Chisholm Academy KEY INSIGHTS
Each school is different. Chisholm Academy's Feature Review excerpts disclose its unique character. Based on discussions with the school's alumni, parents, students, and administrators, they reveal the school’s distinctive culture, community, and identity.
What we know
- Chisholm Academy was established to cater to learners at risk of being overlooked in traditional education.
- Ideal students at Chisholm are those who benefit from a personalized educational plan, and a small class size.•
- The school is led by clinical psychologist Dr. Howard Bernstein, ensuring a focus on structured academic experiences.
- Strong communication and collaboration between parents and the school are actively promoted.
Chisholm Academy is a private school for students who could easily get lost in the shuffle at public schools. It is a perfect setting for students struggling with learning disabilities, ADHD, and mental health concerns like anxiety and depression. It is also ideal for parents who have spent years searching for resources to help their children achieve their full potential. The school provides an individualized, structured education in a highly supportive environment designed to rebuild students’ confidence and nurture their abilities.
With roots in an educational psychology practice, Chisholm’s teaching philosophy views students’ emotional health as pivotal to their learning capacity. “We come at the whole school experience from a unique angle, in that our priority is to create an environment where kids feel comfortable,” says Executive Director Dr. Howard Bernstein, the clinical psychologist who founded Chisholm. “Feeling good is the fundamental starting point for learning. There’s an overarching focus here on wellness and providing for all of the kids’ needs, well beyond just academics.”
Chisholm calls itself “The IEP School” because every student has an Individual Education Plan (IEP). Everyone we spoke to asserted that Chisholm’s IEPs are exceptional. Teachers not only follow IEPs, but regularly revise them to align with students’ evolving strengths and challenges. Extra academic support is readily available, including teacher-supervised study halls at lunch and after school.
BASICS AND BACKGROUND
As a coeducational day school for students with special education needs in Grades 7 to 12, Chisholm Academy limits itself to 135 students, with small classes—12 max, and some are half that size. Located in east Oakville, Ontario, the architecture of the 25,000-square-foot space could just as easily lend itself to a high-end office building. Once inside, you’ll see small classrooms purpose-built for an intimate learning environment.
Chisholm’s origins go back to 1971 with the creation of a tutoring centre, one of the first of its kind in the region. After Dr. Bernstein joined the centre in 1980, the centre concentrated more on providing psychoeducational assessments. By the late 1990s, more and more parents were asking for a full-time program with small classes and comprehensive support, which they couldn’t find in the public system. Dr. Bernstein decided he’d start a school to bridge this gap in the system. In 1999, Chisholm Academy opened its doors to about a dozen Grade 9 students. “We started small and added a grade each year, and here we are today,” he says.
The two people at the helm of Chisholm were there well before it became a full-fledged school. Dr. Howard Bernstein and Principal Sylvia Moyssakos have complementary expertise and personalities. The teachers appreciate Dr. Bernstein’s down-to-earth manner and warmth. Teacher Yvonne Curic says she’s never had a more supportive or collaborative administrative team in her career. Parents agree, with one commenting, “As soon as I started talking to Howard, I could tell he really knew his stuff as a child psychologist. But he’s also a real person and he doesn’t try to confuse you with technical knowledge. He talks to you like an equal and is very honest about what the school can and can’t do for your child.”
Principal Moyssakos is described as a quiet, reassuring presence in the school. Admissions officer Lorna Hughes says, “She has this calming influence on the teachers and students. She’s been here a long time, which also brings a huge amount of trust with our staff and parents.” In Curic’s words, Moyssakos is “a leader extraordinaire. She has the most positive presence across the school, and everyone feels they can go to her with anything.”
At Chisholm, the whole academic program hinges on each student’s IEP. The prevailing conviction at the school is that a thoroughly individualized approach to learning, coupled with small class sizes and extensive support, sets up each student to achieve their personal best. Vice-Principal Shaheed says, “I have a documented model of everything that the students are capable of achieving and of their various needs and strengths as learners. I develop all of the IEP’s for the students and I work on this fluid document throughout the school year to make sure it is an accurate reflection of what the student is capable of.”
Chisholm teachers recognize that consistency reassures students coping with any type of anxiety. Simplicity and predictability are key to the school schedule. Every day has four classes lasting 70 minutes. In Grades 7 and 8, the first three periods remain the same each day of the semester and only the last period changes depending on the day of the week. “It’s very user-friendly, and my daughter loves knowing what to expect every day,” says one parent.
Several parents we spoke to commented on the “one-size-fits-all” approach to students with learning challenges at their children’s previous schools, comparing it to the highly individualized attention offered at Chisholm. One parent of a recent graduate says, “My son didn’t fit in the special ed sector in his high school, but he needed more support than was provided in the mainstream. At Chisholm every teacher knew exactly how to give that little bit of extra help that allowed him to thrive.”
About 75% of the school’s graduates go on to college, 20% to university, and the rest directly to the workforce. More than 90% are accepted into their preferred post-secondary programs. In line with these outcomes, Chisholm offers mostly applied-level courses in high school, with a good selection at the academic level and a few at the essential level. A co-op program in Grades 11 and 12 is very popular among students seeking real-life work experience.
The school takes a very intentional approach to developing students’ ability to manage themselves in all types of social situations. Managing conflict, respecting different opinions, communicating effectively, regulating emotions—these crucial skills are integrated across the Chisholm curriculum.
Every teacher we spoke to emphasized the vital importance of trust and communication in fostering social competence. “We take the view that the social part of school is as important as the academic part,” says physical education teacher John Mooney. “I create an environment where they know they can take chances and have opposing viewpoints, and nobody will ridicule or punish them.” Yvonne Curic agrees, saying “Conversation is such a big part of students’ learning at Chisholm. Just being there to listen when they need to talk is huge.”
Our meeting with a group of Chisholm students highlighted an extraordinary undercurrent of mutual care among individuals who had very different strengths and challenges. There was no evidence of competitiveness, social hierarchy, or even the kind of subtle judgement so common among teens. After hearing so much about the students’ empathy and acceptance of each other’s struggles, it was plain to see. “I can’t tell you the number of times a student is having a hard time and another student will go try to help them, completely unprompted,” says Mooney. “It’s absolutely genuine.”
For a small school, Chisholm offers a wide range of clubs and activities, from robotics and IT clubs to photography and mindfulness groups. The school community is especially proud of its drama club, which puts on two productions each year. “Some of our productions have even won awards, which makes the kids feel so good about themselves. And that’s what we’re all about here,” says Dr. Bernstein.
Sports are also an important part of student life at Chisholm, though any competition is internal. John Mooney runs many of the sports clubs. “Our intramurals are incredibly popular,” he says. “Over the course of the year there’s always a team to join, from ultimate frisbee to basketball and flag football.”
For students who aren’t interested in sports or drama, there are plenty of clubs catering to a wide variety of interests run by teachers and the child and youth workers. The movie club, for example, got rave reviews from the students we met. “We prioritize extracurricular outlets, because they’re just another valuable opportunity for our students to interact with their peers outside the classroom and gain important life skills,” says Mooney.
“The environment is very nurturing,” says Principal Moyssakos. “We spend a lot of time building students’ feelings of self-worth through spirit days and extracurricular activities. We also do this simply by giving them a sense of being part of a caring school community.”
The parents we spoke to were effusive in their gratitude for how the school welcomed their children—who had all experienced bullying, exclusion, self-isolation, or all three—and, in a sense, brought them back to social and emotional health. “My son was lonely, withdrawn, and didn’t want to go to his old school,” says one parent of a recent graduate. “Within a week of starting at Chisholm, he couldn’t wait to go to school. We began to see an entirely new sense of confidence and maturity in him. Moving him there was the best thing we’ve ever done for him.”
The students who met with us talked openly about the relief of feeling accepted and secure at school. According to them, the school’s zero-tolerance policy on bullying is real—not window- dressing, as in some of their previous schools. “The teachers absolutely do not tolerate it, because a lot of the kids—me included—came here because we were bullied,” says one high school student. Another says it was a somewhat disorienting experience at first. “I didn’t know who I could trust and I didn’t want to talk to anybody at first. I was confused because everybody was so nice. Then I got used to the idea that this was a regular feeling—being safe and comfortable.”
To our knowledge, Chisholm is the only private school with an affiliated psychology practice. It’s a valuable resource in several ways. The psychologists help develop students’ IEPs, provide consultation to teachers, and offer counselling to students and parents on request (for a fee).
Having two child and youth workers on staff is also unique and advantageous to this student population. “You often hear teenagers, especially those who are dealing with learning or mental health challenges, say that adults don’t understand what’s happening in their brains,” says Child and Youth Worker Kyla Parsons. “But at Chisholm we do understand, and students sense that. We also empower them to understand how their own brains work. We take the attitude that we all have certain roadblocks in the ways we learn and see the world, but we can find detours and new ways to get where we want to go.”
On our visit, we heard a lot of laughter, both in students’ interactions with each other and with their teachers and administrators. Says one parent, “Spending time at the school, it becomes obvious that the teachers are always trying to make learning fun and relatable to everyday life.” I know for my son, if everything is boring and serious all the time, he switches off.
THE OUR KIDS REPORT: Chisholm Academy
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