Upper Canada College KEY INSIGHTS
Each school is different. Upper Canada College'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
- UCC is respectful of its long tradition while thinking progressively about what education can offer.
- A sense of place and community is a foundation for the academic program.
- Five million dollars in financial assistance is available each year.
Our editor speaks about the school (video)
Upper Canada College (UCC) is one of the oldest and most storied schools in Canada. Its history is, in many ways, the history of independent schooling itself; it has a long and impressive tradition, one that retains a prominent place in Canadian education.
The faculty and staff are notable in all kinds of ways, including amiability. Many have taught in international schools around the globe and have an armful of degrees. Dr. Jeff Aitken, head of the Upper School, is an exceptional educational leader with extensive experience, including senior roles at several International Baccalaureate® (IB) schools. Sarah Fleming, who comes from the International School Bangkok, is the head of the Preparatory School, and she delivers excellence in teaching and learning for students in Senior Kindergarten through Year 7. Both Aitken and Fleming are heavy hitters in the company of a lot of heavy hitters, within a faculty that is rife in international experience.
While the buildings are all accessed through security passes (that’s typical of any school), the campus is welcoming to visitors, open to local foot traffic, and lovely in the degree you’re able to set aside thoughts of grandeur—which isn’t as easy as it sounds, given the outward gestalt of the place. But you should, nonetheless. It’s just a school, after all—a really, really good one.
The surprises begin pretty much from the parking lot. You arrive with a sense that this is the kind of place where it would be very easy to park in the wrong spot and risk getting towed. You just assume there must be a lot of rules here, given what it is, where it is, and where it’s been. So, when a security guard started crossing the lot toward us, the thought was, ‘Well, here we go.’ In fact, he wasn’t interested in us in the least. A smile, a wave. That was it.
ON THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT
The school is located, quite literally, in the middle of Avenue Road (a major north-south artery in Toronto), with traffic diverting around it. The property, known when the school located here in 1891—as it is now—as Deer Park, was purchased before Toronto had extended that far north. Then, this was countryside; today, it’s the heart of one of the toniest and most desirable neighbourhoods of the city. The grounds are expansive—the property is 35 acres—in a manner that would be impossible to create here today, and they include an impressive amount of green space. The Beltline Trail runs just to the north of the campus, and both it and the campus create an idyllic feel despite the urban density. UCC is a Toronto landmark, and it’s one of the most visible—and visibly arresting—schools in the city.
Many of the buildings are quite old, and some spaces show their age a bit, though never to a fault. They grant a sense of place. Of the 42 classrooms and labs at the Upper School, 31 have been renovated in the past few years, the most recent of which is a dedicated design lab. The most recent renovation is to the Upper School’s East Wing.… The understanding is that different students study in different ways, and it’s important to allow for collaboration around inquiry-based activities.
ON SCHOOL LEADERSHIP
In some schools, the principal remains somewhere apart from the student body. In others, they are known to the students and seen somewhat regularly. Principal Sam McKinney is the next best case: he’s known to everyone, is approachable to everyone, and indeed approaches everyone. Some might say that’s not so important, given that the job of the administration of the school is to, well, administer the school. But McKinney sees his role in larger terms, including setting the tone for the ongoing culture of the institution.… His interaction with us, with the staff, and with the students in the hallways made it plain that McKinney sees his role as one of providing, among other things, a model for others to follow. He behaves this way—approachable, friendly, active—because that’s the face and the personality that he’d like to see expressed by the school.
“This is a human profession, and I believe that’s what education is … relationships matter to me most,” including those with students, parents, alumni, and colleagues. “I can send emails, or sit behind a closed door, but that won’t give people the confidence and trust that needs to exist for us to be able to achieve what we need to achieve as a school.”
—Sam McKinney, principal
ON THE SCHOOL'S VALUES
It’s not a place to become good at one thing, but rather to grow in all areas of your life, to indulge existing curiosities while finding new ones. The coursework is challenging, and the school demands a lot of the students who enrol. When they enter, they join a community of constituents—students, faculty, alumni—that is supportive and encouraging, and demands that all, in turn, offer their own support and encouragement. Success is a function of how deeply you can connect with the culture of the school and take advantage of the full range of experiences and opportunities it offers. UCC is looking for students who are prone to just that.
“We do understand the challenge of stress and anxiety, and how that manifests in individuals,” says McKinney. “I think we have a responsibility to help people understand the importance of humility, gratitude, empathy, and true acceptance of different perspectives and difference.” Active programming helps bring that about, as do the structures that exist within the school to mediate the student experience.
ON THE STUDENT COMMUNITY
There’s a healthy air of competition, though not relating necessarily to marks or overt academic achievement. UCC doesn’t address itself to geniuses so much as it addresses the program to students who are academically ambitious. “Everyone is good at something,” says Shaan, a 2020 UCC graduate, “and everyone has the ability to find something they’re good at. It breeds a healthy competition, where people are focused on being their best selves.”
We asked a group of students to name any alumni of the school, and, to a person, they offered names of graduates they had known personally or who had come into the school as mentors or presenters. No famous names at all. They’re not impressed by pedigree: that just doesn’t register with them. And, truthfully, it’s perhaps nice that it doesn’t. They’re here because of what the school can offer them, not what it offered someone in the past. “I came here because I thought it was a good school,” says a boarder, a sentiment that is shared by a majority of the students. Fair enough.
The students are highly aspirational—something that, within this context, doesn’t feel out of place. This is a school, after all, where Stephen Leacock, Robertson Davies, and Michael Ignatieff have all been editors of the yearbook. That culture of achievement is one of the reasons these students are here—it’s a place where a student can say they want to go to MIT in the knowledge that they’ll be taken seriously by peers and mentors who, for their part, have a realistic view of what achieving that goal actually requires. In an environment where anything is seen as possible, everything is possible.
ON THE ACADEMIC ENVIRONMENT
“When the person sitting next to you wants to achieve,” says McKinney, “somehow that helps you want to achieve.…. There’s something that sweeps you along … and when achievement is fostered, and is celebrated in genuine ways, that’s when you see the best outcomes for the students in the school.” He believes that one of the greatest things a school can offer students is a sense of confidence in their abilities.
ON THE ACADEMIC PROGRAM
[The] adoption of the MYP underscores an institutional commitment to the IB framework … [a curriculum] “that’s really best for us and aligned with what we want to offer across the school.… For us, in terms of what our school mission has been from 1829,” says Julia Kinnear, “that idea of a liberal education … I firmly believe that the IB matches that.” It’s about classroom learning, but also all the other domains of learning, including co-curricular programs, service learning, and educating students to understand their place in the wider world. “Those values that are part of us, and have been a part of us historically, are really aligned with the ethos of the IB Programme. It’s very complementary. I’m a big believer in what it brings us as a school, aligning where we’ve come from and our values.” UCC has been an IB Continuum World School for a number of years—the MYP Programme was authorized in 2020.
The development of the program in design thinking and digital innovation is an example of how UCC is striving to deliver what Kinnear prefers to call a “liberal education” over a “liberal-arts education,” which is admittedly a fairly fine line. “What that means for us is a notion of students having experiences that cross the disciplines—that idea of disciplinary breadth on the curricular side,” where what students are learning in the curricular realm is augmented through a rich and varied co-curricular offering
THE OUR KIDS REPORT: Upper Canada College
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