The York School was founded in 1965 as a pre-school and it has continued to grow since then, all the while reflecting the changing cultural and academic ideals of the age. The 60s saw a rise in hands-on, inquiry-based preschool instruction, as well as a greater attention to the realities of life and community than Dick and Jane could provide. For York, that approach to pre-school instruction was a starting point. With the creation of the lower school in 1978 and the upper school in 1998, York provided an ongoing education based on the initial analogue. Like the surrounding city, the school prizes diversity and an international perspective, something that arises naturally from a diverse student population. York is located in the heart of the city, providing a focal point for the urban, integrated culture of the school. The ideal student is one who can make the most of a challenging, diverse, and vibrant learning environment.
The York School was founded in 1965 as a preschool, though it has grown considerably since then, all the while reflecting the changing cultural and academic ideals of the age. The ’60s saw a rise in hands-on, inquiry-based instruction, as well as a greater attention to the realities of life and the importance of academic achievement than Dick and Jane could provide. For York, that approach to preschool instruction was a starting point, and it continued with the creation of the Junior School in 1978 and the Senior School in 1998. Like the surrounding city of Toronto, the school prizes diversity and an international perspective, something that arises naturally from a diverse student population. York is housed in adapted office buildings in the heart of the city, providing a focal point for the urban, integrated culture of the school.
In many ways, York is the definition of an urban school. It’s one thing to be located within a city, and indeed many private and independent schools are—but it’s another to have a significant, daily interface with the surrounding city, something that York demonstrates better than others. The city is not only on its doorstep, but it is enmeshed within the daily lived experience of the school, both figuratively and literally. The entry is something akin to a subway entrance—students walk down a ramp and turn to enter the main doors, rather than, as at other institutions, walking straight on up a flight of stairs and through an arch. Things like that—and there are many throughout the campus—play a part in ordering the perceptions of the school, and the students’ perception of their relationship to it. Classrooms and a cafeteria are visible from the street, with the pedestrians looking in as much as the students are looking out. With the new design, the school included a gender-neutral washroom, which is as useful and efficient as it is demonstrative of the overall approach, one that is forward looking and ahead of the curve. There is a Freshii outlet in the cafeteria, and pedestrians sometimes try to come in, thinking it’s a food court of sorts. They can’t actually get in—the entry is staffed and secured—but the administration delights in those kinds of misconceptions. It means that they’ve succeeded in creating a space that blurs the lines between the life and culture of the school and that of the city beyond.
The students, too, appreciate that blurred line. They see themselves as true city dwellers, and they comport themselves in that way, with confidence and independence. The closest subway station is 200 metres from the school, and the next closest one isn’t much further. It’s an easy walk from either Summerhill or St. Clair stations, past coffee shops, a Book City outlet, cafés, grocery stores, offices—all the bustle that Torontonians rightly delight in. All of the students we asked take the subway to school each day. That’s a huge advantage for the school, and it’s also an aspect of the school’s identity. There are windows everywhere, looking out at the street scene, the people, as well as some views of the skyline beyond. From some spaces, you can see as far as the Toronto Islands.
“We always say that the city is our playground,” says Praveen Muruganandan, Director of Admission and Advancement. “We had a situation last year where the buses were having trouble in traffic getting to the school to take the JKs on a field trip to go to the Royal Ontario Museum. So the teachers say, ‘you know what, we’re going to take the subway.’” That accessibility is nice, though the lessons learned are too. From a young age, the students are finding their place within the world around and interacting with it.
More formally, the school has the Integrated Canadian Experience (ICE) program, a combined study of Canadian history, geography, civics, and literature undertaken by all Grade 9 students. The intention is to provide an immersive experience, getting the students beyond the textbooks and the classrooms to experience the core concepts first hand. “These kids are spending half of their time basically outside the building,” says Muruganandan. “They are literally running around the city. They’re making documentaries, they’re learning about the communities—Little India, Chinatown, Little Italy [and so on]—and they’re learning from the people. The city is our classroom.” Given the location, that includes access to ravines and green space, like the Beltline Trail that is just north of the campus. Those spaces are used to good advantage in science instruction, art, and outdoor education. The day we visited, the school was getting ready to mount the annual Terry Fox Run, which runs up Yonge Street, through David A. Balfour Park, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, and the Beltline Trail—all spaces that, apart from being great places to run, are rich with the natural, cultural, and social assets of Toronto. And it’s all literally at the school’s doorstep.
