September 2018 / Scarborough, Ontario, Canada
The ABC's of Fairmount PS
Local School has Arts Based Curriculum
By Bret Snider
I was walking with the dogs past Fairmount Jr. Public School on Sloely Avenue the other day and it brought back memories. The School is an Arts Based Curriculum (ABC) school which gives it some special status and allows it to draw students from a larger catchment area than most community schools. It is a kindergarten to grade eight (K-8) school now that is thriving. Its student test scores place it in the top quartile of Province wide testing. However, that was not the case in 2001 when some of my children were still in attendance.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a bad school. It had a very high parental participation rate and had good test score results. The teaching and administrative staff members were competent and engaging, they cared deeply about the children.
Nonetheless, I was approached by the Parent / Teacher Council and asked to chair a committee to transform the school, then a K – 6 school into a K-8 school. They presented me with their collective rationale – they didn’t want their children crossing Kingston Road and going to Bliss Carmen, the middle school (grades 7 and 8) located at Bellamy and Kingston Road. While their reasons varied they were collectively resolved.
I agreed to chair the committee and hosted several meetings in our home. I listened to their views about safety, distance and having their children in a new environment that was foreign to them. Prior to planning a path to victory I felt some research was required.
I learned that this had been attempted three times before and had failed each time. The police didn’t feel there was a risk in the children crossing Kingston Road. The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) wasn’t in favour of it and Bliss Carmen was and is a good school. So I reached out to the Fairmount Principal at the time, Margo Ratsep, to get her take on it. She invited me to the school for a conversation.
The school needed a new direction. Enrollment was down and one wing of the school was largely wrapped in plastic and had been closed. The school also sat on many acres of property overlooking the Bluffs – a developers dream. The school was a target for closure and sale. Now I got it but still had no path to victory. I presented my findings to the committee outlining that this would not be a slam dunk. Most of them bailed save for Catherine Bacque. We were then down to a committee of two.
Catherine and I kicked around ideas for weeks looking for a way to make the school attractive for students, parents, teachers and the School Board. It was Catherine who came up with the idea of an Arts Based Curriculum (ABC) model that she had heard about. It had been developed in California and was being used in a school in Toronto’s west end, Faywood in Wilson Heights, where it had resulted in a dramatic improvement in test scores.
However, it was my job to sell it to the Principal and the Parent / Teacher Council which was not an easy task. The Principal was interested but the parents weren’t. They were concerned about the effect that an ABC model would have on math and science education. We were now in a position where we had to demonstrate the concept. Neither Catherine nor I could think of a convincing way to prove the ABC model’s effectiveness. It was the Principal’s idea that finally sold the Parent Council on the new model. She had the children build a model city in the gymnasium. It involved angles, slopes, math, geometry, public planning and team building skills.
When the parents and the Parent Council members saw the wonderful results and exciting potential, they got it. Most importantly the students loved it. The next challenge was to find teachers who could teach through the arts. That took another six years. When that happened in 2007 Fairmount was officially designated as an ABC destination school and grew to be a K-8 school.
I was invited to a ceremony and given a gold plated letter opener, still on my desk. But Catherine wasn’t recognised which bothered me. So recently I invited her to the school to see the results of our work and presented her with a gold plated letter opener of her own. It takes a team to save a school.