St. John's-Kilmarnock School KEY INSIGHTS
Each school is different. St. John's-Kilmarnock School'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
- SJK is a model IB school, one of the first in the country to offer the full continuum.
- The experience of belonging to a shared community is a key to the SJK offering, for both students and parents alike.
- Physical activity is promoted throughout the student body, realizing high participation rates.
- Arts education is taken seriously and teachers create real-world experiences for students in the local community.
Our editor speaks about the school (video)
SJK is a small learning community by design, where strong relationships are fostered and contribute to the overall student experience. Both curricular and co-curricular programming provides opportunities for students to collaborate, learn and play together. Students, teachers, and staff know each other not only by name but also importantly by their individual passions and pursuits. This level of personal understanding enhances the shared experience and broadens the depth of the learning journey. The result is a connected community where big ideas and a global perspective live.
ON THE ACADEMIC PROGRAM
“Academic excellence is foundational to who we are,” says Cheryl Boughton, head of school. The school’s strong commitment to the International Baccalaureate® (IB) Programme across the school, a program that is academically rigorous while also embracing arts and service, is an expression of its initial ideals. SJK offers the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP) for students in Junior Kindergarten through Grade 6, the IB Middle Years Programme (MYP) for students in Grades 7 to 10, and the IB Diploma Programme for students in Grades 11 and 12. “We are constantly challenging our students to be the best version of themselves,” says Boughton. “We want our students to graduate very well rounded, and we want them to go out and have an impact in the world.”
In the classroom, the fundamentals are a focus, but teachers work hard to adapt the curriculum for a diverse, modern student body. Chair of Arts David Newman explains: “Our belief is that the best way to teach the fundamentals is when things are contextualized, are relevant—you can connect them to other things that make sense to you—and so that really underlies that IB philosophy.” Behind the fundamentals, for Newman, is understanding the process of thinking that goes into them. “You’re not just being taught how to read and write, add and subtract. You’re also being taught how to think about those things.”
ON INDIVIDUALIZED LEARNING
Teachers are communicative if they identify an area where a student needs extra help. “If I’ve ever had a concern,” says parent Anne Spruin, “they say, ‘Come on in, let’s have a meeting.’” But they’re also proactive, and they come to you. With one of my children, the teacher was concerned about his fine motor skills. They put together a package of materials to help him practice writing. To me, that really showed they care.” The school gets to know each student’s needs and goals, says Jill Watson, director of Upper School. “Our mission is to discover the unique talents of each student, ignite their love of learning and build their capacity for global action.”
ON THE CLASSROOM EXPERIENCE
Classes are small, with an average class size of 17. Teachers work alongside students rather than lecturing from the front of the room. The school has been experimenting with classroom organization and has furnished classrooms with modular furniture that can break up into different configurations and be moved aside if neccessary. Students have a range of seating options, including rocking stools, and they are free to choose among them.
ON THE FACULTY
“I practice what I do,” says Catherine Paleczny, art teacher for the Upper School. She has studied in Calgary, Michigan, Japan, and Australia, and has been artist in residence at the Banff Centre, the International Ceramic Center in Denmark, the International Ceramic Sculpture Symposium in Poland, and the Experimental Sculpture Factory in China. Paleczny’s art works are found in collections around the world and in various public locations around the K-W area. Students can interact with her work in their local environment.
Many teachers on the SJK faculty arrive with international experience on their resumés. They can provide a global view of the world to students because they have lived globally. SJK’s approach to hiring faculty adds authenticity to the student experience. “They are very engaged in what they teach,” says parent Jennifer Shingler. “They believe in it. I have yet to have a teacher that isn’t interested in what they’re teaching.”
ON THE SCHOOL'S SETTINGS
SJK’s rural location was chosen not only for what it offered in terms of space, but also for its proximity to the communities that the school was serving, several of which are within a 20- to 30-minute drive. The semi-rural setting offers welcome exposure to nature for children who come from city or suburban neighbourhoods. “We feel fortunate to have the unspoilt forest area,” says Karen Baird, assistant head of school. “The outdoor [experiential] education teacher takes them out there to play and learn. We go canoeing when the weather is good.”
