Crescent School - Interview with School Leadership
Crescent School was founded as a kinder, gentler alternative to the boys’ private schools of the early twentieth century, a place where building character was as important as sharpening minds and strengthening bodies. Today, that commitment is as strong as ever. “Men of Character from Boys of Promise,” the school’s mission, resonates inside and outside the classroom.
While it’s a mid-sized day school with over 750 students, Crescent has the feel of a close-knit community. Teachers, parents, and students often refer to the “Crescent Family,” and the boys call each other “brothers.” Despite having Grades 3 to 12 in a Lower, Middle, and Upper School, there are no strict physical divisions on campus. Many facilities are shared, and the dining hall is smack in the middle of the school, so the youngest boys regularly cross paths with the oldest. Leadership opportunities in extracurricular activities also bring the different grades together. The result is a one-family, one-school approach.
The academic program is rigorous but flexible, allowing students to pursue enriched learning where they excel. In addition to the Ontario curriculum, Upper School students can take Advanced Placement (AP) courses to earn university credits. The signature extracurricular programs—called “co-curricular” at Crescent because of their tight integration with classroom learning—allow students to apply their knowledge and get hands-on, real-life experience in the arts, athletics, robotics, business, and outreach. STEM learning is a strength at Crescent, and the robotics teams compete at an international level.
A holistic “character-infused” education is the aim, says Headmaster Michael Fellin. “We don’t promote ourselves as being a school that encourages students to do extremely well at one thing alone all the way through their education. We probably lose the odd championship because of that, and we’re okay with it. But it also means that the kids playing hockey or basketball, for example, might also try being in a play or going on a service trip.” Several teachers echoed this sentiment, describing a school culture that celebrates all interests and talents. Especially in the earlier years, the program offerings encourage boys to spread their wings.
Crescent parents we spoke to welcome this effort to nurture boys’ existing interests while sparking new ones. They also appreciate the attention given to the whole student, with equal focus given to emotional and social well-being as physical and intellectual achievement. “To bolster our health and wellness programs, the Crescent staff models good habits for a lifetime,” says Fellin. “Men haven’t always been the best at taking care of themselves in this way, and it’s good to share our own struggles with the boys so we can all do a better job. We can also learn a lot from women in this area.”
Women, in fact, make up more than half the faculty and leadership team at Crescent, which distinguishes it from most boys’ schools. “I think it's really important that we surround our boys with both women and men that they can look up to, learn from, and respect,” says Fellin. Fostering the teacher-student relationship is paramount at the school, which takes a relational learning approach across the student experience.
Crescent staff are steeped in the educational research that shows boys learn best when they feel connected to, and known by, their teacher. The staff goes to great lengths to create positive relationships with students, from attending their games and performances to taking time to learn about their lives outside school. Most of the 70-plus athletic teams have a teacher-coach, offering teachers just another way to forge bonds outside the classroom. “We hire people not only for their teaching and subject expertise, but also for their competency as mentors and role models,” says Fellin. Still, nearly 40 percent of the faculty hold advanced degrees, and many have previous or current professional experience in their respective fields. Crescent teachers have the unique opportunity to enhance their knowledge of how boys learn best through the Crescent Centre for Boys’ Education, a research arm within the school.
Attending a boys’ school was transformative for Michael Fellin in his youth, boosting his confidence and offering him a newfound sense of self, and he’s made it his life’s work to give other boys the same extraordinary experience. Fellin became Crescent’s 10th headmaster in 2014 after serving as the Assistant Head of Upper School since 2011. He attended St. Michael’s College School in Toronto before earning degrees in English and education from Glendon College at York University, followed by a master’s degree in divinity from Regis College at the University of Toronto. His doctoral degree in theology and education is in progress.
From day one of his career, Fellin has worked with boys. Before joining Crescent, he spent over 10 years at a public Catholic boys’ school in Toronto as a teacher, chaplain, department head, and vice-principal. In 2009 while at Neil McNeil SS, his Leadership Team was recognized with a Premier's Award for Teaching Excellence (along with Nick Kovacs, who is now Crescent's Deputy Headmaster and Head of Upper School). “I’ve always seen my career as devoted to supporting young men,” he says. “I moved to Crescent because I wanted to be part of a school that was not only a leader in boys’ education but had a clarity of mission in developing boys’ character.”
Fellin walks the walk when it comes to upholding the school’s commitment to building positive relationships as the foundation for learning. He makes a point of consistently connecting with students, seeing what they’re working on, and watching their games and competitions. In 2019 he returned to mentoring after a hiatus from the Upper School mentorship program and realized how much he’d missed it. “Listening and sharing with the boys was one of the highlights of my year,” he said. “I got as much or more out of it than I gave.”
Though he tries not to take himself too seriously and enjoys sharing a laugh with faculty and students, Fellin’s approach to his leadership role is another matter. “I’m always worrying about the boys and the school, and how we can do even better,” he says. “I appear pretty stoic and even-keeled, but I’m like a duck on the placid water with my feet going furiously underneath.” Beyond his school commitments, Fellin is on the Board of Trustees of the International Boys’ School Coalition. “At the boys’ school I attended, my teachers and coaches saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself, and the relationships I formed there will last a lifetime. I’m trying to give back a little bit of what I received.”