The latest capital campaign resulted in a significant redesign of the campus. By all reports, many of the spaces are unrecognizable from what they were prior. The space that was the administrative offices is now a cutting-edge studio space, with garage doors—descending partitions with glass panels—that allow for the space to be divided into three, or one big and one small, or an entirely open space. Just as the lines between city and school are blurred, spaces like that one blur the lines between engineering, design, and art—which, of course, is exactly the point. “With the completion of the latest build,” says Conor Jones, Head of School, “we kind of feel that we’ve arrived. The next thing is just to ensure that we’re delivering on the promise.”
The York School is a coeducational day school in the Summerhill area of downtown Toronto. It offers a liberal arts education and includes a Junior School at 1639 Yonge Street (comprising JK through Grade 5), and the Middle and Senior Schools at 1320 Yonge Street (comprising Grades 6 through 12).
It was founded in 1965 by Barbara Goodwin-Zeibots, her intention simply being to find a place to educate her children. She got together with a few other families that were of a like mind, namely looking for an early education program that was more progressive, more reflective of the changing values of the culture than was then found in the mainstream. They began with a primary school in a church basement. As the students grew, so did the program, often a grade at a time: in 1978, the elementary program was formalized; the first Grade 8 class graduated in 1985; and the Senior School was founded with the addition of Grade 9 in 1995.
Goodwin-Zeibots remained at the head of the school through the majority of its life, retiring in 2006. Thereafter, Ezio Crescenzi, already a Principal for 21 years in the Dufferin-Peel district took over the helm from 2006 - 2011. The current head of school, Conor Jones, was initially hired on by Zeibots as a teacher, and became head in 2011. With only three heads in the school’s 50-year life, there’s a remarkable—and for the families of the school, entirely welcome—consistency in the direction of the school and adherence to its core values.
Jones first came to the school as an instructor, later moving into administration. It has been a busy trajectory, seeing the buildings and renovations being brought up to modern standards to the impressive and airy learning spaces they are today. The sweeping windows along Yonge Street, and white pine lockers lining the hallways give the place the feel of a spacious and crisp Scandenavian university set in an urban environment. As part of that process, Jones recalls a summer that he spent learning about admissions from Marilyn Andrews, someone who has been with the school essentially from the first day. “In those first years, Marilyn liked the independently minded kids,” he says. “She said that the York School was for kids that didn’t fit in anywhere else. I would be sitting there interviewing prospective students, and we’d see three kids in one day, and she would say, ‘who would you pick?’ I’d say, ‘that kid was awesome, and the other’s amazing,’ and Marilyn would say, ‘Yeah! They’re going to be fine somewhere else, aren’t they? But did you see the bright, shy kid that couldn’t look you in the eye? He’s a York School kid!’ Why? She’d say, ‘Because he needs us.’” Jones says, “we’ve grown, but we still have space for kids who need us. Because the kids who are going to be just fine here also need them in their community.” Jones recalls a student who had cerebral palsy and did very well at the school: “The other kids need him as much as he needs them.”
It’s a great story, and it’s telling. The school was built to appeal to a certain kind of learner, one who was academic, yes, but who also shared an approach to the world around them, and one who really needs a certain kind of environment in which to grow and explore. It would be wrong to say that all the students at the school today are of a piece—certainly that’s not true anywhere—but the ones that we met shared some attributes, such as a certain spirit, and a willingness to dig in to some of the unique aspects of the offering. The ICE program is one that they reference often, including the ability to get outside the school and to explore their interests as they discover the world around them.
We were meeting with some students when a Queen song came on the intercom, and they all, at various moments, sang along. The school uses music to signal class changes, and the students then got into an animated discussion of which song they loved best. They were clearly proud of these kinds of details and wanted to share them with us.
That kind of culture comes directly from the leadership team and the ways in which they communicate the core values. “They ask the students to be citizens of the world,” says parent Scott Rattee, “to identify problems and then create solutions. This is exactly what the school does—they teach by example. It is terrific to see.”
All York students graduate with both the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma and the Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD). While there are similar schools in which the IB is optional, there is a belief here in the benefits of not allowing students to opt out. “We help them strive to meet that potential,” says Muruganandan. “We have a relatively small graduating class—about 60 students—and if 20 kids choose to do only the Ontario diploma, it’s just not fair to the other 40 kids who are working their tail off to meet all the requirements” in order to complete the IB.
The York offering provides a model for the IB in Canada, and indeed it has done just that for much of the program’s life: the school offered the first full IB continuum in Canada, and the fourth in North America. When it was developed, the IB was meant initially as a program for children of diplomats. Then, as now, there is a portion of the student body that is truly international, in that their families are in Toronto only temporarily. The IB is a program of choice because it’s so easily transferrable—students can arrive here, picking up the exact curricular threads that they had begun in an IB setting elsewhere. Likewise, when they move on, the transition to a new IB school is seamless.
