Going public about private school

Veteran educator speaks about first year as head of Lakecrest Independent School

Terry Roberts editor@cbncompass.ca
Published on April 15, 2009
Len White is the head of school at Lakecrest Independent School. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

It's a weekday morning and the halls and classrooms at Lakecrest school are unusually quiet. It's Easter vacation time for the 133 students from kindergarten to Grade 9 who attend classes here.

For a first-time visitor, this grand concrete building on Patrick Street in downtown St. John's has all the trappings of a typical school - walls covered in photos of graduating classes, hallways lined with lockers, classrooms filled with desks, computers and music equipment, and a cavernous gymnasium with dazzling sporting logos painted on the walls.

It's a weekday morning and the halls and classrooms at Lakecrest school are unusually quiet. It's Easter vacation time for the 133 students from kindergarten to Grade 9 who attend classes here.

For a first-time visitor, this grand concrete building on Patrick Street in downtown St. John's has all the trappings of a typical school - walls covered in photos of graduating classes, hallways lined with lockers, classrooms filled with desks, computers and music equipment, and a cavernous gymnasium with dazzling sporting logos painted on the walls.

But look closer and differences emerge.

The beaming students in the photos are wearing uniforms. The sign at the entrance to an oversized office reads "Head of School" instead of principal. There are only a small number of desks in each classroom. There are no areas reserved for bus parking. And the school is clean and well-maintained, free of any signs of vandalism or neglect.

This is a private school, where students who are accepted pay $7,500 each year to attend. Unlike the public system, there are waiting lists, and student enrolment is on the increase. There's a full-day kindergarten program, an extra 30 minutes of instruction time each day, and students spend more time in music and physical education classes than their public school peers.

Students here generally achieve higher academic scores and parental involvement is widespread.

On this day, head of school Len White takes time from his Easter break to open the doors to Lakecrest and speak about his first year as an administrator in a private school, one of two in the capital city. The other is St. Bonaventure's College, an all-grade Catholic school on Bonaventure Avenue.

After 29 years as a teacher and administrator, you might think White has seen and done it all. But his previous experience at St. John Bosco in Shea Heights and at Gonzaga Regional High were in the public system. He acknowledges his first year at Lakecrest has been a learning experience.

He has many of the traditional roles of a principal, but with the added responsibly of operating a top-rate school without any public funding. In order to attract quality staff, increase enrolment and continue to provide programming that meets and exceeds the provincial curriculum, White has had to become somewhat of a marketing agent for the school.

"It's a new challenge for me, which in many ways I have never faced before," White said.

But he's no stranger to challenges. He was part of an effort that helped instil a culture of success at St. John Bosco, and he took the helm at Gonzaga, a former Catholic school, at a time when the province was eliminating denominational education.

"Change always kind of exhilarates and excites you. Change is healthy, and I like moving on after I put my mark on a place and allow someone else to build on what I've done," he said.

Lakecrest opened in 1993 in a building near Quidi Vidi Lake, which is how it got its name. The school moved to its current premises - the former St. Patrick's girls' school - earlier this decade.

The idea of a private school grew from frustrations among some parents - mainly those with above-average means - about the large class sizes in public schools and the demands on teachers to meet the different learning needs of students.

There is a distinct international flavour at Lakecrest, since a significant portion of the students are from families in the medical profession or the offshore oil industry whose parents have moved here from away.

Lakecrest students generally complete their high school education at Gonzaga, which is among the top-performing schools in the province.

There's a prevailing stereotype that private schools are elitist institutions populated by snobs who are isolated from the realities of their environment.

White said that's a myth, at least at Lakecrest.

"I have not sensed that one iota since I've come here - at all," said White, who succeeded Ron Pellerin as head of school.

"What I've sensed here are people of average means and, in some cases, above-average means who just have their children here because they want to provide them with every opportunity and the best education possible."

White works closely with a board of directors and a home and school executive board. The school has 12 teachers, many of whom are longtime employees. It has an average class size of 14 students, about half that of public schools.

White said the school is growing, and enrolment is expected to surpass 140 in September, the highest in its history.

But Despite Lakecrest's successes, you won't hear White bashing the public system.

He said he's worked with wonderful teachers at every stage of his career and has nothing but praise for the thousands of students he's encountered.

But he repeatedly refers to an "eagerness and enthusiasm for learning" at Lakecrest.

"It's quite safe to do well here. It's something that's expected of you, and not something that would be (frowned) upon by peers at all," he noted.

White chooses his words very carefully when asked to compare the two systems.

"It's a wonderful atmosphere to put your child in so that they receive a lot of personal attention, and are encouraged and challenged to really achieve beyond.

"That's not to say that doesn't happen in other schools, but there's probably more of an opportunity in this school for that to happen."

When asked about the difference in salaries between the two systems, White said that's a private matter, but stressed that the turnover rate for staff is low and teachers appreciate the small class sizes at Lakecrest.

White is on leave from his principal's job at Gonzaga and plans to return to Lakecrest next year. His four-year-old son, Jack, will be one of those entering kindergarten.

troberts@thetelegram.com