Set on 30 acres in midtown Toronto, Crescent School backs onto a lush ravine shared with York University’s Glendon campus. The first building that comes into view after the turn off Bayview Avenue is the Manor House, a gracious historic home that now serves as the school’s administrative hub. Behind this building there’s a formal garden for special events (and recess). The overall impression is of being surrounded by green (or gold and red, depending on the season), and of being in a place firmly apart from the concrete city.
Traditions run deep at the school with 100-plus years of history. Every student belongs to one of six houses, each named after a leading light in Canadian history (Cartier, Hudson, Mackenzie, Massey, Simcoe, and Wolfe) with an accompanying colour. Leadership opportunities are wide and varied across all the grades, ranging from captains to Head Boy team and club executive members and more.
Yet there’s a decidedly modern element in the Crescent culture that’s reflected in the mix of architecture. The main building, built 50 years ago, has had several additions in recent years, such as the window-lined, airy Latifi Family Commons and the Middle and Upper School Library.
In 1913, J.W. (“Jimmy”) James welcomed about 20 boys into his home at 43 Rosedale Road for the first day of a very different kind of boys’ school. His vision was to offer boys in Grades 5 to 8 a first-rate education in a caring environment. In the words of Crescent School historian Neil Campbell, it was to be “. . . kinder and gentler than the fierce caning world” of contemporary private schools. This was quite radical thinking for the time, but it persisted and grew into the school’s overarching philosophy.
The purpose of the school, according to James, was “to train boys in character, in knowledge, and in games. It is the aim of the school to develop right and vigorous characters, at an early age, and to guide boys in their responsibilities to their fellows.” The repetition of the word “character” was no accident, and James would be pleased to know that the school’s emphasis on character education (alongside an enriched academic education) is its most salient characteristic today.
In 1930, the school again established itself as ahead of the curve in boys’ education by expanding the curriculum to include music, art, and drama. Today, that early commitment to fostering an appreciation for the arts is evident in thriving curricular and co-curricular programs in every grade. Over the following decade, enrolment rose to the point where the school needed a more spacious home. Susan Massey—the widow of Canadian businessman Walter Massey—generously donated her 40-acre Dentonia Park estate in eastern Toronto, allowing Crescent to add Grades 1 to 4 and welcome boarders (but just temporarily).
Kindergarten and nursery classes ran during the 1950s and 1960s, but ended in the 1970s during a time of transition. The school moved to its current Bayview Avenue campus in 1970 after businessman and philanthropist W. Garfield Weston sold the property to Crescent for a million dollars. Weston purchased the estate in 1955 from the AGO, which was bequeathed it by financier, industrialist, and philanthropist Frank Porter Wood. The Manor House, the home Wood commissioned in 1931, now houses Crescent School’s main reception and administrative office. The present-day staff room wing was the Woods’ carriage house. Interestingly, Wood’s great- great-grandson and Weston’s great-grandson are current Crescent students.
Enrolment grew dramatically in the seventies. The school dropped the earliest grades and added high school, settling permanently into the Grade 3 to 13 (now 12) structure. In the years since then, Crescent has continued to grow and develop increasingly sophisticated facilities, but one thing is unchanged: The school remains steadfast in its commitment to Jimmy James’s goal of cultivating boys’ minds and characters in a warm, family-like school environment.
The academic program is demanding, yet flexible and supportive, in keeping with the school’s “kinder, gentler” roots. Character education is explicit in the Lower School, with specific themes throughout the grades such as personal responsibility and managing relationships. As the boys get older, the curriculum is intentionally infused with character-building moments and conversations. There’s an expectation that every student will keep pace with the curriculum, but they don’t have to go it alone. And boys don’t have to excel in every subject-area or conform to a rigid learning style.
“We provide multiple pathways through the provincial curriculum that are customized to the boys’ unique interests and abilities,” says Headmaster Fellin. “We enrich the curriculum, but we don’t layer on another.” In other words, Crescent doesn’t offer the International Baccalaureate (IB), found at some independent schools. Instead, teachers provide different ways to support or stretch students within the standard curriculum.
In the Lower School, it’s all about discovery. Just as Crescent boys are encouraged to explore a wide variety of athletics and co-curriculars during these years, they’re given the chance to try out different ways of gaining and demonstrating knowledge in the classroom. “There’s an incredible amount of opportunity for personalization in these early grades,” says Lower School Head Dr. Sandra Boyes. “We know that giving boys a voice and a choice is so essential to their engagement. So, when it comes to assessment, for example, they can often choose from different formats such as essays, group projects, a film, or a PowerPoint presentation. We understand that there are many ways to show evidence of learning.”
