REVIEW OF Star Academy BY parent, Jacqueline MacDonald
- Date of Review
June 13, 2019
Gr. 7 - 8
(4.5) Student Experience
With its small class sizes, Star Academy has been able to cater to the very different learning styles, social and academic needs of both our children (grades 7 and 3). On the one hand, we have a high-energy, social child who struggles to stay on task, concentrate and block distractions. Our other child is quiet, sensitive to noise, and socially shy and timid. Both have flourished, and developed newfound confidences – academically and socially at Star. Teacher and administration awareness of their individual needs has meant supports – regular movement breaks, chunking assignments, unique testing methods (making a brochure to explain integers)// in the moment coaching to deal with social confrontations, manage emotions and achieve a positive outcome (“sometimes you have to deliver a hard message with a smile). At Star they have become excited to go to school, engaged in their learning (homework is no longer a battle, dinner time is filled with talk of what they did that day), excited to share their achievements (test results – the good and the not so good, inclusion of a disabled child in an activity), and generally just happier kids. If anything is lacking it is a robust intramural/extracurricular program - see below for details.
(5) School Leadership
The Star teaching environment is one where all teachers have the opportunity to interact with and teach all students. Similarly, administration staff, by greeting students every morning as they arrive and joining them daily for lunch, have a familiarity with the student body. This has resulted in a positive school culture, where relationships and interactions are characterized by openness, trust and respect. As such, when physical or emotional issues arise they are caught quickly and seen as learning / growth opportunities. As an example: A teacher found our middle school aged child wrestling a classmate. Per school protocol, the teacher, students and a student bystander were asked to document their version of events in the time immediately following. The students were additionally asked to answer a series of reflective questions about the impact of their behaviour. A conversation with the school’s director, focusing on respect for personal boundaries and the students’ role as leaders/role models at the school took place the following day. This not only allowed for a cool down period for those involved but also encouraged my child to take responsibility and inform me of the incident, prior to the school reaching out. A consequence that emphasized teamwork among the 3 students followed! While impressed with the fair and thoughtful approach to discipline, what further stands out is the impact personal relationships and the knowledge of childhood development had on how this situation was managed. In my follow-up conversation with administration, it was clear that my child’s temperament (as well as those of the other students) was well understood as was preteen behaviour. And while not condoned, it strongly informed how the entire situation was handled.
Communication between teachers and parents is regular and ongoing. At the beginning of each academic term parents are emailed a detailed breakdown of the curriculum for each subject, including homework and assessment details. Parents also receive weekly emails from their child’s teacher summarizing the week’s activities/learning. Administration also sends a weekly email covering more general school affairs. A monthly coffee morning, following drop off is also held, giving parents a chance to catch up with one another and administration. Assignments and tests are sent home for signature. How students are evaluated is clear, both in terms of criteria (eg: Knowledge – subject-specific content learnt from the Grade 3 social studies and the comprehension of its meaning and significance etc.) and achievement (demonstrates limited understanding; some understanding; considerable understanding; thorough understanding). These assessment rubrics are supported by teacher comments, which recognize and celebrate student effort and offer constructive feedback, as appropriate. Because class sizes are small, the emphasis is on each child reaching their potential with supports, as required. Having come from French Immersion, individual weekly spelling lists were developed for my youngest to help transition to all English instruction. Movement breaks are encouraged for my eldest. If the curriculum requirements are met in one subject, students are simply moved ahead – reading in our case. Instruction style allows for hands-on, collaborative learning, as well as individual and independent study. Primary grade learning has included researching the importance of the Catholic Church to early French settlers and then building a diorama to reflect that research. Or planning, budgeting and then purchasing materials needed as a class for a science project. Senior student learning has involved writing an essay comparing the perspective of the Toronto and Milwaukee media coverage of the NBA playoffs, debating the need for Canadian government support of First Nations or Bangladesh etc. Overall, we have found both our children excited and engaged to go to school, well supported in their learning style, and keen to share their learning with us!
Teachers at Star are warm, accessible, enthusiastic and caring. It is evident that they believe a strong student-teacher relationship is crucial to student success. Every teacher knows every students name; they engage them in meaningful conversations; listen to their point of view; play sports with them during recess; and in the more senior grades are accessible to their students via email. They encourage students to respect their learning needs, whether it is taking a movement break or finding a quiet corner to work. They respect student worries/anxieties and support them to work through them. Case in point: Speech night. Students across all grade levels present a speech to their classmates and classmates’ parents. This caused enormous anxiety in our youngest. His feelings however, were acknowledged, not only by his teacher, but by all the staff. As he practiced and gained confidence, his efforts were celebrated and shared with us. On Speech Night, he was broadly supported but the choice was ultimately his. And while he declined to present to his class and their parents, he eventually worked up the courage to present to ourselves, and his teacher. It was a moment of pride and learning for him – pride in himself for doing it and disappointment that he hadn’t tried in front of everyone. Both feelings were acknowledged and validated. The strong teacher-student relationships, also lends itself to an environment where students feel emotionally safe to take risks / stretch beyond their comfort zone (see above). Mistakes are not seen as failures, but as opportunities to grow and learn. My eldest, once very uncomfortable with public speaking as been supported over months, recognized for her small improvements and is now excitedly preparing a speech for the graduating class. Finally, Star also recognizes the role physical wellbeing and the need to move when it comes to kids. They offer two longer than average recess breaks and every student participates in gym class daily!
