Over a Century of Excellence
Among the idyllic scenery of Victoria, British Columbia, St. Margaret’s School is an independent, all-girls school dedicated to providing empowering education for girls from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 12, and has done so for over 100 years. In addition to serving their local Victoria area, St. Margaret’s is the only all-girl boarding school in Western Canada, and is home to Canadian and international boarders in the senior grades.
Speaking on the history of the school, Jennifer van Hardenberg, Communications Coordinator at St Margaret’s, says “The school was founded in 1908 by a pair of sisters, Edith and Isabel Fenwick. It was all started with a vision of creating a school tailored to the needs of girls.”
These two sisters perished shortly after founding the school, in the sinking of the SS Iroquois. Fortunately their friend, Margaret Barton, took the lead at that point as the first Head of School. “She definitely shared the Fenwick’s original vision, and that’s something we continue to honour today: to give each girl as much consideration, opportunity, and healthy challenge as possible.”
After the tragedy, Barton lead the charge and finished construction of a new facility capable of handling more students and staff. In 1912, one year after the passing of the Fenwick sisters, St Margaret’s School and their students moved into their new home. After spending close to 60 years at the Fort Street location, St Margaret’s moved one more time in 1970 to their current Blenkinsop Valley campus.
“We’re a spacious urban campus and a bit of a hidden gem. When you arrive on our 22-acre campus you’re greeted by these huge old trees, great west coast architecture, and views of nearby mountains. It’s definitely an inspiring environment, and Victoria as a city has a wealth of natural and cultural riches to take advantage of.”
Facility highlights include four modern residence houses, a large dining hall for day students, boarders, and staff alike, a new athletics centre which includes two gyms, access to cycling and walking trails, and an industrial grade kitchen for their Culinary Arts Program. “We’ve even got an outdoor classroom in the adjoining forest that serves our junior kindergarten and kindergarten classes, which are inquiry and nature-based programs.”
Another unique feature of the school’s facilities is the Junior Building, completed in 2006, which is notable for its innovative design to minimize impacts on the environment in accordance with LEED standards (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).
The school is now lead by Cathy Thornicroft, who brings decades of experience in both public and private schools – including seven years as an area superintendent in nearby Vancouver. Explaining her motivations, Thornicroft says, “I was excited about taking on this new role simply because I had the opportunity to shape the future of this school — not just in telling its unique story, but actually playing a part in its legacy going forward.”
Under Thornicroft’s leadership, the school undertook an ambitious strategic planning process including students, parents and staff in the consultation and creation of a new 10-year plan for the school. The result is an innovative Strategic Plan that is articulated entirely from a girl’s point of view.
Says Thornicroft, “The privilege of focusing specifically on the needs of girls has created multiple possibilities. St. Margaret’s is about more than creating equal opportunity; girls here get every opportunity to lead, engage, gain experience, and make a difference.”
“Every day, I get to go to work and … share in (the girls’) successes, push them to believe in themselves and to empower them to own and use their voices to influence the world of tomorrow. You can’t get a better job than that!”
The St Margaret’s Community
Creating strong community bonds within the school is a key aspect of St. Margaret’s, bringing together boarding students, local students, as well as the staff. The benefits extend beyond social development alone, and harkens back to the school’s dedication to how girls learn most effectively.
“We have 350 students,” says van Hardenberg.”128 of these are boarders who live with us on campus for the school year, and 221 of these are day students from our local area.” With over 100 staff, including teaching faculty and specialized educational assistants, an 8 to 1 ratio of students to teaching staff is maintained in the classrooms.
“Every girl is known here,” she continues.”That’s a key benefit of having such a tight-knit community. And girls really benefit from that, it plays into what we know about how girls learn best. Girls thrive in social and emotionally supportive environments.It isn’t possible to hide in our small classes, which means each girl is getting the guidance and challenges she needs to grow.”
“As an all-girl school, our teachers are able to focus all their time, resources, attention, and energy to the unique learning needs of girls where co-educational schools simply cannot,” van Hardenberg says.
The centerpiece of St. Margaret’s program is focused on developing leadership and instilling confidence in each girl. The supportive environment of the school provides a place where girls can take on new challenges and new roles, discover who they are, as well as prepare them for the world at large. The school is also recognized for its rigorous academic program, where inquiry-based learning is emphasized in accordance with STEM learning principles (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).
“We focus on developing girls voices,” van Hardenberg explains. “Nurturing girls’ leadership potential is so important that it’s actually part of our curriculum. As a class, Leadership focuses on asking big questions, developing organizational skills, presentation skills, working collaboratively as well as on individually-led projects.”
“These skills are then applied to organize their peers in community service,” she continues”Girls here get very used to the idea of standing up, taking the microphone, and leading their peers. Our girls are even responsible for leading assemblies. All these experiences come together to develop a girls’ sense of identity, and confidence in their opinions and voicing them strongly.”
Looking to the Future
Fundamental in the school’s mission is empowering girls to take charge in their lives and giving them the tools needed to succeed in life, and their careers. In the coming years, St. Margaret’s will be striving to emphasise health with a new Wellness Centre and expanding programs, teaching girls how to take care of themselves as well as their environment.
“The next five years are going to be about a renewed focus on the whole girl, so wellness initiatives are going to be huge,” van Hardenberg says.
“Wellness starts at the individual level, the ability to take care of oneself. Caring for those around us and our environment is also a part of that. Raising girls who are global citizens, with an outlook that embraces their responsibility to something bigger than themselves, that’s going to have an impact on the wellness of communities down the road.”
Looking towards the future of St Margaret’s School, van Hardenberg says the goal is to elevate the school’s reputation for excellence on a global scale, and cement themselves as the prominent choice for all-girls boarding schools.
“We’re already internationally known,” she says.”I want us to be internationally renowned as a centre for girls learning and leadership. Though our location is one of our big strengths, at times it can make it easy for people to forget about us because we’re hidden out of sight. But here we are with over 100 years of teaching excellence, a reputation in the community that speaks for itself,and a tireless dedication to growth to further our mission.”
“I want St. Margaret’s to be at the forefront of peoples’ minds when they think about their daughters or granddaughters’ education,” van Hardenberg concludes.