activities allowed me to tap into all the different interests I had and explore who I was and which path I might want to take once I graduated from Branksome. There are two extracurriculars that have had a lasting impact on me, Best Buddies and photography. I credit Best Buddies, and the teacher who led the program, to why I completed my graduate work on Inclusive Education and why as an educator now, I fight for equity in schools. Photography helped me to develop my love of creating images from start to finish (from setting up the frame to developing the prints), and I continued long past graduation developing my own prints using the skills I was taught during my time at Branksome. Having a darkroom in our building and a knowledgeable teacher leading the group was remarkable, as I know many friends at other independent schools did not have the same opportunity. All of these extracurriculars elevated my time at Branksome and allowed me to explore interests that didn't always fit in the academic portion of our days.
Spirited, close-knit, respectful, enthusiastic, dedicated, and inquisitive are the words that come to mind when I think about the students at Branksome. These words apply to the students I had as peers when I attended Branksome and the students I worked with when I worked in the Junior School. I think back on my time in school, and I can remember every person who was in my grade. The sense of community is so deeply rooted in how Branksome operates, that you don't view it as competition with your peers, but rather as supporters for one another. Students in any school come from a wide range of backgrounds, have social-emotional or academic needs, and ways of learning. What Branksome has done is ensure all students are able to not just survive school but thrive when attending. There is not a competition to be the best in school, because we learned that we all bring something great to the group and there is value in everyone's participation. While, at times, there could be an argument -- or two -- between classmates, for the most part, we all got along and could use our teachers as a support to help navigate conflict.
(5) School Life
I loved Branksome as a kid and still do. I felt deeply cared for by teachers, friends, administration, etc. which made me feel supported and safe. In moments where I thought I couldn't do something, or I wasn't smart enough, or I wouldn't get admitted to any universities, I had support systems that could help me navigate and strategize to get back on track and know I could do it. Like with any school, the feelings of overwhelm, embarrassment, or stress can have the ability to overshadow the positive moments. When you have a community like Branksome, where you are celebrated for accomplishments, strength of character, and feel seen and heard, you learn to focus on the positives. This in turn allows you to engage deeper, follow your passions, and recognize your own strengths.
As someone who has been an active member of the Branksome community for 28 years in the capacity of student, alum, employee, and volunteer, I can say with certainty this community is a fabulous one. Each group (student, employee, parent/family members, alums, etc.) has a part in our community and an eagerness to engage with one another. A highlight of a recent meeting I had was hearing from two of our Grade 12 students about what is happening in the Junior, Middle, and Senior Schools. As an alum, I have really enjoyed staying connected to the school and hearing about the growth and success of Branksome from the school through publications, emails, etc. I look forward to this year's reunion (my 15th!) to see all from not only my year but the years before and after mine. Once a Branksome student, always a Branksome student!
(5) School Location
Nestled in Rosedale, yet a short walk to Yonge and Bloor, Branksome was in the perfect location for me as a student. Not to mention, it was a four-minute walk from my house! The location of the school allows for us to have a great amount of space (the lower field, tennis courts, outdoor classroom, a courtyard, play structures, many buildings - both academic, residence, and administration -, the Athletics and Wellness Center, and soon the iCast building), which in turn allows the school to offer a multitude of programs. Being so close to downtown, I remember as a student going out for lunch or running to Starbucks during "a spare" (a block of the day where you didn't have a scheduled class, but instead could work on homework or an assignment or check in with your guidance counselor).
(5) University placement and counselling
As a Grade 11 student, I walked into my guidance counselor's office and proudly announced all the universities I wanted to apply to. I had schools that were "safety" schools, some "reach" schools, and some in the middle of the two. I was expecting her to tell me I was applying to too many or I was delusional for wanting to apply to some of these universities, but instead, she nodded, and she put me in touch with some Branksome alums who attended or were attending some of the schools for me to chat with. I know that the process has evolved at Branksome since I graduated, with counselors who solely work in the university counseling program, which I think is fabulous. While the counseling has always been great, this is just another example of Branksome providing the best resources for the students, even after they graduate.