Toronto Prep School - Interview with School Leadership
You won’t find any of the trappings of traditional private education at Toronto Prep School (TPS)—no uniforms, ivy covered walls, or groaning Victorian architecture. It’s a modern institution to its core, firmly rooted in the realities of being an adolescent in today’s world. This makes it a preparatory school in the truest sense. TPS meets students where they are academically and socially, ensuring they receive the individualized support they need to reach their post-secondary goals.
Individuality is a guiding principle at TPS, says Principal Steve Tsimikalis. “Getting to know the strengths and challenges of every student is our priority. Nobody gets lost in the crowd here.” Guidance counsellor Ian Fleming reiterates this commitment. “We don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Fleming. “Teachers make a point of understanding how each student learns best, and with small class sizes, they can keep a close eye on how everyone is doing. This leads to a high level of accountability for students.” This isn’t a place for kids who like to stay under the radar and minimize their engagement with the school community.
Teachers know the names of all 430-odd kids across Grades 7 to 12, which contributes to the strong, school-wide sense of community. In all our interviews, the word most commonly used to describe the feel of TPS was “warm.” Sandra Birkett, head of the English department, says this warmth comes from the top down and shows up in the general atmosphere. “The administration and teachers model a friendly, welcoming approach, and it definitely trickles down to the students. The kids here are just happy to come to school every day. In the morning, you’ll see them wandering into teachers’ rooms to say ‘good morning’ and ‘how are you?’—whether or not they have a class with that teacher.”
It’s no coincidence that TPS has a family-like culture. Principal Tsimikalis and his wife, Fouli—head of admissions—founded the school together in 2009. Their son, Pete, is assistant head of admissions, and their daughter, Maria, is head of guidance. The teachers we spoke to said that they’re treated like extended family. “Staff meetings often feel like family dinners,” says Principal Tsimikalis. “There’s lots of laughter, but also straight talk about how we’re all meeting our obligations to provide an optimal possible learning environment for our students.”
One parent says she chose TPS because it was immediately apparent that they “get” families. “The instant we met Fouli and Steve, we felt the warmth and friendliness and the genuine interest in not just our child, but also in us. They invest in the whole family. They’re close-knit themselves and we wanted a nurturing, welcoming environment for our child.” Other parents echoed this sense that the school genuinely cares for each individual student: “For us, TPS was a place where we felt our daughter would be completely supported during her high school years in whatever way she needed and wanted to become her best self.”
The Tsimikalis family made a big decision in 2020 to enrich the learning environment at TPS, opting to join the Globeducate network of international schools. The network includes over 28,000 students in more than 52 schools and online programs in Canada, Spain, France, Italy, the UK, India, Portugal, and Malaysia. “We’d taken our school to a certain level and were looking for a way to expand our students’ international opportunities,” says Principal Tsimikalis. “We were lacking in exchange programs, for example, and now we can offer phenomenal exchanges across the world.” Once pandemic travel restrictions are lifted, students will have the chance to participate in academic competitions and events focusing on sports, music, and art across the world. This will only expand the school’s already substantial extracurricular options. TPS encourages every student to belong to at least one activity or group, which range from the standard offerings (such as chess, math, photography, debating, and art clubs) to the more unique (such as comics and gaming, investing, Jewish culture, and tea clubs).
In the classroom, there’s a strong emphasis on creating the right learning experience for every type of learner. “The culture is supportive and encouraging, no matter what academic level you’re at,” says educational strategist Adam Rosenbaum. His full-time job is to guide and mentor both teachers and students as they find the most effective educational approach. You don’t need straight A’s to get into TPS, but you do need to demonstrate a willingness to work hard and improve with the wide range of academic support available. “Our philosophy is that a student’s work ethic should always exceed their talent and intellect,” says Principal Tsimikalis. “If they’re maxing out their work ethic, we’ll be happy with whatever results they get, whether it’s going from a 60% average to 70% or a 94% to 95%.”
The academic program is rigorous and geared to preparing students for post-secondary education (98% go on to attend university). Yet both teachers and students agree that the culture is far more supportive than competitive. For the size of the school, the range of electives in high school is impressive. “TPS offers truly exciting and diversified classes, covering a vast array of topics today’s students are most interested in,” says the parent of one graduate.
