A Sporting Chance

Who among us has not been awed by the strength, endurance, grace and flexibility of athletes – their ability to react, their pursuit of excellence?

Ontario teachers, through various specialized sports programs in secondary schools, are finding it easier to recognize students’ passions and athletic talents and to build opportunities for leadership, excellence and learning.

by Richard Young

It’s 7:35 AM and cold as the 20 or so boys and girls in the Grade 10 Hockey Canada Skills Academy class straggle in for the thrice-weekly 70-minute on-ice component of the course. The arena sits adjacent to their school, Sir Frederick Banting, in London. Many of them are bleary eyed and complain about how tired they are. But half an hour later they are skating briskly in full hockey regalia, awaiting their teacher’s instructions.

This hockey academy course is just one of many specialized sports programs in Ontario schools. There are credit physical education courses that concentrate on a particular sport such as swimming, volleyball, basketball or hockey, programs for elite students such as the National Elite Development Academy (NEDA) basketball program in the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic DSB, integrated sports academies like those found at Hamilton’s Westmount SS and École secondaire publique Louis-Riel in Ottawa, and a range of high-performance athlete programs. And, since Bill Crothers Secondary School in the York Region DSB opened its doors in August 2008, there is now an entire sports-focused school.

The programs do have critics. Some claim single-sport credit courses like Banting’s are too limited. Others suggest that specialized sports programs that are elitist divert resources from other programs and buildings.

Supporters point out that similar criticisms have been aimed at schools for the arts, tech-centred schools and programs for the academically gifted. They say that Ontario’s specialized sports programs strive to engage student athletes, making them feel their athletic pursuits are supported and connected to what they learn in school, while promoting a healthy, active lifestyle for all students.

Tapping into something students love

Those involved in the hockey academy at Banting bristle at the suggestion that it is limited and elitist.

“You don’t have to be rich or athletically gifted to take the course,” says teacher Todd Sargeant, who co-ordinates the academy. “We focus on individual development in a variety of sports, with an emphasis on hockey. The skills that are basic to our program – like hand-eye co-ordination, strength development, agility, balance and reacting to environmental clues – are transferable to other sports such as lacrosse, soccer, basketball and floor ball.”

According to Sargeant, the program offers students a great opportunity to earn credits doing something they love. It also provides Banting with a unique course to attract hockey-minded students. The Banting program was the outcome of a sabbatical Sargeant spent in Calgary, where he saw several Hockey Canada academies.

After returning to London, he and then-principal Tony Jones did their research. Sargeant reports, “Tony gained approval from the board and I applied to Hockey Canada for the course to be accepted as an academy.”

The Banting Hockey Academy began in September 2008 with 41 students in physical education courses for Grades 10 and 12. Sargeant teaches the Grade 10 class, while English teacher Jeff Dundas, who has coached the boys’ varsity hockey team for the last 10 years, puts the Grade 12s through their paces.

The on-ice part focuses on traditional hockey skills – skating, stick handling, passing and shooting. The other component includes fitness and conditioning training and regular physical education requirements like group activities and health units.

You don’t have to be rich or athletically gifted to take the course.

“I registered for the course to help improve my skills and be part of a more competitive situation than girls’ house league,” says Shelby, 16. “At first I was a little intimidated by the guys, but I got over it fast. My skating and stick handling have improved greatly and I feel much more confident.”

She hopes that the program will attract others and provide some impetus to the school’s fledgling varsity girls’ team.

The course taps into and builds on students’ love of hockey and their desire to be part of it. Sixteen-year-old Zack likes it that Triple A midget players skate side-by-side with house league players. He says, “We’re like one big team of all different levels of players.”

Developing our best

While Banting’s hockey academy is open to all interested students, Canada Basketball’s NEDA in Hamilton focuses on elite athletes.

On a snowy Saturday December morning in Barrie, the 12 members of the NEDA girls’ developmental team, along with their coaches, are in town for a day-long basketball skills-development clinic at St. Joseph’s High School. After putting 86 local players through a high-powered workout during the day, the players take on the Barrie Royals Midget Boys in an exhibition match that night. The clinic and game are just one of several Canada Basketball fundraising events that NEDA teams will participate in during the school year.

NEDA teams compete against a variety of opponents, hold skills clinics, host international competitions and participate in international tours.

Partnering with schools in Hamilton, the NEDA program brings together the top 12 male and female development athletes from across Canada, aged 15 to 18, to train under the Canada Basketball national team-program strategies from September to June. These athletes will compete for Canada.

The students are billeted with families and, depending on language and religious preferences, attend one of three host schools – St. Mary’s Catholic SS, Westdale SS or École secondaire Georges-P.-Vanier. This year, all are attending St. Mary’s.

According to Denise Dignard, manager of Canada Basketball’s women’s elite performance program, NEDA arose from a need. “Over the past 20 years, Canada was not producing enough top world-class athletes in basketball for our senior national teams to consistently qualify for World Championships and Olympic Games,” she says. “One of the key components of the successful systems was a centralized residential program within a national sport institute for junior-aged athletes, as well as regional feeder sport schools and/or sport academies.”

