Rob MacKinnon’s office at the Etobicoke School of the Arts doesn’t scream principal.
His office accoutrements sets it — and it could be argued MacKinnon and his leadership style — apart.
Large portraits in oil or charcoal leap off the walls, all but one a gift from his students. There’s even an eight-foot long axe handle crafted of softwood, a Grade 10 student’s heritage project.
A second, open door off the school’s foyer and a large couch and seating area invite students to drop in. Many do.
Last week, The Learning Partnership named MacKinnon one of Canada’s Outstanding Principals. He is one of eight Toronto principals, seven from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), to receive the honour this year.
“Everyone wants to come to school happy. Even in the darkest, most difficult times, students need to remember that we’re here to help them get back to that (happy) place,” MacKinnon said of his teenage students. “It’s reminding them we speak to them with respect, treat them with respect...
“The greatest impact you have on kids is when they know they can come to us, trust us. In my first-year assembly, I told students ‘every person in this building is here to help you; use us.’
“It’s telling them, ‘you can stay here’ (after school). We open the gym. Kids need to feel safe and welcome to come to school every day. Hopefully, they leave here full of confidence and we hear back from them after they leave that they’re living happy lives.”
This year’s 51 winning principals receive their award on Feb. 26 at a gala dinner in Toronto. Later this month, the principals will also participate in a five-day executive leadership training program at the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management.
“Behind every great school is a great principal who is not only an outstanding educator but an excellent manager and leader,” Akela Peoples, The Learning Partnership’s president and CEO said in a statement. “These school CEOs communicate compelling visions, engage their communities, mentor their staff and, most importantly, create safe and nurturing learning environments for students.”
At ESA, students major in dance, drama, film, music (band or strings), music theatre or visual arts.
When MacKinnon learned mental health issues of stress and anxiety were issues among students due to artistic performance pressures when he joined Etobicoke School of the Arts (ESA) three years ago, he organized speaker forums offering advice on how to cope for parents, students and staff.
Last year, 900 Grade 8 students from across the GTA auditioned for 250 highly coveted Grade 9 spots to attend the prestigious Etobicoke arts school founded in 1981, “the oldest, free standing arts-focused high school in Canada,” the school’s website states.
“The kids are always in high-performance mode, whether it’s dancing or singing or acting on stage, putting their art up on a wall. These are 14-year-old kids doing that. How do we support them in doing that? Many were the star in their home school. Now they are one among many stars. Which star will burn the brightest? We have high expectations of them. They have high expectations of themselves.”
Last year, ESA music theatre students Jessie Munro, 18, and Malindi Ayienga, 16, were among the top 20 finalists in a cross-Canada audition tour set to potentially compete in CBC Television’s live competition series, Over the Rainbow.
Munro went on to compete for many weeks against nine other girls before being eliminated in the casting of the coveted role of Dorothy in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Canadian production of The Wizard of Oz playing in downtown Toronto.
While the majority of students come from financially advantaged backgrounds, some do not. Recently, MacKinnon accepted a $2,000 gift from the GH Wood Foundation to assist some students with transportation and lunch.
This is MacKinnon’s ninth year as a principal, his third year at ESA.
Previously, he was principal at Monarch Park Collegiate in East York for six years, during which time the school climbed dramatically from among the lowest-ranked in the Fraser Institute’s Secondary School Report Card. In 2010-11, it was ranked 268 out of 718 schools, up from 609 out of 619 schools five years earlier.
A Riverdale resident, MacKinnon cited Monarch Park’s academic turnaround, his introduction of the International Baccalaureate program at the school, as well as a new dome over its sports field, among the accomplishments when he was principal.
His teaching philosophy: “get out of the way”.
“You let (teachers) pursue their passion. ‘How can I support you to make things happen?’ You allocate resources so that they’re best used to support them in those things. Teachers know best what is going on in the classroom,” he said.
ESA holds a Portfolio Day twice a year, an event in which professors and officials from arts schools and university arts faculties around the globe scout talent and advise students. Last year’s event drew more than 40 schools, including those from London, New York and Los Angeles and more than $1 million in student scholarships.
Art Gallery of Ontario CEO Michael Teitelbaum is among the school’s celebrity guests.
“He was very generous in giving feedback to students,” MacKinnon said. “It’s incredible to have people of his calibre come in to speak to the students about their work in an affirmative way, yet he doesn’t spare his comments; he helps them learn.”
Shaftesbury Films has donated more than $50,000 in equipment and training to the school’s newest film program. The Canadian Film Centre is also an ESA supporter, often gifting student with tickets to shows at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Weekly, MacKinnon said he fields calls from someone “wanting our students to sing in something, do art for something, dance in something.”
TDSB Superintendent Jane Phillips-Long nominated MacKinnon as one of Canada’s Outstanding Principals.
Seven TDSB principals were recognized for the honour this year, more than ever before, she said.
“These are truly some of our hardest working, most caring educators,” Phillips-Long said of the seven TDSB principals.
“In particular, I nominated Rob for his support of his students and staff. He’s a dynamic and innovative leader whose skills empower both students and staff to reach their full potential. He has active listening skills and an ability to connect with all stakeholder groups. ESA is a world renowned school. Students who graduate from ESA go on to great success.”
Phillips-Long mentioned then ESA student council president Jacques St. Pierre, 17, as an example.
A year ago, Lady Gaga invited her megafan to her anti-bullying charity foundation Born This Way’s launch at Harvard University. The foundation supports programs to inspire youth empowerment and equality.
St. Pierre launched the I Will Make it Better project at ESA to raise awareness about bullying, complete with Facebook page, Twitter account @IWMIBproject.
“They’re cool kids. It’s a cool place...” MacKinnon said of ESA. “It’s a great school, but we always have to reflect on how we’re doing. We want to be the best arts school in Canada, and we are.”
The 2013 Canada’s Outstanding Principals join 260 education leaders who have received the honour from The Learning Partnership in the past nine years.
This year’s outstanding principals include eight from Toronto; seven from the Toronto District School Board:
* Rob MacKinnon Etobicoke School of the Arts;
* Peggy Aitchison Forest Hill Collegiate Institute;
* Susan Baker Senator O’Connor College School;
* Sheryl Freeman Central Technical School;
* Maria Palermo Downsview Secondary School;
* Tammy Ross Crescent Town Elementary School;
* Thelma Sambrook Bowmore Road Junior and Senior Public School, and
* Jim Strathopoulos Huron Street Junior Public School