Of course, a vast majority of the students aren’t the children of diplomats, and in fact will spend the entirety of their primary, elementary, and high school years in Toronto. (Those who advance through the entire breadth of the York offering—from Kindergarten through Grade 12—are playfully called “Yorkies.” There are a few in the graduating class each year.) Those families are drawn not to the transferability of the curriculum, but rather for what it offers. The IB is also appealing to families and students looking for a challenge, as well as an opportunity to learn through an international lens. Even more importantly, it is attractive to students who thrive in project-based environments, where there are ample opportunities to work collaboratively with peers and mentors.
“The best kind of learning is when kids are totally embedded,” says Struan Robertson, Junior School principal and deputy head of academics. By “totally embedded,” Robertson means that the students are more involved in project-based learning, or conceptual learning, and less aware of the various curricular streams. “You know, it’s not like you’re in reading now, and then writing, and then math. The whole approach is to integrate it together into units of study.” Lessons are collaborative, both within the classroom and between the classrooms. “The opportunity to embed the learning into everything they do is, I think, something that we do well.” Certainly, while all those attributes of the IB are important—rigour, challenge, international perspective—more and more families are choosing it because of the project-based, cross-curricular style of delivery.
That’s something that begins in the early grades and is carried up through the high school years. “We have one unit on immigration,” says a Grade 10 student, “where you have to do an immigrant profile. And we can choose a family member, or a neighbour, and we interview them about their experience coming to Canada. We go from the time they were born and the time they immigrated here and we learn about their experience.”
Helen Gin , principal of the Middle School, grades 6-8, came to York after working in the public system and teaching in IB schools in Europe and Japan. As with other members of the faculty, she was drawn to the strengths of the IB first through those experiences teaching in IB environments overseas. “I like the IB mission,” she says, including the overarching understanding that “I’m on this earth to evoke some positive changes, to better the lives of others.” Says Gin, “The IB wants to produce students that are going to be creative problem solvers … engaged citizens, so that they contribute to a more peaceful harmonious world.”
While the Middle School is rightly set somewhat apart, with classes and common areas on the fourth floor, Gin says that “it’s not really a particular place” but rather, “a set of experiences. … I think these grades are really crucial grades because it is a time tremendous growth.” She notes that it’s a period of emotional and of social growth, second only to infancy. “There are new concepts, new opportunities, new kinds of thinking.” At the same time, it requires a unique approach. “Trying to promote community service in high school is very different than in middle school.” Yet she sees it as a time to build the foundations, and the inquiry-based responsibilities, that will serve them when they advance to the high school IB environment. Likewise, the curriculum allows instruction to follow concepts across disciplines, with the same question being posed in a science, English, or math class, giving students a chance to view the problems through a range of different lenses. The faculty work to ensure that this is the case, allowing students to engage with concepts in a variety of ways.
The Middle School approach is pragmatic, grounded, and encouraging. The instructors are keen to find entry points into the material that will keep the learning alive and students engaged. One student tells us: “I don’t like talking in front of people. It’s one of my worst fears. Last year we had to do oral assessments—we had to choose a topic and present it to the class. And when I first heard about it, I thought, ‘no way, I’m not doing that at all.’ But then I met with [my teacher] five times so that I could practice and get used to being in front of people. And it was a big decision for me; after meeting with him, it helped build my self-confidence and I ended up doing it.” When asked if it was fun in the end, she answers with a blunt “no.” But the fact that she told the story to us says something about how important that experience was to her.
The Junior School is set apart from the Middle and Senior Schools, perhaps a five- to 10-minute walk north on Yonge Street. The building reflects the feel of the main campus—there are lots of clean lines and a very modern design—though perhaps in a cozier way. There are open spaces, with lots of wood and warm lighting. While it is a part of the York School, it does have a lovely character of its own. The play spaces to the back can be seen from various points in the building, including Robertson’s office. Just as he looks out on the playground, the children there are free to look in, and to see him working at his standing desk or meeting with teachers and parents. It underscores a porousness of the environment, one that the students find comforting—this is their space, and they have access to all of it.
Robertson brings a lot of experience, having arrived after time at Lakefield College School and, prior to that, the International School in Bangkok. He feels that the strengths of the Junior program include that it is coed and close knit, and that the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP) provides a foundation for enquiry-based learning. It’s also very globally inclined, which is something that the parents of the school appreciate; the school attracts more international students than others in the area, thanks to the strength and scope of the IB programme as well as how it’s delivered in this setting. The teachers bring a lot of international experience too, which Robertson sees as a plus.
In true IB fashion, the programme is rigorous. The PYP culminates in an exhibition, which is a year-long project which the students present in May. They each need to seek out a mentor, develop concepts, do research, and ultimately present their work to their peers and teachers. “We rarely, if ever, hear parents of children talk about a lack of challenge,” says Robertson. But by the same token, there’s a playfulness to the programme such that the students don’t feel that the challenge is onerous. Robertson notes: “There’s a balance, whether it’s after-school activities or athletics, that encourages kids to balance their lives.” Rigour is balanced by activity, values, and involvement.
