Havergal College KEY INSIGHTS
Each school is different. Havergal College'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
- A strong and impressive tradition gives life to the culture of the school.
- Its academics are rigorous, as is its dedication to social and emotional development.
- The school allows girls to take risks in a safe setting.
Our editor speaks about the school (video)
Havergal is the largest girls’ school in Toronto, both in terms of student population and physical space. It has a well-earned reputation for charting its own path, both academically and culturally. As such, it continually gains a special place in the hearts of its students, and in the heart of the city as well. It’s visible within the culture of Toronto in ways that many other private schools aspire to.
ON THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT
There’s a lot of bustle beyond the boundaries of the property, and Avenue Road is a major artery. The size and setting of the campus create a significant buffer, and even the playing fields which surround the property boundaries feel removed from the surrounding city life.
The Junior School is housed in its own building, and it and the Upper School sit somewhat apart from each other, linked by a walking bridge that crosses a ravine that separates them. Each has its own entrance, with the Upper School entering from Avenue Road, and the Junior School entering from Rosewell Avenue, a residential street that follows the property’s eastern boundary.
The sense of place while on campus is consistent and peaceful. This is all thanks to the foresight of founding principal Ellen Mary Knox when choosing the property more than a century ago. This kind of campus, at this location, would not be possible to create today, and it is one of the great assets—along with the history, tradition, and leadership—of the school.
ON THE CULTURAL ENVIRONMENT
Ellen Mary Knox was the Founding Principal of Havergal, and she led the school through the first three decades of its life. She remains the longest-serving principal, and while her term was completed in 1924, the stamp of her leadership very much remains. Knox was, to put it mildly, a woman of action, as well as a first-rate character. With her school, she wanted to challenge girls to “enlist whole-heartedly in the struggle … [and] place yourselves at the strategic point where you can serve your country best.”
“The school cared about the education of women long before most women began to take themselves seriously.” —Catherine Steele, class of ‘28
Time and again, she did exactly that, including very actively creating a space for women in politics and business. For Knox, struggle was the path to freedom. She wrote to her students in her guide for girls, The Girl of the New Age, “You are not going to settle down on the one-legged stool of your father’s money … You are not going to follow the whim of the moment … [there are] new adventures everywhere around you, the avenues of work opening out on every side, avenues which a few years ago you never believed could have been possible to you.”
The core traditions are apparent in the events that mark the school calendar— the holiday Carol Service, Founders’ Day, and the House Shout held each spring— as well as in the day-to-day. Students meet for Prayers weekly, though the experience is more akin to a school-wide assembly (whether in-person or online). “At Prayers you could sit there and say ‘this is a tradition and we have to do this,’” recalls alumna Anne Broughton, Class of 2018. “But we really don’t. Over the years I’ve seen that everybody has that one Prayers [service] that changes your life. The one speaker that you’ll always remember.” For her, that was a student who spoke about her experience of mental illness. “I’d never heard anyone say anything like that, ever. She was onstage, she was telling her friends for the first time. It was very powerful.”
“What I love most about this school,” writes Kate White, head of the Junior School, “is the careful blend of longstanding traditions and innovative approaches to education. There is a real sense of confidence that comes from being an educational institution for more than 125 years. Our strong history gives us a solid foundation to ask why we are doing things and how our values are connected to everything we do.”
ON THE SCHOOL’S VALUES
There is a palpable sense of belonging that is shared among the Day and Boarding students, one that is based in the kinds of interactions that the school allows, and the interests and perspectives that the students share. “I feel like everyone is part of it together,” says Emma McCurdy-Franks, Class of 2021. “I’ve bonded so well with all the girls in my grade, and even other grades. We are kind of all going through it together.”
“Our job as the adults in the building is to help them take risks and try some new things,” says Maggie Houston-White, executive director of strategic enrolment management, “to figure out what they like and what they don’t like; what they’re good at and what they’re not good at. Sometimes what you love, you’re not good at. But that’s alright. Just do it.” The school prides itself on academic rigour, though beyond that, there is a keen attention to maintaining an environment in which the girls feel known and valued.
ON THE STUDENT COMMUNITY
“We are a high-achieving school,” says Maggie Houston-White. “One of my favourite things about the school is that there are so many different kids here. Different talents, different personalities.” She notes that, when assessing candidates, she’s looking for “girls who are going to, in their own ways, be eager to find out what their talents and passions are, and to really go for that, knowing that they’ll be nurtured by us along the way.”
“I don’t think there is one ideal student,” says Anne Broughton. “I think I kind of fit the trope: Someone who is involved, who enjoys academics, is excited by doing new things rather than sticking to what they’re used to.” The school is large, with a total enrollment of some 1,000 students, though with the division between the Upper and Junior Schools the feel is more intimate than the numbers might suggest. Impressively, 99% of the students return each year, ultimately graduating from the school. “It’s important that girls feel it remains the right school for them,” says Houston-White, and statistics show that a vast majority of them do.
ON THE ACADEMIC ENVIRONMENT
The school built an engaged faculty that is cally leave Havergal only by retirement. When presented at morning Prayers, there was clearly a great reluctance to leave on both sides of the ledger, faculty and students. The music teacher had her students present a piece from various points in the hall, and lots of dewy eyes were a direct result. She also shared photos of her life, including her childhood, and that kind of openness— a willingness to share lives, not just classrooms—is apparently all part of the Havergal experience.
“Havergal really focuses on the girl and helps her to find what her power is.” —Roslyn Mounsey, parent
Throughout its long life, Havergal has been the kind of school that others have looked to as an example of progressive, socially responsible education. Knox danced to the beat of her own drum, and if there is one overriding tradition within the school, that’s precisely it. Garth Nichols, the vice principal of strategic innovation and design, notes that “a lot of schools are AP or IB, and we by design are not. And that’s because we firmly believe that we have a philosophy of education that is true, and that is strong.”
While the world has changed since the school was founded in 1894, the initial goal remains: to allow girls to take risks in a safe setting, and to encourage them to grow into a clear understanding of their strengths and their talents. The programs are designed to meet the girls where they are, and then to take them further, using their natural curiosity as a guide. “We’re continually looking to be the best Havergal we can be,” says Maggie Houston-White (an administrator who is also a parent of the school), “and I think that allows us to be such an incredible school.”
THE OUR KIDS REPORT: Havergal College
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