Endless Educational Opportunities

Independent schools provide students with a one-of-a-kind learning environment

With its oldest schools dating back to the 19th century, independent schools are nothing new to B.C.; nor is their increasing popularity a recent trend. In fact, the number of independent schools has consistently grown for at least the last four decades. According to the Federation of Independent School Associations British Columbia (FISA BC), the number of independent schools has more than doubled since 1970, from 176 schools to a total of 367 today. Moreover, the proportion of B.C. students registered in independent schools has nearly tripled from just 4.3 per cent of B.C. students in the 1977-78 school year to 12 per cent in 2012-13.

Their high academic rankings are a strong selling point, but there’s more to independent schools than good grades. “With [public] funding shrinking for extracurricular pursuits such as arts and athletics, parents are turning to independent schools,” says Susan Hazell, executive director of advancement for Collingwood School—a co-ed independent school offering junior kindergarten through Grade 12 at two campuses in Vancouver. “They like the ease of having their children receive not only a strong academic program but also opportunities to pursue artistic and athletic options—all under one roof.” Collingwood’s extracurricular offerings, for example, include a renowned debate program; several jazz bands, a concert band, an orchestra and woodwind ensembles; dance; and dramatic arts.

Certainly, different independent schools appeal to students and parents for different reasons, says Hugh Burke, headmaster of Meadowridge School in Maple Ridge and president of the Independent Schools Association of B.C. “But when asked why they choose an independent school, the greatest reason across a number of surveys is student safety. The next biggest reasons are academics; a rich variety of co-curricular activities; and a particular school culture of expecting excellence,” Burke adds.

Growing by an average of 10 kids per year, Meadowridge has a student population of about 535 and the capacity to grow to 800. Meadowridge offers the International Baccalaureate (IB) program from junior kindergarten through Grade 12, drawing students from 12 different school districts as well as countries abroad.

“What’s interesting is that the reasons people say they come here—excellence in instruction, a safe environment, high test scores—are all external measures. Yet when we ask people why they stay, they say, ‘those external measures are important, but what’s really important to us is the warmth of the community and the kindness with which our children are treated,’ ” says Burke.

Brockton School in North Vancouver, a small IB school offering kindergarten to Grade 12, was established by a group of parents in 2004. The school has seen gradual growth in enrolment since then, says head of school Alison Wall, with a particular increase in the last three years. “We’re definitely better known in the marketplace now, as more people hear about the great things we’re doing with the students and the real success they’re having.” As well, bursaries and scholarships offered by the school help to enable access to a greater number of families.

“Independent schools have and always will be relevant, because independent education is about giving parents the right to choose what educational experience their child receives,” asserts Wall. “Each independent school is unique and each provides a very different experience in terms of personalized and specialized courses, teacher-student ratios and the culture or community that the school has created. Through this freedom of choice, parents are able to find a school that fits with their family values and aspirations.”


Dr. Patricia Dawson, head of school at Crofton House School, concurs, pointing out that, “It is vitally important to have strong public education available to young people in the province as well, and it’s important to think of independent schools as simply widening the field of options.”

Crofton House offers one particular experience that is unique to an independent school education: a single-sex environment. Crofton House is an all-girls day school offering junior kindergarten through Grade 12 to a total of 850 students. Founded in 1898, it is one of Vancouver’s oldest educational institutions, with more than 100 years’ experience educating girls.

York House, a similarly long-established all-girls day school in Vancouver that dates back to 1932, caters to junior kindergarten through Grade 12 and offers up further evidence of the growing demand for single-sex education. “Our application numbers remain very high—we typically are only able to take in about 25 per cent of our applicants,” says Mabel Lim, director of admissions. And although enrolment is capped, the school continues to grow in other ways: York House cut the ribbon on its brand new Senior School building this summer, a state-of-the-art facility for students in grades 8 through 12.

St. Margaret’s School (SMS), located on a pastoral 22-acre campus in Victoria, is the only day and boarding school exclusively for girls on Canada’s West Coast. SMS has been educating girls since 1908, and awareness of this niche all-girl experience is continually growing, says head of school Cathy Thornicroft. “All aspects of the SMS experience are focused on empowering girls to lead,” she explains. “At a girls’ school, girls are the strongest athletes, the brightest scientists, the most brilliant artists and the strongest leaders. Girls see that they can do or be anything.”

But while the single-sex environment is a highlight of the St. Margaret’s experience, Thornicroft stresses that it’s just one of many benefits an independent school can offer. “For families disappointed by their experience in the public system, the advantages of independent schools are numerous: greater adaptability and agility in their programming; innovation; a culture of excellence; a strong sense of community and history; alumnae engagement; cultural and socio-economic diversity; passionate educators partnering with motivated learners; intercultural travel opportunities; and an imperative to provide opportunities for each student to explore and discover her capacities, interests and passions.”