While STEM is a consistent focus through all the grades, literacy has a prominent place in the Lower School. From the Kids’ Lit Club and the Dads’ Read Program to author visits and media studies, there’s a concerted effort to build the necessary skills and instill a love of language at this critical stage. According to one Crescent parent, it took just one week in Grade 3 for her son’s teacher to recognize his need for reading support. “I’d been trying to get help for him since Grade 1, but as soon as he arrived at Crescent they picked up on my exact concern,” she says. “He quickly got caught up and immediately began to thrive.”
The Middle School program is based on the latest research into how young adolescent boys learn best, says Head Ryan Bell. “Offering personalized teaching and learning goes a long way to enhancing the experience of boys at this age, so we aim to provide pathways of choice and specialization. It makes them feel more empowered, which translates into more effort and commitment on their part.” The summer Reach Ahead program gives boys in Grade 8 the chance to accelerate their learning by taking Grade 9 courses. “We’re not about siloing or streaming the boys at Crescent,” says Bell. “We give them opportunities to augment their academic experience based on their inclination and abilities.”
Boys in the pre-teen and early-teen years also maximize their learning when they have a strong relationship with their teachers, according to the research that informs the Middle School program. The mentorship program, where teachers meet regularly with about a dozen boys throughout the year, begins in Grade 7 and continues until graduation.
By Upper School, there’s an understanding at Crescent that boys will have narrowed their academic focus. “Universities today are looking for kids who are well-rounded but have gone deep in one or two academic areas and really developed a sense of purpose,” says Fellin. The Upper School offers more than 70 courses at the highest levels of the Ontario curriculum, along with Advanced Placement (AP) credits. A certain segment of parents, including some we spoke to, chose Crescent specifically for the AP program, which allows students to earn university-level credits in their strongest subjects. “It's very common for our boys to come back from university and say that they were very, very well-prepared for what they encountered academically,” says Deputy Headmaster and Upper School Head Nick Kovacs. One parent proudly recounted the story of her son solving a problem in his first-year chemistry class that even stumped the professor.
Another reason Crescent offers customized academic routes to graduation in the Upper School is to align with the school’s focus on social and emotional health. While some boys opt for the full AP path, it’s not for everyone, according to Kovacs. “We believe that when you take the one-size-fits-all approach that pushes everybody through the same pathway, you start to see the pressure points in the context of health and well-being. We don’t want students struggling to keep pace where it’s not an area of strength or passion for them.”
Whenever boys do need extra help, there are learning specialists for each division who provide one-on-one or small-group academic support. This includes working with students who have Individual Education Plans (IEPs).
Crescent is in the middle of a curriculum redesign process where one of the driving forces is a shift to even more interdisciplinary learning opportunities. It’s reflective of the school’s consistent effort to keep its academic programs responsive to the latest educational research and societal trends. “In our high-tech, globalized world, people need to be agile and adaptable in their capacity to straddle different areas of expertise and knowledge,” says Kovacs. “Interdisciplinary learning prepares students for that reality.” A new course on Big Data analytics, for example, is in the works for the near future.
The school’s strategic academic plan, called “The Crescent Way,” lays out a commitment to active, relational, experiential learning. These buzzwords are common in education, of course, but there’s ample evidence that Crescent teachers take them to heart.
While staff members readily admit that the old “chalk and talk” teaching method is essential in certain circumstances, it’s always accompanied by active learning experiences such as labs, debates, role-playing, or just lively discussion. “It comes down to giving the boys opportunities to take their learning and demonstrate it or apply it in a practical way—that’s when the neurons really get firing,” says Upper School Head Nick Kovacs.
As far as experiential learning goes, where students gain knowledge and skills outside the classroom, there’s something for everyone at Crescent. Outdoor education is part of the curriculum throughout the grades, with boys regularly trekking into the ravine to study flora, fauna, or water systems. The extensive outreach program takes boys on day outings or international trips to settings where they can broaden their understanding of social and economic issues. And the signature “Character-in-Action” programs give boys a chance to tackle real-world challenges through their participation in clubs and teams in the arts, business, robotics, and athletics.
Everyone we spoke to at Crescent underscored the high value the school places on relational learning. It’s the differentiator that people seem most proud of and appears to be embedded in everything the school does. “The relationship is the gateway, especially for boys,” says Fellin. “We make sure each of our students feels known and cared for, because it fuels their learning.”
The relational approach is instinctive for the kind of teachers Crescent hires—those with high emotional intelligence—but they also rely on research-based methods to enhance their teaching practice. In addition to a comprehensive professional development program, Crescent faculty benefit from the research culture underpinned by the Crescent Centre for Boys’ Education. While the school has had an active research program through its membership in the International Boys’ School Coalition for over a decade, the in-school centre was established in 2019 as a vehicle to expand and more easily share Crescent’s findings. Faculty members explore research in four areas prioritized by the school: character, well being, pedagogy, and diversity. Recent projects have examined how character education builds boys’ resilience, for example, and ways to reduce test anxiety in math. “The centre reinforces our culture of continual improvement and collaboration,” says Dr. Sandra Boyes, Executive Director of Professional Learning and Research as well as Head of the Lower School. “Even if teachers aren’t directly involved in research, they’re always taking a critical and research-based lens to their practice. We’re on a journey of constant self-improvement.”
