Cobalt blue skies, soaring evergreen trees, lush ferns, glacial lakes, hidden coves, and ocean views – few places in the world are as lovely as the islands of Victoria and Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada. I had the pleasure of traveling there in April at the invitation of the Canadian Association of Independent Schools to visit some of western Canada’s finest boarding schools.
On our first day, our small group of independent educational consultants visited two schools in and around the charming seaport of Victoria. St. The first stop, St. Michael’s University School was where we watched the acting headmaster greet all students as they arrived on campus. Such a personal touch first thing in the day allows him to see all students, say hello, and respond to small issues before they become big ones. It also left me with the impression that here was a head of school who really knew the students. We later had a student-led tour where we could ask all kinds of questions about the student experience at St. Michael’s, and of course our guide was very enthusiastic about his school. A panel of faculty advisors also engaged in a question and answer session with us, and the final treat was being able to don hard hats and walk through the construction site of the new multi-million dollar dining hall and student center. Those are going to be some very lucky students who get to enjoy such beautiful and versatile spaces to be together!
Our next stop was Queen Margaret’s School, further north on the island. The hallmark of Queen Margaret’s is the amazing equestrian program that serves all kinds of students, from beginner to expert rider. Not only do the students get to ride during the school day, but they are also responsible for the care and feeding of the horses – they truly learn some very important life lessons through this kind of barn work! We loved the small, gentle, inclusive nature of Queen Margaret’s, and it was clear that the students there were very happy and involved in the life of the school.
The next morning we hit the road bright and early so that we would have time to visit Brentwood School in Millbay, British Columbia. Even though the clouds were heavy and dark as we arrived, we were still delighted by the views of the small cove and harbor that defines the setting of Brentwood. All buildings face the water, and the natural beauty of the setting informs their approach to academics. Part of our tour included seeing the new athletic facility being built, where we again donned hard hats to tour the construction zone. Perhaps my favorite part of the tour, however, was seeing the crew facilities, from the indoor rowing tank to the boats. This is a school that takes this sport seriously! I also loved seeing the art facilities, which were also dazzling. And by the time we left, the sun had come out again and we got to see Brentwood bathed in sunshine.
Just a short drive away was the campus of Shawnigan Lake School. I have heard of this school for years, too, so was eager to see it. With a very different campus feel than Brentwood, it is also an academic and athletic powerhouse. Upon arrival, we were invited to lunch where we sat at the long tables in the dining hall with the students . It’s always great to see the kids when they are relaxed and with friends, and to be able to ask some pretty pointed questions about student life there. During the student led tour, I particularly enjoyed seeing the boathouse on the lake, meeting the coaches, and learning more about rowing as a sport at Shawnigan. An additional surprise was when our tour guide took us to the music building and we got to meet the kids and see the recording studio in action.
On our third day, we visited St. Margaret’s School, an all-girls school in Victoria. During our tour, I was very impressed by all the positive, affirming messages that the students receive in almost every corner of the school, from bulletin boards, to announcements, to awards, to public celebrations of their students. It was a soft, gentle supportive environment that would be perfect for so many girls today. As an added treat, we got to meet the school archivist and learn more about the founding and history of the school back at the turn of the 20th century. My admiration for the women who founded a school to educate young women as equals to me was elevated after that conversation.
From there, we raced to the airport where we boarded the 9-minute flight to Vancouver. Despite the high winds and driving rain, we arrived safely in just the blink of an eye, and we visited our last school, St. George’s School. St. George’s is a wonderful, supportive, rigorous university prep school for boys, and our guide from Brazil could not have been more enthusiastic about how much he loved his school. It’s wonderful to see academic institutions that still care about the formation of character and integrity in young men. We also enjoyed our trip down the street to visit the dorms, and I saw their own specially designed software being used to keep track of students, help inform parents of their activities, and encourage student participation in school life. I’ve seen hundreds of schools but have never seen that in action – it was very impressive.
We spent our final night together with the admissions team from St. George’s in downtown Vancouver where we had the chance to process all that we had seen and experienced in a few short days. I cannot wait to refer just the right kids to one of these fabulous schools!
Rebecca (Becky) Grappo, M.Ed, has seen hundreds of boarding schools in the United States, Europe, and Canada, and prides herself on helping students find just the right schools for them! If you’d like to learn more, send us an email at [email protected].