Celebrating excellence in our schools

By  Michael Swan, The Catholic Register, with additional reporting by Carolyn Girard and Sheila Dabu
  • March 1, 2009
{mosimage}Dear Readers,

In Ontario’s Catholic schools students, teachers, trustees, parents and administrators walk by faith, not by fear. The gallery of excellence on the following pages is testament to what faith can do with us, among us and for us.

There is a spectre of fear hovering over our history. Before Confederation immigrant Catholics knew the Anglican-controlled school system was a mechanism for their assimilation by the Protestant establishment. They knew very well the establishment held Catholic newcomers in contempt. At Confederation the danger of assimilation was real enough for Catholics to fight a political battle to ensure their education rights in the basic law of the new country.

As Catholic education rights were maliciously and illegally undercut after the First World War, Catholics relied on a secret weapon — religious sisters and brothers who would give their lives to ensure a Catholic education and to preserve the culture and spirituality which sustains the church. As high school became the new standard for a basic education after the Second World War, Catholic parents made financial sacrifices to give their children the necessary education in a Catholic context.

Winning the political and legal battle for full funding in 1984 and for more equal funding in 1998 hasn’t erased the spectre of fear. Today, Catholics worry about the bureaucratization of Catholic education, the focus on testing and measurement at the expense of free enquiry and intellectual growth, a funding formula that leaves boards in a financial straight jacket, falling enrolments everywhere but the suburbs surrounding Toronto and the failures of leadership which have become an embarrassment to us all.

Excellence is not founded in fear. Nor is it the product of worry. Examine especially the young faces in these pages. The excellence they have achieved is founded in faith, hope, love and charity.

CarrCouncil.jpgCarr cares

Fr. Henry Carr Catholic
Secondary School Student Council.

  • School founded by Basilian Fathers in 1974.
  • New Building opens 2008.

The kids at Carr go to school smack dab in the middle of Doomstown — the Jamestown neighbourhood of Toronto where a police raid in 2006 swept up 106 members of the Jamestown Crew. This neighbourhood was the setting for the 2006 made-for-TV movie Doomstown about drug trafficking and dim prospects in tightly packed public housing projects that dominate the area.

Members of the Father Henry Carr Secondary School student council have to fight the reputation and the reality of their neighbourhood. They’re sick of hearing about the violence, the guns, the gangs and the poverty.

“There’s always the negative stigma,” said Grade 12 student Jessica Okhonmina.

Students are proud of their basketball team, but they know their school produces excellence of all kinds — not just athletic. About 150 of Carr’s 820 students are enrolled in the Advanced Placement program that awards them university credits upon graduation from high school and success in the AP exam.

The student council makes it its business to ensure the success of everybody at the school, starting as soon as a new kid walks in the door at the beginning of Grade 9. The student mentorship program has older students checking in on the Grade 9s, making sure they’re part of the school community and that they’re keeping up with their studies. They teach the Grade 9 students to set goals and measure their progress.

When you come from a neighbourhood called Doomstown, it’s important to have people telling you that you can and should set goals — and that you can achieve them, said Grade 12 student Silvana Miller.

“We show them that we care,” said Miller.

The official motto of the school is Dominus ut Videam (Let us see the Lord), but the unofficial motto is “Carr cares.”

MichaelGeorge.jpgGiving back to his community

Michael George, Grade 8 teacher at St. Josephine Bakhita Catholic School, Brampton.

Thirty-one-year-old George has been six years with the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board following his graduation from York University.

Why he does it: “My heart’s here,” George said. He knows he is one of the increasingly rare men teaching in the elementary schools. “You realize that the most impact you can have with them is when they’re young.”

George grew up in a tough neighbourhood in Malton, where not a lot of his peers went on to post-secondary education, and not a few of them wound up known to police.

“I could have simply made the same decisions,” he tells his students. Instead, he decided black kids and immigrant kids needed to see a man of colour in their classrooms. George decided to be a visible minority who makes a visible impact in the community through education.

DeidrePereira.jpgFaith in service

Deidre Pereira, chaplaincy leader at St. Joseph Secondary School in Mississauga since 1999. Formerly a science teacher.

