Leadership interview with David Huckvale, The Country Day School
Highlights from the interview
One of the things I love about my job is I get to work in a place that is alive, that has so much action and energy, that is making a difference in the lives of not just our students, but of our faculty and our staff as well. So there's just an energy and a joy that comes with being around, in our case, about 900, maybe 950 human beings when you count up everyone here on a typical school day.
I also love the chance to make a difference in the lives of people. When you meet someone in the admissions function and you share your school's values and what your school can offer and try to find that connection where the family can join that and have a great experience, you really feel like you're improving somebody's life for the long term.
For me, working in admissions was something that I've been interested in since the start of my career, connecting with people, sharing opportunity, and in a way that's real. I think admissions directors are really aware of the fact that they're not ever really in selling mode. It isn't about selling what we have to offer. It's about sharing what we have to offer and finding that connection that fits.
We have a very holistic assessment process. We're a JK to Grade 12 school, so I can give you a couple of general things we're looking for. But every grade is its own micro admissions universe. There are similarities in what you look for across the board, but it can be quite different when you're assessing a Junior Kindergarten applicant than if you're assessing a student who wants to join you at the tail end of their education, Grades 10, 11 or, every now and then, someone for Grade 12. We're always looking for students who are curious, who value learning and who want to be team players, and who are collaborative, who respect their own learning, the learning of others, the people who are helping them along the way in their journey.
We are looking at probably more intangibles than people would expect. We have not made a single admission in the last decade that was done from paper. It's always well beyond what they would share with us in just their online application or a report card that gets us together across the finish line.
One of our goals here at Country Day School is to create an assessment process that feels very natural for the candidate. So a student coming for a Grade 4 assessment is going to spend a day with other current Grade 3s in a very natural setting to them. They're going to have an art class, they're going to do some math, they're going to go for recess. They're going to enjoy our awesome lunch. It's hard to coach the student to be primed for that. But on the other hand, every day is a coaching and a priming for that. Getting to know your own children, looking for the strengths that they have, helping them foster the things they're good at and working on the things that are “next times” for them, finding excellent opportunities for their kids to meet other kids, to meet new people. So there are ways to just be involved in your young person's life and coach and help them unlock their full potential.
We are a school that has more students per grade in the high school than the junior school. So we start smaller and build along the way. Currently, our JK intake is 16 students, one section. We advance to two sections at Grade 1, so we basically double our population per grade. That increases again in Grades 4, 7, and 9. So JK, 1, 4, 7, and 9 are sort of natural entry years. We would absolutely consider a candidate in any year if the space emerges and they're that right fit candidate for that spot.
By the time we get to graduation, we have a part of our graduation ceremony that acknowledges ‘lifers,’ and we consider you a lifer if you've been here since at least Grade 1. So there are students who have been with us for a very long time, and that's wonderful. It's one of the great strengths of a JK to 12, coed, non-denominational school like ours that we can be so welcoming and so inclusive and be part of an entire family's education for a long spell if that's their choice.
A student doesn't have to feel that if they join us in Grade 9, they're going to be joining an already completely intact community with no opportunity to become part of that. I think one of the great qualities we hear back from our community about Country Day School is how welcoming and inclusive the school is, how the comfort and feeling of care that our students get is essential. We consider that primary for us. We consider it when we hire staff and faculty, trying to find those new adult community members who are going to just naturally and effectively create relationships and who thrive on it. That's what makes them happy about coming to school and to work. We look for that in our students as well. That idea that the student wants to be a team member and a collaborator, that feeling of comfort and care, and that welcoming.
Broadly, when we do intake, we have parents reach out to other parents who are new and we assign student mentors to new students so that they already have a face, a name, a person, a connection when they start. We have a day before school starts when new students come and are welcomed by their teachers and welcomed by key community members—adults and students. We are driven in a lot of ways by our students as well to be open and embracing.
