COVER

BACK TO BASICS

At Grenville, Christian values prevail

SCOTT STEELE May 15 1995
COVER

BACK TO BASICS

At Grenville, Christian values prevail

SCOTT STEELE May 15 1995

BACK TO BASICS

COVER

At Grenville, Christian values prevail

To some, it must sound like teenage hell, to others, parental paradise.

Cigarettes and alcohol are strictly forbidden. Students cannot leave the grounds without permission and must regularly attend compulsory chapel services and Bible studies. Relationships with members of the opposite sex are not allowed— nor are Walkmans or stereos. Pop culture is rigorously controlled.

Bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam?

Forget it. Classical and spiritual are the music that prevail. Television is closely supervised—and limited almost exclusively to news, current affairs, documentaries and educational programs. Only occasionally is an “appropriate” sitcom permitted.

But for the 230 students of Grenville Christian College, a residential Anglican school on the outskirts of Brockville, Ont., there is not much time for listening to rock ’n’ roll or watching TV. From 6:30 a.m. until nightly “lights out” beginning at 10, the boarders’ time is highly structured. When not eating in the dining hall—where boys must rise while girls are seated and young people must stand for adults—everyone is hard at work. A two-hour supervised study hall is mandatory each night. Daily homework is assigned in every course. Grades are tabulated biweekly and performance monitored closely. Volunteer community service and work detail around the school—such as cleaning, kitchen duty or groundskeeping—are obligatory. The underlying phi-

losophy at Grenville is best summed up by a simple banner in its dining hall, bearing the words of 13th-century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas: “Peace is the tranquillity of order.”

And it follows that “disorder” does not go unnoticed. Serious violations of the code of conduct, such as drug or alcohol use, lead to expulsion. Minor infractions, demonstrating a bad attitude or showing disrespect to others, often result in a three-day trip to the kitchen outside classroom time—to scrub pots. A bit oldfashioned? Absolutely, say Grenville staff members, who make no apologies for their “firm but fair” discipline.

So, how is it possible that Grenville students could be happy? That was a question that Gordon Mintz, then a student at the University of Western Ontario in London, asked himself more than a decade ago after receiving a letter from his younger sister Lynda. A Grade 12 student at the school, she wrote that it was surrounded by a high fence and patrolled by a guard dog. She also mentioned that all Grenville staff members live on the premises, along with their spiritual leader, Rev. Charles Farnsworth, the headmaster. Recalls Mintz: “It sounded like a Nazi concentration camp run by a cult.” Curious, he went for a visit. The “fence” turned out to be the wrought-iron gate gracing the entrance to the 250-acre campus. The dog was a family pet owned by

Farnsworth, a warm Anglican priest from Atlanta with a down-home style, who was instrumental in establishing the college in 1969. And while there were rules, Mintz says that most Grenville students seemed to accept them. “I had never seen a group of people more committed to the ideal of maintaining integrity and caring about others,” says Mintz, who now teaches accounting and computer science at the school. “It really is like an extended family.”

That family atmosphere, say students and staff members alike, is what sets Grenville apart. ‘Teachers here do not punch a time clock,” says Farnsworth. “There is a difference sometimes between a certified teacher and a qualified teacher. But if you add dedication, then you have something special.” At Grenville, such devotion is a fact of life. “The reason we are together is to exist primarily as a Christian community,” says physics and computer science teacher John Childs. “But if the school were to disappear, nobody would leave. Our life together is the most wonderful thing in the world. We are like a small, old-fashioned tribal village.”

All Grenville students are assigned surrogate “parents” at the school—and, in groups of eight to 10, spend weekend time with their “families.” With an enviable student-teacher ratio of 6:1, young people are given extraordinary personal attention. Teachers are available at all hours of the day to offer remedial help or guidance.

Faculty members receive only a modest stipend of between

'If you concentrate and ethics, the rest falls into place'

$9,000 and $11,000 beyond their accommodation and board (annual tuition, room and board is currently $17,300). “The teachers here are very devoted,” says Susan Yeung, an 18-year-old senior from Hong Kong who has attended Grenville for seven years. “I tend to need a lot of extra help, but they don’t seem to mind at all.” And the discipline, many students say, is an integral component of their education. “My life works better when there are rules,” says Jesse Billett, 17, a Grade 11 student from Johnstown, Ont. “I always like to know what I am doing, where I stand, what is right, what is wrong, what is appropriate. I like order.”