The teaching approach at TPS is rooted in the belief that strong teacher–student relationships are the foundation for learning. “True learning only occurs when teachers push students beyond their comfort zones,” says Principal Tsimikalis. “But students need to trust their teachers and believe they have students’ best interests at heart for it to work.”
A steady current of character education runs throughout not just the academic program, but the whole school. As one parent puts it, “It’s not that kind of showy display of character education in marketing material and posters. It’s more baked into the culture and quietly present in everything. Everyone is expected to treat each other with respect.” It’s readily apparent that respect is the most important value at TPS, and instilling it is a top priority. According to another parent: “There’s an overriding element of conscious mutual respect that’s both modelled by the staff among themselves and with the parents, as well as expected by the students to both staff and other students. Kids simply do not get away with behaviour that’s disrespectful to themselves and others.”
Founded in 2009, TPS is a relative youngster among Toronto’s private and independent schools. The coeducational day school grew quickly from day one, but the co-founders—veteran educators and administrators Steve and Fouli Tsimikalis—have kept their commitment to limit class sizes to a maximum of 16.
TPS is located on two storeys of a low-rise office building at the corner of Davisville Avenue and Mount Pleasant Road in midtown Toronto. Across the street on one side is June Rowlands Park, a good-sized green space, while the recently renovated Greenwood College School sits on the other corner. Assistant head of admissions Pete Tsimikalis has a clear view of Greenwood’s state-of-the-art campus from the office he shares with his mother, Fouli, and school bursar, Shane. “We know we can’t compete with their facilities, and we don’t try,” he says. “We often look over and laugh a bit. It’s a constant reminder that our strength lies in our teachers, not our building.”
While you might not guess that there’s a school in the building from the outside, once inside it’s surprisingly easy to forget you’re in an office building. “When I give tours to prospective families, they often comment that it has a university feel to it,” says Pete. While one of the hallways is shared with other tenants in the building, the rest of the space is exclusively for TPS students. The classrooms are spacious and bright, and many feature floor-to-ceiling windows, such as the art studio and the cafeteria for Grade 7 and 8 students. There are multiple student lounges and communal gathering areas with couches and other comfortable seating.
In 2020, an expansion brought the school from approximately 42,000 square feet to 60,000, with a new theatre, fitness facility, STEM lab, and media lab. Still, there are limits to what can be done within the confines of an office building. So the school takes full advantage of the plentiful supply of amenities nearby. Awards nights and the prom take place at the Eglinton Grand event venue, while commencement ceremonies are usually at the Ontario Science Centre.
The school day runs from 10 a.m. to 4:10 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Fridays, though teachers are available for extra help from 9 a.m. The later start is based on the science of the teenage brain, says Principal Tsimikalis. “I did a lot of reading on adolescent sleep patterns, because I’d recognized over the years that teens avoid morning classes. Their brains are wired to stay up late and sleep in, and this is our way of accommodating their peak learning times.”
While TPS may not look like your traditional private school, it maintains one time-honoured custom: the house system. With four houses named after mythological creatures (think Centaur and Phoenix), it’s a framework for intramural, athletic, charity fundraising, and community competitions. Students receive points for their houses when they participate in any aspect of TPS life, from volunteer work and good deeds to academic achievement.
When Steve and Fouli Tsimikalis launched TPS in 2009, they had 25 and 20 years, respectively, of teaching and administrative experience at another private prep school in Toronto. They say those were good years and they feel proud of what they accomplished there, but they’d long dreamed of striking out on their own. “We wanted to take all the great things we’d learned over the years and apply them in a new school—but with some nuances,” says Principal Tsimikalis.
Their timing was less than ideal, coming on the heels of the recession, but they were willing to take the risk. Pete remembers that his parents spent the spring before the school’s fall launch visiting people’s homes to talk about TPS. “They were going to parents and saying they could help their children become better students at their new school, but they didn’t have a location or teachers yet,” says Pete. “It’s really a testament to their reputation and passion for the project that over 70 families said yes.”
By September, they’d secured the current location and a staff that included several teachers who are still there today (some followed them from their old school). In terms of the student body, it was carefully hand-selected. “We didn’t have an entrance exam, and we still don’t,” says Principal Tsimikalis. “We’re not academic snobs, but we may be character snobs. We turned away at least 20 students that first year because they weren’t a good fit. They weren’t bad kids, but we didn’t see them putting in the effort we expected or being respectful community members.”
