Bright girls, big futures at all-girls' schools
How girls' education is a ticket to success
The city noise is cranked to headache intensity by the bone-shattering whine of heavy construction work. It's happening right on their doorstep, otherwise Havergal College For Girls, located in Toronto where Lawrence Avenue West meets Avenue Road, on 22 acres of green and pleasant—and extremely prime—land. The campus is very much an oasis. If not a mirage.
Girls in private-school green—kilts, knee socks, striped ties—the sun highlighting the thick, clean hair falling over their scrubbed faces, dot the new-mown grounds. Some sit cross-legged, bent over schoolbooks; others are laughing, arms draped over one friend's shoulder as they lean in to listen to another. An Enid Blyton novel, a distaff Boy's Own Annual come to life?
As the girls themselves would say: Oh, pulease. There are 874 students here, only 64 of whom board and most of whom are too busy with school and all the extracurricular activities to bother bolting like a Blyton heroine over the walls and away for adventure—or boys.
"You can see them after school," Grade 11 student Caroline Chua says with a shrug.
It's clear it's no big deal for her, although she confesses it was when she first came to the school. She fought that change in her life for a whole year. Her friend Lesley Henry remembers "bawling" in the uniform shop.
Now Caroline likes the all-girls' environment. "You get to know people for who they really are. No one's into impressing people," she says.
And Lesley now believes wearing uniforms helps her and her classmates act naturally. "I don't want to have to worry about how I look," she says.
The girls think they're avoiding the competitiveness among girls found in some mixed-gender high schools—and believe there's no double standard, either.
At Kira Campbell's former public school, there were eight sports teams for boys and five for girls. "Here we get a chance to do all sports," says the Grade 7 student. "It's fair." In fact, Havergal has a total of 44 teams for all its age groups, from junior kindergarten on up.
Head prefect Ashley Morris says it's what Havergal has, not what it hasn't, that counts. "After the first year, you forget there are no boys here," she says. "There's lots of stuff going on, there's lots of energy." She's off to study at Yale University, a fact pounced on by Lesley, who jokingly accuses Ashley of living out the private-school cliche.
Although she knows Lesley is making fun of people's misconceptions about private school, Ashley does seem chagrined. "I didn't want to live up to the stereotype of private school, then Ivy League university. I tried to chose the least pretentious."
But the fact remains: A private school education is a ticket to success - it provides a good education, statistics make clear. At the same time, a private school is a good place to meet the "right people," the kind likely to be advantageous to know later, in the real world.
Both reasons are why parents pay $13,545 a year to educate their daughters at Havergal when adequate schooling is available free at, for instance, Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute, one of Ontario's finest public high schools, and so close to Havergal the two practically abut.
Parents of boarders pay even more. It costs $27,245 for a girl to board at Havergal for a year.
Aniya Emitage, although homesick for Barbados, where she hopes one day to practise law, knows she's getting the best of both worlds and is delighted with her Canadian experience.
She loves Havergal—but not unconditionally. "I don't think entering university should be the first time we're exposed to guys," she says.
So why do it? Why endure being away from home, being accused of elitism, at great cost to your parents? What motivates so many parents to write those cheques?
A ratio of one teacher for every 10.5 students might be a factor; as might Havergal's $12.9 million annual operating budget. So might the safer environment of a private school and the opportunity to have their children learn within a shared belief system, high standards, higher expectations. But most say it's the school's academic record they're buying.
Of the 107 graduates of the Havergal class of 1998, 98 went to university. (The others took a year off to travel or work before going to university.) Of those in universities, 24 percent are studying sciences, maths, computer science or kinesiology, 18 percent business, commerce or economics, seven per cent engineering or architecture. Only three percent of the grads chose to study fine arts and theatre.
So much for that other private school stereotype of producing ladylike girls to marry well. In 1997, 55 of the 87 Havergal grads were Ontario scholars and 15 of those had averages higher than 90 percent. "Here the standards are higher," says Ashley Morris, "because they're our own standards."
They are all motivated to get to university. And from 1993 to 1997, that was Queen's University in Kingston, hands down. Next in popularity was University of Toronto, followed by McGill University in Montreal, the University of Western Ontario in London, then American universities such as Brown, Cornell, Princeton and Stanford. Bright girls, big futures.
About that construction at Havergal. It's a new Junior school, plus an extension to the elegant main building, whose stone is blanketed in shining ivy. There also are a new dining room, theatre, student common area, science classroom, a library extension and music room.
This expansion is the first since 1979, and certainly the most extensive ever, says the principal, Susan Ditchburn, a composed and elegant Australian-born woman whose occasional wry, sidelong glances say more than words.
Despite the rooms of computers, the pizza lunches, the hip hop/awesome hall talk and the plethora of math and science grads, Havergal prides itself on its tradition, roots and, especially, its Anglican Church heritage.
But it now has students of many faiths, which may partly explain why attendance was dwindling at the school's traditional annual Founder's Day service at St. Paul's Anglican Church on Bloor Street East. It was also no longer mandatory.
Last year, that changed. In a significant break from tradition, the service was held in nearby St. Clement's Church on a school day. Ditchburn says it did ruffle a few feathers belonging to some Old Girls, who are determined to reconnect with St. Paul's and mark the day in the same way - and in the same place - as before.
Nor will members of the 5,000-plus contingency of Havergal Old Girls or graduates—they include writer Jane Urquhart, Liberal MP Dr. Carolyn Bennett and former New Brunswick lieutenant-governor Margaret Norrie McCain—change their name. They recently voted against it—resoundingly. Ditchburn admits their decision "took me aback."
Then she smiles. "But they like it." In Calgary, where she lived before coming to Havergal two years ago, Ditchburn belonged to a group exploring opportunities for women in education. While curriculum superintendent for the public school board there, she also helped set up single-gender classes focussed on different ways of teaching the two sexes. At Havergal, she's determined to rectify what she sees as a lack of emphasis on feminist issues. She wants to set up a course on women's issues, even as she acknowledges the students are "wonderful, extremely focused, high achievers and high energy." They're comfortable with the mesh of school and their own family values, Ditchburn says.
They are privileged—only 57 students received financial aid last year—but they know they bear the responsibilities that accompany that state of grace."
This is about going to school to learn how to make a worthwhile contribution," Ditchburn says. "I look at these kids and they radiate good health and confidence. They have a sense of who they are and where they are heading."