Royal Oak Community School will start its fifth school year with a new addition to the leadership team, Julia Cain Murray as head of school.
Old Town’s only elementary school ranging from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 8 expects about 40 students this year, and will be returning to its previous home between Queen and Prideaux Streets, in the former hospital site.
Though Murray has been on staff part-time since September of 2017. She will return full-time as head of school for the 2019/2020 school year.
Gianna Dritsacos will continue to provide leadership in her role as founding head of school, and Murray will return to Royal Oak to work in collaboration with her “to help grow the school, and build the tangible sense of community, curiosity and inquiry that is alive and well within the halls of ROCS,” said board member Robin Ridesic.
Murray brings with her a sense of passion for education and best-practice pedagogy, as well as a wealth of knowledge and experience, including a Master’s degree in Child Study and Education and more than 10 years’ experience in cutting edge educational research with the prestigious Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study.
Murray considers Royal Oak “a special school.” Although it would be more convenient to send her own two school-age children to the school down the street from her home, she said, she has invested her time and her own children in Royal Oak, “because I feel it truly prioritizes and holds dear many of the most important, and increasingly rare, tenets of education.”
With her background in research, she believes strongly in researched-based, best-practices education, and ROCS will offer nothing less, she said.
“At ROCS, children are deeply respected, known and nurtured. This type of security makes learning and taking risks in question-asking and curiosity possible, and in turn, fosters learning and deep engagement.”
Royal Oak’s low teacher-to-student ratio allows personalized instruction so students are being supported, challenged, and individually given what they need to grow, she said.
Because of her background as a teacher researcher at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study (OISE) and her experience in research and education consulting, “it is highly important to me as head of school that our curriculum and educational approach is also based on research.”
Royal Oak’s curriculum is based on best-practice approaches on how to teach students, how to help them gain deep and long-lasting knowledge, how to become critical thinkers and also how to love learning, said Murray.
“We teach subjects in an integrated way, outdoors in the community and nature whenever possible, and with a hands-on approach.”
Royal Oak has an intensive core French program, with all students starting in JK, receiving a minimum of 45 minutes of instruction in second language learning every day.
“I truly believe this is so important, and that it is essential to teach students in the early years, because we know that language learning centres are most receptive when students are under the age of six. Most schools don’t start instruction until Grade 4 and I think this is a lost opportunity. I love that students as young as four years old can be heard conversing in French in our halls and that this will likely help open a door to language learning for them down the road.”
Also important to Murray is “a very palpable sense of community at the school. The students are connected to the Niagara region through partnerships like our close one with Landscape of Nations 360, the town, where we play and learn each day, within the families, but particularly between the students and teachers. Students of all ages play, interact and support one another, and it is not the least bit rare to see a Grade 5 student playing with a student in Grade 2, or helping a kindie get dressed to head outdoors. There is a culture of kindness and inclusivity at the school that is truly special.”
Murray is a mathematics researcher and teaches mathematics to students pursuing their master’s degree in education at the University of Toronto. She is also an education consultant, practising previously for the Ministry of Education, and currently, as a math specialist at Branksome Hall in Toronto. She is a member of Niagara’s Landscape 360 Educational Initiative, a group dedicated to supporting professional development for teaching Indigenous subject matter; developing innovative curricula enhancement tools; and elevating the dialogue around education about Indigenous peoples.
In her new role as head of school, in collaboration with Dritsacos, founding head, Murray said she looks forward to returning to Royal Oak Community School following a maternity leave — her youngest is eight months old.
Royal Oak is still accepting new students for the 2019/2020 school year, and hopes to meet local children and families to share more information about their school. They are also offering a Family and Friends offer for new students. Any family enrolling a new student in 2019-20 will get their first term tuition-free. There are five spots available until July 15, on a first-come, first-served basis, so interested families are encouraged to contact the school immediately, as the spots are likely to fill fast.
Royal Oak will also once again run two weeks of summer camp this August. Programming includes exploring and learning in the outdoor classroom of NOTL; games and sports to promote play and a healthy lifestyle; and STEM activities and challenges to engage all participants.
The ROCS camp dates are Aug. 5 to 9 and Aug. 19 to 23 for children aged four to 12.
The camps will run daily from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and cost $200 per week.
Registration and more information are at royaloakcommunityschool.com.