By the end of the first year, TPS had grown to more than 90 students, and it didn’t take long to reach today’s population of 400-plus students. The facilities evolved in tandem, but class sizes remained fixed at 16 or fewer. The Tsimikalis children, Pete and Maria, joined the school in its early years, cementing it as a family business. While they acknowledge that this arrangement wouldn’t work for some families, they see it as a distinct advantage and key to the school’s success. “There are no politics to get in the way of the school’s mission,” says Pete. “We voice our opinions freely, sometimes disagree, but have a shared commitment to the students that overrides everything.”
Principal Tsimikalis points out that the family has a multi-generational perspective, which balances experience and wisdom alongside a more youthful take on education in today’s world. He also says there’s a healthy separation of roles within the family. “We each do our own thing during the day, then we debrief after school and tackle the important issues.”
In keeping with TPS’s emphasis on individualized education, the academic program is demanding yet adaptable enough to support students at both the mid and highest ranges of ability. The school’s aim, quite simply, is to maximize every student’s personal potential so they can gain the skills needed to succeed in university. The teachers and admin we spoke to admitted that this resembles a platitude, but they agree it’s the school main differentiator. “We’re not a school with a single academic specialty, like science or arts or business,” says head of science Eric Oest. “Where we excel is in giving a push to students who are bright yet—this may sound like a cliché—not living up to their ability and getting lost in the crowd. In our small classes, it’s impossible to be anonymous. We hold every student to high standards and expect them to achieve their personal best.”
Ian Fleming, a TPS guidance counsellor, says parents often sense when their children can do more, whether they’re getting marks in the 60s or 90s. “That’s our wheelhouse here. That’s where our approach to academics is going to fit with families.” It starts in the senior elementary program, where each of the core courses in Grade 7 also explicitly includes instruction in study skills ranging from note taking and test prep to proper use of a textbook and time management. In Grade 8, a course on information and communication technology in a business environment supplements the main curriculum. Students develop vital 21st-century capabilities such as designing websites, producing digital presentations, creating spreadsheets, managing databases, and more.
The whole school operates under the semester system—something that may be new to students in Grades 7 and 8, who will likely be used to their classes running the whole year. In the spirit of being a preparatory school, TPS believes that adapting to the semester system as early as possible better equips students for learning within this model in high school and university. In a similar vein, students in the upper grades can gain experience in seminar-style courses common in humanities at the post-secondary level, where roundtable discussions are mostly student led.
Acquiring broad, flexible skill sets is the overarching goal at TPS, says Principal Tsimikalis. “Content is no longer king in education. Now it’s about what you can do with your knowledge. We want our students to have a strong arsenal of relevant skills for the future.” With the Ontario curriculum as the baseline, the school takes a flexible, dynamic approach to delivering both core and elective courses. In the English department, for example, head Sandra Birkett says she and her colleagues are constantly evolving the course content to align with students’ interests and concerns, new media developments, and the social landscape. “We sit down every year to look at the new literature that’s been published and what’s come up in pop culture. Then we consider what students would benefit from reading, and why and how we should add new elements. We also consider student feedback on what’s worked and what hasn’t in the past year.” TPS takes the same approach in designing new elective courses for students in high school. Student interests are the driving force, but so are trends in post-secondary education and the workforce.
For its size, the school punches above its weight in the number and variety of electives. Giving students plenty of chances to explore their talents and interests aligns with the school’s emphasis on cultivating the whole individual—their character, social and emotional well-being, and physical health. In keeping with this philosophy, the academic culture is intentionally non-competitive. The teachers we spoke to agreed that they downplay grades and discourage comparisons with other students’ marks. “Without that cloud of competition hanging over the school environment, it’s just a more joyful, healthy place for everyone,” says Birkett.
Not to say that there’s any complacency in the academic culture. There are strong, consistent expectations that students will complete their in-class assignments and homework, coupled with standardized consequences for failing to do so. Being required to attend the Saturday Club (see Academic support below) is one such outcome. “The academic program was tough but fair,” says one parent of a recent graduate. “Students were set up to succeed and they did their best to do that. They had to completely take responsibility for it too. I never did homework again with my child.”
