EDUCATION

Y HIGH

Eight students are graduating this month from North America’s only YMCA school

JULIA MCKINNELL July 9 2007
EDUCATION

Y HIGH

Eight students are graduating this month from North America’s only YMCA school

JULIA MCKINNELL July 9 2007

Y HIGH

EDUCATION

Eight students are graduating this month from North America’s only YMCA school

JULIA MCKINNELL

“When they think of the Y they think ‘swim and gym’ or the Village People,” says Jim Milligan, explaining people’s puzzled reaction to hearing that the YMCA has a high school. The YMCA Academy, the only one of its kind in North America, opened in Toronto in September 2003 with two teachers and a student body of four. Last year, enrolment was up to 42 students. On June 27, the first graduating class of eight stood in cap and gown to receive high school diplomas.

Branching into education is actually a return to the YMCA’s roots, says Milligan. J.D. Salinger, creator of the school-hating Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, attended the now-defunct McBurney School, a Manhattan prep school established in 1916 by the YMCA of Greater New York. According to the Y’s website, “Several colleges and universities can be traced back to YMCA involvement in higher education. Ys in the 19th and early-20th centuries placed much more emphasis on formal and informal classes and teaching than they do now.”

For 18-year-old Jaleel Rock, who dreams of owning a restaurant one day, graduating from the Y is “the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me.” He hates school, he says, but “I’m here because I want to make something of myself in life.”

The school’s goal is to educate kids who “learn differently,” says Milligan, who is head of the school. As part of the curriculum, students learn how to write a resumé and present themselves for a job. “We have co-op education. It means students can receive credit for working in an area of their choice.” Public school teachers told Jaleel when he was younger he’d never make it through high school. “My parents always got calls, ‘Your kid’s not listening. He’s troubling other kids.’ ” At age six, Jaleel was diagnosed with

attention deficit disorder and prescribed Ritalin. He’s not unlike many of his peers at the YMCA Academy. Sammie Miller, for instance, a Grade 10 student, took Ritalin from Grade 2 to Grade 6. “I was out of control, basically,” she says. Sammie excels in math but didn’t learn how to read until Grade 8.

The YMCA Academy has no basketball courts or cheerleaders or team sports. Class starts at 9:30 a.m. The extra half-hour gives students time to be rested and more alert, says Tracey Addison, director of admissions. Most of the classrooms are not much larger than a living room. (Student-to-teacher ratio is about eight to one.) On the blackboard in the science lab is a list of the seven move-

ments in Holst’s symphony The Planets. The cosmic soundtrack is part of an assignment in which students imagined life on Mars. Two “quiet rooms” provide an area where students take themselves for self-administered “time outs” if they can’t settle down in class. “No one has ever been expelled,” said Milligan. “I don’t believe in it.”

At 10:45 a.m. on a recent Friday, 19-yearold student Afia Baeta stepped outside for a break with some classmates. Afia doesn’t have a learning disability. Her overall average is in the 80s. One of her teachers describes her as a workaholic. Yet, says Afia, “if I’d gone to another school, a public school, I don’t think I would’ve stayed. Too many distractions.”

When Afia was in Grade 8 at a public school, she stopped going to class. “I was just out being stupid, wasting time.” The following September, she heard from a friend that her name had been called in Grade 9 math class. “I said, ‘What are you talking about? I didn’t pass Grade 8.’ I hadn’t gone to the whole second half of the year but the school passed me. It was weird.”

It was also “weird” about a year and nine months ago, she says. Before enrolling at the Y, Afia lived with her father in a rental apartment. (Her parents had divorced.) She wasn’t attending school. One day, her father told her he was going to Africa on business. He left her alone in the apartment and has never returned. “Yeah, he was supposed to be gone a month,” she said. Five months later, the landlord handed Afia an eviction notice. “I had to move all my stuff to my grandparents,” she said.

Tuition at the Y for 2007/08 is $13,104. “For families unable to pay,” says Addison, “the Y has a policy that if 70 per cent of families are full-fee-paying, the Y will subsidize the other 30 per cent of families.” Last year, Afia received additional scholarship money from PepsiCo.

Jaleel credits the Y for sparking his dream to become a chef and for opening his eyes to reading. “I read a book called Monster. It’s about a kid who’s framed for robbing a store,” he said. “This was the first book where I sat there and read the whole thing. I read the first two words and couldn’t put it down. I never had a book in my life that I actually enjoyed.” M

TWO ‘QUIET ROOMS’ PROVIDE AN AREA WHERE STUDENTS TAKE SELF-ADMINISTERED ‘TIME OUTS’