Hillfield Strathallan College
Hillfield Strathallan College (HSC) south-western Ontario’s pre-eminent independent co-educational day school is situated on a beautiful fifty-acre natural campus, on the top of the Niagara escarpment, in Hamilton, Ontario. Since 1901, Hillfield Strathallan College has provided young people with extraordinary educational opportunities through its enriched academic, arts and athletic programs. Now well into its second century, the College remains committed to excellence achieved through a broad approach to education that integrates high academic standards, character development, and social skills to nurture the whole student.
The current campus was established in 1962 with the amalgamation of Hillfield College, a school for boys and its counterpart school for girls, Strathallan College. The campus features all of the original buildings erected in 1962 as well as the current Montessori School and an enlarged Artsplex Theatre, added in 1999.
While maintaining its core values and traditions, HSC has been an innovative educational environment for many decades. Changes in program and facilities have been based on authentic educational research with teachers demonstrating leadership and active responsibility for program development and initiatives.
Learning is a “hands-on” experience for everyone.
Although involved in the greater community at all levels, HSC is also a community unto itself. The College’s unique programming is delivered through four schools; Montessori, Junior, Middle and Senior, with class sizes averaging between 15 – 20 students. These four “centres of excellence” create a dynamic learning environment and a cohesive community where students are encouraged to become good citizens, strong leaders, and lifelong learners.
Anyone who has the opportunity to spend time at the College will see that the core values and guiding principles are embraced and upheld by the students from all ages; as I approached a door a young child in Grade 1 used her body weight to hold it open.
The halls of the Junior and Middle Schools are filled with natural light and covered in artwork done by the students, who at any given time are in the gymnasium, the science lab, art class, or their classrooms. The Montessori building with adjoining classrooms and mixed-age classes provides an engaging learning space for inquiry, discovery and research. The students are happy and engaged in their learning in these safe, nurturing environments. Henry, a Grade 2 student exclaimed he liked “absolutely everything” about school before eagerly returning to reading with a friend at the library.
The College is in the midst of the first phase of an ambitious, two-phase, $43 million transformation project that will transform not only its campus, but the way in which it is able to deliver the quality education that Hillfield Strathallan College prides itself on. At the centre of the project is a new Senior School and College-wide Athletic Complex, which will add an additional 134,000 square feet of space.
“The fact is that the world our students live in now is markedly different and changing more rapidly than the world when we were students, and we need to change to meet their needs,” says Marc Ayotte, Head of College.
The ‘Transformation HSC’ project is far from a simple construction project. Student-centred learning is at the heart of the entire project, which is just as it should be. The contemporary design of the new learning spaces will provide the College’s gifted and dedicated teachers with the resources and facilities to widen their repertoire of teaching and learning. As such, the new Michael G. DeGroote Senior School will reflect diverse learning styles and will allow teachers and students to work together “in a manner that best supports student growth,” says Ayotte.
The focus on student-centred learning provides more opportunity for students to take ownership of their own learning. Rather than giving children answers to remember, they are given problems to solve, which will provide them with important tools for their pursuit of post-secondary education and later, a career.
“We have learned more about how students learn in the past 10 years than in the 50 years before that,” says Ayotte. “Our students need to be in authentic learning situations that force them to think creatively, divergently and critically.”
“That building is a manifestation of a philosophy of education.”
The new Senior School is designed to enable students to actively use 21st century skills of collaboration, creativity, communications and leadership. Learning will be customized through effective integration of technologies. “Key focus areas for effective learning include student choice, applications, problem- solving and metacognition.”
“You will be able to walk [into the new building] on any given day and you are never going to see two classrooms look the same. To have an opportunity for flexible space where the program will define how the space is used as opposed to vice versa is very important. Classrooms will embody the definition of flexibility.”
Dr. Nick Bontis serves on the HSC Board of Governors, and is a current parent of three HSC students. “Transformation HSC is more than just the educational or academic experience, it’s the social experience as well,” he says. “Consider the ratio of shared space versus traditional space. In a traditional building there is none; there is a hallway with lockers in it. That is not how the new Senior School is designed. There will be collaborative work spaces, a quad, social gathering spaces, large hallways and break-out areas. We have really concentrated on the overall experience of learning.”
Bontis works with parents and alumni groups to assist in the fundraising campaign to help assuage the cost of phase two of the project, and is not surprised at all to report that the HSC Family Campaign is the most successful in the history of the College.
