2022–23 Feature story

Building on Traditions: Making Progressive Strides

By Caitlin McCormack

How Havergal’s Values Act as a North Star

In the immortal words of Bob Dylan, “the times they are a-changin’.” While the world around us continues to change, holding on to traditions can be like shelter in a storm, providing the safety of knowing who we are and what we stand for when everything around us is moving. 

Deputy Principal Lindsay Norberg says when it comes to making decisions about the school, Havergal’s core values—Integrity, Inquiry, Compassion and Courage—act as a North Star, keeping educators aligned with the mission of preparing young women to make a difference. 

“The world is changing, so the school has to change along with it in order to help the girls develop the skills they need to thrive in the future,” she says.

“Havergal has always offered a tremendous breadth and depth of co-curricular programming, but as we shifted to find ways to deliver programming more creatively during COVID-19, we developed new and valuable programs.” Norberg talked about the addition of tennis and golf instruction, alongside traditional competitive tennis teams, which the school is running in support of students with less experience in these sports who want to develop new skills. “We spent a lot of time outdoors because of COVID-19 restrictions, so we built a disc golf course on campus. This not only gave us more space to play, but also allowed us to add two new competitive disc golf teams in the fall, alongside a new flag football team.” With the pandemic restrictions lifted, Havergal has been able to grow its arts programming offerings with the addition of a Middle School musical review and a musical in the Junior School this year. 

Deputy Principal Lindsay Norberg (centre) with parents at this year’s Lunar New Year celebration at the Upper School.

As the school works to include student voice into its decisions and planning, Norberg cites the work the Student Council (in particular, Caroline Vandermeer and Kaitlyn Deanin) did to create Chomp Chats this year. During Chomp Chats, tables are set up like a university fair with representatives from student-related departments in the school: Academics, Boarding, Middle School, Facilities, Student Leadership and Food Services are just some of the voices (literally) at the table. Administrators paired with students to facilitate inquiry while providing opportunities to ask questions to work together, as opposed to it being a one-sided town hall.

“Partnering an administrator and a student leader together made the space much more open and enabled the students to have more courage to ask questions,” explains Norberg, adding that the school continually looks for ways students and staff can work together.

Inquiry is further supported through community engagement—whether through the school’s community partnerships or during Prayers. “When we lead Prayers, we select topics that will bring about opportunities for students, faculty and staff to ask questions and learn more about ourselves, our community and the world around us,” says Norberg. 

In terms of the value of Integrity, Norberg notes the school itself is reflective and sets an example of living the value. “One of the key pieces for the school has been learning about the ways we’ve made decisions that may not be as inclusive as we would like and growing from these situations.”

She shares that at last year’s Founders’ Day event, the school did not include a Land Acknowledgment as part of the ceremony. At a subsequent Prayers, Dr. Samson spoke with the school community, made a note of this omission, apologized for it and used this time to reflect on the situation with students. 

When it comes to the value of Compassion, Norberg highlights how the school is providing more opportunities for students to connect with communities in need by expanding the offering of community partnerships. “As a school, we’re modelling compassion and helping students get to know others and think about their experiences as well.” 

Another example of the school being led by its values and evolving to be more inclusive is the shift to events that recognize the variety of family structures, and the move to parent/student social events that ensure all students feel included and families feel welcome.

“We are still able to honour the tradition of a student having special, one-on-one time with a family member or impactful adult and coming to a key event together,” says Norberg. “Today, these time-honoured traditions still exist, but we’ve made a shift to make it more inclusive and ensuring all students and families feel welcome to participate, no matter their family structure.”

Our research on wellbeing shows it’s really important for students to have a sense of community and the skills to feel connected.

Lindsay Norberg, Deputy Principal

Another school tradition being updated to be more inclusive is Prayers. While the school’s Anglican roots play a key role—there’s the singing of a hymn and an opening prayer, honouring our Anglican values—it’s evolved to include more voices and perspectives.  

“Regardless of an individual’s faith, Prayers offers the opportunity to come together, be in community and have a sense of connectedness,” says Norberg. “Our research on wellbeing shows it’s really important for students to have a sense of community and the skills to feel connected.”

Diversifying the student stories and experiences that are included in Prayers recognizes a greater diversity of staff and student identities within the school, providing students with the chance to learn from one another and offering greater exposure to diverse personal experiences. This celebration of diversity has also led to the development of Brave Spaces and Affinity Groups. 

