Family-style boarding provides a home away from home

Imagine this scene. Matching maroon sofas gather you up and hug you when you sit down. You find your older sister there too, nestled in and reading a book. You look up at the shelf on the wall and choose a romance because it’s the end of the day and you want to unwind. A television peers down from a top ledge. Off to the back of the big room is a bright open kitchen with a table and chairs at which sits another young woman intent on a math problem. You could be in almost any Canadian home, except that you are not. You are in a student residence at SMS.

From the familiar to the new. The phone rings. The Residence Parent picks it up to answer. It used to be that staff worked a series of rotating shifts so the person in charge would differ, depending on her shift that week. (Two of the houses will keep that system for at least this year.) Now one person lives on site in each house and is in charge of the whole team.

Of this new system Head of School Cathy Thornicroft says, “We looked at best practices across Canada and we decided that having one house parent leading a team offered more of a home away from home, and since the Residence Parents also have a formal role in the school, it was an opportunity to connect the residence with the life of the school.”

So who is on the team, supporting the work of the Residence Parent? There are three others at any time, two supporting house parents and one dedicated to activities. Marlene Donaldson is the Activity Director, and she keeps the girls moving—off the couch and aware of the many opportunities available to them through the school and in the wider community.

“We have four areas of focus when we assess the activities the girls should get involved in. We ask if there is a physical, a creative, a St. Margaret’s community, or a Victoria community service component. If they hit on one or more of these areas then we are likely to approve it and support their efforts, says Marlene.”

Marlene’s work with both the school and the residence is a thread that connects the two to provide a richer experience for the girls. It’s a new role and she has plans to create more activities for both day and residence girls together.

In residence, as things settle in after dinner in the dining hall, most girls can be found finishing their homework, some with help from a house parent. A few girls will watch TV, and others will hang out with the older sisters living in the coveted double rooms upstairs. Residence Manager Laura Kaiser says, “We spend a lot of time with the girls talking with them and teaching them to live with new people who are not family. It’s a key skill that helps them be more confident and independent, and it helps them in the future.”

Living in residence is about life lessons but also about rules and boundaries, such as doing homework and , getting home in time for curfew. Each residential system has its strengths and challenges, but Residence Director Rona Archer prefers the new system at St. Margaret’s, saying, “There is more consistency in this new residence staffing system. We can keep track of each girl’s needs day to day, and that helps everyone.”

At a time in a girl’s life when everything is changing—her independence, her body, her mind, and often her family life—maintaining a level of consistency and being able to spot minute changes early is the key. Says, Cathy Thornicroft, “It’s about community, connectedness and comfort for everyone.”

Written by Heather Ferguson | with podcast by Sam Tallo


RELATED | Boarding school life at St. Margaret’s School

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