Sunnybrook School KEY INSIGHTS
Each school is different. Sunnybrook 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
- Academically, Sunnybrook students share a capacity for accelerated learning.
- The school has a personal, involved feel.
- School leadership has been remarkably consistent since the founding.
Our editor speaks about the school (video)
We’re a big small school,” says Teralee Brunn, who became principal in 2018. Certainly, while there’s a lot to love, Sunnybrook School does not pretend to be anything it is not. Everyone acknowledges that it’s a small school in a fairly unassuming building. That said, for the families that enrol, it offers just what they are looking for: an intimate learning environment geared exclusively to preparing students for success in middle school and beyond. “Compared to larger schools that have to spread their resources across a much larger student body, we have a clear, strong focus on offering the best possible elementary education to our 140-odd students.”
SBS is a coed independent day school in Toronto, Ontario, offering the IB PYP (Primary Years Program) for Junior Kindergarten through Grade 6. It was established in 1952 and has had remarkably consistent leadership over its long life. The current principal, Teralee Brunn, took the reins from Irene Davy, who was director and principal for more than 30 years. There was only one director before Davy—her mother, Irmingard Hoff, who founded SBS as a preschool. While new to her role—Brunn was appointed in 2018—she too has a long history with the school, having been hired as an instructor in 1992. Brunn’s two children are alumni, and she taught multiple grades before serving as vice principal and director of admissions.
In a very real sense, the school has been a family enterprise for over 65 years, something that continues to this day and remains emblematic of the culture. Davy, remarkably, continues to oversee the life of the school—furthering a dedication to the principles her mother hoped to express when beginning SBS all those years ago. Enrolment sits at 140 students attending annually, which is small for a school in Canada. Brunn sees that as a strength and intends to maintain it. She says, “we’re going to build and improve on the existing strengths of the school, because we already have a great foundation.”
ON THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT
The school is cheerful in all the important ways. “They’ve made the most out of this space,” says one parent, a thought echoed by several others. Our visit coincided with the weekly assembly, where students and faculty gather in the arts studio, a multipurpose space with a stage. More than 150 people attend these gatherings, and there isn’t an inch to spare. The children sit on the floor and the teachers squeeze into chairs placed around the perimeter. The overall effect is cozy, not cramped.
ON THE SCHOOL'S VALUES
When children enter the school, they join a community of peers and families who all prize what the school offers, namely an inclusive, student-centred learning environment in which all children feel known and cared for. While some students risk getting lost in the din at bigger schools, at SBS all feel that their voices are heard and their needs are promptly addressed.
On the “Action at Sunnybrook School” display board, one of the photos shows two students holding shovels and smiling in their toques, accompanied by a handwritten account of how they helped a teacher shovel the school yard. There’s a section on the board for actions that benefit the school, the community, the country, and the world. The photos and stories—which also feature a class’s blanket drive for homeless people and a student’s lemonade stand that raised $900 for The Terry Fox Foundation—are a testament to the school’s commitment to character education.
“We’re all about providing the best possible learning experience in the elementary years,” says Irene Davy. “Learning how to be a better member of the community, how to be social on the playground, how to be a leader and, maybe most important, learning how to learn and enjoy it.”
ON THE STUDENT COMMUNITY
With 140 students from JK to Grade 6, there’s just one class per grade. Looking at the whole student body gathered for the assembly, it’s evident that the population reflects the diversity of the city it sits within. Says Brunn, “some of our parents work very hard to send their children here. We have a lot of down-to-earth families, which makes for a nice community.”
ON THE ACADEMIC ENVIRONMENT
SBS students share a capacity for accelerated learning. “We look for kids who are either beyond their grade level or have the potential to be,” says Brunn. “The IB curriculum gets them to think outside the box, and not every student can do that.”
The school aims to create independent-minded, confident, knowledgeable learners with a broad understanding of the world, and the older students we spoke to demonstrate all those qualities. They were universally polite, eager to contribute to the discussion, and seemed completely at ease speaking to an unfamiliar adult. There were a few remarks about public schools lagging behind SBS academically, which seemed motivated more by a desire to show off their school than to denigrate others, but they otherwise showed no pretentiousness.
With just 17 faculty members—comprising teachers for each of the grades, a music teacher, two French teachers, a phys-ed teacher, and one support teacher—collaboration is easy and frequent. “I see the teachers meeting every single week to talk about the kids’ progress, curriculum themes, and whatever else has come up,” says the parent of two children in Grades 3 and 6.
Dedicated learning support, at home or at school, is available for an additional fee, with the tutors working closely with the classroom teachers. Teachers are also known to come in early to make time for students who need a bit of extra help. “When my daughter was at public school, they told us that she couldn’t read in Grade 1. They labelled her as an academic liability,” says the parent of a daughter in Grade 6 and a graduate. “It didn’t ring true to me or my husband. We knew she was bright. Coming to Sunnybrook changed the trajectory of her life. They don’t give up on kids here. They find everybody’s strengths. She’s now at Branksome Hall and has a 97% average.”
The IB PYP forms the backbone of the curriculum, providing a common framework centred around broad, transdisciplinary themes such as “Who We Are,” “Where We Are in Place and Time,” “How the World Works,” and “Sharing the Planet.” To explore these themes, SBS developed an inquiry-based program with specific content—updated and revised annually—for each grade level. The PYP Programne of Inquiry holds the content for science, history, geography, and social studies, as well as applications of language arts, math, and the arts. This year, for example, within the “How the World Works” theme, the Grade 2 students investigated structures around the globe, while Grade 5 students examined the properties of energy.
The emphasis on balance preserves the fundamentals while incorporating the latest evidence-based approaches, and it nurtures students’ confidence while encouraging them to test their limits.
Classrooms are called studios at SBS—a reflection of the school’s active, creative approach to learning through the IB PYP. Davy herself coined the term. “It’s meant to be a more expansive word that shows these spaces are meant for collaborating, exploring, inventing, and building—not just sitting at desks,” says Low. Walking the halls and peeking into each classroom shows this to be true, as most rooms are alive with activity, small-group discussion and, in one room, the intricate process of making colourful sand mandalas (an ancient Buddhist art form) on the tables.
According to the school’s inquiry-based, constructivist philosophy, students create their own meaning and knowledge by exploring concepts, asking questions, and acquiring skills. “We allow the kids to develop their own curiosity and pursue a love of learning through inquiry,” says Mike Rossiter, vice-principal, IB coordinator, and Grade 6 teacher. “There’s a balance between teacher-guided inquiry and independent inquiry. The older they get, the more independence they get.”
ON THE FACULTY
Long tenures are the norm at the school, with an average of about nine years. To avoid any stagnation, teachers move around the grades. “The longevity of the staff plays a big part in the culture of the school. If you have a staff that really wants to be there every day, it filters through.” Says Brunn: “Irene has been a wonderful boss and treated us well. Happy teachers, happy students, happy parents.”
It’s obvious that the teachers not only know the students in their own class, but can walk onto the playground and call just about any student by name. It’s all part of the school’s underlying focus on cultivating a unified, close-knit community, and parents can’t say enough about it. “When your child is moving up to the next grade, their new teacher already knows them,” says one parent of a son in Grade 5 and a graduate daughter. “They hear about your child in faculty meetings, and simply by seeing them on the playground and around school all year. It gives everyone a head-start at the beginning of the year.”
THE OUR KIDS REPORT: Sunnybrook School
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