“A number of years ago, students and faculty worked together to create a Diversity Committee,” explains Norberg. “A group of students led this Diversity Committee, which brought together people from different identities to have discussions, welcome speakers and topics, and learn from one another.” 

She says that while it was a wonderful opportunity for students, there was also a desire for those of a shared identity to come together to learn from one another, while having opportunities to explore issues and topics relevant to them. This led to the creation of several Affinity Groups (for students of a certain identity), as well as Alliances (for those wishing to be allies).  

One such group is the Black Student Affinity Group (BSA). Grade 12 student Sofia Al Hussan is a member of both the BSA and Havergal’s Muslim Student Affinity Group (MSA). She says that while BSA has changed names over the years, at its core it has been a space for Black students to come together to talk about the experience of being Black at Havergal and what that experience entails.

“It also provides a space to talk about difficult conversations that might come up in class. Or sometimes we have conversations about microaggressions and how we navigate that in a predominantly white institution,” she explains. “To be able to have conversations is really valuable to me because, as one of the only Black students in my grade, it was necessary and helpful for me to be around other students who have had similar experiences.”

Al Hussan says the MSA has been a great space to come together with other Muslim students at the school to talk about their experience being Muslim at Havergal. The group also facilitates Ramadan Prayers. She says that while the students do discuss challenges, the groups also provide opportunities to celebrate their identities and culture. 

Sofia Al Hussan dressed in traditional Eritrean clothes for Black Culture Prayers.

“I had the privilege of becoming BSA Head last year and I really appreciated that because of how safe the space was for me to be able to grow and feel more confident in myself speaking about issues that I cared about, that I wasn’t as confident speaking about before,” she says, adding that she wanted to help create a safe space for younger students the way older students had for her. 

Al Hussan adds that Alliance Spaces are really important as the Diversity Committee is not limited to students with diverse identities or BIPOC students. “Having Alliance Spaces fosters a great opportunity for allyship, which is something I would like to see more students taking advantage of because their support is crucial to this process.”

Above all, Al Hussan says it’s necessary to keep in mind the importance of intersectionality, as Affinity Groups are not a monolith—there are many diverse identities within the same groups. “Having these types of spaces is essential because a lot of times students fight this inner conflict of not knowing if they want to say something. I think the way to battle that is through Affinity and Alliance Groups because having more allies within our school community is really important for growth.”

One initiative introduced by the BIPOC Affinity Group was a Diversity Week, with themes, activities and even a Prayers to help people understand more about different cultures, while allowing students to also have some fun and share their backgrounds.

“Not everybody joins an Affinity Group, regardless of their culture,” says Khushi Sharma, a Grade 11 student. “A Diversity Week offered a way for everybody to get involved. It’s really important to build this kind of safe area for students to feel comfortable.” 

Sharma is part of the BIPOC Affinity Group and was the Head last year. She explains that this group supports students who might not necessarily fit into the other Affinity Groups and provides a safe space to talk about issues.  

A Diversity Week offers a way for everybody to get involved. It’s really important to build this kind of safe area for students to feel comfortable.

Khushi Sharma, Grade 11
Grade 11 students Khushi Sharma (left) and Meena Verma with the Diversity Petal art project.

“We talk a lot about the issues people face, which is definitely really important. But I think it’s also necessary to talk about the positive sides as well, such as discussing how we can share these cultures and learnings with others. Being able to share and appreciate diversity and experience or learn about different food, clothing and that kind of stuff helps people understand.”

Sharma believes Havergal has done a lot to become more inclusive, especially over the past few years. 

“Even when talking to other schools, Affinity Groups and Diversity Committees, these kinds of things aren’t super-big,” she says. “So, the fact that we have so many different Affinity Groups and Alliances, as well as community partnerships that reflect different cultures, shows how much we’ve been progressing.”

  • A student and staff member posing with their Diversity Petals.
  • Students posing with their diversity petals.
  • Students and staff posing with their diversity petals.
  • Two students posing with their diversity petals.
  • Photo of the Diversity Panel at Prayers.
  • Group photo of the Diversity Week student organizers.
  • Student holding the Muslim Student Affinity Group poster.
  • Students pointing to the Asian Affinity Group poster.