Whether boys are acting in the latest theatre production, building a robot, running an investment fund, or snowshoeing in a remote northern community, Crescent’s Character-in-Action clubs, teams, and outreach activities intentionally design opportunities to build character outside the classroom. While everything is optional, participation runs high across all the grades. This is not a school for boys who just want to go to class and make a quick exit at the end of the day. “These programs help students find a place where they feel at home, where their contributions matter,” says Gavin Muranaka, director of business and entrepreneurship.
Every year Crescent puts on three major theatre productions—one for each of the Lower, Middle, and Upper Schools—to showcase the talents of students in drama, music, and the fine arts. The latest Upper School show, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, was a spectacular affair that ran shortly before the pandemic. In addition to the Upper School leads, it featured the Lower School choir, a pit band of faculty and student musicians, and guest actors from Havergal College.
Not to be confused with your average school play, these shows take months of preparation and are staged in the 350-seat, professionally-equipped theatre within Crescent’s Centre for Creative Learning. “This venue is better than many theatres in Toronto where I’ve performed,” says Godric Latimer-Kim, head of performing and visual arts, who acted professionally on stage and TV for 25 years. When she joined Crescent in 2003, drama courses were only available in the Upper School and there was just one production per year. In addition to adding a production for each division, she spearheaded the expansion of curricular drama into the Lower and Middle Schools.
“Involvement in the arts has exponential benefits for the development of boys’ character,” says Latimer-Kim. “Whether it’s acting in a play, making a film, or performing with a musical ensemble, it takes boys out of their comfort zones and creates moments of vulnerability that foster empathy.”
All the arts teachers have worked in their fields of expertise, and many continue to do so alongside their teaching careers. Within the music faculty, for example, one teacher plays in a rock band, one plays professional piano, and one is a professional opera singer. The Lower School drama teacher was a professional dancer, and all the teachers in the visual arts program have private studio practices. “We all bring a passion for our discipline to our teaching and very much stay active as performers and creators,” says Latimer-Kim.
There’s a deliberate effort in the arts program to expose students to ideas and creations they might not otherwise encounter. Luminaries occasionally visit Crescent, such as renowned landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky, but so do less mainstream figures such as Bruno Smoky, a legendary graffiti artist who ran a hands-on workshop at the school last year. “These experiences give the boys a wider, more fulsome appreciation for diversity in the arts,” says Latimer-Kim. “We ask the boys to consider perspectives beyond their immediate experience and form human connections in this age of technology.”
The boys’ visual artwork, produced in three sunlit art studios, is displayed throughout the school. In the Grade 10 media arts course, students get to hone both their artistic and tech skills through video production, website design, sound and animation, and photography.
Crescent’s many performance groups—including multiple choirs, a symphonic band, string and guitar ensembles, and chamber groups—compete in regional and national music festivals, tour regularly, and can often be heard at school assemblies and recitals. The biannual Crescent School Choir Tour takes students, parents, and faculty members to European destinations with special significance in Canadian history, such as the Vimy Memorial. For students wanting to go one step further with their music education, Crescent offers private lessons in voice and a variety of instruments after school hours.
Every spring, Crescent invites family and friends to celebrate student creations in music, drama, fine arts, and media arts in an event called “Luna.” Some faculty members even contribute to the performances and exhibits. The 2019 occasion marked the official unveiling of a mural on a two-storey wall in the Middle and Upper School library created by students, alumni, faculty, and a professional artist. The mural combines vivid watercolour painting with handwritten words of wisdom that align with Crescent’s mission of creating men of character: “Laugh at yourself,” for example, and “Don’t let setbacks be defined as failures, but rather as learning.”
Sports are big here, like they are at many boys’ schools. The flagship teams are soccer and cross country in the fall, basketball and hockey in the winter, and track and field and rugby in the spring. “But there’s such a healthy support network among all the different activities at Crescent, including but beyond athletics,” says Fraser Bertram, who’s been director of athletics since 2005. “And there’s no big divide between the elite athletes and the rest of the boys. There’s a great level of respect among the boys for athletics at all levels.”
This sense of camaraderie and mutual support is seeded and nurtured in both curricular physical education and co-curricular athletics. Athletics are much more than a physical and competitive outlet or a vehicle to build school spirit at Crescent. Instead, everything that happens on the field, court, or rink is a potential teaching moment. “In sport, boys are naturally exposed to so many character lessons, whether they’re about friendship, perseverance, or heat-of-the moment competition,” says Bertram.
Conscious character-building in athletics follows a progressive model, where boys in the lower grades learn about fundamental values such as responsibility and teamwork and the themes become more mature over the years. The discussions and lessons happen organically, springing from events in the game or boys’ reactions during play.
