It’s a Wednesday morning in mid-August: school’s out, vacations are on, and many are taking advantage of the last few weeks of summer. If at all possible, work is generally avoided. At Webber Academy in Calgary though, Dr. Neil Webber, president and head of school – and now 81 years old – is busy overseeing plans for the coming year. He has done so for the past 20 years.
“I still go in every day,” Webber says. “As long as my health stays fine I will continue on as president and head of school.” It’s a role that has suited him and served the school well. “When we founded it [in 1997] I didn’t expect it would develop into what it is today. We started off with 82 students in a leased space on the north side of the city, and thought if we get a few hundred students over time that would be good.”
This past September, just under 1,000 students – from junior-kindergarten through Grade 12 – entered the school, whose impressive campus is now located in southwest Calgary. The facilities comprise a Kindercentre, a main campus with two gymnasiums, a 10,000-square-metre high school Science Centre, a Performing Arts Centre with a 500-seat theatre, a running track, a soccer field and cross-country trails. The school employs 120 staff.
“We wanted to have a school that would be attractive to parents of children with generally above-average abilities, and for parents who wanted a more direct-teaching instruction,” Webber explains of the school. “We have high expectations for discipline and achievement levels.”
His intention has proved successful. Webber Academy students consistently score at the top on provincial exams. The school ranked third out of 790 elementary schools in Alberta in the Fraser Institute’s 2015-16 ranking and third out of 585 Alberta elementary schools in the last five years. High school students also score very well on Advanced Placement (AP) exams.
A university preparatory school, the university entry rate for the Grade 12 graduating class is consistently 99 per cent. “Most of them go to universities in Canada, but a number go to the U.S., and occasionally we have one who goes to the U.K. – we have a student at Oxford right now,” Webber says. “Almost all of the students have some form of scholarship when they leave here too.”
The school’s students achieve success outside the classroom too. “We have done extremely well in local and international science fairs,” says Webber. “Even down at the Grade 6 level – this year we had six students eligible for the Calgary science fair and they obtained the highest results in the city.”
At the high school level too, science is a strength. “This year, we had a student who won the top intermediate award at the Canada-wide science fair, and won a number of scholarships as a result,” Webber says. He credits the school’s Science Centre – established in 2012 – with fostering these accomplishments. “It has attracted many of our students to science.”
Music, speech, debate, drama and dance are other areas of achievement, helped with the addition of the Performing Arts Centre in 2012. “We’re able to have all our assemblies, school activities and concerts there,” says Webber, “as well as an annual citywide spelling bee contest and an annual debate and science camp each summer.”
While university preparation initially attracted Ian Chang to Webber Academy, he was also involved in extracurricular activities while there. Chang graduated in 2015 and is now attending Duke University. “My experience at Webber Academy was exceptional,” he says. “The academics were no doubt challenging and rigorous, but that’s exactly why I chose to attend. I was an avid participant in debate and Model UN, and had the opportunities to travel both locally and internationally as a result.”
Another unique Webber Academy offering is the President’s Breakfast Club ATB Speaker Series, a series of talks featuring industry professionals from a variety of areas who present to students from Grades 7 through 12. Past speakers include astronaut Dr. Robert Thirsk, drummer Kenny Aronoff, Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Kristine Eidsvik and former prime minister Kim Campbell.
Former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed was another notable Breakfast Club speaker. Not surprising given the long relationship Webber had with the former premier. Indeed, Webber, who served as an elected member of the Alberta legislature for over 14 years and was a member of Lougheed’s cabinet, had accomplished much before he started his school.
Born in Hanna, Alberta, in 1936, Webber was the eldest of nine children. His parents operated a cattle ranch and his mother had been a teacher. “There was a lot of hard work and a strong work ethic was developed there,” Webber recalls, “but my parents also believed that education was very important, so we attended school.”
Though prolonged absences from high school (in order to help his father, who was often ill, on the ranch) caused some struggle, he was nonetheless accepted into the University of Alberta (U of A), where he excelled. He went on to complete four degrees: a bachelor of science in mathematics from the U of A; a master of science in mathematics from the University of Montana; a bachelor of education from the U of A; and a PhD in mathematics education from the U of A. He also completed a two-year meteorological officer program at the University of Toronto.
