Thinking About Private School?

Small class sizes, specialized curriculum and leadership development are just some of the advantages offered by Calgary’s premier private schools.

courtesy of jennifer chipperfield photography

Grade 6 students from Strathcona-Tweedsmuir hold longboards they designed and built themselves as part of an immersive class experience exploring the principles of design.


In Mackenzie’s Whitfield’s grade 10 year, she began to encounter problems academically. Part of the reason for this, she says, was the large class sizes at her school, which would sometimes reach up to 40 students per one teacher. It got to the point where Whitfield didn’t feel comfortable asking a question in class and grew anxious walking the crowded hallways.

Resolved to find a solution, Whitfield and her parents made the choice to move her out of the public school system and into Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School, a K-12 private school just outside Calgary, where the class sizes are capped at 16 students.

At her new school, Whitfield’s grades, and her confidence, started to soar.

“I think the relationship with the teachers was the biggest thing,” says Whitfield. “[They] were able to get to know everyone really individually … their strengths and weaknesses.”

She says she felt challenged and listened to in class by her teachers, and the once-shy teen even began to take part in school plays and other extracurriculars as her worry went away.

Calgary has several premier private schools, and, while they may be diverse in their educational approaches, most rarely see class sizes swell beyond 20 students.

At Rundle College, a K-12 private school in southwest Calgary, classes are capped at 15 students. “We really focus on individualized education and building strong relationships between our faculty and students, and our faculty and parents,” says Rundle College Society Headmaster Jason Rogers.

Knowing a child will receive the attention they need within smaller, more attentive classroom settings is just one item in a long list of reasons why almost 10 per cent of Alberta parents, according to a 2016 Fraser Institute Study, choose private or independent school education for their children.


University Preparation

courtesy of the Calgary French International School

Calgary French & International School, a Pre K-12 school, offers a fully immersive French program. Students communicate in French in all school classes and activities.


To set its graduates up for success, West Island College students explore workplaces within their fields of interest through the Institutes program.


Another element that sets a private school education apart from other streams is the remarkably high post-secondary acceptance rate for private-school graduates.

At West Island College in southeast Calgary, 100 per cent of graduating students last year received admission offers from post-secondary institutions of their choice.

Scott Bennett, head of strategic planning and initiatives at West Island College, credits this stat to the school’s “Institutes model,” in which the faculty works with each student to identify their key talents and interests — as early as in grade nine — and then provides venues for that student to explore those passions both in and out of the classroom.

For example, a student intrigued by health sciences can visit relevant workplaces like hospitals and clinics in order to build on their knowledge base. Bennett says the rationale for the Institutes, which are broken into Business, Health Sciences, Engineering and Liberal Arts, is “to offer enriched experiences and learning opportunities for students not only within the class, but outside of it.”

At the River Valley School, a private school for preschoolers to kids in grade six, children are taught early on the principles of creative problem-solving through a partnership with the STEM Learning Lab in Calgary.

Erin Corbett, head of school at River Valley School, says these approaches give their students the tools to be successful right from the start of their formal education.

“I think that is absolutely what is required of students when they move on to post-secondary work, if they are to be entrepreneurs,” says Corbett.


Opportunities for every kind of learner


Students of all ages at Rundle College are encouraged to develop leadership skills through ambassador and mentorship opportunities. This begins with programs such as reading buddies or volunteering as lunch helpers.


Private schooling opens doors for all learning styles and differences. Schools like Rundle, for instance, have an academy program for divergent thinkers who may deal with challenges like ADD and dyslexia.

Similarly, the Calgary Academy hosts two learning streams: the Collegiate program for on-track, grade-level students and the Academy program, where students can receive specialized support.

Oscar Eichler, a graduate of the Academy program at the Calgary Academy, is currently working toward completing the criminal justice policing program at Lethbridge College. He explains that, because of the difficulties he faced in traditional schooling while dealing with his ADD, he used to feign illness to get out of school. That changed for him in grade 10, when he joined the Academy program and began to receive instruction adjusted for his focus issues.

“I started to realize that there was a way out of feeling like I didn’t really know a whole lot,” says Eichler. Within two months, Eichler’s grades shot up, and even today, he still uses learning tricks passed on from his Academy teachers.

“A sense of academic confidence was the biggest thing that I got from [attending the Calgary Academy],” says Eichler.


“We are trying to help students become autonomous decision-makers: people who are self-sufficient, who learn how to analyze logically and morally, and who are aware of the rights of others.”
—Diane Swiatek, Director of Banbury Crossroads School


Banbury Crossroads School, near the Currie Barracks, embraces a self-directed learning  method that allows students to take initiative in their education. Classrooms include a mix of ages and education levels, and children are empowered to be self-starters and learn at a pace unique to them, with a teacher or aid tutoring one-on-one when necessary.

“We are trying to help students become autonomous decision-makers: people who are self-sufficient, who learn how to analyze logically and morally, and who are aware of the rights of others,” says Diane Swiatek, director of Banbury Crossroads School.


Focused Education

COURTESY OF Lycée Louis Pasteur

At Lycée Louis Pasteur, students follow two curriculums across two languages.


The option of private schooling also offers the chance for highly focused and specialized learning that's specific to parent and student values.