Realizing that not all 1,800 students at St. Joseph’s were going to get involved in a faith-based club, Deidre Pereira, 38, decided to help them discover how to incorporate their faith with their interests through outreach, peace initiatives and social justice opportunities.

After only a few years of working with students and other staff, more than half of the 50 student clubs are now reaching out to the community in some way.

Members of a Latin dance club volunteer to teach seniors at a nearby home how to dance. Sports teams hold special competitions to raise money for local food and gift outreaches at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The “Writers Unblocked” club published a book of poetry and donated it to pediatric wing of the Credit Valley Hospital. The list goes on.

“Really, number one for me is prayer and how to serve the needs of a large community,” Pereira said.

“Young people have a desire to serve and we need to encourage them to live their faith every day.”

MangistoArop.jpgTaking advantage of God's plan for him

Mangisto Arop, 18, Grade 12, St. Mary’s Catholic High School, Hamilton, Ont.

Born in Sudan, the young basketball star and his family fled to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya because of the civil war. He came to Canada in 2000 with his mother, Angelina, and four brothers.

In 2008-2009, he is ranked as the top male high school player in Canada. He was a member of the junior national team  that took the bronze medal at FIBA Americas U18 Championship and is currently training with Canada Basketball’s National Elite Development Academy. He has earned a scholarship at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, and hopes to play in the NBA.

On his faith, Arop says, “Things happen for a reason. God has plans for us.”

He also has some advice for kids.

“The big thing is believing in yourself and staying motivated because there are times when you’re not going to be good at certain things or (you) hit rock bottom, but don’t give up. Keep working hard. There’s always going to be a way to get it done and just keep praying.”

PatriciaEspinJurado.jpgMaking miracles happen

Patricia Espin-Jurado, 10, Grade 5, St. John the Evangelist Elementary School in Toronto.

Patricia is a 2009 Champion Child for the Children’s Miracle Network, one of 12 child ambassadors in Canada who represent the more than 2.5 million children who visit hospitals each year.

Born in Ecuador, she came to Canada for treatment at Sick Kids Hospital after being diagnosed with a rare disorder called Alagille syndrome, a genetic disorder that can cause failure of the liver and heart. Her goal is to become a teacher, nurse or Olympic equestrienne.

“She’s an incredible girl with a remarkable spirit,” says Sick Kids’ development officer Stephanie McPherson. “Her doctors attribute her medical progress to her positive attitude. Patricia is strong-willed, determined and never gives up.”

BrianDunn.jpgLeadership is serious business

Brian Dunn, chaplaincy leader at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Secondary School in Oakville this year; previously worked as chaplaincy leader at Assumption Catholic Secondary School in Burlington for four years.

While doing high school chaplaincy work full time, Brian Dunn pursued a Master of Arts degree in Catholic Leadership part-time at the University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. The over-achiever completed the degree this past year, excited to maximize his strengths for others.

“I’ve always worked on developing Catholic leaders in all areas and for me, and I knew it would help me in my leadership,” he said.

Dunn has spearheaded several projects, including organizing his school’s first “Dreams mission trip” to the Dominican Republic, adapting a yearly program from a similar one in the Hamilton board, where students build a home for a family.

Prayer, discernment and sheer passion for developing leaders keep him going.

“In a lot of ways, the chaplaincy gives the school an opportunity to express its Catholicity,” he said.

“I feel blessed to do this work as we’re just called to give God’s love away.”

JessicaParry.jpgHard work, passion drive star athlete

Jessica Parry, 17, Grade 12, Catholic Central High School in London, Ont.

This track and field star has lofty goals, hoping to qualify for the Olympics and Pan American Games.

She is Ontario high school champion in 800 metres and 1,500-metres. And at the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games she placed second in the 1,500-metre race and 4 x 400 relay, and came fourth in 800 metres. She is the national youth record holder in the 800 and 1,500 metre.

The secret to her success? Parry says it’s hard work, consistency and having a passion for the sport.

