2017 Graduation & End of Year Ceremony

Among the many amazing things about a YMCA Academy graduation, the one that stands out for me is the sense of shared celebration. We are members of a close and inclusive community of learners, who support one another socially and academically. Many of our students come to the school with little hope of success based on their experience within the education system; in their admissions interviews with me prior to enrolment, many of their parents and guardians express their sense of hopelessness for their children’s academic and life success.

So, the sense of celebration, of having achieved beyond their expectations, of heading off to new challenges well-equipped for success — this is what is behind the entirely positive vibe of the night! The fact that this was our largest graduating class to date only added to the energy of the evening.

Each member of The Academy is fully invested in the success of our students, and we all experience with them the sense of accomplishment and excitement for what comes next. That this is a shared experience is clear from every conversation I have that evening. It’s clear as well from what was shared on various social media.

Have a look here:

I am so proud of my youngest daughter Emma. In spite of all the challenges the world through at her, she persevered and…
Posted by Ben Mair on Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Such an amazing Graduation Evening last night. Many thanks to Don Adams, the teachers, and staff. YMCA Academy is a…
Posted by Jules Steele Clyde on Thursday, June 29, 2017

As we move into a new academic year, I keep the graduation in my mind as motivation. See you next year!

Check out more photos from this event on our Facebook page!

Leveling the Playing Field

YMCA Academy student using in-class assistive technology on a laptop.

On March 30, like students throughout Ontario, YMCA Academy students participated in the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT). Unlike a vast majority of them, however, Academy students make use of a full range of accommodations to enable them to write the test on an equal footing with all of their peers.

Because The Academy is a school for students who learn differently, there are many potential barriers to their access to the testing process. Students with dysgraphia, for example, can have extreme difficulty with writing or typing. Students with language-based learning disabilities can have difficulty reading text from a page. Others, by virtue of learning disabilities or learning style differences, cannot access test materials in ways common to most learners. Such students can be fully literate (and after all, the purpose of the OSSLT is to determine a basic literacy level for all Ontario Students), but would not appear to be so without accommodations.

What are the accommodations available to students for the OSSLT? Students have access to a wide array of supports. The test is made available in a variety of formats, including text to speech, large type and Braille versions. Laptops are available to access these formats. As well, students can use computers to compose their responses. According to their specific learning needs, students can type their responses, dictate them using speech to text software, or even have a person scribe their answers.

Students with processing speed issues can be given extra time to complete the OSSLT; those with attention issues can be given an individual or small group setting for their test. They are allowed periodic supervised breaks and the supervising adult can prompt them back to work as needed.

Students with learning style differences can be at a disadvantage if they are not appropriately supported. At The YMCA Academy, we ensure that the full range of supports is in place to give our students the best possible opportunity for success – on the OSSLT, in school, and beyond.

September Blues?

I remember having the September blues as a student. For me, as for many of you I’m sure, making the best use of our all-too-short summer was a priority. Something new was bound to happen every day, and we were absolutely engaged in life. The return to school represented the loss of this engagement, the curtailment of unbounded physical activity, back to the regiment of rows of desks, seating plans, and hours of listening to the voice of the teacher filling us with knowledge like a pitcher with water. Charles Dickens satirized this in the mid 19th century in his novel, Hard Times:

“In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!”

The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.

These memories are so engrained, in fact, that each year I am surprised by a different September phenomenon. We keep the school open throughout the summer, and every week we get a visit or two from present students of The Academy — just dropping by to say hi, to see what’s happening during the summer, just to be back in this great school. Invariably, they say they are looking forward to September.

That’s something that I heard from many of you as well on September 2 – students were actually looking forward to school!

I think I know why: engaging classes; constant variety of experiential activities; supportive friends and classmates; a first-rate facility; a fabulous, compassionate staff. By designing an educational program around each student’s needs and strengths, we are able to change the old paradigm of education. It is indeed good to be back!

Charles Dickens would be proud.

Don Adams – Head of School

A Little Experiment

I met Spencer in the fall.  His mother was desperately looking for a school for him, and I suppose was both a bit hopeful and a bit apprehensive about approaching The Academy about his educational needs.  After all, Spencer requires personal support in his classes, and our program isn’t designed to accommodate this.

Sometimes it takes a meeting like this to make you examine your own practices — an unexamined life is not worth living, right?  After hearing about the difficulty finding a suitable school for Spencer, and growing to understand more clearly his academic and social needs, I thought it might be interesting for us to stretch our boundaries a little and do something a bit disruptive: to see how a student with Spencer’s needs and the presence of a support person for him would affect our program, and, more important, to see how it might benefit Spencer.  So, during February and March, Spencer and Andrea, his support person, attended classes every Tuesday.  These were classes in Grades 9 and 10, at the Applied level.

Without a doubt, this little experiment benefited both Spencer and The Academy.  We are now exploring opening a classroom for students with similar needs, and invite families to attend our Open House on Saturday April 12 (from 11:00 to 1:00) to express their interest.

