Profile of Alfred Abouchar, Head of School, La Citadelle International Academy of Arts & Science

“My goal has always been for this to be an environment where students from all backgrounds and cultures can feel at home and thrive.”

La Citadelle International Academy of Arts and Science is the culmination of Founder and Headmaster Alfred Abouchar’s long and distinguished career in education. He was born in Egypt to a Lebanese family and attended one of the largest French language boys’ schools in the Middle East. Fluent in English and French, he earned an Honours BSc from the American University in Cairo before immigrating to Canada in 1969 and earning a BEd and MSc from Western University, and an MEd from the University of Toronto. 

While he began as a science teacher and professor, Abouchar went on to a wide range of senior positions in educational consulting and curriculum development. From serving as the Secretary General of the Council for Franco-Ontarian Education and the Superintendent of Curriculum, Research and Continuing Education to participating in the overhaul of Ontario’s science curriculum and sitting on the Ontario Advisory Council on Multiculturalism and Citizenship, every role shaped his outlook on teaching, learning, and school administration.

Over the decades, Abouchar developed a philosophy of education founded on his experience of best practices across different countries, systems, and schools. In 2000, feeling disillusioned with public education in Ontario, he decided to start a school rooted in his deep belief in holistic, bilingual, and values-based education. “Everybody thought I was totally crazy to launch a new school,” he says. “But I wasn’t coming from a business perspective. I didn't start the school because I wanted to make money. I was very frustrated by the existing system and wanted to create one on the basis of true education, not just instruction.”

Abouchar’s own education—before he specialized in his graduate degrees—was firmly grounded in a liberal arts approach, something he wanted his students to experience. “When I was doing my undergraduate degree in physics and chemistry, the university required me to also take arts and humanities courses,” he says. “It gave me an appreciation of culture and a wider outlook, and this is why La Citadelle students all take a balance of arts and science throughout their years here.” One outcome of his immersion in the arts is his passion for music, specifically composing and performing computer music, something he passes on to students in a dedicated class that starts in Grade 3. 

Even as his school grew and became a competitive private school in the Toronto scene, Abouchar never wavered from his founding principles of holistic education. In addition to giving equal weight to arts and science, this has meant instilling core values in students through both academic and co-curricular programs. 

For Abouchar, character education begins at the top, so he takes great care in the hiring process. “I don’t hire people because they have PhDs,” he says. “I hire people because of character, character, character. Even if they have 20 years of experience, if they can’t model values of respect, integrity, and discipline, they aren’t for us.”

Abouchar has strong opinions on the lack of decorum and discipline he sees in some young people today, and he’s determined that his students take a different path. His strict dress code and phone policies contribute to La Citadelle’s culture of dignity and courtesy. “There are no phones allowed at school because I want students to talk to each other, play together, look people in the eye and discuss emotional issues instead of sending emojis,” he says. “It’s a little bit different from the surrounding culture, but it’s working very well. I have a microcosm here of a safe school where the students and teachers are kind.” The parents we spoke to had nothing but praise for Abouchar and his dedication to swimming against certain tides in contemporary culture. 

He also attributes the school’s culture of respect to the strong community of students, families, teachers, and administration. Having his two daughters on staff and four granddaughters attending the school only adds to the overall family-like feel. He says it’s a perfect arrangement, with professional distance during the day and goodbye hugs for Grandpa after school.

The school’s open-concept design extends to Abouchar’s open office door. “I don't think it's a good environment when the headmaster is up there on the pedestal and students, or even teachers, are scared to visit them,” he says. “One of my favourite things is talking to students and seeing what they’re working on, whether it’s a class project or something in a club.”

When it comes to his attitude towards students’ learning or behavioural challenges, Abouchar also resists current trends in education. “I try to stay away from labelling children as much as possible,” he says. “Parents sometimes come in with psychological assessments and multiple recommendations, and we respect that information. We read it, but then we say let’s meet in a few months and see how things are going. We accept the students, work with them and love them. It’s a labour of love, which is rare in our education systems. We take care of our students, stand by them and help them grow. It’s very successful.”

Abouchar’s mix of strictness and warm-heartedness (everyone at La Citadelle calls him Alfred) is indeed successful, as evidenced by the happy and courteous students, satisfied families, and long-tenured teachers we met. “He provides visionary leadership that sets the tone for the institution,” says one graduate. On the other hand, a senior student commented on Abouchar’s lighter side: “Alfred is really interactive with students, and even though he has certain rules that are always enforced, he’s a lot of fun and jokes around with us.” 

For Abouchar, that respect and rapport are key. “My main objectives are for students to go to their universities of choice, yes, but also to be capable of thriving in life as decent people with solid values. I’m very proud of what we’re doing. It’s a lot of work, but it’s very gratifying.”

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