We noted a school-wide focus on continuous academic improvement. “All the kids want to do well, naturally,” says educational strategist Adam Rosenbaum. “But our key message is that you only compare yourself to yourself. This idea becomes ingrained, and it’s not unusual to find students’ marks going up 10% over the year before they arrived.”
You can’t help but notice the array of vibrant student artwork displayed on the walls throughout TPS. It’s not a seasonal or special exhibition, just a day-to-day presentation of student talent. The real depth and diversity of student works come out at the annual Arts Night, a celebration of visual arts, multimedia installations, and music. “The arts are deeply valued here,” says Mariola Mayer, head of art and fashion design. “The fact that student pieces are showcased throughout the halls is just one example of the strong support the admin offers our program. This investment shows up in the incredible skills our students develop. We have people come to our Arts Night that aren’t family members—they’re just looking to purchase the students’ work. It’s that good.” Mayer is most proud of the fact that several TPS students have gained entrance to prestigious arts schools not just in Canada, but in the U.S. (Parsons) and U.K. (Saint Martins School).
Beyond the traditional visual arts, TPS offers fashion design courses in a separate, light-filled studio containing sewing machines, dress forms, and other tools used in the field. Mayer, a former designer with an international career, brings her experience to bear in these classes. “My time in the fashion industry and teaching at the university level allow me to share what the real world of fashion is like in terms of the hard work and standards of professionalism,” she says. “Students learn the language of fashion, the business, and the practical aspects of cutting and sewing garments.”
The school’s music and drama departments come together each year for a lavish musical theatre production, which is also attended by members of the local community beyond TPS families. Students’ interest in musical theatre has grown so much over the years that the school began offering courses specifically in musical theatre, and TPS’s recent expansion included the addition of a new theatre.
While TPS welcomes students who may never get A’s despite their best efforts, it also has its fair share of high-achievers who end up at top universities in Canada and beyond. Accommodating this academic diversity drives the individualized approach. “We make lots of room for students who are excelling by giving them creative outlets to explore concepts and skills that are related to, but beyond, the core curriculum,” says head of math Steve Kinnear. “At the same time, we’re there for the kids who are struggling, finding the most effective methods to help them understand.” One parent we spoke to says it’s not unusual for TPS teachers to completely revamp the standard course material to make it more engaging and accessible for all students. “They work outrageously hard to ensure every child reaches understanding of the content,” she says.
Several teachers said that creativity and collaboration among teachers across the grades and strong communication with parents are key to meeting the needs of different learners. “We start by observing and assessing exactly where students are in terms of their skills and knowledge,” says head of science Eric Oest. “Then it’s about boosting their confidence by working with them in their areas of strength and building capacity where they’re having trouble.” For those students who need more help than teachers can provide during class time, TPS has a full program of extra support available (see Academic support below).
The teaching philosophy also relies heavily on relational learning, which involves fostering strong teacher–student relationships. This requires that teachers be willing to invest the emotional energy it takes to truly know their students beyond what they see on the surface in class. Principal Tsimikalis says he chooses new hires based not only on their experience and qualifications, but their dedication to going above and beyond. “That’s my number one condition—that they’re passionate teachers. They have to believe that, if you support students and hold them accountable, they can do amazing things.”
TPS parents and students who contributed to this review couldn’t say enough about the depth of commitment to students shown by teaching faculty and the positive, nurturing environment that creates. “By far the best thing at TPS for me was the teachers,” says one recent graduate (repeating a common sentiment among her peers). “They seemed to really care about teaching and it didn’t feel to me like it was just a job to them.” The parents we spoke to also felt that the teachers genuinely cared about their children. “The students are heard at TPS,” says one. “They’re seen, cared for, and liked. When a child feels this foundation of care is prevalent, they want to attend school and inevitably do very well.”
Like all schools in today’s digital-first environment, technology has a pervasive presence in TPS’s pedagogical approach. Tuition includes a MacBook Pro laptop or iPad with specified educational software. Transitions into and out of pandemic lockdowns were essentially seamless, according to the parents and students we spoke to, and the school continues to offer hybrid learning options. When a class has some students joining from home, both the teacher and all the students wear headsets to fully connect with the remote learner. Yet the members of the TPS community we spoke to, including and especially Principal Tsimikalis, voiced a strong preference for in-person instruction.
