A Chinese-Canadian company has big plans for the former Muskoka Regional Centre.
Representatives from Maple Leaf Education Schools and Systems said earlier this week that if they can come to terms with the Town of Gravenhurst and Infrastructure Ontario they hope to use the 73 acre waterfront Lake Muskoka property to build a boarding school and have 750 students enrolled by as early as 2018.
“It’s a beautiful piece of land and it’s kind of appropriate because Gravenhurst is the birthplace of Dr. Norman Bethune – a Canadian hero to the Chinese people,” says Howard Balloch, a member of Maple Leaf’s board of directors. “Our hope is to take over the Muskoka Regional Centre lands to turn part of them into a park that would be owned by the Town and part of it into a Maple Leaf boarding high school.”
In October, Gravenhurst Town council approved in concept Maple Leaf’s design for the school. If all goes according to plan, the Town and Maple Leaf will partner and acquire the land from the owners, Infrastructure Ontario.
“(The property) was brought to the attention of our chairman…and a little more than a year ago, the chairman and I and another senior person on the school’s management team came up for a visit,” says Balloch. “We got a real sense of what the land could be and we engaged architects to start thinking about what we could do for the school. It’s all rather exciting.”
Maple Leaf bills themselves as China’s leading independent, international schools system – offering international education for students from preschool to high school. They currently operate 46 schools – all in China – and had 1,300 graduates last year.
“At the high school level we have Canadian and Chinese teachers. The kids become completely bilingual and bicultural and the graduates go on to really good universities everywhere. About 60 per cent go to Canada,” says Balloch. “It’s a high quality school. If you take the QS list of the 100 best universities in the world, slightly more than half of our students go to one of these universities”
In Gravenhurst, Balloch says the tentative plans are to start with 750 students during Phase 1 of the project.
“That’s big. It means…20 or 30 classrooms, science labs, auditorium, gymnasium, sports facilities, soccer fields, a baseball diamond, an administration building and dormitories, and dining facilities,” he says.
The construction period would employ a considerable number of local contractors and labourers, he says, but they anticipate many more jobs will come when the school is operational. He expects there to be one staff person hired for roughly every seven or eight students.
“We hope it won’t just be administrative jobs that benefit the town – we hope to have teachers who already live in the town and others who move to town,” he says. “We won’t put up all the teachers on campus, so there will be teachers, administrators, accountants and other people to cook the food and paint the lines on the soccer field. The impact of a school is substantial on a local economy.”
Balloch says the target market for the school comes from three distinct communities.
One consists of families in China who want their children to go to international universities and would like to have their high school in an even more bicultural setting than a Maple Leaf school in China.
The second group consists of Canadians and Americans of Chinese origin who want their children well educated in a bilingual and bicultural environment.
“Those young people will have the option when they’re finished of working here or going to China,” says Balloch. “They can maintain their level of language and culture in a way that Saturday schools just can’t cut.”
The third group is comprised of those who, despite no cultural connection, view it as an asset to be fluent in the Chinese language and culture.
“China is becoming a more important player on the global stage and learning Chinese is becoming a more valuable asset today than it ever has been in the past. It will become even more valuable – and in some cases a required skill in the future,”says Balloch . “There could be Canadians or Americans who have no links to China but would like to, and there kids would like to, learn Chinese. You won’t just get a good regular education, you’ll come out speaking, reading and writing Chinese.”
While Balloch stresses that the plans are still very much tentative and contingent on approval from the proper government authorities, they hope to get work underway by as early as spring of 2017.