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Canadians thrive in out-of-country boarding schools

Studying abroad at a boarding school is a great option for many Canadians

Find a list of schools

Cathy Andrus of Brampton, Ontario, is up at 6 a.m., enjoying one of those formidable Swiss yogurts as she grabs a few minutes with a French-language newspaper before hurrying past huge-eyed Swiss cows to catch her train to school. This being Switzerland, the train is always there at 7:28, not a moment later.

In upstate New York, Nick Ritchie of Calgary, a resident assistant at The Gow School, a special needs school, has to be up at 6:30 to wake the other boys in the dorm. After breakfast, Nick, one of five Canadians at the school, is off to classes - average size, six to eight students.

"There's a sort of magic to it that you don't find anywhere else," he says.

In the pretty New Hampshire town of Canaan, Wayne Ko of Delta, British Columbia, stirs at 6 a.m. in the house he shares with seven other students, some of them from Mexico and Europe, then makes his way past stunning mountain scenery to the dining hall for a 6:50 breakfast.

Snapshots of three Canadian students as they started a day in the final weeks of the last school year - all of them at schools outside Canada.

Out-of-country schooling is a mystery to most Canadian parents. Yet today, from Hong Kong to New England, from Bangalore, in India, to Lanciano, in Italy, Canadian youngsters are at their studies - often taking the very courses they would be tackling back home.

Sometimes that isn't simple. "We use the Ontario curriculum," says Mary Farrell, principal of the 500-student Canadian Overseas International College in Hong Kong. "In geography, that calls for a pond-stream study, and that's virtually impossible to do here. There are no ponds or streams - only concrete!"

Such small problems aside, hundreds of lucky students are getting a broader view of the world taking familiar subjects in unfamiliar settings. Or, in the case of a much smaller number attending schools in the United States, getting an insight into the history and culture of the neighbour that influences so much of what happens in Canada.

In this free flow of Canadian students across international borders, only one element is missing: despite the number and excellence of American boarding schools just across the border, few Canadians attend.

American schools, which, like their Canadian counterparts, host students from around the world, would like to remedy that Canadian absence, but are prevented by one major factor - the weak Canadian dollar.

Even Kiski School in Pennsylvania, which boasts of being the oldest surviving boys' boarding school in the U.S., and which puts a strong emphasis on "civility and good manners," has no Canadians among its 190 boys, a quarter of whom are from abroad.

Southwestern Academy, housed in a Spanish Mission-style building in San Marino, just outside Los Angeles, has students from 25 countries, but none from Canada. Which surprises director of admissions Lynn Yekiazarian, since quite a number of Canadian students are interested in attending American universities, she says.

What could these smaller American schools offer Canadian students? In the case of Fryeburg Academy in Maine, "we can give them the experience of attending a normal American high school," says admissions director Alan Whittemore.

The academy, dating back to 1792, serves as the local high school for youngsters in a quiet corner of the state as well as accommodating an international contingent of boarders. In the foothills of the White Mountains, it offers "some of the best skiing in the northeast," Whittemore says.

Another school with a long and successul history is Western Reserve Academy. Founded in 1826 in the small town of Hudson, in northeast Ohio, its campus on more than 300 acres of rolling land accommodates students from 22 American states and 16 countries. It boasts small classes - average size 12 - and a family atmosphere enhanced by the fact that almost all of its faculty members live on campus with their families.

One exception among U.S. schools is The Gow School in New York (near Buffalo, NY), a boarding school for special needs students, and which last year had five Canadian students, including Calgary's Nick Ritchie.

Fees at Gow are a jaw-dropping $32,000 US - but there's a reason.

Gow, next year celebrating its 75th anniversary, prepares boys with dyslexia and language difficulties for university. Which explains its minuscule class size.

Nick, who started at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick this fall, says "Gow is unique. It is the only school that offers that kind of help. It's not like having a tutor - you are in a regular class, but if you have a question, you don't have to wait for 10 other questions to be answered first."

As for going to school in the States, "it's a great country. Americans are so proud of their country," he says. "I kind of wish people had more pride in Canada."

There's lots of pride in Canadian schools overseas, which are perhaps the most surprising element of international education for Canadian kids.

"It's our least-known export," says Gary Diamond, who represents both the Hong Kong college and the Canadian School of India. While many Canadians complain about our education standards, people elsewhere can't seem to get enough of Canadian education, Diamond says. The school in Bangalore, for instance, has students from 29 countries, including the United States, Britain, Germany, Sweden and Persian Gulf countries as well, of course, as Canada.

