The Bishop Strachan School KEY INSIGHTS
Each school is different. The Bishop Strachan 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
- Throughout its long history, BSS has consistently provided leadership in education and beyond.
- BSS offers the highest amount of financial assistance of all the girls’ schools in Canada. There is over $2 million available in financial assistance for the 2022/23 school year.
- The school offers a high level of student support encompassing academic, social, emotional, and post-secondary counselling, as well as study skills development.
Our editor speaks about the school (video)
Founded the same year as the Confederation, The Bishop Strachan School (BSS) has long been a leader in girls’ education. The mission of BSS is to provide an opportunity for each girl to understand who she is, know her place in the world, gain independence, build leadership skills, and find a voice in a multiplicity of voices. It’s a lot, to be sure, though, throughout the century and a half of its life, BSS has demonstrated an unwavering ability to do exactly that.
BSS offers an approach that Dr. Angela Terpstra, Head of School, calls “liberal arts–plus.” There is an equal emphasis on the classic areas of academic interest, as well as contemporary ones, such as coding and financial literacy. The latter is a skill that is embedded into relevant courses beginning in Grade 10, leading to, among other things, a financial securities course in Grade 12. The financial courses address not only personal finance, but world markets and securities, and how those kinds of things have an effect on geopolitics. “It’s applying financial securities at a macro level to world issues,” says Dr. Terpstra. ”So it’s pretty cool.”
ON THE ACADEMIC ENVIRONMENT
“We’ve invested a lot in professional learning,” says Ms. Catherine Hant, Principal of the Junior School, “and we’ve created this culture of learning together. We talk a lot about the environment as the ‘third teacher,’ and part of that is the role the teacher plays within that learning environment.” That includes creating experiences that ensure engagement, foster curiosity, and expose students to a wide variety of stimuli.
Faculty are focused on constantly striving for best practice, and have visited High Tech High in San Diego and engaged in an exchange with Bard College, a private liberal arts college in New York State—an interaction that led to the development of a writing/ thinking institute. The approach is very much “where can we be learning, and what can we take?” says Ms. Genny Lee, Vice Principal Student Life and Belonging. Similarly, the Junior School has undertaken a pilot project with Ryerson University with respect to zone learning, which focuses on co-curricular opportunities for their students to develop entrepreneurial skills.
In the Junior School, the Reggio Emilia approach is applied, though it is emblematic of what happens in the upper grades as well. It was adopted because it complements current trends in secondary and post-secondary education and the workplace. The values of reciprocity, transparency, collaboration and knowledge-building are in harmony with the employability skills valued by the Conference Board of Canada, such as participating in projects and tasks by contributing expertise to a team, ability to communicate well in a variety of ways, and being able to think and solve problems in many different spheres.
All courses are developed on the basis of the Ontario provincial curriculum and grow out, often considerably, from that point. The school’s approach to developing its own curriculum seems to be working just fine for many BSS parents. “I’m moved to tears on a regular basis based on what they’re teaching our girls,” says parent Michelle Pollock. “We were there for maybe two months and we had a meeting with the teacher. She knew our daughter better than [teachers over] three years at her previous school.”
At BSS, there’s an understanding that bringing disciplines together, allowing them to intersect naturally by virtue of proximity, will empower the students, delivering the skills they’ll need when they enter post-secondary and professional life. When asked where one would take a visitor who had time only to see one thing a member of the student recruiting team, answered the Design Technology Lab— which opened in 2017, and underscores the dedication to drawing connections between disciplines. “Because it’s not only about design/tech. It’s where the girls will take geometry, for example, to the creation of a snowflake, and then create the snowflake in the 3D printer based on the mathematical formula. And then, understanding the biology and the science side of it, to investigate how a snowflake absorbs bacteria, pollution. That’s what I would show you.” The concept of the Design Tech Lab is borrowed from what Jonas Salk created t what is now the Salk Institute at MIT. Salk called it a “crucible of creativity,” and an expression of his belief that “most of the exciting work in science occurs at the boundaries between disciplines.” Salk wanted to create an environment in which scientists could “explore the wider implications of their discoveries for the future of humanity.” Through the Design Tech Lab, BSS put those ideas into practice.
The academics are not only strong— they have long provided an example that other schools have sought to emulate. That said, there’s a belief in being able to relax too—that it’s a journey, not a race, and that it’s as valuable to look around as it is to look forward. In terms of skills, outlook, and confidence, girls leave the school ready to take on the world. And they do.
ON THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT
Set back from the street in one of the leafiest, most desirable communities in Toronto, the school façade dates to 1913 and was created by the same architects who designed the Royal York Hotel. Moving beyond the foyer and into the instructional spaces, the school’s age isn’t apparent. All the key spaces are filled with natural light, using glass walls that create a porous interface between them, with sightlines to the work within the classrooms. Where the divisions between programs were once stark—the music room was once on one floor, and the art and science labs on others—all are now intentionally cheek by jowl to allow for significant, regular cross-curricular interaction. “You’re not confined to a little box,” says one student, “but can see how your work connects with other things.”
The beautiful chapel is an important part of the school culture, and the school motto carved on the alter is In Cruce Vinco (“In the cross I conquer”). While religion is part of the school story, it is not central to it. “It’s done in less of a ‘rahrah’ way,” says Ms. Hant, adding that chapel, while led by the school chaplain, is “more of a formal gathering where students know they are going to talk about something and reflect on it.” It provides a cornerstone of the school community, but is more secular than many would expect—“it’s not preachy,” offered one student.
The school sees athletics as central to learning, and supportive of building identity and developing healthy peer relationships. “It’s not just about making you a better volleyball player,” says BSS Athletic Director Ms. Jameson. “We bring those intangibles that sports bring to kids: leadership; organizational skills; cooperation; mental, social, and emotional skills. Much of it comes from that feeling of belonging to the school in ways you don’t get just from being a student. For some girls it’s an integral part of their experience at BSS, and it can make their school experience.”
The athletic facilities are for the most part new and sparkling, including a rock-climbing wall. Students are able to access fitness classes, there is a separate outdoor education program, and the school promotes the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award. “We took a train, to a bus, to a ferry, to another bus, then biked around the island for a couple of days,” says a student of a Duke of Ed trip she took to Pelee Island. “And I got my bronze pin!” she says, clearly delighted at the thought. There are other trips throughout the school year, with outdoor and camp experiences used to promote bonding within the grades.
ON THE STUDENT COMMUNITY
With an annual population of 930 or so students, the school is on the larger side. That said, given the divisions between the Junior and Middle years, the feel is of a smaller institution. The atmosphere is personal and close-knit, and students are known to faculty. There are 12 houses, named after prominent people within the school’s history. The houses grant a sense of belonging and are the basis for in-school competition and spirit events. Boarding begins with Grade 8, and there are 70 girls from 15 different countries that live on campus. “We try to run it as close to a home as we can,” says Ms. Katherine Scott, Associate, Student Recruiting.
THE OUR KIDS REPORT: The Bishop Strachan School
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