Planting seeds of excellence
June 1980 – I remember it well. The month was filled with excitement, anxiety, expectation and second guessing. The month a seed was sown that would, in the fullness of time, bring to life not one but four educational ideologies. The month I resigned from my teaching position of thirteen years.
My wife, my two children and I were now facing a very uncertain future. She and I had talked about it, more me than her, for over a year. She understood and continued to provide emotional, spiritual and financial support (she continued to work nights at Kaufman’s). But as much as I was the optimist she was my foil. In my speaking engagements over the years, I have been known to make light of how we cashed in my pension; how we put a second and a third mortgage on our home; how we sold our two vehicles and bought a fifteen passenger van and painted the sides of the van with “St. Jude’s School”, and I turned my wife’s hair a wonderful new shade. From that month forward, I have only looked back several thousand times. Not with regret nor any remorse but with a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment of an easy road not taken.
The seed first brought forth a tutoring and learning assessment service known simply as Student and Family Services. This service addressed the overwhelming frustration expressed by parents trying to get their child tested. As a special education educator, I was continually caught between the system’s rules and priorities and the parents’ requests for help. A large article in the local newspaper recognized the significance of this service now being available outside the school system. The local boards, quoted in the same article, downplayed the need for this service to be privately available to parents. Sadly, even to this day, parents hear more often than not – “there are other children who are of a greater need and of a higher priority”. As parents became more aware and more educated, they pressured Student Services to open a school which would actually implement the recommendations of the psycho-educational assessments, rather than listen to laments of large classes, not enough time in a day and lack of provincial funding.
The seed flourished and birthed a new offspring, St. Jude’s School, on Phillip Street in Waterloo. St. Jude’s was created to be a temporary alternative to the publicly funded educational system for bright, learning-disabled students from grade one to twelve. These students were the ones who struggled but got by each year. Their high level of intelligence coupled with an undiagnosed learning disability resulted in a disappointingly mediocre performance, which from the public system’s perception is good enough. The result? Growing numbers of nice kids were just squeaking through each grade, expressing ever more frequent denials of their innate intellectual abilities. Sadly, “I’m stupid” would become a more and more common phrase in their daily communications with their parents and peers.
Parents of these students, in the 80’s decade, sought out St. Jude’s School. St. Jude’s grew slowly, with classes of six maximum, to a population of three dozen students with ten special teachers. St. Jude’s was a family with a school atmosphere where “Bring Joy to Learning” was evident every day. But the success of this little school was not going unnoticed.
As the 90’s decade loomed, more and more parents wanted their child at St. Jude’s. They had heard of the small classes. They had heard about homework, discipline, respect, work ethic and the success of the students returning to the system. They wanted their child to have that same educational benefit.
My initial query to these parents was, “What is your child’s learning disability?”. Their responses surprised me. There was no learning issue, other than “good enough was no longer good enough”. These parents just wanted their children to attend a really good private school. In response, I, politely, explained
St. Jude’s School’s mission (bright without any learning difficulties was not the mission) and would then recommend another private school.
At this point, you must understand several mitigating factors which would influence St. Jude’s School for the next ten years and beyond. First, there was the 1989 recession. Second, St. Jude’s School never has fund-raised for itself. St. Jude’s is operated as a business – charge a fair tuition and don’t expect your customers to donate to make ends meet. And finally, St. Jude’s had an accountant who continually pointed out that more and more people want to give me money. So, I began to accept into St. Jude’s, those students who not only did not have any learning difficulties but were bright and motivated to excel. Within two years, St. Jude’s School ballooned to a population of one hundred, with a growing wait list. The school’s facilities on Phillip Street could only accommodate the 100 students and the wait list would soon reach another one hundred. St. Jude’s was a success. Or so I thought, for a year or two.
That seed I had planted over a decade ago once again was stirring. A growing sense of personal discontent was causing me to analyse the growth of St. Jude’s. Class maximums had grown from six to twelve. My parents, students or teachers were not aware of my concern – they were elated with the level of education being provided at St. Jude’s School. All my students were receiving an education superior to what they had before coming to St. Jude’s. It was my students with the learning disabilities who I felt were being short-changed with the doubling of the classes. I was worried that we were providing a watered-down version the school’s original mission and goals.
Even though this issue was mine and only mine, I had to do something. It was clear to me that I had two populations of students with different needs and goals now attending St. Jude’s School. There were the St. Jude’s students and there were the other students, the scholars. The St. Jude’s students needed very small classes, special education teachers, and a curriculum which would focus on the need for remediation and the goal of reintegration. The other students, the scholars, needed smaller classes than the system, excellent teachers, and a curriculum which would focus on academic acceleration and the goal of first-choice university acceptance. The seed had sprouted a new shoot as I began to implemented a plan to separate my student population in two separate and very distinct schools – St. Jude’s School and Scholars’ Hall.