The school, started in 1997 in India's high-tech capital, appeals to parents who are posted to India or who visit that part of the world frequently. Bridging the two cultures, the school has both basketball courts and a cricket pitch.

University admissions people, Diamond says, seek out students from the school because of their ability to think internationally.

Why would Canadian parents send their children out of the country for part of their education? "It's a leap of faith," says Diamond. "Parents say, 'If I'm going to spend that money to board my child here in Canada, why not send them overseas for international experience?'"

It can be a very rich experience, indeed. CCI The Renaissance School, located in a four-storey medieval building in Lanciano, Italy, bridges the centuries, teaching science and computer studies as well as immersing the students - male and female, 15 to 19 - in Italy's past on field trips to Florence, Venice and Rome.

Attending Renaissance is anything but a breeze. "Last year," says Louise Frigo, the college's Canadian administrator, "our 47 graduates were all accepted by the university of their first choice - a pretty good batting average!"

It isn't a breeze at Idyllwild Arts Academy in California, either, although it might sound like it with students majoring in creative writing, dance, arts, music, theatre, visual arts or film and video. But this is arts education in preparation for professional careers - and it's all, of course, in addition to rigorous classes in math, science, humanities and foreign languages.

Like Neuchatel Junior College, the best known of Canada's schools overseas and the one attended by Cathy Andrus, Renaissance generally attracts students for a year or a semester.

Cathy, 19, says of her just completed stay at Neuchatel: "It was the best year of my life." After completing Grade 13 in the high school across from her home, she looked forward to Neuchatel as "five months of good travelling and having fun."

It was that, but she also signed up for science and math courses and did so well under teachers who, she says, were "amazing," that she was accepted into Health Sciences at McMaster University in Hamilton. "And I'm not sure I would have been if I had not come here (to Neuchatel)."

Did we mention that Cathy spent Christmas in Thailand, skied the Matterhorn, went paragliding in the Swiss Alps, and went on weekend jaunts - often using her Eurorail pass - to Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and London, and even rode a camel in the Sahara in Morocco?

But she best remembers two special mornings on the train to school, with the sun rising over the Swiss mountains, the vineyards and sailboats on the water. "One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen," she says.

The Canadian school in Hong Kong, with three campuses in the ultimate urban setting, could hardly form a greater contrast.

Its students nearly all live at home and the school's function has changed dramatically. When it began in 1983, it appealed particularly to parents who planned to come to Canada because of the impending takeover of Hong Kong by Beijing.

Today, though, with no great political upsets in the former British colony, many Hong Kong natives are returning from Canada - but still want their children, from kindergarten up, to enjoy a Canadian education.

Often, one parent lives in Hong Kong with the children, says principal Farrell, who comes from Belleville, Ontario, while the other is in Canada, Australia or elsewhere. It results in kids like her own son, who, says Farrell, "are third culture" - meaning they share a bit of two nationalities.

Find Private Schools:

In the spotlight:

List of boarding schools

  • Rome, RM
    Ponte Sublicio/Lungotevere Aventino
  • 9 to 12 Coed
  • EUR €25,145 to EUR €39,095

SSS Rome provides students with a culturally diverse and rigorous academic education. Graduates obtain the International Baccalaureate Diploma and American High School Diploma to enter renowned universities worldwide.

  • Boarding/Day
  • Liberal Arts
  • International Baccalaureate
St. Stephen's School, Rome 25145 HighSchools Boarding Day Coed
  • New York, New York(USA)
    Broad St/Exchange Pl
  • PS to 12 Coed
  • US $5,500 to US $93,000

Léman Manhattan - the only boarding school in Manhattan, New York that delivers academic excellence that inspires your child for a lifetime. IB Diploma program and unique internship opportunities offered in the city.

  • Day/Boarding
  • Traditional
  • International Baccalaureate
Léman Manhattan Preparatory School 5500 Preschool Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boarding Coed
  • South Wales, New York(USA)
  • 6 to 12 Coed
  • US $48,000 to US $68,000

The Gow School is a special needs private school that offers programs for grades seven through 12 in South Wales, New York.

  • Day/Boarding
  • Traditional
The Gow School 48000 MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boarding Coed
  • Middleboro, Massachusetts(USA)
  • 6 to 12 Coed
  • US $100,000 to US $185,000

Co-ed therapeutic boarding school in Massachusetts for students 11-22 years. Student support is offered for learning disabilities, OCD, anxiety, ADHD, NLD, ASD, attachment disorder, bipolar disorder and depression.

  • Day/Boarding
  • Traditional
Chamberlain International School 100000 MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boarding Coed

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