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He is, by all accounts, a top draft pick, a bright shining light, a superb talent.

But Grant Dougans' pursuit of excellence didn't occur on the ice or the basketball court, where so many other 18-year-old Canadian boys have excelled in their quest to attract the attention of a university or pro team.

Dougans has shone in the classroom.

And his achievements at Southridge School in Surrey, British Columbia, where he plays saxophone in the jazz band and maintained a raw average of 92 percent, allowed him to set himself up comfortably for the next level: university.

I was definitely attracted to Harvard for some of the same reasons I was attracted to Crofton

Dougans applied to and was accepted by six Canadian universities, in programs ranging from business to engineering. After some careful thought, he decided to enrol at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, where he will pursue a degree in commerce.

"It was always my first choice," Dougans says. "I knew they had the best commerce program in the country, so that's where I wanted to go and that's where I'm going."

Dougans story is like those of many students graduating from BC's private schools - a high percentage gets their first choice of university.

For example, at Southridge, 85 percent of students who graduated in 1999 and 2000 were accepted to the university of their choice. While Southridge principal William Jones says he believes the statistics are "meaningful," he cautions that "there's also an element of reality in there."

"Students who have a 72 percent average don't apply to Harvard," Jones says.

"We encourage students to apply to universities they seem qualified for, but we also tell them to set their sights high on at least one institution."

For Seo Yun Yang, head girl at Crofton House School, in Vancouver, BC, her first choice of university was Harvard - and that's where she's studying this fall. While she hasn't chosen a specific field of study, Yang's interests include sociology, philosophy and gender studies.

"I was definitely attracted to Harvard for some of the same reasons I was attracted to Crofton," Yang says. "There's evidence of a highly academic atmosphere, but also of a highly dynamic and talented student body."

Both Yang and Dougans attribute their success to a well-rounded education, in which athletic and fine arts programs are just as important to a student's growth as physics and English.

Class sizes of 20 students and fewer, one-on-one guidance, on-site university placement counsellors and constantly being challenged by the curriculum are other factors in achieving success, the students say of their schools.

"I wouldn't ever say that my university choices would have been limited had I not attended Crofton; the universities are out there either way, and it's up to me to find my way to them," Yang says.

"I would say, however, that my mind would have been limited (at public school). I would not have ever dreamt of being accepted into such a place as Harvard, and I would not have had the intimate support system to help me dream."

That support system is a key factor in getting students placed in universities, but that same type of intimacy and one-on-one attention isn't always available once the student reaches university, cautions Kurt Illerbrun, a 2000 grad of Vancouver Island's Brentwood College School.

Illerbrun, who recently completed his first year of the arts and science program at McMaster University in Hamilton, says he experienced "a bit of a shock period" when he got to university.

"Not a strong shock, and not a cultural shock and not a rebelling against systems and not being able to cope," he says. "But (at university) there's not a counsellor or somebody waiting to do all my applications for me, and there's not somebody who's willing to answer my questions and call me by my first name and essentially be at my beck and call at all times.

"You can't take (the private school) environment to be the only environment that you feel comfortable in because once you get out, the world isn't that anymore."

Illerbrun's advice to a student considering enrolling in a private school? "Definitely, definitely go to a private school for all the right reasons of academics, social skills and everything else, but don't become reliant on the little cocoon that it provides you."

Illerbrun says he chose Brentwood, in Mill Bay, British Columbia, because of its reputation and for its commitment to challenging students to do their best. Home-schooled for most of his life, he spent grades 11 and 12 at Brentwood.

"I found that there was a lot of challenge and there was a lot of opportunity to expand and do things that aren't normally done until first-year university," he says. "The attitude of the teachers was,'You guys are capable of learning this now, so why don't we learn it?'"

At Brentwood College, where 95 of this year's 108 grads were accepted by their first-choice university, the staff operates under a six-day teaching system they commonly refer to as a tripartite.

The addition of Saturday classes means students are taught only academics in the mornings, leaving the afternoons for athletics and fine arts. It's a system Andy Rodford, Brentwood's director of admissions, says gives students a chance to thrive in the classroom, on the playing field or in the arts.

"In a public school...often band practice and soccer practice are at the same time, so the student has to choose what he wants to do," he says.

"At Brentwood, it's built into the program that everybody will do both."

As a result, the school has produced national rowing champions (the school recently won the national championships in Ontario) and boasts graduates that include Ben Butterfield, a top Canadian tenor, and Chris Van Vliet, a pilot for Canada's Snowbird aerobatic team.

You have to have a kind of climate in which high achievement is not something a student is teased about, but is admired for

The school's reputation attracts students from all over the world, with 21 countries represented last year. It's a multicultural make-up also represented at St. Margaret's School, in Victoria, BC where 130 of the school's 400 students are from outside Canada.

At St. Margaret's, an average of 85 to 90 percent of graduating students get their first choice of university, says Kate Stewart, the school's marketing co-ordinator. "The girls do extremely well here."

"It's not an environment for everyone, but if you're keen to go on to post-secondary studies, even the PhD level, it's a great prep for that."

Like many other private schools in B.C., St. Margaret's offers a variety of academics, athletics and fine arts. It also offers small class sizes, some as low as 10 students for one teacher, Stewart says.

"There's a lot of opportunities for the girls to get focused, one-on-one attention," she says.

At Glenlyon-Norfolk School, also in Victoria, the aim is to give students the attention they need to thrive and pursue the university of their choice, says Deirdre Chettleburgh, the school's director of admissions.

"Our focus on academics certainly is the cornerstone of the program, and we emphasize critical and creative thinking."

In fact, debating and public speaking is a required course at the co-ed school for all students in grades 8 and 9 - a requirement that can only enhance a student's character and academic ability, Chettleburgh says.

As staff and students attest, private school education can be many things to many students. But no matter what the philosophy of the school or the efforts made to get students enrolled in the university of their choice, Southridge's Jones says a common denominator must always be present - a comfortable, safe and challenging environment in which a student can progress and shine.

"You have to have a kind of climate in which high achievement is not something a student is teased about, but is admired for," Jones says.

"Students here recognize it's cool to work hard and get good marks and that you're not some kind of nerd or geek because you studied hard and got 90. And that's good."

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