Participation in co-curricular sports is extremely high across the grades, more evidence of the inclusive athletics culture. Since Bertram arrived at Crescent 15 years ago, he’s made it his goal to give as many boys as possible the chance to play on a team or simply make fitness part of their day. This has meant creating more teams at more levels, and today there are more than 70 teams covering everything from the classics to golf and ultimate frisbee (in partnership with Havergal College). As a result, 100 percent of boys in Grades 3 to 6 play on a team, while about 85 percent of boys in the Middle and Upper Schools take part.
Balanced is the best word to describe the school’s overall approach to athletics. There are plenty of opportunities for students with the skill and drive to compete at the highest levels (and continue with university teams), but there’s also a place for those students who want the experience of being on a team, practicing, and competing without too much intensity.
“Our long-term goal is for the guys to still make fitness a part of their daily routine when they’re 30 and 40,” says Bertram. If none of the team sports fit into their school schedules or match their interests, there’s a fitness club, squash courts, and a ravine directly behind the school for running or walking. The facilities also include two gyms, a low ropes course, a double artificial turf field, and—a gem in the crown of any school in the northern climes—the year-round bubbled Field House. The 30,000-square-foot indoor field has an indoor track and tennis and basketball courts.
Nearly 60 faculty members coach at least one team—even if they start with no expertise in the sport in question. Guest coaches from the community bolster the teachers’ athletics knowledge and skills, but the real value of teacher-coaches is their 360-degree knowledge of the team members. “They bring the understanding that athletics are just one part of a boy’s school life,” says Bertram. “They know if the boy has had a rough day or other demands. It all comes back to reinforcing the teacher-student relationship.”
Up to a third of Crescent students aspire to a career in business-related fields, according to Gavin Muranaka, director of business and entrepreneurship. In the Upper School, there’s a comprehensive business curriculum in accounting, economics, and business entrepreneurship. Muranaka, who worked in the venture capital industry before joining the Crescent faculty in 2008, is the first to admit that the theoretical aspect of these subjects can be dry unless they’re brought to life with real-world applications. That’s the approach he and his colleagues—many who also switched to teaching after careers in marketing, banking, and technology—take in the classroom. But it’s in the thriving co-curricular business program where the boys really get to see the business curriculum come alive.
It’s not often that high school boys get to manage a $45,000 investment portfolio, for example, but they do exactly that on the investment team. They deal with real money—the investment portfolio rolls over and (ideally) grows each year. The team is part of the broader Crescent Business Team, whose members participate in business competitions up to the international level.
Though the investment team has some adult advisors, students lead and run all business team activities. “The boys build leadership, communication, analytical, and critical thinking skills while stoking their passion for business,” says Muranaka. “They go into high-pressure competitions where they not only have to think on their feet but perform and present to an audience.”
For boys in Grade 9 and 10, there’s a junior business club where they can learn the essentials and get their feet wet in the world of business competitions. And there’s even a Crescent summer camp focused on financial literacy and investing.
Sheryl Murray, director of outreach, wasn’t surprised when many Crescent alumni, students, and families launched support initiatives for people affected by COVID-19. But she was impressed by the scale of some of the projects. Three Grade 11 students raised more than $14,000 for personal protective equipment, for example, and a Grade 12 student raised nearly $7,000 to buy groceries for families in a subsidized housing development in his neighbourhood.
“These students came up with their ideas, researched them, and executed on their own,” says Murray, whose role involves reviewing students’ outreach proposals and helping them make the right connections. “What happened at the beginning of the pandemic just shows that Crescent’s core values of compassion and responsibility live in an inner place within our students. When they have a chance to put these values to work, it’s not just a resume-building moment. There are much easier ways to do that. They really want to make a difference.”
Crescent students are used to doing the legwork when they get involved in outreach projects. Once they reach Middle and Upper School, they take the lead in planning where they’re going to go and what they’re going to do. “It’s always more meaningful when they do the work themselves,” says Murray, who prefers the term “outreach” to “service” when describing the school’s approach. “I make sure the boys know that we’re not making people our projects. We reach out to different communities so the boys can learn from them, build relationships, and develop their empathy and understanding.”
In the Lower School, the outreach activities include curriculum-linked activities such as writing letters to people in retirement homes and day trips to community organizations. In Middle School, Crescent takes outreach to a whole new level. Every Tuesday for eight weeks, the boys spend the whole afternoon at one partner agency that supports vulnerable individuals. In the past, the focus has been on individuals who are homeless or struggling with substance abuse, for example. “We all work together during those two months and the boys gain new insight into the lives of people from all types of backgrounds and experiences,” says Middle School Head Ryan Bell.
This in-depth outreach comes at the perfect time in Crescent boys’ development, says Murray. “Middle school boys are still curious, interested, and eager enough to want to make a difference. It’s an ideal stage to extend their awareness of the world outside their inner circles.” While she has nothing against one-off outreach activities, Murray believes students should also challenge themselves with longer-term commitments. “Instead of patting themselves on the back for moving boxes for a few hours, we want the boys to see that, sometimes, outreach just means sitting and having a conversation with someone you wouldn’t ordinarily talk to. And going back every week to do the same thing, whether it’s uncomfortable for you or not.”
