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.

Thoughts about our Parent Social

Last evening, we held our annual Parent Social event.  It gives us an opportunity to thank our new and returning families, as well as to introduce ourselves to some prospective families who are considering The Academy for their children.  We are thankful that all have placed, or are considering placing, such trust in us for the care of their children!

The evening was very gratifying for the staff of The Academy — as we hear from satisfied families about their past issues with systems of education, and about their present satisfaction with the work we are doing with them.  And indeed, we have a remarkable team here supporting their children both inside and outside of the classroom.

For us, the evening is important in that it helps us to foster a more inclusive team approach to the care of our students.  We do have incredible supports here, but when the families are actively added to the team, the prospects for a successful high school experience are increased greatly.  Moreover, our Parent Social gives us the chance to consider strategic questions and options for The Academy.  In light of this, we are forming a Parent Council, who, we hope, will continue to engage the parents, students and staff of The Academy in continuing the evolution of the school.  If you are interested in becoming part of the parent council, give me a call at the school!

Don Adams: Head of School

A Great Start!

In this, our eleventh year, The YMCA Academy continues its evolutionary process in becoming Toronto’s finest school for students who learn differently.  I use the word “evolutionary” deliberately, for the school, which was founded on very sound educational principles, has organically grown over time, adjusting its personnel and practices as warranted by the needs of our ever-changing group of students.

 A very good friend of The Academy, Aron Solomon, taught me a great deal about what it means to run an amazing school.  For Aron, boasting that a school produces “well rounded individuals” is merely repeating a cliche, and is true of almost all schools.  Ontario curriculum demands that students master 4 courses in English, 3 in Mathematics, 2 in Sciences, 1 in Art, 1 in Physical Education, and so on.  By the very nature of the Ontario Secondary School Diploma, students are “well rounded.”  For Aron, a school attains greatness when it consistently identifies and supports a student’s passions.

 Each year, a new and wonderful group of students adds many unique gifts and talents to the community, and we try to be responsive to their passions as well as their needs.  Thus, we enhance our focus on student supports and accommodations, but all within an environment that focuses on students assets rather than disabilities.

 This is all made possible by an amazing group of dedicated faculty and staff, in an environment where collaboration and support are the norm, not the exception.

 If you are interested in having a look at what we do, please don’t hesitate to call and visit!  We’re always ready for a tour.

 Don Adams, Head of School

Aug. 19th, 2013 – Summer Preparations

With summer half over, it seems a good time to bring everyone up-to-date on what we’ve been doing at The YMCA Academy, and changes you can expect for the new academic year.

When we start in September, there will be some small but noticeable changes to some of our office assignments, as we reorganize for a more efficient use of space.  These changes will involve the office beside the front desk, as well as the three offices in the admin area.

More important changes involve Academy staff.  Julie Barrett, Nicole Klement and Mitchell Curci will not be with the Academy at the start of the next term and we wish them all well in their future endeavours. We are delighted that Todd Harrison and Rein Tammemagi will be part of the team welcoming students this September.

Since Julie Barrett handled much of the financial and admissions contract work, she is a familiar face to you all and her general organizational acumen will be difficult to replace. Nicole Klement, has accepted a position of responsibility at Havergal College and while I’m thrilled for her, I’m also very sorry to lose her wisdom and support at the school.  If there are any questions, please contact me directly as I will be overseeing the admissions duties at the school.

As part of our staff changes, I am pleased to announce that Susan Couprie has accepted a newly-created role of Teacher/Special Education Supervisor.  Susan’s expertise in the area of special education is well respected, and she will forge ahead with work around IEPs, accommodations, assistive technologies and so on in support of student learning and teacher development.

Similarly, Kaili Glennon has accepted a newly-created role of Teacher/Guidance Supervisor.  Kaili’s experience in running our co-operative education program, as well as her mentorship background, are important qualifications for this position.  She will be responsible for student transitions to post secondary or workplace situations in addition to continuing to teach and run co-op.

We have hired two familiar faces to full time teaching positions.  Todd Harrison returns to The Academy after a year away at Greenwood College School.  Todd previously spent a year volunteering at our school, so we know he will be a great asset.

Rein Tammemagi, who taught here on a part-time basis last year, and who is also a long-time volunteer at the school, has also accepted a full-time position as a teacher at the school.  We’re glad to have Rein back in an expanded role!

With new teachers, comes new expertise, and our timetable has more variety than ever.  We’re looking forward to classes which are interesting for the students and faculty alike!  As always, each student’s individual learning needs will be met in every class.

Looking forward to seeing everyone in the new academic year!

Don Adams, Head of School