“She is always a gracious winner and a strong, supportive team member,” said principal Donna Hammond

Parry has accepted a full track and field scholarship at Florida State University.

IsaiasGarcia.jpgGarcia's got the music in him

Isaias Garcia, 18, recent graduate of Bishop Marrocco/Thomas Merton Catholic High School in Toronto.

Garcia is preparing for an audition for the University of Toronto’s music program and a future career composing music for film.

His first orchestra piece, “Bishop Marrocco Rhapsody,” was performed before a crowd of about 1,500 people at the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga on Jan. 31 by the Centre’s Celebrity Symphony Orchestra.

Garcia plays saxophone, piano, clarinet and percussion

“For me, instead of playing somebody else’s music, I want to create my own.”

In between preparing for his university music audition and working full-time, Garcia still volunteers at the school in the mornings to help out his former music teacher

“When I was in high school, it became my second home,” Garcia said. “I always wanted to give back so much because it gave me a lot.”

SusanMenary.jpgEducation for all

Susan Menary, 53, speech pathologist.

For 28 years with the Toronto Catholic District School Board the speech pathologist has helped kids who have trouble communicating. Now she also co-ordinates services to the exploding population of pupils with autism.

Why does she do it? “If you can’t communicate, you can’t learn.”

Getting kids with problems communicating integrated into the school system is more than a job for Menary, “It’s part of our faith that we educate all children, every student, to the best of their ability.”

SusanLaRosa.jpgChampion of education

Susan LaRosa, Director of Education, York Catholic District School Board for 12 years.

LaRosa has won numerous awards, including the Learning Partnership’s 2009 Champion of Public Education, the first Catholic director of education to be recognized for this award, and the 2006 York Region Woman of Distinction Award.

At 19, LaRosa started teaching high school in Cornwall, Ont. At 29, she was appointed principal in St. Raphael’s, Ont.

She opened the first French- language school of the Lanark Leeds and Grenville Catholic board in Merrickville, Ont.

Her outlook on life? “Absolutely everyone has God-given talents.”

BrendaCollins.jpg'If she could live at the school, she would'

Brenda Collins, 55, teacher at St. Jude Catholic Elementary School in London, Ont.

Whether it’s learning how to walk on the moon or teaching students how to grow their own salad in the classroom, the soon-to-be retired Collins says teaching science has become a life-long passion.

Two-time scholarship winner and graduate of the Honeywell Educators @ Space Academy in Alabama, she has also received the 2008 Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence.

“She gives her time freely which is really inspiring,” said student program support teacher Marianne Parry. 

New teacher Ivan Eskit says Collins’ dedication to her work and to students is legendary: Collins has been known to stay after school until 7 p.m. and come in during the weekend. 

“If she could live at the school, she would,” Eskit said.

MichelleGriepsma,.jpgParents key in faith formation

Michelle Griepsma, 45, parent in the Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland and Clarington Catholic District School Board

The family service counsellor has volunteered with the local school and parish council since the mid-1990s and received a Recognition of Personal Accomplishment for volunteer service from her local MP.

Griepsma enrolled her four children back into public Catholic schools after a brief stint in private Catholic schools. A convert to Catholicism, Griepsma says she initially had a different perception of what the Catholic school system was responsible for in teaching her children about the catechism. But she said she soon realized the important role that parental responsibility has in the faith formation of children.

“I think it’s really important to have Catholic education because it’s where the whole person can be educated, the spiritual needs of the person are met, and God is acknowledged,” she said.

“I need (my kids) to see that it is a part of life. That it’s not just confined to Sundays. That our faith is integrated in everything that we do all day long.”

MikeCourchesne2.jpgBridging cultural divide

Mike Courchesne, 58, principal at St. Gregory Catholic Elementary School in Powassan, Ont.

In 2009 Courchesne was honoured as Canada’s Outstanding Principal by The Learning Partnership.

“Every day is new. It’s an opportunity to say ‘Yes’ to God,” he said of being a principal.