ON RECOVERING FROM THE PANDEMIC
During the pandemic, a greater emphasis was placed on outdoor learning for the younger grades, Boughton explained. In the Upper School, “our kids were learning how to cross country ski. There was a walking group, and snowshoeing. There were definite times where it was better if they could be outside connecting with each other, breathing fresh air.” The school’s spacious campus allowed classes to thrive even during the most restricted periods, said Boughon. That caused families to spread the word about SJK. “I don’t think we needed to do the same sort of recovery that other organizations did. We’re really growing,” says Boughton. “There is so much interest in our school. But how do you balance that growth with who you are? We could expand very quickly but we would lose important elements of who we are. So we are growing intentionally and sustainably.”
ON RECENT EXPANSION
Underway in 2023, a renovation of a new multi-functional space for art, design and media programs will develop the school’s offerings. Teachers of creative subjects had been working in spaces that were spread out throughout the campus. The school decided to bring everything together into one space in a previously underused space beneath the school’s chapel. It had been underused, and seemed an appropriate space that could be reclaimed for creative pursuits. “We’ve always had a strong design program,” says Boughton. “Teachers have been working in facilities that were good, but we wanted to give them spaces that were more conducive to what they’re doing.”
ON THE STUDENT POPULATION
While SJK admits a broad range of learners, the students who do best here are those who respond well to challenges and are keen to make the most of the opportunities that the school provides. “I think our biggest goal for our son at the time was just that I never wanted him to be bored at school,” says Jennifer Shingler, and certainly he hasn’t been. The school is very much a university prep school, and the curriculum is delivered with post-secondary education very firmly in mind. There are students with identified learning disabilities, but all are able to reach the academic program, and thrive with the level of challenge the school presents.
ON COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT
SJK teachers seem to relish the school’s mandate to be involved in the community. “That ability to be involved in things outside the school does give you something back,” says Newman. “Part of our belief is that being involved yourself informs the work that you do and the approach that you have with students.” Students grow into an awareness of the kinds of things that people do through a relationship with people who actually do them, he added. “There’s a level of credibility, and that sense that people actually do this outside of school. It isn’t just something that you learn in a classroom.”
ON ARTS PROGRAMMING
Alongside a strong focus on academics and STEM oriented subjects, SJK takes the arts seriously. From the early years until graduation, students have opportunities to participate in visual arts, music, dance, and theatre arts programs, both through curricular and co-curricular activities. Students begin learning music in the early years, first with Orff instruments and rhythm-based movement activities. They begin playing instruments in Grade 4. Since the school’s inception, choral music has always been a foundation of the music program, and that focus continues today. When it comes to theatre, SJK embraces its location in southwestern Ontario by engaging with professionals at the renowned Stratford Festival. Beginning in Grade 4, students see a production at Stratford every year and experience workshops related to the play.
ON THE SCHOOL'S VALUES
“It’s about the quality of education, knowing where my kids are at all times. The continuity,” says Jennifer Shingler. “I feel envious that my children get to do their education in that environment.” Ask any parent what they appreciate about the school, and those are the kinds of things, in our experience, they are most likely to say about SJK that yes, the athletics facilities are excellent, and the curriculum challenging, but you’re equally apt to hear about the family skate on the pond, and how the Director of Development makes the rink. Parents appreciate all of that, and certainly the students do, too. SJK has a lot to offer, including simply belonging to a community that shares a set of core values and a perspective on the world. For many students, that alone is a transformative experience.
“We’re a small community,” says parent Jennifer Shingler. “I’ve always said to my kids that if you are misbehaving, I’m going to find out. It’s been very much that kind of experience.” As such, the care granted at SJK derives from the context that it has created for itself, and a result is that the students are, by and large, respectful and self-regulating. Many parents drop their children off each morning, and pick them up each evening, allowing them all to get a sense of who each other are. Those transition times also afford a regular, casual interaction with other parents and children. Parents speak of the strength of their children’s friendships, ones that carry over into their lives outside the school.
THE OUR KIDS REPORT: St. John's-Kilmarnock School
Next steps to continue your research: