I wanted to learn a little bit more about private education and St. Margaret’s School for Girls as I’ve always been a bit sceptical of a school without boys… so I caught up with Jennifer Cook the communications coordinater at St. Margarets and I must say I am truly impressed by their programs, values, and focus…
Question 1: St Margaret’s is a highly regarded local school here in Victoria, but tell us a little about the background of the school, when it was established and the opportunities it hopes to provide to local girls.
St. Margaret’s School For Girls was founded in 1908 by two English sisters, Edith and Isabel Fenwick, who were soon joined by their friend Margaret Barton. Despite the name the school has been non-denominational since the beginning: SMS was named for Queen Margaret of Scotland (1045-1093) who was canonized for her work for charity and justice. The School started in a small house at 810 Cook Street moving a number of times as it grew to meet increasing demand. SMS has been at its current location at 1080 Lucas Avenue in the North Quadra area since 1970. Throughout this long history our aim has always remained the same: to help girls become powerful learners with the knowledge, attitudes and courage to thrive – in their studies and careers, and in life.
As an all girls school we are focused entirely on the education, development and well-being of girls. This small scale, single-gender environment offers tremendous advantages to be able to customize individual learning experiences. We know girls. We know how to spark their imaginations, cultivate their curiosity and raise their expectations of themselves. Our teachers have the flexibility to adapt how they teach to draw on girls’ strengths, capture their interest, and actively engage them in learning. As such, we are uniquely positioned to provide them with opportunities and experiences they simply won’t have anywhere else. Students arrive at the school often as very shy young girls but invariably leave as confident and poised young women. The transformation is amazing to watch throughout their years with the school and is such a notable change that it is often remarked upon by the students themselves. A strong emphasis on leadership development has been a major draw over the past century for local and international families to open doors for their daughters as they move through life and get them ready for challenges yet to come.
Question 2: Wow, really interesting!.. You have a lot of programs for your students from early learning to seniors, how do you choose what to add to your curriculum?
It always comes down to what’s best for our girls. We seek to provide as many opportunities as possible for our students to push their skills, discover new passions, and explore ways to improve themselves. All educators are constantly challenged to remain relevant in order to provide the best possible outcomes, not only in terms of achievement at the school but in preparation for the future; the student’s life after school. Integrating experiential learning into our curriculum helps to create strong connections across subject areas and address the whole girl, not only for strong skill development but also their emotional and moral development. Some unique aspects of our curriculum include complementary relationship between our gorgeous natural setting outside and our high-tech classrooms inside; our Big Sister/Little Sister program that pairs up students of different ages for mentorship & collaboration; our annual Outweek that sends girls on an outdoor adventure to push their boundaries by exploring new activities from sailing to kayaking, scuba to rock-climbing, and more; our community service activities that happen throughout the year both locally & internationally that are largely student-driven and help develop a strong sense of citizenship and social responsibility; and our newest addition, a Middle Years program to better address the specific needs of girls in Grades 5 to 8.
Question 3: Outweek sounds so fun!.. I’ve also heard about your OWL program, is it a recent addition to your early learning programs?
Fairly new, yes. It debuted just last autumn (2012). To an extent it was a natural progression to build on elements of the Junior Kindergarten program already in place at the time. Our natural setting has always piqued the interest of our students. The introduction of the OWL program formalized our approach in using outdoor exploration as the key method to provide profound learning and development for ages 4 to 5. Junior & Senior Kindergarten are integrated during these outdoor sessions, which provides another unique dynamic where younger girls have someone to look up to, older girls have a chance to lead, and the experience prepares both age groups for their next step in school.
Question 4: Very interesting!.. Can you describe the OWL program and how it hopes to foster active participation in the outdoors?
The concept at its core is very simple: to get kids outside. Our Junior and Senior Kindergarten classes spend three afternoons together each week exploring our natural surroundings. St. Margaret’s is located on 22-acres of park-like land which includes swaths of pristine west coast forest, access to Blenkinsop Lake and views of Mt. Doug. But time outside isn’t just unstructured play. The girls trek around our campus with backpacks of investigative tools and clipboards to explore various units of study through hands-on activities. STEM learning outcomes are supported through outdoor exploration. (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics to which we add a strong emphasis on Art to help make meaningful connections to promote understanding and develop critical thinking skills). Some might wonder about engineering for four-year-olds, but starting STEM early sets a strong foundation for students to advance into grade school and OWL provides a natural venue for understanding foundation concepts. In fact, last school year all science units were completed outdoors. Though themes and activities are led by our instructors, students are encouraged to direct the pace and course of activities, and lead the line of inquiry – which is challenging because girls at this age are still learning how to ask questions, so we start there. If something sparks their curiosity the opportunity is seized to fully investigate. We see the girls becoming increasingly attuned to their surroundings and make huge leaps in their ability to observe and draw connections. Experts in tree identification, one four-year-old memorably turned to her parent to say, “Mummy, we have more Garry Oaks than conifers at home.” So all of a sudden from this very simple idea comes profound discovery and learning.
Question 5: And what are some of the specific activities children will participate in with the OWL project?
Because of our location we are able to offer an incredible variety of activities on campus: exploring the woods, walking the trails, doing activities in our outdoor classroom, and so on. However, field trips to local nature reserves are also a key component to explore the riches of our coastal region. Expert visitors are invited into the classroom regularly to introduce the children to new ideas: last year a representative of the Victoria Natural History Society visited, and members of the University of Victoria’s Science Department led a unit on the Five Senses. The natural world is used as inspiration and springboard for all kinds of projects and discussions: nature art, nature math (pattern and counting), identifying trees and animals… the possibilities are endless.
Question 6: I have to ask.. on Victoria’s rainy days, how will the OWL program proceed?
On go the rubber boots and raincoats – the girls are well-prepared with appropriate clothes. OWL happens rain or shine. When the weather is exceptionally poor, though, activities might move to our nature classroom, a purpose-built cabin set amongst the trees.
Question 7: What is your advice for parents trying to encourage outdoor play and interaction outside of school hours?
Partly it’s just about providing opportunities to be outside together – it doesn’t have to be a structured activity. Follow your child’s lead, follow their interest. We find these young girls have such intense focus on minute detail. Out for a walk, we as adults might try to make a fuss about an eagle flying overhead or the gorgeous view from a lookout point, but meanwhile the children are clustered around an ant on the ground and are totally engrossed – and so we encourage it! Let their curiosity lead the discussion and they’ll be hooked.
Question 8: Thats really good advice, we adults need to ‘stop and smell the roses’ a little more often! ..What other programs, camps and activities are St. Margaret’s currently offering?
We offer seven weeks of Summer Camps for girls in Kindergarten to Grade 6 over the course of the summer. Families often register week by week for more flexibility to take holidays. Weekly camp themes cover everything from princesses to mad science, food to flora & fauna. Come the fall, local parents are invited to take advantage of the Early Learning Lecture Series featuring guest speakers on a number of topics relevant to young families. Details about all of our programs and events are available online at stmarg.ca Or, just give us a call and we’ll set up a time to show you our campus, meet the teachers, and let your daughter experience our classes in action.