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Rosseau Lake College:
The Our Kids Report > Key Insights
Grades 7 TO 12 — Rosseau, ON (Map)


Rosseau Lake College KEY INSIGHTS

Each school is different. Rosseau Lake 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

  • Outdoor education is a key aspect, an area in which Rosseau Lake is a notable innovator.
  • Its student body is notably diverse, given the size of the student population, adding a unique international element to the student experience.
  • Its signature programs, including Seven Generations, augment and distinguish the academic offering.
Read our Feature Review of Rosseau Lake College

Our editor speaks about the school (video)

Handpicked excerpts

Rosseau Lake College is an independent coed day and boarding school offering Grade 6 through Grade 12. It was established in 1967 as an all-boys’ school on a rural property in northern Ontario, on one of the province’s most famous lakes, about a two-hour drive north of Toronto. It became coed in 1983. Dotted with pristine lakes and tracts of hardwood forest, the Muskoka region can feel a world away, though it’s hardly the back of beyond. Known for its rugged beauty, it’s one of the busier tourist destinations in the province, receiving in excess of two million visitors annually. 

The approach to all aspects of student life is challenge by choice, encouraging students to reach further in terms of their academic, physical, and social development. In addition to mastering the core curriculum, students are asked to consider how they can serve their communities and they are given ample includes 3,300 feet of lakefront. The site was once home to a grand Edwardian estate, though the buildings from that time are now long gone, replaced by buildings that are more sympathetic to the natural environment. Today the campus has a traditional, delightfully modest feel. There are outdoor classrooms, including a teepee and a natural amphitheatre by the water’s edge, which instructors make consistent use of. 

There are some obvious comparisons to summer camp, and while it’s possible to take them too far, there is also value in recognizing what Rosseau Lake shares with non-academic outdoor programs. The buildings are reminiscent of summer camp buildings, and the social environment is too. “We do very camp-like things, quite frankly,” says Vogt. There are camp outs on the property. There’s an informal polar bear club, with staff and students challenging themselves to get into the lake at least once a month throughout the entirety of the school year. When there is ice on the lake, a hole is cut through it with a chainsaw. There are regular coffee houses where students perform songs and skits. In warmer months, many go for a morning swim before breakfast. 


“We look at the whole child. We look at their strengths; we help them find their strengths, and build on them.” When Cheryl Bissonette, the interim head of school, speaks about a holistic approach to education, that’s how she means it— educating the whole child, but also knowing the whole child and being able to engage with the students as thinkers and as people. The relationships that are built into school life allow for what Bissonette calls “those life conversations” to happen easily. “If they’re having a bad day, we’re there.” While she doesn’t say it out loud, if they are having a good day, they’re there for that, too. 

What Bissonette wants for the students is much like what the school founders wanted. Academics are important, though self-actualization is as well. When they graduate, she hopes students will leave with “the confidence to speak, to share … to carry them forward. And they have character. … The character piece is big, and I want to say most important. Because we need to teach our kids to be open-minded, to be critical thinkers, and to move forward with a positive attitude.” 


“I didn’t feel like I’d grown up yet,” says student Nils Deiter, an international student from Germany. “I wanted to use RLC as a gap year, to grow up a bit.” He describes enrolling as “the best decision I had made so far in my life.” “I came here with the idea to be a totally new person. I think I’m a different person when I am here. And I think I am a better person when I am here.” 

Most students are attracted by the size, the close-knit feel, and that the school is located outside of a large urban centre. “It is pretty small,” a Grade 9 student told us, “but I find small kind of works for it.” It is a small school in all the best ways: it’s intimate, active, and personal. The student body sits at just 110 students and is evenly divided between international and domestic students. A majority of students board on site, and a majority of the teaching staff do as well. The community is notably diverse, particularly given a student population of this size. In any given year there are typically around 20 different nations represented—from Austria to Peru, Taiwan to the Cayman Islands—within a boarding community of slightly more than 50 students. One of the intentions of the Seven Generations program is to ensure that local Indigenous students can access the school, so those communities are represented within the student body as well. 


