Final touches are being put on the old Niagara-on-the-Lake hospital building, as tenant Royal Oak Community School prepares for its biggest September ever.
When classes begin Sept. 8, Head of School Julia Cain Murray will be opening the doors to 52 students from Kindergarten to Grade 8. At twice the number of pupils enrolled last year, it is the largest student body ever for the local private, not-for-profit school.
And there will be multiple doors that are thrown open, as for the first time in their three years in the building, Royal Oak will be expanding physically to use the south and east wings. Along with the north wing they had already been using, that will enable them to create separate cohorts for their primary, junior and intermediate students, with separate washroom facilities as well.
Murray expresses gratitude toward their landlord, the town of NOTL, for making it possible to keep the grade levels separate. “With the cohorting of wings, our separate entrances that we can use, along with our very detailed policies and protocols, it seems we have the best possible plan in place to mitigate risks as well as we can.”
Murray is sure that the small class sizes, which have historically been capped at 15, along with extra safety measures taken to ensure there is no spread of the novel coronavirus within the school, is at least partially responsible for the boost in enrolment.
“We have always believed that our class cap of 15 is truly the optimum size for learning,” she says. “I’m grateful as well that it aligns with what has been deemed the most safe cohort size with regards to COVID.”
Royal Oak is also running a parallel virtual school this year where all the in-class lessons will be available in each class’s Google Classroom. That means that if or when any child is required to stay home (due to potential exposure to COVID, travel, or general family health risks), they can continue to learn through the virtual programming.
On the day of The Local’s visit to Royal Oak, dedicated parent Jason van Veghel-Wood was there helping to sand, paint and generally get the building ready to welcome students. He was happy to demonstrate the layout of various rooms.
“The way that they set it up (the Grades 6-7-8 room) is in pods,” he explains. “Every student will be separated by six feet, and where they can’t be separated by six feet, they’ve got this plexiglass, and they will be wearing visors for added protection.”
The parental involvement of van Veghel-Wood and others is key to the functioning of the school, says Murray. “It is such a close-knit community. Jason has built desks by hand since the beginning of June, when I started to come in and say I could envision this being really different. I’ve had a COVID task force of about eight parents, who have been on every email with me and are part of all the decision-making. Parents are the stakeholders of the school. I’ve had
parents be part of our re-
entry plan formation all along the way.”
At press time, Murray was still meeting with families interested in learning more about making the switch to the private school for their children.
Marylee Arnold and her family recently moved to NOTL. She toured the school this week to consider enrolling her girls Gemma and Fiona in Grade 1 and JK respectively.
“We were looking at private schools just for the level of education,” she says. “Throughout COVID, I just thought private schools have smaller classroom sizes. I just want my children to be safe, and I want them looked after, so at a private school, obviously they’re going to be looked after a little bit more.”
The increased enrolment at Royal Oak has also brought back experienced teacher Laureen Dennis, who was on sabbatical the previous year. She is excited to meet her Grades 1-2 students in her bright new classroom.
“It used to be our assembly room, where the whole school would kind of meet every morning,” she explains. “They’ve just done a fantastic job making it such a beautiful space. I am excited, too, seeing all the things they’ve implemented, all the safety measures. I have no reservations. As long as we keep doing all the safety precautions that we’ve put in place, we’re going to have a great year.”
Of course, as Royal Oak is a private school, students do not attend for free. The cost for each student is $9,650 per year, but Murray is quick to point out that cost should never exclude a family from sending their children there.
“We’re a non-profit charitable organization,” Murray explains. “Over 50 per cent of our students are on a financial scholarship or bursary. That accessibility is extremely important, and it’s one of the reasons this school came into being. And diversity is important to us as well. We want Royal Oak to truly represent the community.”
To that end, Royal Oak is launching the Artists’ Family Scholarship to help support the large community of artists who live in NOTL. The scholarship will provide funding to cover application fees (to the school, as well as to Apple Financial, the third party company used to access bursary qualifications), as well as a commitment to ensure tuition costs are covered should an artist’s family financial situation change.
With just over a week until the first day of school, some of the grade levels still have room to grow toward that cap of 15 students. That record enrolment number may not yet have reached its peak.