They feel their athletic pursuits are supported and connected to what they do in school.

NEDA participants train daily for two to three hours at McMaster University. Other curriculum is delivered by the partner schools.

“In most cases, the daily course schedule at St. Mary’s fits NEDA demands,” says Mary Cipolla of the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic DSB and former St. Mary’s principal. “Although in some instances we’ve had to be creative.”

The NEDA students have integrated well and proven to be an inspirational addition to the student body. Cipolla says, “They serve as role models for the entire school, consistently maintaining high academic standards and demonstrating what commitment and hard work every day of the entire year is all about.”

Adapt and diversify

Many schools offer sports academies that appeal to a diverse range of student athletes.

École secondaire publique Louis-Riel in Ottawa, which features a state-of-the-art domed sports facility, is one example. Program co-ordinator Ken Levesque says the current program is modelled in part on similar highly popular and successful programs in Québec.

The school offers the program to its Grades 7 and 8 students, and 75 per cent participate. Almost half, 220 of the 500 students in Grades 9 through 12, are enrolled in the program.

“Our program tends to the needs of a vast group of students, from high performance to recreational athletes. We offer different academic support and specific training depending on the needs of each athlete,” says Levesque. The school offers coaching in seven different sports. Other students in individual sports, like speed skating, tennis, martial arts, swimming and kayaking, train with their club coaches in the afternoon.

“Students take three academic courses in the morning, have lunch and then have a supervised study period to finish homework or take tests before their afternoon training sessions with their coaches,” says Levesque. “Our students must maintain a 70 per cent average.”

Many Louis-Riel students have received full university sports scholarships or moved on to play their sports at higher levels, including the National Hockey League.

Building excellence

The goals and philosophy of Westmount Sport Academy (WSA) at Westmount SS in Hamilton are similar to those of Louis-Riel. The program offers flexible, self-paced learning and customized, fully integrated timetables for high-performing athletes in Grades 9 and 10 from throughout the Hamilton-Wentworth DSB.

More than 30 Grade 9 WSA students are spread out on the gym floor at McMaster University’s athletic centre. They are here for their weekly strength and fitness training under the watchful eyes of the centre’s fitness and wellness co-ordinator and their teachers, Sofia Fox and Chris Lychak.

The weekly sessions are an integral component of the program, now in its second year. After training, the students watch intently as the McMaster men’s volleyball team goes through its practice in an adjoining gym. Some of the students are, no doubt, dreaming of the day when they will take their place on one of the university’s varsity teams.

In addition to year-long health and physical education credits and the use of outside community facilities, WSA students receive additional student-focused support from a dedicated WSA program vice-principal, Jamie Nunn, and program co-ordinator Greg Ardron.


Canada Basketball’s program in the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic DSB focuses on elite athletes who will compete for Canada.


Academic success

“Our students come to us with an athletic gift, talent or skills set,” says Ardron. “Our challenge is to connect our curriculum to those gifts and create academic programming that is attractive to the students, will engage them and let them be successful.”

Kevin, a 15-year-old basketball and volleyball player, appreciates the self-paced learning format that allows students to complete credit courses at their own pace.

“If you’re tired after a tournament, you don’t have to stay up all night to get an assignment in for the next morning,” he explains. “You can carry it over until the weekend when you have more time – just as long as you get it done so you can move on to the next learning guide. It has really improved my time-management skills.”

Twin sisters Maggie and Heather, 15, agree that the self-paced format lets students accelerate through units or take additional time, depending on their training and competition demands. Both say that a typical day for them begins around 7 AM and ends around 11 PM, the time all of their in-school and club training and athletics are done for the day. “I don’t think I could manage it all without the support we receive from the WSA program and our teachers,” says Maggie.

“It’s all about engaging students,” says Nunn, noting how important sport can be in reaching out to kids who exhibit at-risk behaviours. “We need to be able to focus these kids and provide them with a program and culture where they feel their athletic pursuits are supported and connected to what they do in school.”


École secondaire publique Louis-Riel in Ottawa features a state-of-the-art domed sports facility that appeals to a vast group of students, from high performance
to recreational athletes.


Accommodations and alliances

Other schools meet the needs of student athletes through a variety of programs that offer flexible scheduling, academic monitoring and assistance, and communications networks between school, home and sports. These programs often partner with local club leagues and community organizations.

For example, the High Performance Athletes Program at John McCrae SS in the Ottawa-Carleton DSB works with the Walter Baker Community Centre to provide its student athletes access to ice rinks, squash courts, pools and a fitness centre. General Panet High School in Petawawa partners with the Canadian Forces base to share the base’s athletic facilities.

Diane Hurska at Eastdale CVI in Oshawa runs her school’s program much like a regular co-op program. The Toronto DSB offers programs at Birchmount Park CI, Northview SS, Silverthorn CI and Vaughan Road Academy, ranging in size from 75 to more than 200 participants, and each has its own unique features.

