Halifax, NS | Grades JK - 12 | Shortlist
We have four children at Sacred Heart School of Halifax (SHSH). If I think about our eldest son, who has gone from Grade 6 to where he is now (Grade 11), he may not put it in these exact words himself but two of the things that he would appreciate the most include: (a) Connections: He has truly rich friendships. It is clear that some of his classmates are close friends for life. Some teachers may even make the same cut. (b) Challenge: SHSH creates the conditions that challenge him to do his best academically, where the primary goal is learning and preparation for university, not brute-force academics for the sake of it. The school has nurtured a sense of curiosity in him that represents a love of learning for sake of personal growth. To be clear, he inevitably reflects on the harsh reality of wanting to get into the university of his choice, etc. But what is evident to his parents, grandparents and others is that he has developed an appreciation for learning as a noble pursuit on its own. Particularly as he gets older, he has sometimes expressed frustration that seeing 'the girls' in between classes and in extra-curricular settings isn't as much as he'd like. He has never objected to the pedagogical merits of split-gender classrooms (and socially seems to appreciate some benefits of that). But halfway through Grade 11, he sometimes says he wishes he could engineer more time with his female counterparts at school. Sometimes he grumbles about uniforms...but no different than I did as a teen in an independent school.
The guiding ethos of this school goes beyond academics (or athletics or any other focused perspective). It is, instead, all about a holistic approach to turning young kids into well-adjusted adults who contribute meaningfully to society. This means that classroom, playground and other dialogue is always about much more than homework or band practice; it's about big-picture issues - including how to deal with the same thorny issues we adults face in our day-to-day personal and work lives. They don't always get it right (no one does) but I believe this ethos in the school DNA is reflected very much in how the school deals with problems, including matters of discipline, with a commitment to fairness, equity, and generally doing what's right. This is reflected in high quality, honest, and timely communications to stakeholders about both the mundane (but practically important in parents' busy lives) (example: tricky planning around snow days or weather events) to the complex and profoundly important (matters of racial justice or other equity issues). This is a school leadership that, if boiled down to word, strives to be PRINCIPLED.
The teachers at Sacred Heart School of Halifax are excellent; this is one of the main reasons we chose the school -- because parents of other kids who know the school vouched for the high standards of the teaching faculty. This cuts across the various dimensions of teaching. First, it is on rare occasions that our children have had a teacher that isn't demonstrably capable, or highly capable in a particular subject. On rare occasion, depending on juggling of staff transitions or other transient factors, there are inevitably gaps, where the overall caliber of one particular teacher in a given class doesn't quite measure up to a counterpart from a previous year. But by and large, the teachers' capabilities are not just good; they are great. This goes beyond their own pedagogical expertise. They are 'good' in the sense that, through regular parent-teacher meetings and other communications channels, it is clear how individualized the instruction is. There is never a moment of, "Oh...let me remind myself who your son/daughter is." Most important, what is apparent amongst the faculty is that they see the kids' education as much more than academics. The teaching staff at Sacred Heart cares deeply about nurturing the 'whole child'. This is invaluable because, for us at least, the big picture of getting a kid from primary through to graduation after Grade 12 always has to do with much more than how they did on their math exam; it's about building well-adjusted young adults, ready for a meaningful life where they can be valuable contributors to greater society.
The academics at Sacred Heart are strong. Children are challenged at every grade the way through. There is a delicate balance for any school -- and, indeed, each school must find its own equilibrium. Some are (intentionally) programmed for a strong focus on academics above all else -- and carry intense workloads with high demands and high expectations. Others give a good education but avoid a 'drill & kill'. Sacred Heart lies somewhere in the middle. The academic programming is both broad and varied, and as a general statement, my perception is that kids are regularly pushed to stretch and grow beyond their comfort zone...without pushing it too far, such that they end up exhausted or frustrated. The option for Advanced Placement (AP) classes in upper years allows for kids to take more challenging courses where they wish, and also allows for a greater degree of academic customization based on kids' inner motivations and leanings than, say, heavily standardized curricula.