Until the pandemic, Crescent offered multiple outreach trips for boys in the Upper School. The popularity of these trips, even among boys in Grade 9, is a testament to the school’s culture. Going on an outreach trip is considered a kind of rite of passage for many students, but, again, Murray doesn’t present a resumé-builder on a silver platter. “What the boys get out of these trips is up to them,” she says. “They need to put in the work in the pre-service component, really dig in while they’re there, and engage fully in the debriefing component. If they do, it’s meaningful for them and for the organization or community they immerse themselves in.” On recent trips, the boys have lived with a Maasai community in Tanzania, joined in Cree winter traditions in Moose Factory, Ontario, and contributed to a local school in Ecuador.
One weekend each month, Crescent parents can join their sons in a local outreach activity. These outings are also in high demand. “We really love those Saturdays,” says one parent. “We get to connect with other families while contributing to the community.” Murray recognizes that some critics might accuse the school of “poverty tourism,” but she says her 15 years at Crescent prove otherwise. “We see the ‘aha’ moments all the time when our outreach program brings the boys together with people living a different reality. They suddenly realize that boundaries and barriers don't matter, and people are people. That’s the foundation for a man of character.”
Shortly before the the pandemic lockdown imposed by the government, more than 200 people gathered to celebrate 20 years of robotics at Crescent. The guests—including alumni, current students, faculty, retired staff members, parents, and friends—witnessed the unveiling of Megalodon, the award-winning robotic team’s latest creation. An impressive-looking piece of technology, Megalodon can shoot hoops and run obstacles courses, among other things.
David Grant, now Dean of Studies, launched the school’s robotics program in 1999, and it’s now led by Don Morrison and a team with expertise in mechanical engineering, software engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science. Robotics is part of the Upper School curriculum, with courses that require students to design, program, machine, wire, and create technological solutions to a variety of challenges. The fully equipped robotics Lab not only has a computer lab and spaces for building and testing, but machine rooms with state-of-the-art manual and computer-controlled equipment.
The Grade 12 tech design course is emblematic of the school’s values and academic strengths. A collaboration with Sunny View Public School, which serves children with disabilities, it requires Crescent students to work alongside Sunny View students to design and adapt toys and equipment for accessibility. “A couple of my favourite products of this course were a catapult that allowed the kids to play catch with their parents and a race car track with an accessible control device,” says Morrison.
While the Upper School robotics curriculum is robust and well-entrenched, Crescent is currently working on integrating robotics-related content in the Lower and Middle Schools. But there are plenty of co-curricular robotics opportunities for boys in any grade. In Lower and Middle School, boys can participate in the VEX-IQ Robotics Club or try out for the VEX IQ Robotics Team, which competes at the provincial level. VEX-IQ is a snap-together robotics system that builds foundational skills for Upper School robotics, where the bar rises to new heights. Crescent is the only independent boys’ school in Ontario that competes in the FIRST Robotics Competition at the international level. Every year for the last two decades, the Upper School robotics team (Team 610) has built a five-foot-tall robot from scratch to compete in high-intensity robo-sports. In 2013, Team 610 beat out 400 teams from across the globe to take gold at the world championships.
“Our mandate with the program is to be the best in the world, but it’s not just about winning competitions,” says Morrison. “It’s about the boys striving for excellence in everything they do along the way.” In the months leading up to FIRST Robotics competitions, team members put in more than 20 hours per week, including Saturdays. “The boys have to keep going through failed designs, multiple iterations, and exhaustion. They learn to collaborate, problem-solve under pressure, and persevere.”
Many former robotics team members go on to careers in science and technology fields, then return to the school as team mentors in the “Back Seat Drivers Union.” Even those alumni who don’t offer hands-on help continue to support robotics at Crescent financially. In 2020, the Crescent Robotics Alumni Fund aimed to raise $20,000 to further expand and enrich the program.
“We want our boys to be well,” says Headmaster Fellin. “Wellbeing is the foundation upon which our mission rests, because you can’t learn or develop your character without it.” Regular physical activity, whether it’s a daily walk or playing on a top-tier team, is ingrained in Crescent’s culture. The full-time school nurse handles run-of-the-mill illnesses and injuries, liaises with teachers to accommodate chronic health conditions, and provides concussion education and care in partnership with Holland Bloorview Concussion Centre. Crescent also has two social workers on staff to help boys strengthen their social-emotional coping skills. They provide individual or group counselling, coaching, and advice to boys struggling with stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
The parents we spoke to felt Crescent staff truly knew their boys and were attuned to their changing needs over the years. “The teachers don’t just care about our sons’ academic achievements, but also about their mental health,” says one parent of two sons in the Upper School. “The staff played a significant role in supporting them in their transition to the teen years, which can be a hard time. To me, this is what sets Crescent apart from other boys’ schools.” Another parent of two sons, one in the Middle School and one a graduate, recalls several times when a teacher spotted and addressed thorny issues occurring outside the classroom. “They address any situation that arises, even relationship conflicts between the boys. By paying attention like this, the staff play a huge role in the boys’ growth and development.”