In the summer of 1999, land was purchased in the south end of Kitchener. It is ideal for a number of reasons. First, was price. Due to the immergence of companies such as Sybase, RIM and Open Text, land prices in Waterloo had escalated well beyond my budget. Second, this particular piece of land is geographically centered in the region allowing equal and convenient access for my families from Waterloo, Cambridge and Guelph. Third, the property is surrounded on three sides by government-protected environmental lands. Standing magnificently on this property is a three hundred year old elm tree, identified as the largest and healthiest in the province. In addition, across the street from this site is the Huron Natural Area (site of the Ontario’s most significant discovery of a 600 year old Six Nations settlement).
The school I had built over and over in my head for the last five years opened its doors to students for the first time in August of 2000. Seventy-five of the students from St. Jude’s and approximately fifty-five students from the wait list were invited to make the move to the new school site at 888 Trillium Drive in Kitchener. St. Jude’s School remained in Waterloo, for its third decade, providing hope to parents and help to students for a brighter educational future. St. Jude’s was once again the school I
had built two decades before – a family with a school atmosphere.
Scholars’ Hall, at the other end of Kitchener, opened the doors of its newly constructed school with a huge gymnasium, science labs, art classes, a large playground and 25,000 sq. ft. of classrooms. (All accomplished without any fund-raising, I might add). I knew that Scholars’ Hall had to be larger than
St. Jude’s but I also knew that I did not want Scholars’ Hall to be a big school. Scholars’ Hall is a school with a family atmosphere. In order to maintain this family atmosphere and a very personal level of service to the parents and education to the children, Scholars’ Hall by necessity had to stay a small school. So Scholars’ opened with little fanfare and began its gradual annual growth fuelled only by word of mouth. At all grades, JK to the end of high school, classes are not allowed to be larger than fifteen students. The total number of classes and the total population of Scholars’ Hall is limited, not by its facility’s capacity but by its pedagogical design.
At the beginning of the millennium, Scholars’ Hall quietly began to define itself as Waterloo Region’s Singular Private School. Scholars’ Hall was founded to be forward thinking with a fundamental foundation. My ideas of a great school are so natural to me I am unable to identify them. A school is responsible for a child’s education, not the parents – forward or fundamental? Each child needs to develop, through example and education, a lifelong work ethic – forward or fundamental? A child needs to be raised and educated in and by a supportive and nurturing community – forward or fundamental? A school needs to reflect the world and to prepare its students for the world – forward or fundamental? A school must promote personal excellence – forward or fundamental? A school needs to be responsive to the family and changing society – forward or fundamental? If parents feel that their child needs a tutor, then the school is not doing their job – forward or fundamental?
Scholars’ Hall is the only nondenominational, JK to Grade 12 school in the Region. Students from all faiths and all nationalities feel equally at home at Scholars’. There are no PD days at Scholars’. There are no extra holidays. From the very beginning, children attending Scholars’ Hall, JK to Grade 3, have had the option to attend school full days, everyday, twelve months a year with afterschool supervision. Homework at Scholars’ Hall is given daily (5 minutes times your grade) and checked and corrected daily.
If a student has not done their homework or has not done it to the best of their ability they are required to attend the HomeWork Club. In addition, each and every Friday is stay-till-its-done day. Forward or fundamental?
Scholars’ Hall is a complete school. House leagues, plays, clubs and sport activities, Lower School High Tea, Middle School semi-formals and Upper School Grad proms all occur while we still easily surpass the standards of the complete provincial curriculum, starting in Kindergarten. No ‘play curriculum’ here! Scholars’ Hall is the only high school in Canada to adopt the same semesters schedule as the universities. Following the university semesters provides a huge advantage over public students. Scholars’ students not only get accepted into every university applied to, but, many with scholarship offers.
In 2015, that wonderful seed stirred again. Beleaguered and disheartened parents began to beseech St. Jude’s to develop an educational program for their autistic children. Over the next two years, St. Jude’s piloted such a program. As, in the past, I created a program like no other in the province.
In February of 2019, St. Jude’s School formally announced that its pilot program – Spectrum Academy, was now open for students. Each Spectrum Academy classroom has two trained special education teachers/ABA therapists working with three highly intelligent students in a dog-friendly, specifically designed, learning environment.
That seed sown in the past has now blossomed into Spectrum Academy, a school of necessity; St. Jude’s School, a school of hope; and Scholars’ Hall, a school of achievement. As Spectrum Academy beginning its first decade, Scholars’ Hall beginning its third decade and St. Jude’s School about to begin its fifth decade, it is my fervent goal to quietly continue to provide this singular education to the children of the Waterloo Region.
My wife (yes, she is still by my side) and I revel that we get work daily with our daughter, the Principal; her husband, one of the Vice-Principals; our youngest son, a grade 4/5 teacher; and that we see our three grandchildren, grade SK, grade 9 and grade 11, every day since Junior Kindergarten. We are so very proud of the many and continuing accomplishments of all our former students. I thank the parents of the Waterloo Region for the gift of their children and I look forward to the promise of many more wonderful children attending Spectrum, St. Jude’s and Scholars’ Hall.
In 1999, the Province of Ontario recognized Fred Gore for his continuing contributions to children with special educational needs.
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