One of the nice things about being in a smaller school (relatively speaking) compared to a larger one is that there are very few things that a student couldn't do if they wanted to. Because SHSH is all about educating the 'whole child', the full range of extracurriculars are available, encouraged, and quite strongly a part of school life: from theater to athletics to music, to say nothing of a strong volunteer spirit. In the high school years, one acknowledged challenge is that certain elite athletes might find a compromise by not playing in the top-tier scholastic varsity leagues that may be available in the main school system.
Sacred Heart is a K-12 school so, by its nature, it comes with a wide-ranging feel. Towards the end of the school day, independent Grade 12s are headed downtown on foot with friends while 7-years olds are winding up after-school play. They may trip over each others' feet (in a nice way) -- and, indeed, there are plenty of warm and useful bonds created across the ages, as older kids act as reading buddies after-school program monitors, or mentors of other types to the young ones. The school has a strong spirit. There are pockets of distinctiveness within the overall school, with senior girls school and senior boys schools having their own sense of identity that is carved out from the elementary school. But they are all 'SHSH kids'. As mentioned many times previously, because of the school's DNA being about building 'holistic' kids -- those who recognize the value of pro-social behavior for their school and, indeed, for society at large -- it's a place that is, by default, friendly, welcoming, and kind. It's a nice place to be. I once saw a video that prompted the students to give one word, unprompted, to describe the school. It was notable how many reactively said, "family!". In upper years, some class sizes in certain years can feel small to some students and parents.
There is a lot of overlap in my answer to this answer with others but school life reflects the DNA of the school as an open, welcoming and kind place that prizes well-adjusted relationships, mutual respect, and fun. As a result, yes, most kids seem to love school there. Here's the test we notice. When we come back from March break or Christmas -- or when summer is over, and it's time to go back -- do we have angst and tears and grumbles? Do we have neutral numbness? Or do we have more of a "looking forward to it!" (even if it's the reality we see, rather than the words coming from their mouth). It's almost always this last one. To us, that says it all. A good example of the school's commitment to a fun and collegial school life is the annual "Conge" festival they do: a surprise day of fun, games and spirit building where classes get cancelled and all kids celebrate being at Sacred Heart. It's a big day in the school calendar, especially for the younger ones.
This is quite exceptional, in my view. We started at the school after two decades outside of Canada and only knew so many people at the school. Our kids knew virtually no one. Sacred Heart has an 'angel' system for new children in any class, whereby an existing kid takes a new kid under their wing and commits to smoothing their path into the school environment. Before a new kid joins (in fact, even for returning kids, in the summer!) it is commonplace for homeroom teachers to CALL the kids to say hello, get to know them, welcome them, etc. This is indicative of the warm, collegial spirit that permeates not only students' relationships with each other, or student-teacher relationships, but all interactions. The parent guild is active and wonderful. Events throughout the year (fundraising dinners, ice cream socials, parent social evenings) are fun and serve to build a very tight-knit community. Simply put, Sacred Heart has become a meaningful part of our whole family's social life.
It's hard to beat this location in the sense that (a) it's in the heart of Halifax; but (b) the grounds are historic, beautiful and spacious; (c) there's green space (Public Gardens, Citadel) all around; and (d) it's quite accessible to major traffic routes (to bridges, etc. Ultimately, it depends on where a family lives but, from our vantage point, the school's location is a massive advantage.
I would like to think that we have a good perspective on this because, while I don't remember all the precise details of the application process, what I do know is that if any applications should have been complicated, it would have been ours. We were living in Southeast Asia when we applied for our four kids to go to Sacred Heart. So the sharing of transcripts and generally trying to 'map' our kids prior learning experience to relevant benchmarks for Sacred Heart would have been outside the standard application process they would have to do. My main recollection is that, in spite of that, the application process felt like a welcome sign of things to come: not that it was trivial or effortless, simply that it was a fair, reasonable, and open process with people who were a joy to work with.