The Health and Sport Specialty Program at Bawating Collegiate in Sault Ste. Marie takes a two-pronged approach, targeting both elite athletes and students interested in careers in health sciences.

Hearing parents say that their kids really like school, in some cases for the very first time, makes it all worthwhile.

The program, started in 2003, caters to student athletes who compete at the provincial level. Another part of the program provides a focused education in health, physical education and health sciences. It has nine health-sector-specific courses and ample work-related and reach-ahead experiences that prepare students for postsecondary studies in health.

Co-ordinator Seth Cond explains: “Our program offers a variety of methods of delivering curriculum to our students, including an extensive independent-study component under which students can complete assignments in a time frame conducive to their training and competition schedule, and a late-school component where classes begin at 11:30 and run until 5:00. Both accommodations are helpful for students who travel to competitions and arrive home late. Rather than having their participation in competitive sports interfere with their schooling, we want to make it an ally to assist in their learning.”

What these programs have in common is that they are all integrated into the fabric of a larger educational environment – programs within programs or schools within schools. Unionville’s Bill Crothers SS, on the other hand, is Ontario’s first purpose-built, sports-focused school.

Breaking new ground

As you enter the long drive leading to Bill Crothers SS in Unionville, the first thing you notice is the playing fields, one natural grass and two artificial turf. Inside, it’s bright, open, spacious and inviting. To the right, three massive double gyms are visible, thanks to floor-to-ceiling Plexiglas walls. In the office, fruit sits on trays at the reception counter. Principal Becky Green greets everyone with a “hello” and a friendly smile.

Everything about Crothers – including its outdoor fields, gyms, strength-training area, coaching and wellness centres, e-book-laden library, specialized curriculum and food – is designed to meet the school’s commitment to healthy, active living for all its students.

Having opened its doors in August 2008, the school is still a work in progress. “We get to make a footprint by trying something that nobody else in the province has attempted,” says Jacqui Palm, head of physical education. “It’s really exciting for the students and staff.”

Named for the Olympic silver medalist and long-time chair of the York Region DSB, the school was eight years in the making. Crothers, along with Bruce Kidd, his former Olympic teammate and University of Toronto Dean of Health and Physical Education, and York Region DSB Director of Education Bill Hogarth, believed that many students competing at a high level did not have the necessary support systems in school to achieve their full academic potential. Crothers and his colleagues wanted to create an accessible, sports-focused school that would value and celebrate the athletic interests of its students, thereby engaging them and increasing their academic achievement.

The school is open to students from across the York Region DSB (and even from outside the region, depending on space and program availability). It admits students who train and compete at school intercollegiate or community competitions and students who have provincial, national or international athletic aspirations that require training programs of 15 or more hours a week. Students are selected on the basis of marks, references from teachers and coaches, parental input, and student responses and goals. The school will have 1,500 students from Grades 9 through 12, but in its first year has 225 Grade 9s and 80 Grade 10s.

Crothers features what Green calls a balanced school year. The calendar runs from early August to late June, with shorter breaks throughout the year. The daily schedule consists of five 60-minute periods, from 8:45 AM to 3:00 PM. All students have a supervised integrated-learning instructional period four days a week to review and complete assignments. In addition, students and staff have a late-start day each Wednesday so they can participate in school brainstorming and planning sessions.

Grade 10 students Ryan and Jacqueline, both 15, note that many of their projects and assignments use sports themes. Topics like the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics and the Toronto area’s bid for the 2015 Pan American Games run throughout the school’s curriculum.

I really look forward to coming to school every day.

Jacqueline’s skiing requires her to miss a lot of class time. “I just knew that my grades would probably suffer if I stayed at my old school,” she says. “The teachers and administration here understand my commitments and are very supportive. Many of them are competitive athletes themselves. As a result, I’ve managed to stay ahead with my studies.”

Ryan, a volleyball and soccer player, says simply, “I really look forward to coming to school every day.”

One of the major challenges of teaching at a school like Bill Crothers SS is the demands it places on staff for individual programming. “Our teachers are also trying to accomplish new structures and methodologies by continually being creative and taking risks,” says Green.

“Hearing parents say that their kids really like school, in some cases for the very first time, makes it all worthwhile and much more of a reward than a challenge as a teacher,” says head of history Stefano Fornazzari.

“Before we opened, there was criticism from certain quarters that we would be elitist and drain off resources from other buildings and facilities,” says Green. “Now that we are in operation, we hope the critics will come to see that Crothers fills a very real and practical need in the education and sports communities. Our system wants to provide choices for student athletes that engage them in learning.”

The proliferation of specialized sports programs in Ontario’s schools shows no signs of abating. Designed to engage student athletes by accommodating their special needs in curriculum, the variety of programs is likely to continue to expand. And although critics may persist, the appeal for aspiring student athletes cannot be denied.

As one student mused, “What could be better than taking something kids are passionate about and turning it into curriculum?”

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