The student population at Star does not lend itself to a robust extracurricular program. There are no intramural or competitive sports team. That being said, students are encouraged to propose clubs, which has led to some fun and innovative activities – gift wrapping club, mentorship club, cooking club etc. For a fee, Star also offers extracurricular opportunities throughout the school year, such as robotics and skiing/boarding. In recognition of the lack of sports teams, Star teachers make themselves available to play with the more (and less) athletically inclined students at recess and lunch hour. This has helped cement the strong teacher-student bond my children feel, enables teachers to model positive, healthy behaviours, and feeds into the warm, caring environment at the school. It also makes for fun stories around the dinner table!
While small – under 100 students from K to Grade 8 – the student body at Star is diverse, both racially and ethnically and in disability and ability. Because relationships, from the top down, are characterized by openness, trust, respect, and appreciation, there is an acceptance and openness towards differences as well as tremendous sense of empathy towards others. Because Star naturally weaves learning supports into its classrooms, it attracts a higher proportion of students who benefit from these resources, strategies and practices – ADHD, autism, anxiety. An unexpected outcome for our family was not only increased academic and social confidence in a very short time, but greater empathy for less abled kids. I regularly hear from my children or their teachers how they have: demonstrated fair and generous treatment towards others (passing the ball to, or teaming up with a physically challenged child), extended greater patience towards others (use their words multiple times, give a hard message with a smile), accepted individual limitations more readily (I really like X, but he finds big groups hard). In combination with its strong academics, we appreciate the development of these social skills as a key element in preparing our children to be well-rounded, responsible citizens as they move forward in life.
(4) School Life
Both our children are happy and keen to go to school on a daily basis. Because school policies and facilities promote student safety – both emotional and physical – previous anxieties related to witnessing aggression are no longer a concern. They are appreciated by their teacher for who they are and what they bring to the table – in the case of our eldest, leadership, peer motivation, and athleticism – which has motivated her to work harder. She wants to achieve and receive constructive feedback from someone she knows respects her. Varied learning experiences also keep them engaged and interested. In addition, expectations in terms of assignments and support in achieving these expectations are clear, with smaller objectives being identified within the larger assignment. Smiles, shared laughs, words of approval, and constructive feedback have created a sense of trust between my children and their teachers. In essence, they are given opportunities to succeed and learning has become fun for them. While more intramural/extracurriculars would be appreciated, the small student population and lack of public transit make this challenging.
Star’s location means that school community is stretched over several GTA cities. Coupled with a lack of transit options, this limits possibilities for parent involvement. There are monthly coffee mornings following drop off, which allow for informal chats among parents, as well as regular school meetings hosted by the administration. Parents are not invited to volunteer on field trips or in the classroom. There are limited committees (Fun Fair) requiring parent involvement. Parents are asked if they have skills/knowledge that could be shared in the classroom, and if appropriate are invited to do so – a presentation on Internet safety has been given, as well as a science lesson that saw a parent arrive with a heavy duty truck (can’t recall the lesson…). As someone who enjoys being involved in my children’s school, more opportunities to contribute - if need be - would be welcome.
(3.5) School Location
Star is currently situated in a quiet cul-de-sac like location. Unless they are on field trips, students do not venture beyond the school grounds. The main building is light filled, with a large gym. Senior students (grades 7 and 8) are housed in a separate building, giving them a sense of autonomy from the primary students! The school is surrounded by a large field, dotted with trees. There is no public transit, so parents must drive/carpool to get their children to and from school.
The administration at Star is very open to showing prospective families the school. For families interested in applying, call and book a tour. This not only gives you a sense of the space, but an opportunity to peak in on the classes while they’re in session. We were able to witness, first hand, the process behind students writing creative fiction, including having students read their work to us; see how Smartboards were used to enhance learning etc. Administration was not phased by our presentation of ADHD and anxiety related challenges, and were both positive and honest in how they could support this. The trial day allowed our children to get a feel for the school as well as for the school to do an assessment of their academic level/needs. The process was very smooth, informative and positive for ourselves and our children.