The Country Day School KEY INSIGHTS
Each school is different. The Country Day 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
- The Country Day School sits on 100 acres of protected wetlands, fields, and forests.
- Relational teaching—a method that prioritizes trust and mutuality between teachers and students—is a core pedagogical approach at The Country Day School.
- The Country Day School fosters public speaking skills from the early grades and has brought home the world championship in debating four times.
In the 50 years since its founding, The Country Day School has managed to retain its small-school, community feel while growing to offer students rich academic, artistic, outdoor, and athletic programs on a modern campus. True to its name, it is a private, coeducational day school located on 100 acres north of Toronto in King Township.
“Education with Balance,” the school’s motto, has been the guiding principle throughout its evolution. In practice, this means providing students with a robust variety of opportunities to explore their interests inside and outside the classroom. “We ensure students have the chance to stretch their learning and try their hand at multiple activities,” says head of school John Liggett.
This isn’t the school for students determined to pour all of their time and effort into a single passion, whether it’s academic or extracurricular. It’s a place that encourages students to follow their hearts and minds into many endeavours so they can ultimately answer the question, “Who will you be?” This query appears visually in displays throughout the campus, but it also shapes the school’s overarching philosophy of encouraging openness to new ideas, opportunities, and people.
ON THE ACADEMIC PROGRAM
Balance defines every aspect of the school’s academic programs. Nurturing academic excellence and challenging students are key priorities, but not at the expense of the whole child’s development. Cultivating character, imagination, and a lifelong love of learning are equally important. At this school, the areas that are sometimes considered “extras”—visual art, drama, music, and a raft of extracurricular activities—hold the same importance as core subjects such as math, science, language, and social science.
In our observations, the school’s philosophy on “Education with Balance”is genuine and pervasive. Not to say that academic achievement isn’t valued and encouraged, but everyone takes a broader view of what that achievement looks like.
“We do have academic rigour because we’re a university preparatory school, but we’re not a pressure-cooker school,” says Celia Bland, director of the Senior School. “We want students to be successful, but we want them to be well and happy in that success.”
ON THE CULTURAL ENVIRONMENT
The school strives to create a supportive, inclusive environment where students feel confident enough to delve into new pursuits, says head of school John Liggett. “We work hard here to strengthen that intangible sense of comfort for students, where they feel safe and cozy and want to come to school. When they feel like that, they’re ready to learn and grow.”
We heard the word “cozy” used to describe the school by several members of its community, and the term fits perfectly with our assessment of the institution’s culture. “I hope that people recognize that feeling when they walk the halls here,” says Liggett. On our visit, we certainly did. It’s a place where everyone—from kindergarten students to graduating students and from teachers to senior administrators—seems happy to be there.
The parents we spoke to agreed wholeheartedly. “This is a home-away-from-home for children,” says one parent of two children in the Junior School. “When I toured other schools, there was that impression of competition and intensity, whether in academics or athletics. You don’t get that here.”
ON THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT
While many of the larger independent schools in the GTA have more than one field and abundant greenspace, there is indeed a great deal of country in The Country Day School, and the leadership intends to keep it this way.
A visit begins by driving past Hawksworth Field, one of 10 fields (including one with artificial turf). On the sunny, warm day in mid May when we visited, the school was hosting a sports tournament across its outdoor athletic facilities, which only added to its picturesque appeal. Four tennis courts and the multi-sport Cyclone Dome quickly come into view next, not to mention the sprawling grounds beyond.
The main entrance takes you into the Senior School, a 51,000-square-foot addition that opened in 2016. Everything is fresh and bright, with many floor-to-ceiling windows bringing the outdoors in. But the centrepiece is the Mantella Family Atrium, a space with soaring, intricately designed skylights. The atrium often showcases student art and is where prospective families meet the admissions team and start their tours—a wise choice for first impressions.
ON CO-CURRICULAR PROGRAMS
Participation in The Country Day School’s rich extracurricular programs is highly encouraged—if not expected—of all students. Teachers and students begin their days early and end them late here, a fact we can attest to since we finished our visit well after 3:20, when classes end, and the school was still buzzing. Extracurricular life at the school reflects and reinforces the relational approach to teaching, creating opportunities for teachers and students to connect in different contexts with different aims. “It’s a way for us to see each other differently, whether it’s on an athletic field or in a debate, a concert, or a show,” says Scott Garbe, a Middle School teacher and head of drama with 25 years’ experience at the school.
Service and outreach activities, an extension of character education, are also central to extracurricular programs. Whether they’re working inside the school as reading buddies and tutors, fundraising for local non-profits or travelling to developing countries, students have many opportunities to develop a sense of civic responsibility.
ON OUTDOOR EDUCATION
The Country Day School’s 100-acre living classroom undeniably sets it apart from other independent schools. “An outdoor educator’s dream is literally at our back door,” says head of school John Liggett of the protected wetlands, fields, and forests home to indigenous plant species and regional wildlife. The school takes full advantage of this unique asset, incorporating outdoor activities into both curricular and extracurricular programs to foster an appreciation of nature, environmental responsibility, and wellness.
“In the Junior School, outdoor learning is scheduled, with at least 80 minutes and up to 120 minutes every four days,” says Andrew Bartle, one of the school’s outdoor education teachers. “It’s all hands-on, experiential learning, mostly tied to the science curriculum. But many teachers spend time outdoors in addition to this scheduled period.” For Middle and Senior School students, this could involve outdoor theatre performances, writing nature poetry, launching rockets, or—an annual tradition in Grade 10 history—digging trenches and simulating soldiers’ experiences in the First World War.
ON SCHOOL LEADERSHIP
School has always been where John Liggett feels most at home, whether as a student, teacher, or administrator. “It’s where my passion is,” he says. “Most days, my job here doesn’t feel like work.”
In terms of Liggett’s leadership style, he sums it up himself: “I lead pretty much with my heart.” In our conversation, this was abundantly clear and admittedly refreshing in a senior administrator. He spoke openly, for example, about how much he misses teaching.
The parents we spoke to attested to Liggett’s openness and heart-on-his-sleeve approach. “He’s very authentic,” says one. “I’m always moved by his emails because he has a way of communicating that makes me see him more as a parent than a principal in his concern for students’ well-being.” According to another parent, “He makes an effort to get to know everybody, and he treats every student and family with respect. Also, he has a wealth of knowledge, so if you have a problem you know you’ll get great support.”
ON ACADEMIC COUNSELLING/SUPPORT
The Student Services Department is the central resource for both academic and social-emotional support. Most of the department’s counsellors work in the Student Services Centre, a bright, welcoming spot on the upper level of the Senior School with ample space for one-on-one meetings, group workshops, and seminars. The Junior and Middle School guidance counsellors have offices directly within their schools, but often collaborate with staff at the centre.
There are a wide range of academic resources available to students, whether they’re struggling with some aspect of their learning (peer tutoring and learning strategies sessions), seeking to hone their skills (test-taking and time management classes), or looking for a challenge (enrichment opportunities and summer school programs).
Providing students with guidance around non-academic matters is an equal priority. “Our counsellors are trained to offer help with the gamut of issues that affect children and adolescents,” says Catie Ferguson, interim director of the Middle School. “Since the onset of the pandemic, youth mental health concerns have increased dramatically, and we’re acutely aware of the extra need for support. We create a circle of care around every student who needs it, so that parents, teachers, and guidance counsellors are all on the same page.”
THE OUR KIDS REPORT: The Country Day School
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