St. Margaret's School KEY INSIGHTS
Each school is different. St. Margaret's 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
- Canada’s first all-girls STEM school.
- Oldest continuous independent school on Vancouver Island.
- Emphasis on leadership and experiential, interdisciplinary learning.
ON THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT
Your first step onto the campus of St. Margaret’s School feels like a breath of cool, calming fresh air. The school sits on the southern end of Vancouver Island, a short drive from downtown Victoria, B.C. The campus is shaded by pine trees, next to a small lake, with a playing field, outdoor learning spaces, and wooded trails.
Walking across campus—between the buildings that house the Junior School, dining hall, design labs, science facilities, gymnasium, and more—you’re likely to be struck, as you come around any corner, by a view of ‘Mt. Doug’.
Watching over St. Margaret’s School, in the near-distance, is Mount Douglas—or ‘PKOLS,’ in the Indigenous SENĆOŦEN language. In the valley below, you have St. Margaret’s School. Standing on the campus, it can be hard to believe you’ve barely left the city limits of Victoria.
“We’re not isolated, we’re not in the middle of nowhere, but we’re off on this side street, and we have this little acreage, and all of this nature and trees,” says faculty member Saloni Dholakia. “There’s this nice sense of ‘We can go here’ and ‘We can go there.’”
Besides the school’s small size, part of its charm is that all students—from K-12—are all there in the same place, learning and living together. It’s not entirely unusual for an independent school to offer a full range of grades, covering all or most of the years from kindergarten to high school graduation. But what is rare and special is how, at St. Margaret’s, the Early Years, Junior School, Middle School, and High School programs are all in the same place, on the same campus, and very much part of the same community.
Walking across the SMS campus, across the field there are two girls dancing and jumping and unison, waving their heads around in what appears to be a TikTok video in progress. But what stands out is the fact that one of the girls stands half a body’s length taller than the other. “My girls will tell me they have friends in all grades of the school,” says parent Cheryl Major.
“They know other students across all grades, and they have so much mentorship time with older girls, and, now that they’re getting older, they have opportunities to be mentors and leaders for younger girls as well.”
ON THE ACADEMIC PROGRAM
STEM-X is the mantra and the mission at St. Margaret’s. It’s a belief that learners can’t truly learn about the world by book, or by rote, or by rigid instruction—they have to engage with it.
In that sense, STEM-X is a new articulation of a spirit that, at St. Margaret’s, is many decades old.
The X stands for ‘Experiential.’ It’s the defining idea in the instructional approach at St. Margaret’s, adopted in recent years. With its focus on hands-on, inquiry-based learning, St. Margaret’s dedication to STEM-X puts the school at the cutting-edge of pedagogy, while at the same time staying true to its roots.
“STEM-X is about having students think critically, collaboratively, and creatively, to apply their learning to be problem solvers, and tackle some real-world problems,” says Michael Jones, a Middle Years teacher and the school’s STEM-X coordinator.
In bringing the STEM-X framework to life, the educators at St. Margaret’s have worked to question old assumptions in education, and dismantle the silos so many of us were brought up with. “There’s so much art in math and science—and there’s so much math and science in art,” says Jones.
The Middle Years program at St. Margaret’s, in which Jones teaches, is designed on an interdisciplinary model, with math and science merged together—and often going even further than that. For teachers and students alike, the results have been exciting, energizing, and sometimes surprising.
“Right now, in my science class, students are actually doing art and writing poetry to represent their learning,” Jones says. “It’s funny, because students are always like, ‘Mr. Jones! Isn’t this supposed to be science class?’ But it’s all connected. Everything is connected.”
St. Margaret’s School is a place of natural beauty, where students study the beauty of the natural world. And in a natural world full of both beauty and complexity—where everything is inherently connected—who needs a science quiz full of abstractions, or the contrived questions of a math exam?
“Math isn’t some separate thing,” says SMS numeracy specialist Saloni Dholakia. Like chemistry, biology, physics and all its STEM cousins, math is inherently interconnected and interwoven—both with those other fields, and with the complex and pressing issues of today.
She remembers a recent class activity that she led alongside the schools’ STEM-X coordinator, looking at one particular mathematical phenomenon that has been studied since antiquity, employed by figures like Michelangelo in great works of art, and frequently identified in the natural world. “We ate pineapples, and we looked at artichokes, and we went flower picking, and it was all about the Fibonacci sequence and the ‘Golden Ratio’.”
This outing, she says, is a prime example of the interdisciplinary approach at St. Margaret’s, giving students a hands-on understanding of why mathematics is not a distant relative of their other fields of study—that, in fact, it’s a member of the same tight-knit family. While this recent outing was effectively a math class—with some students impressively managing to calculate the Fibonacci sequence up to its 40th number—it was all about Earth Day.
For students who love biology, ecology, hiking, camping, or being in nature, this gave the lesson immediate relevance, says Dholakia, not to mention a breadth of connections students could make. For students who carry sustainability and fighting climate change close to their heart, the lesson had extra impact, says Dholakia. “Plus we got to eat pineapple afterwards, and the kids really enjoyed that,” she laughs.