Every school has a couple of sort of key taglines or phrases. One of ours is educational balance, and it's probably our most resonant one right now. That's our commitment to having an amazing and really expansive academic program, arts program, leadership, character building, our really leading outdoor education program, and doing each one of them without compromise and finding ways to put them together and have synergies across what you would think would be divisions when they're really just different ways to get at the same thing: a great experience for young people and helping them become wonderful contributing adults.
I'll give you an example of our school integrating things across different boundaries, and there are a number I could pull on. We have an amazing campus on 100 acres. We still have the ‘country’ in Country Day. There's not a building you can see from my window or many windows. We have a great built property, but we have a really great natural property. To take advantage of that, a combination of our outdoor education, our amazing grounds team, and one of our history classes actually brings World War I trench warfare to life by building trenches in the back of our property. The students have to then get them to readiness. And then there's actually a simulated attack—there’s a charge. We’re taking our space, our commitment to outdoor education, and our desire to teach our students history and make it meaningful and putting that together. All of those interdisciplinary opportunities are things we look for.
Students are ‘gently required’ to participate in extracurricular activities, physical activities, sports, arts. ‘Gently required’ is an acknowledgement that starting as a Grade 4 here at Country Day, when the academic school day ends, the extra curricular period arrives. And so you choose an extra curriculum and activity for each of the three terms. But once you've chosen that, you are committed and attendance is taken. And it's part of the day. So compulsory would be too strong a word. Required would be too strong a word. It's something that students participate grandly in. And our faculty and staff as well. Part of working and teaching here at Country Day is making that commitment to being involved in our extracurricular program.
Our students really enjoy the school. They're happy when they arrive. They're smiling when they leave. We have 780 students or so, and that can seem big at times. But when you're here in the school every day, it just feels really small in a good way.
Something that surprises parents is how meaningful the school can be for parents. We really do try to create an environment where it's a family affair. And of course, students spend more time here with us during waking hours than they do at home. And so, often at our grad day when our graduating students are sharing their most important thoughts, they'll talk about this being a second home and we have a grand number of parents who would argue the same thing.
Parents support the school in some of our areas where we're looking for parent support, whether it's in our school store or with planning activities and events for the school. In the junior school, parents walk across the threshold and take their kids to class and help them with their coat at their cubby when they're in JK or Grade 1 or Grade 2, there's sort of impromptu conversations in the parking lot with parents just touching base and connecting. There's coffee mornings. We have a really awesome event each year, our auction, that brings families together. I think it would surprise new parents to the school, how important the school can become in their life.
One of the things we love about being a day school exclusively is that all of our students come and enjoy an amazing experience at Country Day, and then they return home to their parents for that supportive and loving environment. So we're all kind of in that same position, and that's a good place to work from.
Many of our students do come from nearby, there's a cluster of community members who come from a 30-minute commute. But more than you might think, there are community members who make a trek to CDS to have access to this experience. We have a bus system. There are currently eight buses that serve the school. They start from different far-away locations. There's one that starts north of Barrie, there's one that starts out in Caledon, there's one that starts out in Brampton, in Markham, in South Thorne Hill, and there's families that live even beyond that boundary. It's humbling to me when a family chooses to join us and it comes out during the process that they live in Port Perry, an hour away, that would mean that type of a commute. It tells me a lot about the fact that we are offering something that they really find resonance with.
The parents who end up adopting CVS as their second home for their kids are parents who are looking for their student to be known, to be cared for; they’re looking for an extension of that love and commitment that they're providing at home to be provided by the school that they choose. And of all the things I've already talked about, our location, our setting, our philosophies really does lend to that. So parents do feel that and embrace that.
I would say our parents want a strong academic program for their students, but they listen and learn from us that we're not going to do that at a breakneck speed or in a way that's going to compromise the other aspects; we're not compromising with the arts and athletics and leadership and outdoor education. Parents get to know that when they interact with us. If they're looking solely for a school that provides an amazing education in one area, say liberal arts, there’s going to be a little bit of a disconnect in the sense that we're going to want that liberal arts student to take a healthy dose of other subjects, to explore different disciplines, to be involved beyond academics.