Overall, it seems TPS teachers view technology as a tool to enrich and supplement more traditional teaching strategies, not replace them entirely. “Technology doesn’t make everything better,” says head of English Sandra Birkett. “There are times when it’s important to put the computer down and pick up your book and pen to learn the same way students did 100 years ago. We have a really nice balance, where we take the value from all the cool tech resources that are available now while preserving the value from more traditional resources.”
The teachers themselves have very positive things to say about their colleagues’ dedication and about the collegial atmosphere among the staff. The retention rate is high, with many teachers either having been there from the school’s start or shortly thereafter. A strong professional development program ensures every staff member—veteran or fresh out of teachers’ college—stays current. Beyond the usual PD courses, however, TPS brings in experts on new and emerging social issues that directly affect students. “We love to bring in outside people who are leaders in their fields to help us all understand how to talk about sensitive topics and handle students’ concerns,” says Pete Tsimikalis, assistant head of admissions. Most recently, TPS invited experts on anti-Black racism and gender diversity to speak to the faculty.
The morning bell may ring at 10 a.m. at TPS, but all teachers are in their classrooms every day at 9 a.m. to provide extra help and test preparation. After school, individual subject tutoring and coaching is available from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Then there’s the Saturday Club, which runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every weekend, except on holidays and long weekends. Students can take the initiative to attend any of these sessions on their own or be mandated by teachers and/or parents. It’s a network of support that’s integral to the school’s conviction that, if students’ efforts exceed their abilities, they will maximize their potential.
“In the earlier grades, we’re quite prescriptive about what students must do to improve their performance,” says educational strategist Adam Rosenbaum. “We don’t tell them they need to do better in math, for example. We tell them they need to stay after school a certain number of times each week and attend the Saturday Club until they have a firm grasp of whatever concept is giving them a hard time.” Students with diagnosed learning differences who might require individual education plans (IEPs) with curriculum accommodations (not modifications) are welcome at TPS, but they aren’t the only ones accessing the extra assistance—it’s also students who need to edge up their already high marks to qualify for elite university programs.
Once students are in the higher grades, they’re encouraged to self-advocate and seek help on their own when they need it. “We back off on the prescriptive approach to foster the independence students will need in university,” says Rosenbaum. But no student is ever off the radar at TPS. “We have policies that ensure transparency and communication with parents when marks fall below certain levels, but I always put the marks in context of the effort it took to achieve them,” he says.
The school seems to have fully embedded academic support in the TPS culture, so much so that there’s relatively no stigma attached to it. Rosenbaum says students have normalized the routine of getting help when necessary, and some have voluntarily made it part of their daily routine. For those who prefer more privacy, there are smaller break-out rooms available in the after-school and Saturday programs. Everyone we spoke to agreed that Grade 11 and 12 students tend to be the largest consumers of extra help as they work to improve their grades for university applications.
According to one student and his parent, the school’s approach to academic support is practical and can benefit students at any level of achievement. “I initially thought that TPS was a sort of remedial school, which was completely wrong,” says the parent. “In fact, they just take a common-sense approach to giving every kid everything they need to help them learn to the best of their ability. For us, this was more of an opportunity than a necessity.” According to her son, the extra hour of teacher assistance each morning made all the difference. “You can count on that help always being there, and you don’t have to come in at lunch or make special arrangements,” he says. “It was really beneficial for me.”
True to its name, TPS provides students with comprehensive support on the path to post-secondary education. “We’re incredibly involved in terms of long-term planning and facilitating applications,” says guidance counsellor Ian Fleming. “It’s essentially a one-to-one process with students.” The school’s university placement rate, hovering around 98%, is a testament to the success of this method.
In the early grades of high school, meetings with guidance counsellors are generally informal and ad hoc. Things get serious within the first two weeks of Grade 12, when students receive an individualized package of documents to help in the selection of schools and programs. “At this point, we start narrowing down their ideas and ambitions,” says Fleming. “We map these to potential programs and assess their feasibility and suitability based on the student’s personal profile.” Subsequent meetings involve a transcript analysis and setting goals for the interim reporting period.