The school’s Health and Wellbeing program is called STEM 1.0, which stands for Sleep, Think, Eat, and Move. More specifically, the message is: Sleep soundly, think clearly, eat smarter, and move more. It’s a clever reminder to the boys that they need to take care of themselves first if they want to succeed academically and professionally in fields such as Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. “The concept of self-care traditionally hasn’t come as naturally to men, so our aim is to help the boys create healthy habits for a lifetime,” says Fellin. “All the adults at the school try to model these behaviours as best we can. I want the boys hearing how I’m managing my exercise routine or trying to maximize my sleep, for example, so that I can do my job well and be a good partner and father.”
Nick Kovacs, Deputy Headmaster and Head of the Upper School, says it comes down to creating “a climate of care” at Crescent. “Alongside the overall messaging, we have practical initiatives aligned under each of those STEM 1.0 categories,” he says. Wednesdays are recovery days, for example, where school starts later so the boys can catch up on their sleep. To further enhance the wellbeing program, Crescent has partnered with a Stanford University-based organization called Challenge Success to implement research-based strategies to broaden the concept of success beyond academic achievement. “We never want a scenario here where the stress is unhealthy to the point where kids can't cope,” says Kovacs. “We're always paying attention to the fine balance between high academic standards and health and well being.”
One core strategy Crescent uses to stay aware of and responsive to boys’ overall state of wellbeing is the mentorship program. While the primary adult relationship for boys in the Lower School is the home form teacher, students in Grades 7 to 12 are assigned to a mentor group of 10 to 12 each year. They meet regularly with their mentor—a teacher or staff member—to chat about everything from current events to personal relationships. “Mentor groups are the smaller families within the larger Crescent family,” says Kovacs. “They’re support networks within the school where we deliver a lot of character-related education through informal discussion.”
The mentorship program is so important at Crescent that hiring decisions hinge on whether candidates will thrive as educators and role models. “We’re just as interested in the way a person is going to show up as a mentor in the building as they are as a teacher, because it's so foundational to our mission,” says Kovacs. “We consider whether they’re going to be able to connect with the boys, and whether they buy into the notion that we're not just preparing students to succeed in university and professional life, but as human beings.”
Crescent is not just for hockey players or robotics enthusiasts or arts afficionados: it has room for all these students and more. “The cheers for the artist are just as loud as the cheers for the athlete or the math contest winner,” says Godric Latimer-Kim, head of performing and visual arts. “Our culture empowers boys to express who they are and not conform to one idea of the Crescent student.”
When it comes to other types of diversity, however, the school believes there is room for improvement. And Headmaster Fellin has made it his personal mission to change that. “I feel very, very strongly about making a Crescent education available to a greater range of boys from a greater range of backgrounds,” he says. “In recent years, we’ve worked hard to grow our endowment to support student financial assistance. But we still have a lot of work to do in this space.” Crescent currently allocates $1.2 million in financial assistance each year. Five years ago, about 20 boys received this help. That number has more than doubled, and the goal is to double it again in the next five years. “We don’t use financial assistance money for scholarships or recruiting students for sports,” says Headmaster Fellin. “It’s all for boys and families whose aspirations align with our mission. My hope is that, in the future, Crescent students will better reflect the diversity of the city we live in.”
Crescent is highly selective about accepting new members of the “family.” While the acceptance rate is just one factor among many that determine a good independent school, our rankings clearly show it’s not easy to get into Crescent. At 22 percent, it has the third lowest admission rate in Toronto and the fifth lowest in Canada. Rather than elitism, though, this seems to be further proof that the school takes great care in building its close-knit community.
The admissions team is looking for boys who are not only bright and have a wide variety of interests outside the classroom, but are also good, kind citizens of the world. Standardized testing is part of the application process, which isn’t uncommon at comparable schools. What’s unique is that prospective students must complete a “Character Skills Snapshot,” a research-based tool that measures eight character skills: resilience, open-mindedness, responsibility, teamwork, social awareness, self-control, intellectual curiosity, and initiative. The families we spoke with felt it was a legitimate assessment, which isn’t surprising given that Crescent’s reputation for character-based education is often what attracts them.
The application process starts with an online form, followed by an interview. Parents report that the interviews were warm, informal, and comfortable. “It was a lovely, calm environment,” says one parent. “We were especially impressed by the way everyone spoke to and related to our son in an age-appropriate way.”
Tuition is on par with other schools of its kind in Toronto, and it includes the lunch program. There’s a one-time new student enrolment fee, and parents will want to note the suggested annual giving of $2,500. Mandatory supplemental fees cover things like technology, uniforms, and textbooks in Upper School, while optional supplemental fees are charged for before/after care, co-curricular activities (such as tournaments and competitions), and outreach trips. A third-party organization assesses eligibility for financial assistance, and all financial information is kept confidential. Boys who receive aid are not identified to the faculty (or students, of course) without permission. While financial assistance usually remains the same throughout a boy’s time at Crescent, families must re-apply each year.