Along with Nancy Allaire of Our Lady of Sorrows School in Sturgeon Falls, Ont., Courchesne runs the Maamwi-Enchiyang program, which means “all of us together” in Ojibwe. This cultural awareness program also focuses on math, language, self-esteem, arts, recreation, life skills, and drug and alcohol awareness.

“It gives the kids a strong foundation and improves their self-esteem. It lets the non-aboriginal community understand and appreciate the richness of the aboriginal culture,” said Courchesne.

SusanWalker.jpgBringing partners together

Susan Walker, 49, is director of the Ontario Association for Parents in Catholic Education and a parent in the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board.

A project manager, Walker has been involved with local and regional school councils.

“The closer you are in school and the more knowledge you have, the better it is for your child,” she said.

Several years ago, Walker  was surprised to learn that one of her three sons was auditioning for the St. Michael’s Choir School. She didn’t know he had a talent for singing. Since that day she became more involved and joined parent councils.

Walker believes in engaging parents and bringing the school, the church and parents together.

BethanyFlemington.jpgPlenty of support to succeed

Bethany Flemington, 17, Grade 12, Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic High School in Guelph, Ont.

This swimming champion was a member of the 2009 Team Ontario Future Stars Tour in Zurich, Switzerland, and was a double gold medallist in 100-metre backstroke and 50-metre freestyle at the 2008 Ontario Federation of School Athletics Association finals.

Flemington says the support of her family, coach and teachers have been key to her succeeding in her sport.

As for the future, she hopes make her career in the classroom.

“I want to be an elementary school teacher. I love little kids, being around them and the influence they have on you and your outlook on life.”

GabriellaSilano.jpgAnyone can change the world

Gabriella Silano,  17, Grade 12, St. Theresa of Lisieux Catholic High School, Richmond Hill, Ont.

In 2008 Silano was the recipient of the York Secondary Catholic Presidents’ Council Leadership Awards, Religious Leadership.

She is heavily involved in her school as vice president of the chaplaincy council, president of Free the Children Club, in the philosophy club and the newspaper club. She also started the Gioventu Studentesca, a high school branch of Communion and Liberation group, at her school.

Her work with Free the Children has taken her to Ecuador to help build a school.

And her favourite quote? “You don’t have to change the world to be a superhero. You just have to say you don’t like pie when there isn’t enough to go around.”

CassandraBilsborough.jpgFollow your dreams

Cassandra Bilsborough, 13, in Grade 8 at St. John Catholic Elementary School in Garson Township, Ont.

Her goal is to skate in the Olympics and Bilsborough has been working towards that since she started skating at age three. She trains about 12 hours on the ice each week. This year, she moved from Cochrane, Ont., to Sudbury in order to train with the skating club there.

She is 2009 Pre-Novice Ladies champion, Northern Ontario Section, and in 2008 came fifth at the Bank of Montreal Canadian Junior Nationals and won the Skate Canada Juvenile Ladies title for Northern Ontario.

“She’s very focused in what she wants to achieve and she’s hardworking at school,” said proud mother, Therese.

Her motto is, “In dreams, you can be everything you ever want to be.”

ExcellenceCar.jpgEngineered for success

Cardinal Carter Catholic High School in Aurora’s engineering club

They were the only high school kids to have a car on display at the 2009 Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto. Grades 9-12 students in the engineering club at Cardinal Carter Catholic High School in Aurora designed and built from scratch a car that runs on a hydrogen internal combustion engine.

The project, begun two years ago, was inspired by a talk the students received about environmental responsibility and energy concerns by Fred Jaekel, CEO of Martinrea International, an automotive supplier.

“It’s very ambitious,” said Bryan Coughlin, the technological design teacher at Cardinal Carter.

He said the school does not have an automotive shop and modified its wood shop to accommodate the project. The students plan to modify the narrow, low, single-seat vehicle to top BMW-Group’s records in acceleration.

“By design, I believe ours should be quicker on acceleration,” Coughlin said. “I think we’ll be able to do it.”

The club has had 10-24 students depending on the year, consisting of both male and female members.

paulaPeroni.jpgWe've produced some great leaders

Paula Peroni is president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association.