The result of these preliminary meetings is a list of programs matched to students’ specific interests, marks, and objectives. “I think this is where we set ourselves apart from other schools,” says Fleming. “We give students lots of time at the table and lots of individualized attention.” As much as the guidance counsellors encourage students’ sense of agency in decision making, however, parents are invited to attend at least one meeting in Grade 12. “They’re a vital part of the whole discussion, and the school always prioritizes full transparency with families,” says Fleming.
Close interaction between students, parents, and guidance counsellors continues through to December, when the formal application process launches. Fleming describes this as a hand-in-hand stage with students. He and the other TPS guidance counsellors carefully review every application, providing assistance with essay editing and other fine-tuning as needed.
As a member of the Globeducate network of more than 50 international schools, TPS offers students and teachers unique opportunities to learn with and from their peers worldwide. “For the staff, it means we can collaborate with colleagues from a wide range of educational settings,” says educational strategist Adam Rosenbaum. “We can see what types of teaching approaches are working for them in their part of the world, share our own experiences, and tackle common challenges together. For TPS students, this partnership opens up so many exciting avenues to create contacts with kids from other countries and join forces to explore global issues.”
Between now and 2022, all Globeducate schools are working towards Eco-Schools’ Green Flag status, a globally recognized benchmark for promoting sustainability in education. TPS is the latest Canadian school to join the Eco-Schools program, and it’s currently hard at work on an environmental strategy aimed at achieving this status. The 2030 Globeducate Agenda underwrites the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and discussion of these goals is central to many Globeducate student events.
Throughout the academic year, Globeducate runs international events where schools from different countries visit the host school to take part. These include a model United Nations, academic Olympics. arts competition, music festival, Olympic games, and leadership summit. TPS students interested in honing their French or Spanish language skills can take part in a variety of Globeducate exchanges and visits, including summer courses at schools in France and Spain.
TPS is a neighbourhood school, with at least three-quarters of students living within five kilometres. “Our demographics are the demographics of the surrounding area,” says Pete Tsimikalis, assistant head of admissions. There’s also a growing legacy component in the student population, which speaks well of the Tsimikalises’ reputation. “About 25 of our current students are the children of students Fouli and I taught early in our career,” says Principal Tsimikalis. “When former students trust us with their kids, it’s the greatest compliment we can get.”
By all accounts available to us, TPS students are mostly friendly, welcoming, and accepting. “There are strong, trusting relationships between students and staff, but also between students,” says head of English Sandra Birkett. “The students genuinely like being together at school. It’s very evident in all the classes I’ve taught over the years. I’ve honestly never had any issues come up when I put them into groups for assignments, which is a bit of a snapshot of the culture of the student body. It creates a lovely environment for teachers, but also for students.” Several parents commented that their children felt a sense of comfort and security at TPS: “The students are well behaved because of the school’s small size. Our daughters felt safe from bullying and disrespect because there was an attitude of respect and responsibility.”
The admissions criteria (see Getting in below) play a central role in curating the student body, and the Tsimikalis family has no qualms about turning away students they don’t deem to be a good fit with the culture. “Since the school leaders are very selective when it comes to students’ character traits, we generally just have good kids here,” says head of math Steve Kinnear. “There’s no sense of academic elitism in TPS students. They’re all here because they want to do better—wherever they’re starting from. This creates a comfortable, welcoming atmosphere for everyone.” In our observations, there was no internal hierarchy among students in terms of athletes, academic high-achievers, and those leaning towards the arts. In the words of one student, “TPS is more of a mix of everything. If you want arts, they have tons of arts. If you want sports or academics, it’s all there too.”
No doubt Principal Tsimikalis’s straightforward approach to discipline plays a role in the positive environment. He’s the ultimate authority in determining any disciplinary action, and students are well aware of this fact. “I maintain a strong presence around the school by teaching and coaching, and the kids know I expect them to carry themselves in a certain way, whether that’s in the classroom or on the field,” he says. “If they don’t, I don’t let it fester. I confront things right off the bat. My office has had more than a few frank, raw conversations over the years. But I understand there are a variety of circumstances that can contribute to poor behaviour, so with first transgressions we’ll sit down and try to make it a learning opportunity. If it keeps happening, though, this isn’t the place for that student.”