Simone Cleworth, 17, a Grade 12 student from Oakville, Ont., switched to Grenville three years ago when her parents became disenchanted with her public high school. “It was a typical high-school scene—there were drugs and fighting,” she says. “I didn’t need to put in much effort—maybe an hour after school and then I could watch TV. And I could get 80s and 90s. But when I came here, I went from being close to the top of my class to being in the middle.” Cleworth admits that she thought some of Grenville’s rules were “crazy” when she first arrived, but she has since adjusted. “Sure, I don’t get to listen to my favorite rock groups,” she says, “but that’s not getting me any closer to getting into university. And I have my whole life ahead of me.”

That dual focus on academics and morality is prompting many parents, even the non-religious, to send their children not only to Grenville, but to a growing number of small, private, religious schools across Canada. “One of the myths is that these schools are little ghettos with homogeneous student bodies,” says Gary Duthler, executive director of the Edmonton-based Federation of Independent Schools in Canada, which represents 1,100 private educational facilities. “But in the case of many Christian schools, parents often buy into the general values and discipline as well as the academics.” Adds John Vanasselt, director of communications for the 73-member Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools: “The aim of a Christian school is not to indoctrinate or convert. The aim is to prepare children, through a provincially accepted curriculum, for adult life.”

Grenville staff members agree. “We don’t try to shove religion down anybody’s throat,” says Farnsworth. “We are primarily an academic school—with moral and religious values. If you concentrate on such things as honesty, integrity and ethics, the rest falls into place.” And

while regular Anglican church services are mandatory, Grenville strives to present its message in a much broader context. Dr. Ahmed Fakoussa, an ear, nose and throat specialist from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, chose the school for his daughter, Dina, who graduated last year, and son, Ayman, currently in Grade 9—despite the fact that they are Muslim. “In my view, there are values that are common to all religions,” says Fakoussa. Ayman, 15, acknowledges that when he arrived three years ago, he had problems adjusting. “I wasn’t used to doing chores,” he says. “For the first few months, I was a real bratty little kid. I still don’t like it that much, but I do it.” As for the Christian element, he says: “Sometimes I listen, sometimes I tune out. If they hand me a hymnal, sometimes I’ll put it away because if I am going to sing, I should do it from my heart.” Jim MacNeil, Grenville’s dean of men, is philosophical. “We aren’t any the worse off if they don’t become Christians in their time here,” he says. “Even if they leave with good study habits, we have done our job.”

In recent years, staff members say, 98 per cent of Grenville’s graduates have been accepted into a university or college of their choice. And according to director of studies Joan Childs, many students see their grades rise dramatically after enrolling at Grenville. But they must accept sacrifices—and learn to OTl rlOneSty adapt. “It was really hard at

first,” says Crystal Assaly, 15, a Grade 8 student from Hawkesbury, Ont. “There were a few days where I bawled my eyes out The discipline can be hard, but I know that when I get out, it will all add up. So I just take it and try hard.”

Beyond the classroom, there are many stress relievers. Eighty per cent of Grenville’s students take part in extracurricular offerings, including the award-winning debating team, the 30-voice choir and the annual Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, plus a wide array of sports teams. At the same time, a few students confess to breaking the rules behind their teachers’ backs—sneaking the odd cigarette or listening to a smuggled-in Walkman. Andrew Blair, 17, from Smiths Falls, Ont., feels that many rules “just don’t make sense.” And although he says he does not consider himself a devout Christian, on balance Blair thinks his attitude has changed since his parents decided to send him to Grenville two years ago. “I didn’t do so well in public school,” he says. “I had problems with the teachers and skipping school. I wasn’t focused at all. I was pretty bad.” This year, Blair plans to graduate with his Grade 12 diploma and then take either one more year of high school or go to a community college. “My parents don’t think it has been a miracle,” declares the clean-cut brown-haired student. “But it has got me through high school.”

SCOTT STEELE in Brockville