Peroni's passion for Catholic education began when the school her children attended was threatened of being closed.

She believes it is important to have publicly funded Catholic education.

“From our premier to some of the world's leaders in philanthropy, medicine, arts and entertainment, publicly funded Catholic education and its graduates have done wonderful things not only in the province, but in the world and that's something that, going forward, we need to build on.”

PaulWhitehead.jpgWe all need to help our community

Paul C. Whitehead has been a trustee with the London District Catholic School Board, 28 years and has been elected seven times as board chair

Whitehead first ran as a trustee in 1978 when the school where some of his children attended was closed.

This professor of sociology at University of Western Ontario says the highlights for Catholic education was when Ontario Premier Bill Davis' announced in 1985 to extend funding for Catholic education for Grades 11 to 13 and Premier Mike Harris' 1998 decision to provide the same amount of funding for Catholic and public school students.

His motivation for public service came from his father.

“I learned from my dad that making a contribution to the community was expected of all of us.”

Corrigan.jpgHelping brings a smile to his face

Quillan Corrigan, 11, won the 2007 Christian Living award. He is in Grade 6 at St. Martin School, Terrace Bay, Ont.

In a school of about 56 students, principal Kerry Desjardins says Corrigan has stood out. Even in Junior Kindergarten, Desjardins says Corrigan was always been willing to help others. Corrigan cleans up after school activities, puts the books away in the library, helps classmates with their homework and gets Kindergarten students ready to go outside. He even keeps an eye out for them during recess.

Quillan hopes to be a police officer.

The best thing about helping others, he says, is “Just to see their faces and have a big smile.”

“If you help somebody, they'll help you.”

Vanessa TsuLife-changing experiences

Natalie Tsui, 17, and in Grade 12 at St. Theresa of Lisieux Catholic High School in Richmond Hill, Ont., won a Catholic Student Award from the Catholic Education Foundation of Ontario in 2008.

Active in numerous ways at here school, her next project is a board-wide bullying prevention symposium in May. Why? In Grade 2, a bully kneed her in the stomach. Tsui says this experience helped her empathize with other students, including some with special needs who have been targeted by others.

Her goal is to be a teacher

"It's a really meaningful job," Tsui says. "I know. My teachers have changed my life."

VanessaLisi.jpgDream dance

Vanessa Lisi, a 13-year-old Grade 8 student at St. Angela Merici Catholic School in Woodbridge, Ont., is dedicated to dance.

She started dancing at age three and has won numerous awards, including All American Talents Award and Dance USA Champion 2007 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

On Saturdays, Lisi spends about eight hours volunteering at a dance studio where she helps four- to eight-year-olds. Her goal is to continue in competitive dance, open her own dance studio and teach kids

"I want to teach kids because I love children a lot and I want to help kids with revealing their dreams, like my dance teacher helped me fulfill my dreams."

SteaNanushi.jpgLife is meant to be lived to its fullest

Stea Nanushi, 14, in Grade 8 at St. Anthony Catholic School in Thornhill, Ont.

Born in Albania, Nanushi's family came to Canada when she was three years old.

She is the 2009 Spelling bee champion at St. Anthony School, winning the competition when it all came down to the word “Gazpacho,” a soup. With the win, Nanushi represented her school at the Canspell Regional Spelling Bee in February.

Nanushi says she likes memorizing new words and using them in everyday speech.

Her motto is "Live life because you have one shot at it to live it to the fullest."

MenaMassoud2.jpgMaking a difference

Mena Massoud, 17, is in Grade 12 at Brother Andre Catholic High School in Markham, Ont.

Born in Egypt, his passion is acting. Massoud says acting has helped him use his life experiences, both the good and difficult times, to try to help others and entertain people. He has been offered one of 12 spots at the Senior Youth Theatre Conservatory, an intensive summer program of the Resurgence Theatre Company in York Region and will play Mercutio in the school's rendition of Romeo and Juliet. The mentor for at-risk Grade 9 students hopes to become a doctor or an actor.

"As a Christian, you should want to help out in your community. You should want to help make a difference."

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