For example, both the Calgary French & International School and Lycée Louis Pasteur, the International French School, offer completely immersive French curricula.

At the Calgary French & International School, students not only succeed in adopting a new language, but also compete at a high level academically, on par with other schools in Alberta.

“When you learn another language, you add neural connections in your brain and increase mental agility in all areas,” says Margaret Dorrance, head of school at the Calgary French & International School. “Learning a second language also opens the hearts and minds of children to other cultures, and to developing an international mindset.”

Amy Pollard, director of finance and operations at Lycée Louis Pasteur, believes mastery of multiple languages better prepares students for post-secondary success and to be global citizens. Pollard says the goal for their students is “To be globally-minded citizens, to be able to communicate fluently in English and French, and to be [empowered] to make independent choices for their future.”

Of course, language isn’t the only type of specialized learning available. Private schools like the Calgary Jewish Academy and Clear Water Academy are founded on Jewish and Catholic principles, respectively, and imbue those teachings into their curriculum.

The focus for the Calgary Jewish Academy is on presenting a seamless blend of enriched Alberta curriculum and Judaic studies, says Joseph Tappenden, director of marketing and advancement at the school.

At one point, Ilana Krygier Lapides, an educator and mother, had all three of her children enrolled at the Calgary Jewish Academy. “The school is much more than just a place to learn academics, it’s really a community,” says Krygier Lapides.

Similarly, at Clear Water Academy, students are taught to value academics and personal development, rooted in Catholic beliefs. “We encourage our students to become the best version of themselves by discovering their talents and strengths, and by helping them to see their weaknesses and work on overcoming those,” says Val Blahut, admissions director at Clear Water Academy.


Athletic and co-curricular opportunities

Students of the Calgary Jewish Academy are offered a well-rounded education with a foundation of Jewish teachings. There are opportunities to compete athletically, to explore robotics and coding, to participate in arts programs and to travel internationally as part of their curriculum.


Most schools provide a handful of athletic, travel and co-curricular activities alongside their academic offerings. What differentiates private schools is the sheer variety and commitment to excellence within these offerings.

At both West Island College and Strathcona Tweedsmuir School, not only are there seasonal sports teams competing at high levels, but the schools also offer adventurous outdoor programs that allow students to get out and test leadership, teamwork and wilderness skills.

Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School has 90 co-curricular options. “That really goes back to our students being well-rounded,” says Lara Unsworth, director of enrollment and communications at the school. “We like to give them as many options as possible so they can explore interests in the arts, athletics, design, environmentalism, speech and debate and model United Nations.”




SCHOOL UNIFORMS CAN BE DIVISIVE. There are those who argue that students who are required to dress in uniforms each day benefit because they don’t have to experience the pressure and guesswork of deciding what to wear in the morning. Others disagree, saying that uniforms are old-fashioned and don’t leave any room for self-expression. Even in the realm of private schools — places where, historically, uniforms tend to be an expected element in a student’s everyday experience — opinions these days differ.


Erin Corbett is the head of River Valley School, which teaches students in grades K-6. She believes the school’s white shirts and at least one item — be it a tie, tunic or kilt — featuring the school’s blue tartan has value beyond making it easy for parents to shop for their children’s clothing.

Uniforms in private schools go back to tradition,” says Corbett. “Our students are always crested, and that’s to unite us, to bring us together as a community. We are different in our individualities, but as a community, we are one.”

At Banbury Crossroads in the city’s southwest, students do not wear uniforms. School director Diane Swiatek says this is a conscious philosophical choice that adheres to the school’s general principles. “

We’re a self-directed learning school, and what we’re promoting is decision-making and self-responsibility, so uniforms don’t fit for us,” says Swiatek. “I want my students to be differentiated, I want them to be unique.”

Despite the approach of schools like Banbury, uniforms seem to be winning the day; roughly three-quarters of Calgary’s private schools favour them.


COURTESY OF Lycée Louis Pasteur

All Grade 8 student students at Lycée Louis Pasteur travel to France as part of their comprehensive international education program. Between grades 9 and 12 they are also encouraged to take part in international exchanges at any of the partner schools to Lycée around the world.


The world becomes more accessible for many students attending private institutions, too. For example, all students at the Lycée Louis Pasteur school visit France as part of their studies in grade eight. Beyond that, they have the opportunity to do an exchange with any other school in the world that teaches the same curriculum from grade nine to grade 12.

At the Calgary French & International School, which is a United Nations Educational and Cultural Organization, global learning takes priority, and travel studies are available to all students from grade seven onward.

By grade nine in the Calgary Jewish Academy, students will have travelled to Salt Spring Island, B.C., Washington, D.C, and Israel as a part of their comprehensive education. “They visit important and significant places in Judaic history, in world history and in biblical history, and they experience the dynamic culture of the state of Israel,” says Tappenden.

And West Island College’s immersive French program sees its grade seven students visit Quebec to gain insights into the province’s language and culture. In addition to this, the school offers a summer school option in Switzerland, and travel opportunities in line with students’ study focuses. “[We] want students to be global citizens,” says Roger. “They have to be able to travel and be independent, meet new friends, and embrace new ways of thinking.”


This feature appears in the February 2018 issue of Avenue Calgary. Read it here.