Just off a gravel side road, 15 km west of Barrie, Ont., sit eight weary portable classrooms, hunched in a semicircle around a muddy driveway. The window frames are peeling and the steps are barely covered in tattered Astroturf. Attached to a post is a painted sign whose message proudly, if unintentionally, defies the bleak surroundings. In bright gold letters on a maroon background, it announces: “Sheila Morrison
College School—Utopia.” The name and address are correct, but few students would call this paradise.
Here, days start at 7 a.m. with rollcall and room inspection and end, 14 hours later, after a 2 VVhour study hall. Daily chores include dishwashing and vacuuming. Junk food is forbidden. And misbehavior is punished with a minimum of 15 minutes around the track. Admitting that he “spent years in public school in Ottawa hiding at the back of the class,” Grade 11 student Matt Willbond describes his first week at Sheila Morrison as “sheer hell.”
When he told headmaster Scott Morrison that he “couldn’t cope,” he
got a simple reply: “Yes, you can.” Says Willbond: “It sounds cheesy, but this place really has turned me around. For my friends and me, public school was a big joke. Here, there’s no time for jokes. It’s work, work, work.”
That determination to make kids work, and to reap the benefits of pride, is central to the philosophy of the Sheila Morrison school. Charging $20,000 a year for tuition, room and board, it is, in effect, a private school of hard knocks. Its aim: to rescue kids who have floundered in the public system.
“Traditional private schools want the best and the brightest,” says headmaster Scott Morrison. “We want the problems to fix.”
Describing it as “a salvage operation,” Sheila Morrison, mother of Scott, founded the school in 1977.
She had begun her career as a
teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in Red Rock, Ont., 100 km northeast of Thunder Bay, in 1938, and was a longtime advocate of stricter standards in child rearing and public education. The original campus was a farmhouse in nearby Alliston, and accepted only boys, from grades 1 to 10. In 1982, she moved her school to the current location, opening the doors to girls as well. Although she retired from teaching several years ago, her 38year-old son continues to subscribe to her old-school approach to education. Their philosophy, he says, can be boiled down to two simple phrases: “Academic success leads to good behavior” and “Discipline is not the enemy of enthusiasm.”
In its 19 years of operation, the school has attracted students from every province and 15 countries. Upon arrival, each is given a battery of spelling, math and vocabulary tests. “If they are 14 and spelling at Grade 4 level,” says Morrison, “we take them back to Grade 4. Then we aim to bring them ahead two grade levels every year.” With only 45 students, and a studentteacher ratio of 3:1, the job is made easier. “I worked in the public system for two years, and pretty much by necessity the prevailing attitude was, You can’t save everyone,’ ” says teacher Rob Campbell. “Here, you have the time to really teach, and to get to know the kids and what might be frustrating them.”
For many, that tough-love approach seems to have worked. “I was a holy terror when I first got here,” recalls Tabitha Alexander, 16, from Hope Valley, R.I. “I’d smash someone in the face even for a little bitty tease.” When Tabitha first arrived in 1992, she also punched holes in several walls. “My mom says she owns every wall in the girls’ dorm,” she says ruefully. Karol Alexander, who
chose the school for “a surly, unhappy 11-year-old operating at a Grade 3 level academically,” accepted the cost of repairing those walls as part of the process of turning her daughter around and bringing her up to a Grade 11 level.
What helps Tabitha and others toe the line is the school’s strict demerit-point system. Everyone starts the week with 100 points, and needs between 140 and 180, depending on their age, to get a weekend pass away from the dreary campus. Spitting or swearing results in a loss of 50 points. Giving a short speech on current events over lunch can earn back 25. “And I allow them to have stereos and tapes,” says Morrison, “so I have something to confiscate if I really need the leverage.”
Not every kid responds: some have left soon after arriving, or been expelled for continual bad behavior. But the vast majority stay—on average, between two and three years, before returning to the public system. ‘They all bitch at first, but most stick it out,” says Morrison. Tabitha recalls her own reasons for doing so. “I basically learned to like the work, because it meant that I stopped being a loser,” she says. “I went from hitting people to hitting walls to calming down.” That may not be utopia, but for many, it spells a path to a brighter future.
A private school of hard knocks turns troubled kids around
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