Academic + Emotional + Community Support (Now There’s An Idea!)

Just last week, we interviewed the spectacular Don Adams, Head Of School at Toronto’s YMCA Academy and learned how they integrate the student voice into every part of their school culture. In part-two of this series, we go deeper into their core values:

What’s so evident to me (and seems to set you guys apart) is the culture of respect at your school. What are the key pieces in sustaining this every day?
Thanks! For a start, being a program of The YMCA of Greater Toronto, we practice its 6 core values – Respect, Responsibility, Inclusiveness, Caring, Honesty and Health.  In fact, we do not give academic awards at the school.  Rather, the community comes together to nominate deserving members of the school for an award for each of the core values.

Underlying them all is Respect.  For us, it’s the default position for anyone coming into the school.  All deserve to be respected; therefore, we respect all.  With the variety of learning differences we have at the school, and their differing social manifestations, we emphasize this constantly.  Our school life counselor works with individuals and groups on a daily basis in this connection.  Our work with Mindfulness Without Borders, of course, also centres on respect for self and others. By being intentional, and consistent, we maintain this focus.

So –  academic support, emotional support and community support. Love it. Can you touch on each of these pillars of The Academy and why you think it’s so important to maintain all three?

It might be surprising, or even counter-intuitive, but we see the support of the community as underlying the others.  For us, it’s important to demonstrate very actively that the community exists in order to support its members – indeed that’s the nature of community.  We bring in a variety of community supports so that our students are aware of a system that is, in fact, there to help.  Of course, our core expertise is in the first two pillars you mention – academic and social support.

Academically, each student has an IEP, use of a laptop with a full suite of assistive technologies, resource and remediation support, qualified teachers in their academic subjects and in Special Education.

We have a full time counselor on staff to provide emotional and social support.

If we can demonstrate that we are not a refuge, but rather a working example of a supportive community, I think we’ve done a huge service to our students.

Please tell us about your co-op program. Kids have the opportunity to explore fields like child care, technology, culinary and environmental work?
Cooperative Education is a cornerstone of our experiential program.  By sending students out into workplace environments, and connecting their classroom learning to such experiences, we enrich both!  Students are able to apply, expand, and refine the knowledge and skills acquired in their studies, and at the same time experience career possibilities while still in school.  Such experiences are helpful both in pointing students towards, and away from, career choices!  These experiences, of course, help students in preparing for future careers and making successful transitions to post-secondary education, apprenticeship programs, or to the workplace. Some of the commmunity partners we work with are:

Evergreen Brick Works
The High Park Nature Center
King West Vets
Holiday Inn
Oriel Renovations
Bikes on Wheels
The YMCA of Greater Toronto Family Development Center
Bloom Restaurant
Tati Bistro
Smiley Guy Studios
Clark-Way Travel

What’s next for the YMCA Academy?

We want to keep growing slowly and responsibly.  We have 45 students presently, and expect to have 50 in September.  As well, we’d like to begin sharing our expertise more fully than we already do.  We have run four TEDxYMCAAcademy events during which we bring in experts in the education field.  Our team gives presentations as well at a variety of conferences.  For example, I was at the SXSWedu conference in Austin, Texas in March to speak about “Breaking Down the Walls in Education.”  On the horizon, we’d like to package our curriculum and expertise for schools wishing to start a program for students who learn differently.  We’re working with MaRS to try to make that happen!  Stay tuned.

Thank-you Don. You know we will!