Jan Campbell knows better than most how daunting it can be for parents seeking the right arts program for their budding Picasso, aspiring Meryl Streep, or youthful Yo-Yo Ma.
After all, as the director of CIS (Conference of Independent Schools) Ontario, she’s often called upon to advise — or warn — parents seeking information about one of Ontario’s many, many private and independent schools.
And so her first suggestion is simple: make sure you’re considering a reputable school. There are more than 1,000 private schools in Ontario, ranging from established institutions to what Campbell calls the “corner store basement with 10 students in the classroom.”
While she recommends that parents start their research by checking a school’s website and booking a visit, they should also keep in mind that many private and independent schools are businesses, and at the end of the day few businesses are willing to tell customers something they don’t want to hear.
“You really have to do your homework,” Campbell says. “I don’t mean to make it sound negative because it’s a wonderful world, but there are a lot of schools out there where the uniforms look great and it’s a nice little place around the corner, but they’re barely keeping their head above water.”
There are two key ways parents can know whether a school is likely to have their child’s best interests at heart, Campbell says: checking to see whether it is a private company or non-profit (for the record, all schools mentioned in this and the related STEM article are non-profits), and asking to see a course calendar.
A reputable school will not only welcome parents for a visit, but allow their child to spend a day actually taking classes.
“They can go around with an age-appropriate student and see the programming, see the courses, meet the art or science or sports people, and ask the parents of existing students their questions firsthand,” Campbell says.
Often, your child will make the final decision for you, she says.
“Certainly at the elementary age, after the parents and child attend the interviews, go to the open houses, and get a feel for the school, the student will often express an interest in school A versus school B,” Campbell says.
At Newton’s Grove School, an independent JK to Grade 12 school in Rexdale, music teacher John Alonso and drama teacher Michelle Hewitt frequently make a point of working together, and between them have developed an arts program that includes three musicals, a concert, and at least one artistically rewarding trip to such international destinations as New York City and Cuba every year.
“A simple visit to the school can often really give a parent a sense of whether it truly has a good strong arts program or not,” Alonso says. “Talk to the drama, art, or music teacher, because you’re going to be able to tell within minutes whether they love what they’re doing.”
Hewitt agrees. “You can hear it,” she says. “If you walk around a school, you should hear lots of noise coming from the drama room. You should hear full-scale band music coming from the music room.”
The music program at Newton’s Grove begins with vocal classes from junior kindergarten to Grade 3, culminating in a musical production that usually takes place around Christmastime.
Grades 4, 5 and 6 have their own vocal program, which culminates in a musical in November. Once the musical is finished in Grades 5 and 6, the students transition into an instrumental program, so that high school band members at Newton Grove have been playing since Grade 5.
“What’s really neat about having all these grades in the same building is that we get an incredible opportunity for mentorship,” Alonso says. “Let’s say a student’s in Grade 5 and they’re really excelling, they’re invited to join the Grade 6 band, or sometimes even the Grade 7 and 8 band. We’ve actually had a grade six student playing with our high school band.”
For the extracurricular senior productions, which include students from Grades 7 through 12 and have been musicals for the past two years, the students not only play roles on stage and behind the scenes, they make up the 15-person pit band as well.
Sometimes they’ll even play both roles in a single evening.
“I find it really hampers artistic creativity when a kid has to choose,” Hewitt says. “If a kid is a basketball player, a band member, and loves to act, we try to find a way for them to do all three of those things.”
“This year we have kids who, when they’re done their big scene or two in the musical as an actor, throw on their uniform during a scene change and run out and play in the pit band,” she says.
Paul Pietrkiewicz, the head of St. Michael’s College School’s music program, says that if parents are considering a particular school for their artistic child, they should begin by attending one of its events.
“Go to their concert. Go to their play. See what they’re doing,” he says. “What is the performance level required by the students? What are they actually putting out?”
In St. Michael’s case, the school’s 12 bands get plenty of opportunities to perform each year, with the senior band playing for the homecoming concert in September, a Christmas concert in November, a spring concert that runs April or May, and four masses during the major feast days over the course of the year.
The school also features junior and senior jazz ensembles, with the cafeteria turning into a jazz club, Club Blue Note, for one evening every year to showcase them.
While St. Michael’s doesn’t have a formal drama program — the school isn’t semestered, and Pietrkiewicz doubts there would be room on the schedule — its impressive 440-seat facility, the St. Michael’s College School Centre for the Arts, has housed many an extracurricular production.
The school performs two shows every year: a play — which can range from lighthearted comedy or farce to serious drama — and a musical, which for this year will be Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in the fall and Oklahoma in April.
“We’ve had a very longstanding history of excellent productions here,” Pietrkiewicz says. “I don’t mean to brag, but people have said that they’re comparable to anything they’ve seen out in the professional world.”
TFS art teacher Vesna Marcovic recommends that parents find out where alumni have gone after graduating if they can.
Numerous TFS students have graduated from the school’s intensive IB art program and moved onto prestigious universities in both New York City and overseas, she says.
It’s not hard to see why: TFS’s prestigious IB arts program, which includes three university-calibre components and culminates in a show at the end of the schoool year, can be as difficult as it is impressive.
The first component, worth 20 percent of a student’s mark, is a research paper comparing different cultures, artists, and their work hopefully while influencing their own work along the way, Marcovic says.
The second component, worth 40 percent, requires students to produce between 11 and 15 works for a professional portfolio, which is then graded by an outsider who analyzes the pieces for personal development and variety of material.
Finally, a third 40 percent component is dedicated to recording the creative process, with students expected to write notes both about their experimentation and to record the ideas behind their decisions, Marcovic says. The reason for the documentation is functional as well as educational: the external examiners will only be able to evaluate their creative process if it was properly recorded along the way.
The result is a dose of the professional art world before the student has even graduated from high school.
“They learn how to reflect on their learning habits and abilities, and find ways of creating, progressing, improving, and challenging themselves,” Marcovic says. “They’re young, but those skills — recognition, reflection, and learning new habits and abilities — are huge.”