Technology is strong and is a priority, though there is also a very considered, thoughtful approach to its use. “It’s about putting the right tools in the hands of the teachers in order to engage the kids,” says Robertson. There are no Smartboards in the Junior School—they are de rigeur in other settings—because they were found, after some experience with them, not to be the right tool. “It’s good when it’s going to enhance the learning,” says Robertson of any device introduced into classrooms, “but we don’t want kids sitting on technology all day.”
Size is an important factor of the program, something Robertson refers to as the small-school advantage. “It’s the relationships that you have with kids. Our teachers know their kids extremely well, but they’ve also known the kids as they’ve been growing up.” There are only two classes at each grade level, so the community is very tight knit—the kids know everyone in their grade level, to be sure, as well as perhaps a majority of those in the grades adjacent. That said, the Junior School has the benefits of both a small school and a large school—while the Junior facility is contained, it shares resources and expertise with the Middle and Senior Schools.
“The school makes it very hard not to succeed,” says a Grade 11 student. He references the range of resources available, and certainly there’s a very robust program of learning supports, both formal and informal. “The teachers will go out of their way if they see us struggling, to make sure that we don’t continue to struggle. … You’re never forgotten. All the teachers know you; the counsellors are open and willing to help.”
They also work to form students’ understanding of what success means, and that it isn’t limited to marks, which is very nice to see. Balance in life is a value of the school, and one that is apparent throughout the facilities. Says another student, “I just think the school wants to see us get to the place where we want to be, even if we don’t necessarily know what that is yet. … they want us to be prepared … to build a foundation here to be able to do whatever we want, and meet what we think success is—what our personal idea of success is.” One student described having his wellness advisor make a schedule that helped dismantle what was becoming an overwhelming workload into bite-sized and manageable pieces. He credits that intervention with effectively addressing his rising anxiety, and subsequent success.
There was a time when all schools were focused only on academic excellence, and they charted as straight a course to it as possible. Failure wasn’t an option. Times have changed, as have our perceptions of excellence, failure, and success. Andrew Bosworth, a former teaching assistant at Harvard and now a chief advisor to Mark Zuckerberg, has said that “failure can be a form of success. It’s not the form you want, but it can be a useful thing to how you learn.” That idea is shared throughout the faculty of the York School.
Marks matter, says David Hanna, director of university counselling, but each student’s story—how they develop over their time at the school—matters, too. “We provide those vehicles where students can grow into something pointy. The whole notion of a well-rounded student is not the ultimate … well rounded in everything, awesome in nothing. We want our students to have a story where they’re a little different in something, and that’s going to separate them from the pack. … and if we can align that pointiness with their post-secondary aspirations, fantastic. Consequently, that is giving our kids the edge, in addition to the marks, to getting [into] some of these more selective programs.”
Just as in the upper schools, the Junior program is based on the values of being an urban school, and instructors seek to make the most of the vast resources that the city provides. There are a lot of field trips that happen through the course of the year, be they to attractions or simply out into the neighbourhood, and they allow students to take advantage of nearby green space. The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) is nearby, and there are those kinds of partnerships as well, providing opportunities to build concepts of diversity and citizenship. “You know, we’re tapping into the community,” says Robertson, and bringing it all back to the connections they make within the PYP curriculum.
“But I don’t even know if those things are the ones that matter most to parents,” admits Robertson. “At the end of the day, I think what parents are looking for is a safe, happy place. … It’s when you walk in the building, how does the building make you feel? When you talk to kids, are they happy? … that feeling that you can’t always describe, but when you walk in, you think, ‘hmm, this feels really good.’” He’s absolutely right of course, though it’s something that we don’t perhaps hear enough from school principals or administrators. Programs, curricula, support, infrastructure—those things are all important. But it’s refreshing that, when pressed, it’s the comfort and safety of the environment that Robertson feels tops the list of what he is working to deliver. And it shows. When you walk in, it does actually feel very good. There are kids helping in the library and playing in the play spaces. There are coats and shoes all lined up along the wall. The spaces are bright, colourful, and engaging. All of that provides the basis for a strong, thoughtful, forward-looking primary and elementary program of study.
While the main campus building wasn’t created to house the school, you wouldn’t know it, thanks to the last capital campaign. The school was designed to have a clean, atypical feel. Says Jones about a meeting he had with the architect, Robert Davies of Montgomery Sisam Architects, “I took him down to the Centre for Social Innovation, and I said, ‘this is what I want our cafeteria to look like. He went ‘oh! You want to skip high school! You don’t want your high school to look like a high school!’ And I said, ‘no, it’s got to look like where they’re going next.’” And it does. The feel is more like a university, if a smaller, friendlier, less imposing one.
