Roy Fernandes (wearing tie) joins St. Sylvester students having some fun with Toronto councillor Jim Karygiannis during a trip to City Hall. Photo courtesy Roy Fernandes

Above and beyond the classroom

By 
  • May 1, 2019

As principal of St. Sylvester Catholic School in Toronto, Roy Fernandes believes in setting an example of what it means to live a life full of passion and purpose. 

Every morning, he greets students as they get off the school bus. Every afternoon, he is there to help supervise the last of the student pick-ups. He knows every student by name and every student knows him. 

“He’s so passionate about education. He’s never not in the classroom,” said Barb Stoner, Grade 6/7 teacher at St. Sylvester. “He constantly tells us, even in our staff meetings, ‘Please have me in your classrooms. That’s where I want to be.’ And it doesn’t matter the subject. It doesn’t matter the grade.”

Fernandes was recently named one of Canada’s Outstanding Principals of 2019, alongside 30 principals from across the country. The awards and leadership program is run by The Learning Partnership, a Canadian charity that promotes “education excellence.” 

“It’s humbling and in a way I’m a little embarrassed knowing that there are so many other people who are more deserving,” said Fernandes. “My biggest thing is that I’m hoping to use it as a springboard to talk about the amazing things that we’re doing at the school.”

“Beyond the Classroom” is Fernandes’ biggest passion project at St. Sylvester. This experiential learning program, in its third year, provides students with unique learning opportunities outside the classroom. Every month, students are introduced to a new environment where they can integrate curriculum lessons with real world applications. They meet industry professionals and learn about new specialized skills.

This year, students have had nine Beyond the Classroom experiences. Grades 6 and 7 students visited Holland’s Marsh, Durham College and the Algoma Apple Orchards for agriculture and food processing. Grades 3 and 4 students learned about urban planning at Toronto City Hall and the Toronto Transit Commission. Grades 6 to 8 students visited the Toronto Wildlife Centre where they learned about wildlife health and exhibit design.

“We’ve had kids that have met a head chef. We’ve had kids that have met a wildlife rescuer. … We’ve had kids who have met organic farmers as well as conventional farmers,” said Fernandes. 

“There’s one kid that I always think about when we go on one of these presentations because every time we go to a new experience, she’ll end up saying, ‘I think I want to be a politician now’ or ‘Now I think I want to be a chef’ or this or that. And it’s not because she’s flighty at all ... but she’s so inspired by hearing from these people who have a real passion for their job.”

Passion is the key word of the Beyond the Classroom program. Fernandes said he wants to show his students that life is meant to be lived with full purpose. For Grade 8 student Erika Manipol, Fernandes is her first example of that. 

“Sometimes he doesn’t even seem like a principal because he’s so involved in everything and everyone. He’s almost like one of our family members, he’s in every club,” she said.

Manipol said she doesn’t know what she wants to be yet, but she knows she wants a career where she can help people. 

“This program really opened my eyes to that,” said Manipol, who was part of the first class of students that experienced the Beyond the Classroom program when it launched in September 2016. 

In his 11 years working as a principal in the Toronto Catholic District School Board, Fernandes has learned that real education happens when students are engaged in the lessons. 

“There’s a lot of talk in education that we have around increasing test scores and that tends to be the dialogue you hear a lot,” said Fernandes, who has been an educator for 23 years. “And what we’re trying to indicate with experiential learning is that you’re going to create kids who go off into the workforce and contribute in such meaningful ways.”

Grade 8 student Mitzi Chua found her love of food and cooking through the program experiences. Over the years, she’s visited kitchens at George Brown College, the President’s Choice Cooking School and even at the Google Canada offices. Her classes have also visited organic and commercial farms.

“It definitely gave me the drive to keep cooking,” said Chua. “It gave me a burning passion to continue it and since there were so many things exposed to me and I got to meet so many different people. To me, it was just a really dazzling experience that I can’t ever forget.”

Fernandes proposed the idea of the experiential learning program to the school during his second year as principal at St. Sylvester in 2015. It was not an easy sell. 

Each experience is three to four days and takes students outside of school about once a month within the school year. 

Transportation is the major cost for the field trips and the school board provides a subsidy of $5,000. Parents pay about $50 per student each school year. 

“We were fortunate this year to receive a $14,000 grant (from the Ontario Ministry of Education) for this program and that’s allowed us to expand to our primary classes for the first time ever, even for our kindergarten classes,” said Fernandes.

“We can only do this with funding and the fact that the Ministry cut the funding this year for experiential learning, we want to talk to the Ministry to even come out and see the actual value of this program.”

The dream, Fernandes said, is to have this program incorporated into schools everywhere. 

“The hope is that other people see that this is a style of education that has a lot of promise and that other schools take it on in some form,” he said. 


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Support The Catholic Register

Unlike many other news websites, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our site. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.