The former public high school building on Niagara Stone Road is looking better than it has in decades, inside and out, and is due for an expansion that would attract about 300 more international students.
The Vineridge Academy, rebranded from the Royal Elite International Academy, as it was named when it opened four years ago, is still Chinese-owned, and has about 120 students, says Jade Winterbottom, who coordinates accommodations and activities for the students.
It’s a 24/7 job for her, with students arriving as young as 13 years old, some needing more care than others, she says. She and other staff members understand that is the nature of their job, which often includes organizing outings for the students outside of school hours.
A small number of local students have registered, preferring the small class sizes that allow for one-on-one help when needed, the location in their own community, and the school’s 100 per cent acceptance to the students’ preferred choice for post-secondary education, whether it be university or college.
One of the three Niagara-on-the-Lake students at Vineridge is Sebastian Reese, who began his education at Crossroads Public School, before moving to Royal Oak Community School for his last two years. Reese was the first graduate from the small, not-for-profit school that was formed after Parliament Oak, the last remaining school in the Old Town, closed.
“I really liked the small class sizes at Royal Oak,” said Reese. “If I needed help I could always get it, and I feel like I learned more.”
Small class sizes, and the location, were factors in his choice of Vineridge for high school.
He was also attracted by the high success level of students accepted to their choice of university.
“It made me feel good, knowing that I’d get to go to the university of my choice,” he said.
His choice is Webb University, on Long Island’s north shore in New York. The university is a top-ranked undergraduate institution that provides a well-respected program in naval architecture, which is Reese’s goal for the future.
His family moved to Niagara from Florida when his father accepted a job with the St. Lawrence Seaway as a pilot of boats through the locks, he said, so he has grown up with boats in his blood. He sees Vineridge as the school that can unlock the key to his future.
He is taking the subjects he needs — the curriculum is the same as any Ontario high school — and class size varies from five students to a maximum of 20.
The reason for the school’s high post-secondary placement rate is the guidance department, said Winterbottom. Councillors work with students right from their first year, looking at their goals, making a study plan to ensure they take the courses they need to achieve them, and then helping them apply to the schools of their choice.
“We’re such a small school, the councillors can sit down with students and talk about what they want to do, where they want to go, and make sure they get there,” she said. “We can make sure any course they need is available to them.”
Alexandra Odumosu is a 15-year-old student from Nigeria. She is in her third year at the international school, in Grade 12, and arrived when she was just 13.
Her goal is to study media arts, and she is considering Brock University, the University of Windsor and Niagara College, she says.
She lives in Niagara-on-the-Green, with Ruby, a grandmother, and Ruby’s husband Ben.
She’s been great for Alex, “teaching me how to look after a house for when I live on my own, and to remember things that are important, like being on time, and having manners. She is teaching me the skills of living independently, to be healthy and organized.”
Alex says she likes it when Ruby’s adult children and grandchildren come to visit. “It’s a lot of fun, and a really good experience.”
Winterbottom says she believes it’s been good for Alex to live in a family home, rather than in residence at the school, having arrived in Canada at such a young age.
She hasn’t been able to return home since she arrived — apart from the expense, Alex says, “my mother is always worried about my safety at home.”
Instead, her family has come to Canada to visit her, and she has travelled to Ottawa to visit her sister, who is at Carleton University. And she can call home whenever she wants.
Most of the students will be on their way home by Dec. 20, but Alex will be one of those staying in NOTL, and Winterbottom will ensure she and the others are kept busy.
“We make sure their calendar is jam-packed with things to do,” she said.
Last Christmas holiday, students went skating at Fort George, and at the arena.
“I fell down so many times,” says Alex. “It was really scary at first. There were kids five to seven years old skating, and they were doing really well.”
But she said falling didn’t hurt — much — and she was glad for the chance to try skating.
Winterbottom will arrange for a trip for those remaining in NOTL to see the Festival of Lights in Niagara Falls, for a Christmas Day dinner at the Mandarin in St. Catharines, and for New Year’s Eve, festivities in the Falls.
Staff work throughout the holidays to experience Christmas with the students, she said, and the kids are able to get a bus to the Outlet Collection or the Old Town if they choose to. They know the bus routes and can also get themselves to the Pen Centre to shop or see a movie.
“These are kids who are really well-travelled. They can find their way anywhere.”
Local Vineridge students are encouraged to join in if they want to, she adds.
Reese says although he still hangs out with his NOTL friends, he enjoys the time he spends with the international students. “Everybody gets to know everybody else, it’s such a small school. We get to learn about each others’ culture, and to realize there is a whole big world out there. I’ve made a lot of new friends.”
The school also looks for opportunities for students to be involved in the community — they had a great experience volunteering at the Snowbirds air show, held a food drive for Newark Neighbours, and helped out collecting food at the Candlelight Stroll.
The lobby displays the many flags of countries represented at the school — students come mostly from Kazakhstan, Mexico, Nigeria, Vietnam and Turkey, said Winterbottom, although other countries have also been represented.
The halls are much improved from the former Niagara school board high school’s last years, refreshed and painted in soothing colours. The library remains the library, but some of the study desks have been replaced with plush furniture to give the kids a comfortable, relaxing place to hang out. The cafeteria is still downstairs, where it serves three meals a day for students who live in dorm rooms converted from Virgil wing classrooms.
In the first years of the international school, some students were housed in a residence in Niagara Falls and bused to school, others lodged with local families. But the preference for most parents, sending their young teens far away to receive a Canadian education, is to have them live in residence at the school, says Winterbottom.
In order to attract local students and find homes for international students to live as ‘home stays’ with families, the school started out offering free tuition in exchange for lodgings, says Winterbottom, but there isn’t a need for that anymore.
Although she’s unsure where the expansion stands in the planning process, the goal of the facility owner is to create enough rooms to house 400 students, with an addition from the end of the Virgil wing running parallel to East and West Line, into the back parking lot, she said.
The home-stay families have been really helpful, offering a safe environment for kids that allowed them to learn the language and culture, and develop friendships with local students, said Winterbottom, who likes to see her international students stay with families. But the majority of the parents choose the residence for the kids, and only 10 are billeted this year.
“There are so many great families, but we’re at the point where we have more families than we need for students,” she said.
“I think it’s a great experience for students to live with Canadian families, but the majority of the parents like their kids living at the school, not having to take the bus. We will always give them the choice, but very few are choosing home stays.”