Each school year at TPS traditionally begins with a school-wide, three-day trip to Camp Wahanowin, just outside Orillia, Ont. It’s both an orientation for new students and a reunion for returning ones, but mostly it’s a chance for the whole TPS community to strengthen the bonds they value so much. “Getting out of the city and staying together in a completely different setting allows students and teachers to get to know one another in a much looser, often sillier, way,” says Birkett. “The connections we build there last all year.” There’s an opportunity for everyone to take part in a wide variety of outdoor camp activities. More structured leadership exercises, survival training, and co-operative challenges are also part of the trip, and it’s the official kick-off to the TPS house competitions.
Reinforced by a supportive academic culture that discourages competition and encourages support seeking, the school pays close attention to the full spectrum of students’ well-being. “The staff seemingly have some sort of innate radar that’s able to detect when a child could benefit from extra attention, whether that attention is focused on the child’s understanding of the subject at hand, or whether attention is required to assist the child with an emotional situation,” says one parent. It’s not hard to see how this “radar” develops, if you speak to the teachers. They simply know the students well, so they know when things aren’t right.
“When students need support, we encourage them to talk to the staff member they’re most comfortable with,” says guidance counsellor Ian Fleming. “It doesn’t have to be someone from guidance.” There’s school-wide messaging that assures students that the entire faculty is available for counselling on educational, career, or personal issues. Of course, this only works if students trust their teachers and have that comfort level with them. And the students we spoke to do. “I would say that all teachers and admin were generally interested in the well-being of their students,” says one TPS graduate. “Yes, academically they wanted you to do well, but that wasn't their only priority. You’re more than a mark and they wanted us to be good people. They’d always ask, ‘How are you? What are your plans this week?’ I always felt that was genuine.” According to another: “If you need help with literally anything, any time—even if it’s for a different class—they would always be there.” Parents also say they value the faculty’s accessibility. “There was always an open-door policy,” says the parent of one grad. “It was a family dynamic that students became a part of. Their emotional well-being was important and help was right there.”
Students can always go straight to a guidance counsellor if they prefer, or a teacher may direct them there if a situation escalates and requires external referrals for support. Fleming, who is currently working towards certification in school psychotherapy, says he and his fellow guidance counsellors work hard to cultivate openness with students. “They know that I’m glad to hear any of their concerns, and that it’s better to come earlier than later if they’re struggling. It opens up the conversation. In the area of university applications, for example, there’s a lot of intimidation these days around the grades kids think they need.” To alleviate students’ stress and manage unrealistic expectations, Fleming helps them adopt a more realistic approach by examining all of the options. “Whether they’re nailing it with 90s or not, it’s an important conversation to preserve their mental health.”
The school’s Wellness Centre is a large, bright room with fitness equipment but also room for individual or group yoga and meditation. Beyond this dedicated room, the school’s plentiful gathering spots promote balance, according to one parent: “TPS fosters mental and emotional well-being in students by establishing beautiful spaces where kids can unwind, sit around on couches or at a small table, roll out a yoga mat and rest.”
The immense value TPS places on community and family extends beyond the school’s walls. “From day one, we make it clear that giving back is part of being a TPS student,” says Principal Tsimikalis. One fact alone demonstrates the school’s commitment in this area: TPS is consistently in the top 10 per capita schools for fundraising in the Terry Fox Run. The parents we spoke to appreciate this aspect of students’ all-around education. “The school has huge community involvement and tries to instill a sense of ethics and community service to others in all students,” says one parent. “They make it their mission to support a wide variety of organizations.”
Well aware that TPS students are generally from privileged backgrounds, Principal Tsimikalis consistently reminds them not to take their good fortune for granted. “I have no patience for anyone who wastes their advantages,” he says. “I want our students to take what they’ve been given and make the best of it by working hard not only to improve their own situation, but the situation of the community at large.”
To formalize students’ contributions, the school goes above and beyond Ontario’s requirement of 40 hours of community service by high school graduation. The school helps students fulfill these requirements by organizing regular outreach and service events within the school (touring prospective families or tutoring and coaching younger students, for example) and outside (volunteering or raising funds for local charities).