When offer day comes around in February, the school goes all out to welcome its newest students. More than 30 faculty members and staff head out into the cold very early in the morning to deliver Crescent toques and giant ties to the boys’ front doors. For boys starting Crescent at the key entry points to each of the divisions—Grades 3, 7, and 9—there are optional “Successful Start” summer programs focused on math and literacy.
Parents are extensively involved as ambassadors and volunteers at Crescent through the Crescent Parent Association, leading everything from book clubs and teacher appreciation luncheons to the annual garage sale, the school’s main fundraising event. But there are ample opportunities for parents interested in getting involved only occasionally, or even once a year. The volunteer listings—including detailed responsibilities and time commitments—are available online.
The parents we spoke with said there’s strong, consistent communication between the school and families. Every Friday a school-wide email details the upcoming week’s events and highlights, and Crescent shares news, photos, and videos through its main social media channels. “We pride ourselves on being very connected with our parents, and understanding that they’re the boys’ first teachers,” says Dr. Sandra Boyes. “Together, we are the learning environment for the boys.”
The Crescent brotherhood is a strong one, with wide-ranging involvement of alumni at the school and beyond. Recent grads often visit to share their experiences of university life at lunch and learn sessions, while older, more established alumni return to share their professional insight. The robotics and business programs have particularly robust alumni involvement, with grads helping students prepare for competitions or contributing club financial support.
Every Grade 12 student can access advice about university programs and career choices through the Alumni Professional Mentoring Program, while young grads can find meaningful summer employment through the Alumni Internship Program. In last year’s graduating class, a quarter of the boys went into Commerce/Business programs, tied with those who chose Liberal Arts and Social Science. The next two most popular destination disciplines were Engineering, at 14 percent, and Science, at 10 percent.
How schools responded to the pandemic, beginning with the first government mandated lockdown in March of 2020, provided an interesting window onto the existing infrastructure within them, as well as the agility of administration to adapt to new circumstances. That was particularly true at Crescent.
The Crescent Virtual Learning Program launched the first day after the cessation of the March break. “Continuing the high-quality, meaningful learning experiences of our face-to-face environment was a top priority,” said Nick Kovacs at the time. “To do that, we focused on synchronous teaching wherever possible. But we also knew we had to be flexible, especially in the early transition, since everyone was adjusting to the new situation. We approached the process as a marathon, not a sprint.”
Crescent doubled down on its commitment to sustaining a family-like community during the pandemic. Mentor groups continued to meet as a social outlet and vehicle to check in on boys’ well-being. There were regular spirit-boosting events such as virtual assemblies. Co-curricular activities lived on in an altered state, such as the Lower School’s “Be Curious @ Crescent” program, where boys could train in cross country running, experiment with outdoor photography, or upgrade their coding skills. “We designed every part of the program so that, looking back, the boys would say that they were cared for, that they felt they were learning, that they had people to connect to, and that things were organized and predictable,” said Dr. Sandra Boyes.
The whole approach said a lot about the core values of the school, and while they existed prior, the experience of the pandemic really underscored them. And while the initial response was strong, they also continually monitored the program’s success through surveys and feedback sessions with students and parents. “Coffee and conversation” online meetings gave parents the chance to hear directly from the school administration and ask questions. “Parents were really craving that connection with the school,” says one parent. “I never saw such high attendance when these events took place in person. Overall, it was a great way to engage during the closure.”
The preparation for the following school year continued in kind. The Safe Reopening Task Force (SRTF) was established literally the same day that the 2019-2020 school year ended. The mandate was to maximise the time available in order to establish protocols and practices for when classes resumed in September. The approach was detailed and methodical, working full time right throughout that summer. “Our goal was to not only open the school safely,” said Fellin,”but to do everything possible to remain open for the duration of the year.” The messaging to parents was clear and consistent, and communication was established as a key priority early on.
Fellin said at the time that the intention was to leave no stone unturned, and the task force by all accounts delivered on that promise. A screening app was created, in-school protocols established, as were those for arrivals, departures, and the minimizing of movement within the school. Twenty-four learning spaces were modified, renovated, and/or newly built to maximize physical distancing. Air circulation and completed air purification systems were enhanced to further reduce particulate matter, bacteria, and viruses. Daily cleaning practices were put in place, aligned with public health guidelines. Non-contact faucets and water stations were installed. Every classroom in the school was equipped with cameras and microphones to facilitate synchronous learning for remote learners.
And on it went. The response wasn’t a “wait and see” what others did, but rather to jump in immediately doing everything they knew needed to be done based on the information available to them. It put parents’ minds at ease, to be sure, and also created an example for others in how to respond effectively. Even after the pandemic is nothing more than a memory, Crescent’s response to it will remain an example of the values that it holds, the forward-looking posture, and frankly the doggedness of the teachers and staff to meet the needs of the student and parent populations.