HSC acknowledges many significant patrons to the school, in particular Mr. Michael G. DeGroote, whose major philanthropic gifts to both HSC and McMaster University are record setting. “We have the luxury to stand on the shoulders of some of the greatest philanthropists in Canadian history,” says Bontis.
“That type of momentum spurs on the devotion people have for the College.”
During this exciting time for the College, Ayotte ensures that the transformation is rooted in the College’s time-honoured traditions. “Having that depth of history really informs what we do,” he says. “There is a synergy between past and future.”
Though the new Senior School will be complete in September, student-centred learning is already the working practice at the College. While on tour of the campus, one will discover the Swap Centre, a unique source of learning at the College. Initially, modeled after Sudbury’s Science North, the Swap Centre is a collection of interesting artifacts, creatures and objects that students collect, research and swap.
“Students flock to initiatives,” says Amanda Rogers, Curator. The Swap Centre’s current mascot is a docile white rat named Milo, who was adopted as a result of Grade 4 students asking about the repercussions of animals being raised by species other than their own.
“Children had to do the research to figure out how to raise an animal like this and what it would need in order to thrive,” says Rogers, who showed the students how to mix Milo’s food and syringe feed him.
“They realized the more stimulation the rat received within reason the more intelligent it became. They thought about how with his litter, his natural environment, he’d be jostled by all his litter mates but he wouldn’t be getting that in his sterile environment. So the children would hold him in their hands and touch him like his mother would if she was watching and what we ended up with is this human-centred little animal.”
The ‘Milo Project’ encouraged a number of different levels of research. “Many children were attracted because he was small and having to care for someone is very empowering. There are a lot of choices about empathy that the children have to make under those circumstances. Others were simply clinically interested and making notes, some became very attached to him personally.”
From one question learning blossoms.
“Students have the opportunity here to run with what they excel at,” says Stephanie Alexander-Jones, a parent to two HSC students. “There are endless opportunities for the students. When they find their niche and find something that works for them to be able to expand their love for it, it is phenomenal. But it is never at the expense of another discipline—it doesn’t mean something gets left behind, it gets rolled in.”
Alexander-Jones says that one of the reasons she chose HSC was the engagement of the teachers in her children’s studies and close communication with parents. “We evaluated other schools, but the real differentiator was the quality of instruction here. The recommendations for instructions are extensive and comprehensive and, most importantly, my children are happy every day.”
Perhaps the biggest focus of student-centred learning is self-leadership. Geared towards the age of the student, this could mean putting away his/her books and tools, getting to places on time, following through on commitments made, or seeking out an opportunity for more formal leadership where it does not presently exist.
“Without self-leadership or the discipline it requires, none of the great changes that we see in the world could have happened,” says Ayotte.
Speaking with Alex, a Grade 12 student illustrates the possibilities fostered in self-leadership. Alex has taken advantage of opportunities around the College to develop his interest in multi-media and marketing and was tasked recently with recording, mixing and editing a video of an HSC hockey game. “I do a lot of the tech stuff around the school, and a lot of the advertisements. The HSC education has given me a whole new perspective on the real world and the teachers have really helped shape who I am as a person and how I’m going to go forward. I want to be a professional marketing business owner and HSC has really helped me with that.
“It’s such an advanced school I think it’s going to enhance students’ learning and their ability to take in more information just by being able to collaborate with other students and teachers,” he says.
Bontis, a professor at McMaster University’s Business School, sees the results of HSC’s focus on self-leadership come through the university’s doors every year.
“I can always tell an HSC student when they arrive at university because they are the ones in my opinion who show genuine leadership skills,” says Bontis. “The facts are the facts. The MBA Student Association president, the Undergraduate Association president, all these student leaders are former HSC students. There is a capability that has been in them from day one to fully develop their leadership skills.”
Some of the greatest leadership opportunities have nothing to do with a title. “It’s about students creating their own leadership opportunities by identifying a need and then filling it. For example, one student started a committee with her friends in the Middle School for those struggling with their organizational skills,” says Ayotte. “I couldn’t create all of these initiatives—it’s something being lived here. The student expectation is if they have an idea then there are adults here who will help bring that to a reality.”
“It is often these moments outside of the classroom that are the memories that resonate with alumni. They want to see high academic standards maintained for sure, but just as important is the theme of family and respect. We worked hard to live up to that every day.”