He married his wife Dorothy in 1957 and began his teaching career that same year. He taught high school physics and mathematics at Queen Elizabeth, St. Mary’s and Saint Francis high schools through the 1960s and into the 1970s. He also taught math at Mount Royal College.
It was this early experience that provoked the notion for Webber Academy. “It goes back to my very first year of teaching where I had 35 youngsters in a class of physics at Queen Elizabeth,” Webber explains. “There was a wide range of abilities, extra help needed for those that were struggling and I also felt that we didn’t challenge the brighter students. I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to focus on those who are generally the top 25 per cent academically, have high expectations and work with the parents to help develop future leaders in our society.’”
In 1969, Webber met then-Premier Lougheed and heard him speak – a moment that triggered a young Webber’s political interest, setting him on a new path. In 1975, he ran for the provincial legislature and won. Throughout his political career he held various portfolios including minister of energy, minister of education, minister of social services and associate minister of telephones.
Webber eventually retired from politics in 1989. “I was close to 53 years old, and thought ‘What am I going to do in an afterlife from politics?’ I thought if I leave it too long, I might be less employable. I’d spent 14-plus years in politics and it was time to move on.”
Then-Premier Don Getty asked Webber to become chairman of Alberta Government Telephones (AGT) and steer the crown corporation through its privatization. Webber was a key figure in this privatization and remained as chairman of Telus until 1992. In 1995, at an age when most people plan their retirement, he began planning Webber Academy.
Today, four of his children work at Webber Academy. The fifth, son Len Webber, followed in his father’s earlier footsteps and went into politics – he was an elected member of the Alberta legislature and is now a member of Parliament. Each of Webber’s 10 grandchildren has been through the school (three are still there).
“Our father continues to motivate us to work hard and take on challenges with a positive attitude,” says Lorne Webber, head of advancement and communications. “It is surreal for us to see what he has developed over the past 20 years with the academy. The fact is he is not finished yet and strives for constant improvements in every aspect of the school and the business of running a school. The foundation he has built will be instrumental in the future of Webber Academy.”
In addition to substantial growth over the past 20 years, the school’s population has diversified too. “We have a real international flavour to our population now with students from many different backgrounds and cultures,” Webber explains. “In the Grade 12 graduation this year of 52 students, 25 of them were born outside of Canada and there are 18 different languages spoken at home among those 52 families.”
Change is rarely without struggle, and Webber Academy has faced one notable challenge recently: in 2012, two Muslim students and their families took the school to the Alberta Human Rights Commission when it refused to allow them to pray at school. Webber Academy was found to have discriminated, and appealed the decision to the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, where it was upheld.
“We believe that the practice of religion should be separate from the education of youngsters at the school here,” Webber explains, “and on that basis don’t allow prayer space for any religion at the school.” He adds that years ago a Catholic family had wanted catechism taught in the school after classes and that was denied as well.
The school has appealed the Queen’s Bench decision to the Court of Appeal, which hears the case this month. Meantime, Webber says enrolment hasn’t been affected. “I think we’re well known now as a secular, non-denominational school and I think that has been an attractive feature for a lot of people.”
He highlights another reason parents choose his school: “We have been very fortunate to be able to get excellent teachers, a number of whom have international experience.” With small class sizes, remuneration at levels equal to or above what is paid in the public system, a bonus system and one-year contracts, Webber says they retain high-quality teachers.
And while the educational side of the school is a success, the business side is equally satisfactory. In January 2017, Webber Academy became debt-free. “We’ve essentially completed our capital investment,” Webber says. “We’ve been able to hold tuition fees this year at the same level they were at the previous year. The future looks pretty bright, I think, from a financial perspective.”
A life full of accomplishments by a man who is not yet finished. With so much to choose from, what does he hope to be remembered for? “Primarily, this school – Webber Academy. My family and I want to see this thrive in the future as being one of the top university preparatory schools around.” The legacy is alive and well.