ON THE ACADEMIC ENVIRONMENT
St. Margaret’s stands out—not just on Vancouver Island, or in Western Canada, but across the country as a whole—for being an all-girls, STEM-focused school. “The STEM process is what I think is so special here,” says Lisa Zeibart, the school’s director of curriculum, inclusion, and belonging.
“STEM is really about the process of inquiry. It’s the process of curiosity, the process of digging deeper, and we really get to focus on that here.” From Kindergarten to Grade 12, St. Margaret’s School teaches students to engage with the world with courage and curiosity—from the theoretical brink of physics, to environmental and social issues, to the mathematical wonders of a pinecone.
“Science and math are everywhere. For us to have a true understanding of the world, its challenges, and the issues that we face, we have to understand it through a STEM lens,” says Jones. “STEM is just a wonderful way to think about the world.” “Girls learn best when there’s a reason and a purpose behind it,” says Mary Lue Emmerson, director of the Junior School.
The approach at St. Margaret’s is anchored in critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, problem-solving, and building on these skills by tackling real-world issues. This decision isn’t a decorative one—it’s deeply pedagogical. “We’re interested in things that matter to us, right?” says Middle Years teacher Michael Jones.
This kind of purpose-driven education makes lessons more meaningful to students, and helps them find intrinsic motivation, and take ownership over their education.
It can look like a class of Grade 2 students doing a module on ‘Activism,’ or a Middle Years student making a pitch to the administration for support with an invasive species awareness campaign (and getting it).
“We want our students, when they leave, to be leaders,” says Jones. “That’s not to say you have to be Prime Minister of the country, or a CEO. It’s a focus on, in some way, making a positive change, and making this world a better place for the people in our communities.”
ON ALL-GIRLS EDUCATION
“A lot of my friends and family will ask, ‘All girls? Really? Is that still a thing?’” says Senior School Director Megan Hedderick There’s a misconception, she says, that all-girls education is “old fashioned.” In reality, the fact that St. Margaret’s is a single-gender school creates an environment that’s both liberating and uplifting.
It’s an environment with more opportunities available. With sports and clubs that are accessible and inclusive. Where there’s no inequality in which team gets prime time in the gym, and no lack of representation and role models. Where the top athlete, the top math student, the top robotics student, and every student leader, is always a girl. “Our graduates will often say, after they go to university, that they can’t get over how much ‘space’ the boys take up in class,” says Junior School Director Mary Lue Emmerson.
In the classroom, students never have to play dumb, or pretend they can’t do math. When they go off into the “coed world,” they’re socially well-equipped, because they’ve had the time and space to discover—and be confident in—who they know themselves to be. “St. Margaret’s is a STEM school, it’s an experiential learning school, it’s all these things,” says St. Margaret’s parent Cheryl Major. “But every single bit of me says—first and foremost—this is a girl’s leadership school.”
As a parent, the essence of what she appreciates about St. Margaret’s School can be summed up in a single word: confidence. “Girls start losing their confidence around age 8,” says Major. “They say that’s when they start questioning their abilities, and I would say it starts even earlier than that.” Major’s eldest daughter first started at St. Margaret’s years ago as a junior kindergartener. Her family first came to the school simply in search of childcare, and a reprieve from waitlists. By the end of the year, she was reading.
But, for Major, that wasn’t the most important change she noticed in her daughter, even from an early age, as she grew up within the St. Margaret’s community. “She will say things to me, now as an 11-year-old girl, ‘I’m a leader. People care about and listen to what I have to say.’”
ON THE SCHOOL’S VALUES
The school’s motto is Servite in Caritate—”Service with Love”—and that speaks volumes about its values. St. Margaret’s students are expected to do more than engage with the world academically. They’re expected to put something good into the world. “It’s that sense of being of service to others, the fact that we’re not just here as individuals, we’re here to support and aid each other as well,” says Megan Hedderick, director of academics, innovation, and the Senior School.
The values embodied by “Service with Love” are ones, she says, that are fostered by the school deliberately, but organically. They’re not imposed from the top down. Indeed, when it comes to putting those values into action, the students lead the way. “I think that’s why the leadership of our students shines so beautifully—because everything they do is authentic,” says Hedderick. Tapping the left side of her chest, she adds, “Everything they do comes from in here.”
“There was a leadership conference a few years ago at St. Margaret’s, with girls there from SMS, from other independent schools, and from local public schools as well, and I was a presenter,” says Cheryl Major, an SMS parent whose leadership-rooted values and experience stem from a career in the military, the public service, and communications. “I did a little workshop and one of the questions I asked the girls was about, ‘What are you most afraid of?’” says Major. “The girls from other independent schools said, ‘Disappointing my parents’; the girls from St. Margaret’s said, ‘Not achieving my own dreams’ or essentially ‘Disappointing myself.’
THE OUR KIDS REPORT: St. Margaret's School
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