Further, it feels like the York School has always been what it was meant to be. Spaces are clean, bright, fluid, and open. We asked the chemistry teacher what she liked best about her lab, and she listed exactly those things: light, movement, a space designed for co-operative learning. “This fume hood is great,” she added as well, perhaps in the way that only a chemistry teacher might. On the less prosaic side, she also has a “wall of memes,” one of which reads, “Do you know any jokes about sodium? Na.” (She adds, “There’s another one about potassium! That’s part of the reason I like chemistry so much; it makes for great puns.”)
One of the reasons that the students love learning from her is because she knows how to relate to them, to have fun, and to communicate a love of chemistry along with the course content. While students may not think about this much, if at all, the spaces have been created with their needs and desires foremost in mind. “It’s a multi-purpose space, not just a chem classroom. If I want to have a discussion in here,” she says, noting the horseshoe arrangement of the lab tables, “it’s easy to do.” In that, and so many other ways, the facilities throughout are both inviting and efficient, designed with the core values and curriculum delivery in mind.
Despite not having a boarding program, 20% of the student population is international. One student we spoke with noted that her family moves every two years, and she arrived to York from a school in Denmark. Not all students have a similar lifestyle; nevertheless, it’s more common here than elsewhere. The IB is a draw, particularly for those who, like her, aren’t able to complete their entire elementary or secondary career within a single school, in a single country. The ability to pick up where you left off—be it in Denmark, or Cairo, or Budapest—is one of the benefits that the IB, and by corollary, The York School, provides. A student who arrived from Copenhagen said that one of the attractions for her was the fact that her friends, while distant geographically, were all enrolled in the IB, so they were having a shared academic experience, if at a distance. ‘They all go to different international schools now, and I can be like, ‘oh my god, I’m having such a hard time in chemistry right now,’ and they’re like, ‘yeah, me too, we’re doing redox equations’ … Being in Toronto, I can relate to someone in Barcelona. … It’s really interesting, and it’s easy to stay connected.”
The school population includes students from 35 different countries, which is unique for a day school, to be sure, and something York rightly sees as a strength. Talking about world issues in a classroom with so much international experience and perspective can bring conversations alive.
A student commented that York is “a small school, but it’s big enough. It’s big enough that when people annoy you, you have someplace to go. But it’s not so big that you don’t have to come back and deal with it later.”
The students speak of the school as a small one, but in terms of straight numbers, it isn’t really. There are 750 students in total. The national median for secondary schools is 350, so even though the York population is divided between two campuses, it still isn’t tiny. That said, what the students are really expressing is the lived experience of the school, not the enrollment levels. They feel it’s small because, as one student noted, “we all know each other’s names.” We asked a classroom of students what they like about the school, and the first response was “I like these people.” That kind of thing doesn’t just happen, but rather it’s a function of how the school has managed its population over the years. Peer mentoring, as well as teachers that teach across grades, helps to reduce the sense of the size of the school. “There is a great student-teacher relationship and a continuum that doesn’t end when a student moves into the next grade,” says parent Scott Rattee. “Teachers are invested in the children until the day they graduate.” The students feel that they all know each other, and because of their interactions throughout the school and the development of those ongoing teacher-student relationships, they do.
While academic achievement isn’t the sole source of social capital—or even a primary one—there is nevertheless a clear culture of achievement. Students share a belief in the value of academics. It’s much like playing tennis with someone who’s a bit better than yourself—it brings your game up. There isn’t a sense of competition, but academic engagement is seen as a worthy goal.
A diversity of interest characterises the student population as well. This isn’t a school where the one goal is to go to MIT, but rather students find areas of interest beyond what they might initially conceive. That’s something the school actively seeks to achieve, through a robust program of university counselling. And they do. The 55 students who graduated in 2017 (the last graduating class for which the data has been compiled to date) entered 44 different post-secondary programs, including an increase in students entering STEM-related fields.
“Sport is a great educator,” says Rick DeMarinis, director of athletics, “and learning takes place on the field, on the court,” ranging from interpersonal skills to learning the value of activity. He feels that competition is important for advancing in a sport. That’s certainly relevant for some students, particularly at the high school level, though DeMarinis is clear that competition isn’t for everyone, nor should it be. “For younger athletes, it’s about fostering an appreciation for sport and activity.”