Another key advantage of independent schools is that they have a greater capacity to focus on the social and emotional development of children, says Carrie Boutilier, principal of Magnussen School. Offering kindergarten through Grade 7 on the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus, Magnussen School is particularly equipped for students designated as gifted learning disabled, who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or who register on the autism spectrum. “Mindfulness and social thinking curricula are vital components of our school day as we teach and model mind and body awareness, and demonstrate and reinforce effective and expected social skills and behaviour,” explains Boutilier.

Offering more intensive personalized learning support is Eaton Arrowsmith School, catering to students with learning disabilities and attention difficulties at its locations in Vancouver, Victoria and White Rock. “Unlike most schools that work with this population, our students are working to rewire the weaker networks of their brains that are the root cause of their academic and social learning weaknesses,” explains Sandra Heusel, communications director for the Eaton Educational Group. “Students spend three to four years with us, working on individualized programs of brain exercises designed to stimulate and grow new neural connections, then transfer back to more typical public or private school settings with greatly reduced or even no need for learning assistance.”

Similarly, the Eaton Cognitive Improvement Centre uses the Arrowsmith Program to address students’ underlying weaknesses in cognition that cause learning difficulties like dyslexia, auditory processing, attention and memory, but—not being an academic centre—it caters to adults, explains manager Alexandra Dunnison. “The students work to strengthen their learning capacities in order to unlock their neurological potential over the course of an average of three years, then transfer back to college, university or the workforce.”

Dunnison adds that the overwhelming success of the 30-student Vancouver location prompted the opening of a second centre in West Vancouver this fall.


For students who already excel in an academic environment, independent schools can offer a level of challenge above and beyond what students encounter in the public system. Case in point: Southpointe Academy is a university-prep day school in the heart of South Delta that is enjoying tremendous growth. It opened its doors in 2000 in leased premises in a strip mall to offer pre-kindergarten to Grade 7 to just 95 students; today the school totals 530 students from kindergarten to Grade 12 and occupies a new school building outfitted with state-of-the-art facilities including smart boards (the high-tech version of a chalkboard) and two mobile computer labs.

Head of school Dean Croy attributes the growth to a number of reasons. “First, our outstanding teachers challenge students in a small class setting, enabling them to excel in academics, the arts, athletics and citizenship. Second, Southpointe students score exceptionally well in all external measures of assessment,” says Croy. “Finally—and perhaps most importantly—our rigorous university-preparatory program prepares students for university, as evidenced by our strong university acceptance record.”

Vancouver’s newest independent school—Alexander Academy—is also the city’s first urban high school. Located on the second floor of a heritage building in downtown Vancouver, head of school Dr. Hélène H. Leone likens it to a Manhattan-based model, where many of the high schools are located in old brownstones in the downtown core. It’s an environment that allows students to make the most of a downtown location and the surrounding artistic, cultural and sports amenities, explains Leone. “We follow a traditional model, but we’re being innovative by enhancing the curriculum with out-of-classroom learning opportunities, so the students are living what they’re learning.”

Alexander Academy is an initiative of Alexander College, which has three Lower Mainland campuses. According to Leone, “The primary focus of Alexander Academy is to provide the highest quality of teaching through which students can achieve academic excellence in further studies, and succeed as global citizens in the 21st century.” A partnership between the schools ensures acceptance of all successful Alexander Academy graduates into the Alexander College University Transfer Program.


The growing number of independent schools in B.C. means that, now more than ever, parents have the power of choice when selecting a school for their kids; and yet it can be difficult to know where to start.

Our Kids Media, publishers of the Our Kids Canada’s Private School Guide, has made it easier for parents to find and compare schools. The annual print guide profiles the best schools across Canada as well as some from the United States, ranging from preschool and Montessori schools to Ivy League boarding schools. OurKids.net offers an e-version of the guide, which includes an online school comparison tool. 

But it is the Our Kids Vancouver Private School Expo that is the best place to start, says Agnes Stawicki, managing editor at Our Kids Media. “The Private School Expo is great for families who are either actively looking for a school or considering whether to go private versus public.” This year’s expo will be held at the Westin Bayshore Hotel on November 17 from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Families will be able to meet with 25 schools and attend information seminars. Discounted admission vouchers are available at www.ourkids.net/expo.

Approximately 500 families attended the Expo last year, and registration is already up 50 per cent for this year’s event. Stawicki is at no loss to explain the increase: “Private and independent schools continue to graduate students that are surpassing their peers academically and socially. Every parent wants that for their child, so they are ready to invest in private school.”