“We’re an experiential school,” says principal Graham Vogt. “We believe that the best learning happens when it is immersed in experience.” The adventure, the challenge of the outdoors, has so much potential in the context of learning. “One of the things we know is that when we create that experience, we help the learning to be applied in alternate settings, and it resonates more strongly with students.” 

There are certain subjects that lend themselves more to the outdoors, such as geography, history, and the sciences. The challenge, and that falls within Vogt’s mandate, is to find how others do as well. A current Grade 9 student told us about how, in her English class, her teacher asked some of the students to go outside and use descriptive text to write about something that they saw. Then, with only those descriptions in hand, others went out to see if they could find what they described. “Also, our science, for most of our science we were outside, down by the lake, in canoes studying the physics of canoes. Learning about Newton’s three laws and how they apply to canoeing.” When she described it, we could hear her smile through the phone. “It definitely made it a lot more enjoyable than just sitting in a classroom and working by textbook all day.” It’s also a good example of what Vogt means when he talks about experiential learning being more lasting. That student could tell us all about Newton’s laws—with more animation and enjoyment—because they were part of that experience she had, with others, in canoes on a lake one sunny fall day. “We want to learn alongside you,” says teacher and Round Square coordinator Tia Saley. “We’re here to help you, and to guide you, and to definitely point you in the right direction, but we also want to give you hard and soft skills.” Getting out and doing, out from behind the screens, being immersed in the work at hand, “that is the essence of what our school does.” 


All the students are greeted outside the dining hall each day as they go into assembly. Teachers shake their hands. “They look me in the eye,” says Bissonette, “and I can tell by them looking in my eyes how their day is and how they're doing.” That kind of interaction is something she’s worked to develop during her time at the school. “At first it was just the head and assistant head that greeted students each morning,” though it slowly grew. On a typical day today, a majority of the teachers are there. They then move together into the dining hall and the entire school population stands in a circle. They sing a national anthem, sometimes Canada’s, other times one from one of the students’ home countries. “We’re very big on expressing gratitude.” Then there are announcements. “There is no hierarchy,” with one person saying what they need to, and then another, maybe in the style of a Quaker meeting house, were they to think of it that way. “It just reinforces that aspect of community.” The students then go on to their classrooms and the day is begun.

“We are with the kids 24/7,” says Bissonette, “or at least in their waking hours.” Many of the faculty live on campus. Each is on a house parent team, and has one day/night shift every week that they are directly responsible for the kids in their house. They coach. They offer clubs. They eat meals together, sharing the tables in the dining hall. “We get to know them not just as students but as people as well.” They see them in the classroom, but they see more than that, too. “Students aren’t always the same in the classroom as they are out on the sports field, or as they are singing and dancing and cheering outside. And being their true selves. We’re a part of all that.” 


Graeme Smith is the outdoor education lead, which would be a secondary role in most schools. Here, it’s central to the academic program as well as the co-curricular offerings. Were you to visit on a typical day, you might see him leading survival classes, shelter building, or fire lighting. Then again, he may be teaching wilderness first aid, or canoeing, kayaking, even swimming instruction. When there’s snow on the ground he might be out with a group cross-country skiing or building quinzhees. When I ask him why parents should find any of this important—fire lighting, for example, is not something that students will be including on their university applications—a light goes on in his eyes. “Have you ever seen a kid light a fire without using matches?” he says. “Using flint and steel?! It’s one of my favourite things in the world.” He compares it to seeing a child catch a fish for the first time. “It’s just a sense of accomplishment, a sense of ‘I didn’t think I could do it. But now I can.’”

For most schools, outdoor education is a trip at the beginning or the end of the year. At Rosseau Lake College it’s about using the outdoors every day, capitalizing on all the experiences and activity it can offer and weaving them through the curriculum.  


THE OUR KIDS REPORT: Rosseau Lake College

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