DeMarinis (the students call him “Mr. D”) has been at York for 15 years, and under his direction, those are the core values that inform the athletics program. “I think it’s about balance, and balance for me doesn’t mean that you have to be involved in everything. For me it means that you have outlets in life that bring you happiness and pleasure, whatever that is. And I think that’s what we promote here.” All that said, he’s a champion of the idea that everyone needs a physical outlet—going for a walk, yoga, strength training, team sports—and he actively promotes offerings that range from recreational to competitive.
The creation of the athletics spaces is a study in space efficiency, to be sure, a good portion of which are a product of the recent infrastructure development. Facilities include a double gymnasium (Middle and Senior Schools), a junior gymnasium (Junior School), a small turf soccer pitch (Middle and Senior Schools), an indoor 100-metre track, and a fitness centre. In that, and much else, the athletics program is bigger and more robust than you might expect, given the school’s size and location.
The teams compete within the Conference of Independent Schools Athletic Association (CISAA), earning 21 championships and counting since 2014, and in Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS) national tournaments. The primary sports are boys’/girls’ basketball, soccer, and volleyball. In total, there are 56 competitive teams and more than 100 programs. There are all the usual suspects, as well as some that are less usual, such as golf, squash, and ultimate frisbee. When facilities aren’t available on site, the school partners with local athletic clubs and schools. They also make great use of the green space nearby.
The fitness centre is as good as we’ve ever seen, and includes virtual personal training. Students are instructed in how to use the gym, and they have an account with the virtual trainer. They put in their student number, and a virtual person—the one we saw had an Australian accent—leads them through a workout designed for them, taking into consideration their size, age, and activity levels. It’s perhaps not quite as good as an actual trainer, but it’s not far off. It also adds flexibility to the program, and students can come by whenever they wish. It’s a very nice addition to the suite of programs on offer, and it’s open during the day as well as before and after school.
At the other end of the spectrum, DeMarinis created the Athlete Institute, a weekend program that brings in professional coaches and athletes to workshop with students from Grade 3 through the high school years. It’s sports specific, giving the more dedicated athletes an opportunity to build their skills and hone performance along with like-minded peers and mentors.
The wellness program includes a variety of elements, based on the understanding that kids are only open to learning when they feel safe, comfortable, and accepted. The other core piece is an understanding that relationships are critical to a feeling of safety and acceptance. “If I had to pull out anything that feels unique to the school,” says Elissa Kline-Beber, director of student wellness, “I’d say that the relationships that kids have with the adults in the building are powerful,” something that staff and faculty work hard to foster. Kline-Beber adds: “one of the strengths of being a small school is that I can say with confidence that, if a student is really struggling, someone here is going to know about it.” She admits that’s a bold statement, but notes that it’s borne out by experience. “When teachers have noticed that a child is struggling, I’ll get, in a day, four or five phone calls, saying, ‘do you know what’s happening here?’” For her, it’s a sign that the program of wellness, as a whole, is working as it should. There are counsellors within the school who are known and approachable, and the staff and faculty clearly see wellness as part of their roles as well.
Each student in Grade 9 is assigned an advisor who will follow him or her through their Senior School years. They meet weekly with the same group of roughly 10 students, and can also meet them one on one. Advisors are also kept aware of each student’s ongoing success within the school through Trail Mail—a tracking/reporting system created by the school—as well as a series of email notices that go out with the results of summative assessments such as projects, major presentations, and exams (the latter are also sent to parents). York’s system allows a unique perspective on the students, and it provides a point person should parents have any concerns along the way. By and large, advisors are the families’ initial points of contact.
Trail Mail and other initiatives are aspects of the provision of social-emotional learning (SEL), something that the school clearly takes very seriously. It’s informed by the notion that social and emotional learning. Says Klein-Beber “[it]isn’t just intuited, but that it’s a skill set that we need to teach in the way that we teach other skill sets.” Frustration tolerance, social skills, self-regulation, executive functioning—all of those kinds of skills are formalized within the SEL curriculum that has been developed by the wellness team and is delivered by the advisor program. The Junior and Middle School students don’t have advisors, though they have homeroom teachers that fulfill the same role. In all, there is a teacher that has that overview role for each student, one who knows the student well and who is also seen as a primary contact for both the student and parents. In the Junior School, there is also a counsellor specifically tasked with delivering the SEL curriculum in a manner appropriate to the needs of the population.