In the meantime, Spencer’s mother has written the following post for this blog, which I present with great thanks!

When we first got the Autism diagnosis for our son, Spencer, we were filled with many questions.  Will he ever have friends? Live independently? Go to overnight camp? University?  Will he ever have a career of his own?  We were met with a resounding no, by our very cold, uninformed pediatric psychologist who told us that all we could do for him was to play with him, and hope for the best for some kind of a bleak future.  Thankfully, we didnt accept this diagnosis as his prognosis, and have tried to give Spencer as many typical experiences as possible.  He travels, goes to overnight camp for six weeks of the summer and we have given him many opportunities to learn and grow with one very important roadblock in his way.  

The educational system for kids with higher needs like Spencer up until now has been sorely lacking.   In fact it is almost non-existent.  When Spencer was going into Grade One, we applied to almost every Private school in the city.  Each and every school including the ones that specialized in supporting kids with learning challenges, shut the door in our faces over and over again.  Some even brought us in for an interview, had us apply with a deposit and put Spencer through a half day integrated in the classroom.  When it came time for a decision they all said Sorry we dont take kids with one-to one support.  We truly felt hopeless and thankfully the Jewish Montossori was very accepting and took him in.  Unfortunately, it wasnt a great fit for him because it was really geared towards independent learning.  We decided that the only choice for him was to go to a school dedicated to Special Needs Kids. 

We were finally going to get the education Spencer so desperately needed .  Or so we thought.  Meanwhile, they charged us their full tuition, had us pay for our own aide in the classroom, buy our own school supplies and then threw three kids like Spencer, with three support staff into a classroom with a very inexperienced teacher who gave them colouring sheets with an A and an apple as their daily work, had them sing the alphabet and put Barney videos on throughout the day.  This was grade 5? I am pretty sure we spent almost $100,000 for that year of school.   Needless to say this was not the place for Spencer.  He is a very smart kid with tons of potential but up until then, the private school system had failed him.

We decided that the only route we could take was Public School.  After all, they are mandated to teach him.  He has been there for three years and he is still quite behind in almost all areas.  There was little specialized teaching to meet his strengths and needs, and as a result very little demonstrated growth and learning.  We had to supplement with after school tutoring every day in order to teach him some of the necessary concepts to get him ready for High School next year.  

This is where it starts to get real.  We cant afford to waste the next years in a babysitting program.  We need to think of his future.  The next school will be the training ground that will help to determine the path he takes as a young adult.  He needs a school that will not only work on life and social skills but will give him the academics in a structured yet nurturing environment.  A school that knows how to reach and motivate kids like Spencer. 

I searched the internet for High Schools for Special Needs Teens and came across a school called the YMCA Academy, located in the downtown YMCA at 15 Breadalbane Street.  On paper the school seemed ideal.  Each student works on a laptop, job skills and prep are taught, they have work co-op programs, career and life skills counselling, small class sizes, applied and academic courses and once finished you can actually walk away with a high school diploma or a certificate of accomplishment.  It looked too good to be true.  I called anyways, even though I was prepared to hear the answer I have heard most of Spencers life, but what I got instead threw me.  Don Adams, the head of the school was intrigued.  Can you believe that?  He was actually intrigued by the possibility of including someone like Spencer in their school.  He invited me to come in and meet with him to talk further about Spencer and how this would work within the existing parameters of their school.  He was in, I mean really in.  I was floored.  I had never ever in all twelve years since his diagnosis heard those words before.  He wanted to meet Spencer and really see this through. 

He met Spencer, stims and all, and offered to have him come in once a week and partake in the curriculum to see if it was a good fit for us.  The trial run was successful and even though Spencer didnt fit the model of the kids that typically attend the Y Academy, Don was willing to make it work.  Not only that, he was excited about the possibility of having Spencer and kids like him attend his school.   He is now opening up a classroom for kids who need more support and will teach a modified locally developed program for kids with Autism.   Don Adams and The YMCA Academy are willing to push the boundaries of their comfort zone and do what most others refuse to do, be inclusive.  Hopefully, they will lead the way for others to start broadening their definition of special needsin the Private School system and help these kids reach their full potential.

Thriver and The YMCA Academy

ThriverTM Inc. (www.thriver.com) is a technology-based company with offices in Toronto and Windsor, Ontario. Thriver™ is a new online learning platform designed to help parents become effectively involved in the cognitive development of their children. While the platform can help any child, it is particularly helpful for children who are experiencing difficulty in school.  The YMCA Academy is excited to be taking part in an innovative research project with Thriver™. The technology that is developing will help our teachers understand how the students learn and may provide them with new information that could be used to inform instructional changes in the classroom. We are always looking for ways to provide instruction for our students, and this technology may provide options for delivering differentiated support to a broader YMCA community in a highly engaging format.