When it comes to wellbeing, updates to learning support have played a key role in the school becoming more progressive. Cheryl MacKinnon, Head of Learning Support for the Junior School, notes when she started working at Havergal 10 years ago, there was one Learning Support staff member in the Junior School and one in the Upper School. The team has since grown to four Learning Support Specialists, plus a Child and Youth Worker in the Junior School and three Learning Support Specialists in the Upper School. 

The Junior School Learning Support Team, led by Cheryl MacKinnon (second from right).

“We’ve really grown and developed our team, which allows us to support students in a more individualized way,” she says. She adds that in the Junior School, they focus on early intervention to prevent achievement gaps from widening. “Teachers monitor progress, so if a student is starting to struggle in any way, we can catch them early. Because we have so many eyes on our students, it’s really a collaborative approach,” she says. The Learning Support Team works in collaboration with faculty, families and external clinical service providers to monitor student growth and provide interventions and accommodations that target specific learning and social/emotional needs. “This includes an occupational therapist and a speech language pathologist who come to the school once a week to work closely with students,” she says.

In terms of updates to the admissions and recruitment process, Emily Simms-Brown, Executive Director of Strategic Enrolment Management, says the school’s values of Inquiry, Integrity, Compassion and Courage are at the forefront. 

“Research has shown that bias can exist within standardized academic testing,” she explains. “Because of this, over the years we have become more intentional in the development of our own internal assessments at each grade level. We want to ensure that students who don’t have access to formal tutoring and preparation courses are equally assessed at each grade level.”

Simms-Brown notes that over the past few years, with the help of faculty, the Admissions Team was able to adapt its process to be virtual, before returning to in-person. 

“A consistent theme through all the change is that our process is equitable,” she says. “We always want to ensure we are adapting to the changing needs of our families and that we are providing an experience that helps our applicants share their areas of growth during the process.”

She adds that while it is early in the process this year, especially through the years of virtual admissions, staff consistently heard from families that they felt comfortable. 

“Families appreciated that the assessments were developed by our team to ensure each student’s individual experience was top of mind and we were able to approach the assessment from a consistent, comprehensive and fair perspective.”

At the Board level, talks about balancing the traditions of the past with the values of today are also a priority. Jill Fraser is Vice Chair of the Board of Governors, a Havergal graduate (Class of 1987) and the parent of an alum (Maddy, Class of 2021). She notes that the school is committed to creating an inclusive environment and building a more diverse student and employee population. 

Jill Fraser (Class of 1987) with daughter Maddy O’Brien (Class of 2021) on O’Brien’s graduation day from Havergal College.

This year saw the creation of an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Committee to ensure those priorities are top of mind. “We’ve also looked at all our committees at the Board level to make sure to update our mandates to include an EDI perspective,” Fraser says.   

She notes that while the school holds on to traditions such as the Carol Service, Founders’ Day and Prayers, it’s also better reflecting its community with celebrations like Diwali and Lunar New Year. Updates to Prayers are another big progression Fraser has seen in her years of involvement at Havergal. 

“Today, it’s evolved into more of a community gathering,” she explains. “While there are still traditional elements, it’s modernized as well.” There could be a student or guest speaking on current issues, there might be the inclusion of an Indigenous perspective or it could be related to a current event. 

“What is a prayer, really?” says Fraser. “Yes, it started as literally prayers, but now it’s more of a thoughtful mindfulness and a time to focus.”

Additionally, preparing students to flourish and make an impact once they leave the school is part of the Board’s focus on creating future-ready learners. Fraser says the Board frequently reviews what skills, competencies and mindsets girls will need to be successful out in the world. This includes academic and co-curricular programming, global learning and international development, as well as HC-X programming.

“While we’re growing and improving and changing and keeping with the times on the academics, we’re not giving up what we’ve always been, which is a really strong liberal arts school,” says Fraser. 

Norberg says that amid the changes, she likes to think of Havergal as a tree with very deep roots. 

“Deep roots are our history and our traditions. They provide a stable foundation for Havergal to grow and evolve,” she explains. “We have a history of academic excellence. We have a history of educating young women and preparing them to go out into the world to have a positive impact. We have a history of helping students develop the individual skills and strategies to achieve their goals.”

She acknowledges that the world around us is changing and what it means to prepare a young woman to make a difference in the world is also changing. 

“One of the things about Havergal is that there’s not just one path forward. There are many. We want kids to come here and discover their passions and their identity, and we want to support them.”

Published April 2023
2022–23 Issue