“I think we’re really trying to tackle a range of issues in terms of digital citizenship and digital wellness, which obviously impact so much of our kids’ overall wellness,” says Kline-Beber. The wellness team is creative in how they do that, and they are open to test any strategies they feel could be beneficial. One homeroom teacher has been beginning each day with a guided meditation. The intention is to expose students to that strategy, and many others over their time at the school, so that they leave with both an understanding of the place wellness should take within daily routines as well as a tool box of interventions to achieve it. As Kline-Beber explains: “We’re trying different things, just seeing what’s going to resonate with them. You know, they can be tricky customers.” The approach feels fresh, up to the minute, and robust. Kline-Beber herself perhaps embodies that. She’s personable, affecting, and open, all qualities that she hopes to impart to the faculty. She is also clearly keen to listen to the students themselves. She talks of meeting with the students involved in running the digital citizenship program and hearing from them that the curriculum was out of date in terms of social media use. (“They said, ‘this is old people’s use of social media.’”) She took that to heart, and with them redeveloped the approach to social media awareness.
There is a mentor program, where the Grade 11 and 12 students mentor those in the younger grades. “We do best when students speak to other students,” says Kline-Beber. Mentors and mentees meet weekly, attending each other’s sports events, meeting for lunch, or just dropping by to say hi. The mentor group is run by two student directors of school climate and culture. Those kinds of student-led programs are seen as an important part of the spectrum of care, giving students the strategies they’ll need to face what they will face, and contributing an important piece to each student’s sense of their place in academics and in the world. “I want kids to walk out of here thinking, ‘I know who I am as a person, I know who I am as a learner, and I know who to ask for help,’ and really believing that seeking help is a sign of strength, not of weakness,” says Kline-Beber.
The wellness centre is open, visible, centrally located, and actively promoted as integral to life within the school. There is a counselling staff of four, plus a director. Two are licensed social workers. York is clearly focused on students’ mental well-being, as Kline-Beber explains: “What I believe at my core is that there is a real crisis in mental health, and what I see is that we have an opportunity—in a small school, where students are known to us—to develop skills.” She adds that, if the students are going to have any struggles, “I want them to fall apart here” at York, “where they have teachers and parents who are close by and who really care about them.”
The guiding principle at the school is that kids benefit from boundaries, and they do best when they are clear on what’s expected of them and held to those expectations. If a student is chronically late, for example, the approach would begin with a conversation with their advisor to probe the structural things that are contributing to the chronic lateness, and then look at strategies to amend it. “We’re pretty sure that detention isn’t going to help,” says Kline-Beber. The desire is to work from restorative justice best practices based on empathy and understanding, while also fostering a sense of responsibility. Mistakes are seen as a part of life and a part of learning, while boundaries are clear and enforced. In more serious cases, a suspension wouldn’t be unheard of in order to protect student safety (although it would be rare).
“We shouldn’t be asking kids what they want to do when they grow up,” says David Hanna. “We should be asking them what problems they want to solve when they grow up.” Hanna is the director of university counselling, an office that he founded in 2000, and he’s prone to saying fantastic things just like that. A visit to the school is recommended for any family considering enrolling, and if you can fit in a quick visit with Hanna, so much the better. His perspective on achievement and university placement is refreshing and effective. He’s formed the program of academic counselling around the belief that the goal isn’t to be something, but to do something, and to deploy your talents in meaningful, productive and satisfying ways.
He says that “All [private and independent schools] have very good university counselling offices, but I think we’re unique in the sense that we are deliberately and strategically able to synthesize how that university placement isn’t just something that happens in Grade 12. It’s a process that we’ve articulated and we initiate from the first day of high school.” He means both that it’s an ongoing process as well as a multifaceted one.
One such facet is a phone app that he created. It’s called Beyond The York School, which is also the title of his column in the weekly newsletter. In those pieces, as well as his daily and weekly work with students, he works to help them find their interests and develop enrichment opportunities. The process, says Hanna, begins with creating opportunities for students to try new things, make mistakes, experience success, grow, and persevere. “Then in Grades 9 and 10, we focus in a bit more on what you like to do, find the things that make you tick. Not the things that you want to be when you grow up, but find the things that you’re good at, that you like and want to improve in, and start to develop your story. And then in [Grades] 11 and 12, it’s about having the capacity to articulate that story.” If they want to be an engineer, he wants them to know exactly why, to be self-aware of their talents. Ultimately, he works with them to find a school: “I will help them find the best soil to plant their aspirations into.” Again, it’s such a fresh, inspiring take on university placement. “My goal is to find a fit for every student, not to help parents find a prize to be won. It’s a tired old saying—finding the right fit—but we’re truly committed to that. Because by getting every kid into Harvard, we’d be doing them a disservice if that’s all that we valued.”