Our policy on homework is progressive and understands the fact that when you add homework you have to sometimes subtract really important things like extracurriculars and even sleep and rest and family time. We have a policy where we do not assign homework into long weekends or holidays. We can share with a family our homework policy from JK all the way to Grade 12, that positions homework in a way that I think is really healthy and positive, and so there's an outcome to that.
We have students who head off to many different disciplines for post-secondary. In most of the last decade, we've had a really nice split between about a third of our students heading off to programs that are liberal arts and social science. There's about a third of our students who head into physical sciences, from engineering to physics to chemistry to biochemistry to pre-med, you name it. And then there's a healthy number who choose programs like business. That would be our next biggest category, about 20%. And that doesn't change from year to year. I think it has something to do with our admissions process and looking for students with broad interests, but also the messaging we provide about being this place that's about balance, not just in numbers of activities, but even in the types of academic approaches we encourage for our students.
University is the primary destination for our students. It would be somewhere in the 99% range. Universities are a really aspirational destination for them, and they work hard and they do the things that they need to do to find out what the right fit is for them. One of the things I'm proud of is the fact that our students often come back and talk to us about feeling that the university they chose was a good fit for them. We take our Grade 12 students to universities as a grad trip. They get to choose between two trips where they see multiple universities, usually five on each trip, and they learn about themselves, they learn about the schools. Not just picking a school from a view book or from a website. I tell our university or post-secondary-bound students to use your head first and fill it with great information and interesting facts that you need to know and the details. And once you've done that, then look to your heart and make a decision that seems that fits you as a person. And that often means having to visit a place and put boots on the ground and be someone who's experienced that.
We were founded in 1972, so if CDS was a person we'd be approaching 50, which I guess that makes us middle-aged. And that's not a bad way to describe us. We've got some standing behind us. We've emerged as a leading and amazing independent school. We've got great facilities and a history behind us, but we're not stuffy and chained to a past that's really distant. I think we're open minded and curious, and we're that person who wants to try new things and maybe fail at one and succeed at three and then keep going and trying on some new additional things. If we were a person, we'd like to be outdoors as much as we could. When you have a property like this, that's sort of a natural. So we're middle-aged. We're curious. We love the outdoors, we like to eat, and we like to have fun and be around other people.
We have a modest opportunity to provide financial aid. We're still building our endowment and some of our opportunities to be able to support new families and continuing families financially. I think we have made inroads there. We have a major scholarship for Grade 9 entry, the Ebert's Entrance Scholarship, supported and named after one of our founding community members. In addition to that scholarship for new students, we do have a bursary program that can support a new family or an existing family. There's a process. We ask families to interact with a third party and share details about their financial situation. And then the process plays forward and we're able to share whether there's a resource available, as that family would make an admissions decision. And so, for a family, that financial aid would be a component of their considering Country Day, we would encourage them to reach out to us. We can never give somebody a specific answer until we're fairly further down the pathway. And I think they are and we are okay with that. We first want to find that fit as a school, and then we can work together to try to help with that fit.
I think a red flag would be if a school is too eager to get you to sign on the dotted line. A family who interacts with Country Day is going to feel that there is a partnership toward enrollment. And I think if I was a parent and I felt I was at any point being pressured or cajoled or maybe over promised, I would worry about that, because what you might also end up finding is that a school that's willing to do any of those things may not be the school that will stick to its foundational principles down the line.
The Country Day website has got a lot of great information. For example, we have amazing portraits of graduates in video interviews of our grads as they’re leaving the school. They're so candid and they're so rich in what it is they're saying about their experience. We try to pick students who've had different journeys so any parent or student is likely to find somebody that they feel a connection to.