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St. John's-Kilmarnock School:
The Our Kids Report > Key Insights
Grades JK TO 12 — Waterloo Region (Breslau), ON (Map)

St. John's-Kilmarnock School:

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.
  • Physical activity is promoted throughout its student body, realizing high participation rates.
  • The experience of belonging to a shared community is a key to the SJK offering, for both students and parents alike.
Read our Feature Review of St. John's-Kilmarnock School

Our editor speaks about the school (video)

Handpicked excerpts

St. John’s-Kilmarnock School was founded in 1972 in response to some of the larger education trends in Ontario coming out of the 1960s, a period of marked educational and social reform. The mission was to offer a rigorous academic program, based on the liberal arts and founded on a clear set of humanist values. The founders, while aware of the need to change and grow, also wanted to provide a strong foundation for some key aspects of a traditional liberal arts education, and that remains a defining feature of the program offering today. The later innovations—most obviously the adoption of the International Baccalaureate (IB) across the school, a program that is academically rigorous while also embracing arts and service—were a further expression of the initial ideal.


“The IB Programme meant a lot to my husband and I,” says parent Meena Sharify. “We appreciate global pedagogy,” and certainly they’re not alone in that among the school’s parent population. It’s one of a relative handful of schools in the country that offers it exclusively, absent of a stream for the provincial curriculum. The result is an opportunity to really focus all the activity of the school on the delivery of the IB, both in terms of infrastructure—spaces tailored, for example, to the collaborative elements—as well as supporting the values that undergird it, including an international perspective, experiential learning, project-based instruction, and peer collaboration. “I think the IB Programme is a benefit to the school because of the way it’s taught,” says parent Jennifer Shingler, “and the ideology behind it.” 

“It’s a conceptually-driven program,” says Karen Baird, assistant head of school, “so we’re teaching to big ideas and concepts. And what we find—anecdotally, incidentally, and through the research—is that kids who learn in this way have a deeper and more enduring understanding as they mature.” It’s not just teaching the content, but also how the content relates across curricular areas, authentically, with the lives of the students and beyond. “It really does help develop that outward thinking that we want our kids to have. So they’re not just thinking about themselves and their own experience, but also how that affects them outside the school.” 

Everything is a balance, and the program at SJK has navigated it particularly well. Students aren’t required to parse sentences, say, but they do need to know the basics and are able to apply them. “I think it says something about a person when you’re attentive to detail,” says Baird in relation to written work, including a correct deployment of spelling and grammar. “It denotes a certain level of respect for yourself and the people who are going to be reading your work.” There are big ideas, too. Theory of knowledge is a required course, per the IB curriculum, for all students in the Diploma Programme. “It’s essentially a kind of philosophy course,” says David Newman, chair of the arts, “but it’s also something that underlies every other course in every other subject area. We are expected to make connections between our subjects and theory of knowledge. So there’s always that sense of how things connect.” 

Each of the IB Programmes ends in a culminating project, presented at the Exhibition, that students work on over the course of their final year within each Programme. “It’s totally student driven,” says Carey Gallagher, the MYP director, who was overseeing the setup of the Exhibition when we visited the library. “They figure out what their passions are, and we develop their lines of inquiry, questions. They’ve been off campus visiting places and talking to experts. A group went to the Humane Society. We have a group looking at brain health, so they’ve been to SHIFT, which is a concussion clinic. We have a group that went to Ten Thousand Villages and a fair-trade coffee shop. One group connected on a Skype call with the Vancouver Aquarium to talk about animals in captivity.” They’re big topics: child labour, animal cruelty, consumerism, environmental impacts. The intention is to develop the students’ curiosities and interests, empowering them to contribute to a solution within their communities and to develop leadership opportunities within the school. 


“She thrives on academic challenges,” says parent Holly Huehn of her daughter, Emily. “She enjoys the sports and the arts. SJK can offer those opportunities, and she’s keen to take advantage of those.” While the program admits a broad range of learners, that is perhaps something that is common throughout: 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 he certainly hasn’t been. 

The student body and faculty is divided into four houses: Brant, Brock, Tecumseh, and Simcoe. It’s also divided into two divisions, with preschool through Grade 6 designated as the Lower School, and Grades 7 through 12 the Upper School. Each has its administration, with Lower and Upper School directors filling the role of principal for each, and reporting to the head of school. About 19% of the Upper School population is international students, all of whom live in a boarding residence located in Waterloo. The off campus residence offers international students essentially the best of two worlds: the urban living experience, while learning each day on a 36-acre campus, which they take a short bus to each day. ESL and TOEFL classes are provided within the school. 

This is a group of students who value academics. Says Jill Watson, director of the Upper School, “I don’t hear kids saying, as they’re writing their exams, ‘did you study?’ Because of course they studied. Of course they’re trying to do their best. It’s a different atmosphere,” one in which academic desire and academic success are shared across the student population. Coupled with the fact that all students are in the IB Programme, “the students feel that sense of camaraderie. They work together; we don’t set them up in competition with each other. … we try to keep the lens on doing your personal best.” She continues noting that “it’s part of the strength of a school that the kids have an overall common goal: they want to do well and they’re allowed to try.” 


“I think SJK is like a greenhouse,” says Cheryl Boughton. “This is a place where they can grow, and [where] they have the best possible conditions to do that.” Boughton is the current head of school, having been appointed to that role in 2018. She brought extensive experience in private and independent schooling, including teaching for 11 years in England, leading programs there. She’s also been head of two schools, something that grants a valuable perspective. “I’ve had a chance, I think, to really appreciate that different schools produce different outcomes for their students,” she says. While some prize marks are achieved or scholarships earned, Boughton sees growth—achieving personal bests, allowing students room to surprise themselves with what they’re able to accomplish—as the most important goal. “At our school, we do get those high flyers, absolutely, and we help them achieve more than they dreamed possible, but we also get the students who found school hard, or perhaps were overlooked in their previous school … to me, I’m most excited by growth. I really believe that we help students discover the very best version of themselves. Our teachers are there to help them along the way, but it’s their journey.” 

“It starts with you, and it starts with what gets you going. What engages you? What sets your heart on fire? Those are the things we just try to unlock in our students.” 
—Cheryl Boughton, Head of School


The school rightly prides itself on the relationships that it forms, the creativity that the faculty bring to those relationships, and what they then bring to the life of the school. Their response to the pandemic was a case in point. School administration saw it as the challenge that it was, though also as an opportunity to explore learning, and to use the moment as one to model to their students what a response to adversity can look like. Namely, to approach it with determination, grace, and spirit. They chose to use the term “remote learning” instead of “online learning” based on a conviction that “quality learning can occur at a distance, without solely relying on technology.” That, frankly, is an excellent point. A notice on the school website at the time read, “Although our doors are temporarily closed, the minds of our students remain open!” It was a little thing, though it said a lot, particularly that the spirit of SJK remained undimmed. 


“Athletics is a really important part of who we are,” says Boughton. “Our students are engaged in a competitive varsity sport program as well as a huge variety of health and fitness activities. They value health and wellness.” The participation rates are high, and the school reports that nearly 90% of the students participate in the competitive varsity program. That reflects the mandate that students are involved in a range of co-curriculars, though it’s also reflective of the school culture. 


“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. 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 IT director 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.


THE OUR KIDS REPORT: St. John's-Kilmarnock School

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