The results are impressive. Hanna mentions a student who went to study hotel management in Switzerland and is now managing clubs and hotels in Dubai. She arrived in his office not aware that management was her thing, or that one of the best schools for her was in Switzerland. But away she went. He says, by way of punctuating the story, “That’s Beyond York.” He mentions another student who wanted to be a doctor, “but she didn’t become a doctor, because she discovered that’s not really what she should become.” She’s in the health-care field, but it’s not as a physician. She started an entrepreneurial venture that she successfully promoted through Dragons’ Den, the television program. “It’s not a linear path,” says Hanna. “You’re learning and making mistakes along the way. She was looking for the simple, straightforward line. But I’m going to let things begin to unfold … I’m not the guidance counsellor in the movies who says ‘you can’t do that, you don’t have the aptitude.’” Rather, he works closely with administration and faculty to develop interests and talents. In all, York has, frankly, one of the best, most developed, and effective university counselling programs in the country.
Every student who is being considered for admission is asked to come in to spend a full day in the school, attending classes and meeting other students. It’s a chance for the student to gauge if York is a good fit for them, as well as for the admissions team to see how well they engage with others. In that, and all other aspects of the admissions process, it’s very much a two-way street: the school wants to know that it’s a good fit, and students should be evaluating the school with the same mindset.
There’s a group interview for the grades in which there are larger intakes. “We do that because we want to see how the kids engage with each other,” says Muruganandan. “Are they all telling you that they want to be the prime minister? Or are they listening to each other, talking together about their dreams and aspirations?” He adds that it’s important to see how the students engage with a complete stranger.
All applicants write an essay and, in the upper grades, produce a short video. For the video, three questions are chosen at random from a list of 25. The applicants are asked to answer them, and parents are asked not to give any help—though it’s hard to conceive of parents who wouldn’t. “One of the things that we’ve found helpful,” says Muruganandan, “is that we get to see how kids think on their feet. In an IB school, we want to have kids who are free thinkers.” There is also a writing sample, where the applicant is given 20 minutes to answer a question in writing. This is to get a sense of the quality of their writing as well as further indication of that ability to think on their feet.
There is a significant population of international students at York, though all students are expected to arrive fluent in English. There is no ESL offering, and any deficits in English fluency will be made apparent through the writing samples and the video piece.
“When they come into JK, we’re looking for a curiosity to learn,” says Muruganandan. “When they come into Grades 9, 10, and 11, we want to have evidence that they’re not only curious, but that they’re achieving good grades and are engaged in their communities.”
Parents report that the school is absolutely up front with tuition and fees, and the school website bears that out. Fees are clear and set in large text, while additional fees are broken down to the cent. Tuition levels are as you’d expect for a program of this size, scope, and quality.
There is some financial aid available in the form of bursaries. Families need to apply for them independently through Apple Financial, which is a common means of providing needs-based aid. There are entrance scholarships available as well, and they are awarded to incoming students by the school itself. The scholarships were created to recognize academic excellence as well as the values of the school. Award levels vary, and no candidate receives full tuition.
Before and after-school care are available, as is a meal program, all of which are offered on an opt-in or opt-out basis.
Every school is unique, and The York School is particularly adept at proving the point. Just in terms of the basics, it’s an IB, coed day school in downtown Toronto, and that constellation of attributes alone makes it stand out. It’s also true that every school has its own culture, its own character, and The York School is a particularly good example of that as well. Conor Jones feels that, with the latest developments, the school has truly arrived, and certainly the evidence for that is ample. There is strong leadership, particularly in Jones, that also brings a unique, fresh take on the entire project of learning. It’s supported by a significant program of care, exemplified by an active, engaged wellness team, one situated in daily view of the students through their work and their placement within the facility. That attention is continued in a university counselling office that is as good or better than we’ve seen anywhere. If schools aren’t yet looking to York as an example of how best to counsel students in their move to post-secondary education, they should. In all, it’s not just about beginning early, and being attentive, it’s also about perspective, and the one evidenced here is, frankly, inspiring.
The school is distinguished too by the academic gaze it offers students, encouraging them to look beyond the boundaries of the school, beyond the borders of the city and the country, and to find their place in the world. That can risk sounding grand, admittedly, but there are lots of concrete things throughout the school that you can point to as evidence of that. In speaking with students, too, you get the sense that they are really internalising a wider, more far-reaching perspective. They feel they are dialed in to the city, the country, and the world; the school—from trips downtown and beyond; to interactions with the people in the neighbourhoods of Toronto—to its credit puts a lot of energy into ensuring that they are.
It’s about the little things, too. As Struan Robertson says, “At the end of the day, I think what parents are looking for is a safe, happy place. … It’s when you walk in the building, how does the building make you feel? When you talk to kids, are they happy? … That feeling that you can’t always describe, but when you walk in, you think, ‘hmm, this feels really good.’” That doesn’t just happen. The school needs to adopt it as a goal and then take steps to develop it, and the York School scores high on both counts. It’s perhaps not as well known as some other schools in the country, or even the city, but again, Jones is right in feeling that York has arrived. It has. And if people haven’t yet heard of it, in the coming years, they will.