Parents are considered an integral part of the TPS community, with open communication about students’ progress and/or struggles valued above all. There’s also a school-wide tech tool that makes this ideal possible. Students, parents, and teachers use a learning management system, which is available as a mobile app, that centralizes all aspects of the school experience. Teachers post their lesson plans, classroom materials, notes, and more, giving parents deeper insight into the daily goings-on. If they have questions, parents can message teachers directly. “Beyond Google Classroom, which everyone uses now, this system offers parents a much more granular view of what their kids are doing at school,” says head of science Eric Oest.
The TPS staff makes a point of getting to know each family well enough that the family feels comfortable reaching out if issues come up that might affect students’ well-being or academic performance. “We’re a family school, and we treat all the parents like family,” says Pete. While he acknowledges that some people might find this unprofessional, his mother, Fouli, offers her cell phone number to all parents. “If it’s an emergency about one of our kids, they can call at midnight.”
Maintaining a dialogue with parents is a fundamental part of the school’s academic support system. “It all goes back to our policy of transparency,” says educational strategist Adam Rosenbaum. “We make sure that we understand everything that’s going on—with reasonable limits due to privacy—that could distract students from achieving to their potential.” According to guidance counsellor Ian Fleming, parents are kept firmly in the loop on important issues such as course selection and university applications while still preserving a strong element of self-advocacy among students.
There’s a parents’ association that organizes social events and fundraises for both the school itself and the students’ chosen charities. One parent of a grad who came to TPS from the public school system says it was refreshing for parents not to be called upon to create a sense of community for students. “At TPS, the school took a huge part of the burden of supporting our children and their school experience and made it theirs. Parents were no longer needed as tutors, social conveners, or even fundraisers. Parents had little to actually do in terms of needs of the school, but rather were able to create social community among their peers as they desired.” Other parents also commented positively on the social bonds among families at TPS. “The school has done a brilliant job of inviting parents to communicate and socialize with one another via various school-based events, and also with encouraging us to communicate outside of those events,” says one.
One of the school’s signature events is an evening of dinner and dancing at a Toronto restaurant for the graduating class and their parents. “We bring together the whole TPS family to celebrate and give out fun awards,” says Principal Tsimikalis. “Kids dance with their parents—not something you see at most proms.”
TPS’s admissions criteria align with their core values of respect, effort, and responsibility over previous academic performance. As Pete Tsimikalis, assistant head of admissions, says, “A kid with a 65% average who works really hard and is eager to learn—give me 100 of them. A kid who has 90%, believes they know everything, and won’t speak to you—not for us.”
Pete works alongside his mother, Fouli, who leads the admissions team. She’s always taken an inclusive, not exclusive, approach in considering prospective students. “The reason we ask for all the paperwork is so we can really dig in and get to know a student and their family, all in hopes of determining whether they’re a good fit,” Pete explains. The application package material includes a student’s statement, parents’ statement, teacher and community referrals, previous report cards, student records, and individual education plans and psychoeducational assessments (if applicable).
There’s no entrance test, which again fits with the school’s philosophy of evaluating academic performance in a wider context. “If we can’t assess a student’s academic aptitude from all the documentation they supply, then maybe we shouldn’t be doing this job,” says Pete. “There’s a wealth of long-term, personalized information in there. A single, standardized test that students cram for, on the other hand, is often not a great reflection of their true capacity.”
While TPS prides itself on accepting students who may have been underperforming at their previous schools, the expectation is that every student will be capable of managing academic-level courses and aiming to go to university. “We’re completely transparent with prospective parents,” says educational strategist Adam Rosenbaum. “We do offer a lot of support to students who struggle in a moderate way, but we don’t have the capacity to give students who might be lower functioning what they need to succeed. Overpromising isn’t fair to anyone.”
Interviews with prospective students and parents, together and individually, are a critical component of the admissions process. Unlike standardized tests, they can reveal at least a snapshot of the student’s character, which is a pivotal factor in selecting the student body, says Pete. “We’re not shy about the fact that we’re selective when it comes to character, and observing how a student interacts with their parents and with us gives us a sense of their maturity and motivation, and whether they’ll be receptive to our values and the supports we offer.”
Tuition is on par with schools of this size and focus, and includes a choice of a MacBook Pro laptop or iPad. There are no additional fees for the extended after-school academic help and Saturday Club programs. Parents can expect extra costs for extracurricular activities such as field trips.