...for one brief shining moment, there was a spot called Camelot...

Thornton Hall closed its doors upon Miss Greig and Mr. Mackey's retirement in 1997.
(It is pleasing to note that the two are still frequently spotted in the immediate vicinity of Holt Renfrew, indicating that even our esteemed mentors' leisure activities require form-fitting snakeskin suits and the very latest in cravats.)

241 Poplar Plains as we knew it was sold and demolished, two new houses built in its place.
The new occupants must wonder why that food truck keeps loitering outside for two half-hour periods each day, the questionable aroma of pre-packaged sandwiches and Non-Nisa meat patties wafting forlornly over an empty courtyard.

The closing was preceded by a rumor that Thornton Hall would continue under the helm of a Thornton student-turned-teacher and protegee of Miss Greig's, Michelle Lefolii, but that did not come to pass. Below is an article from the Toronto Star describing the nascence of the school Lefolii subsequently founded, basing its programs on Thornton tenets.

Thanks go to Andra Sageri for sending the original article.

The Toronto Star
Sunday, February 1, 1998


Inspired teaching philosophy born at Thornton Hall
attracts students, staff to Abelard

By Judy Steed
Feature Writer

In an old bank building by the Yonge St. train tracks, a new school has been born out of the ashes of the legendary Thornton Hall.

Michelle Lefolii, creator of the new Abelard Centre for Education--Toronto's first tuition-free private school--was the heir apparent of Thornton's charismatic leaders Angela Greig and her husband Stuart Mackey.

More than 50 years ago, they established Thornton Hall as an exclusive, unusual, even eccentric experiment in education. Its students--among them, for a brief period, Conrad Black, who was expelled--received a rare tutelage in the classics, art history and literature.

"Miss Greig was completely passionate about the role of the arts in transforming human existence," says Lefolii, whose teaching philosophy was inspired by Greig's focus on academic rigour and creative inspiration.

But last year, Thornton Hall closed its doors after a protracted, painful demise. Greig exited into retirement with her husband.

Lefolii rebounded with a school of her own--spending $30,000 to renovate the bank building, reuniting a core group of Thornton's young teachers.

The Abelard Centre opened last fall, named for Peter Abelard, a mediaeval priest Lefolii praises for "the innovation of his thought, his fidelity to his convictions, his passion and his charisma," qualities she hopes to instill in her students.

The school has 30 students aged 16 to 19, evenly split between males and females, studying Grades 11, 12 and OAC. They come from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, the major common denominator being their intelligence and leadership potential, as assessed by Lefolii and her staff.

She's determined to provide "a high quality enriched education to academically able teenagers who might otherwise find themselves marginalized," according to her "Statement of Purpose."

She stresses that the school is not for troubled teenagers. "We are a school for students with real academic potential," students who can soar with the stimulation and attention they receive in classes with a maximum of 10 students.

Needless to say, this kind of education is expensive. It will cost about $500,000 to run the school for one year.

Funding for the startup came mostly from Ken Lefolii, Michelle's father, a former editor of Maclean's magazine in the '60s and a prominent TV producer and host--This Hour Has Seven Days at CBC-TV, W5 at CTV.

He left journalism in the '70s, made his fortune in cable TV and "retired" to the West Coast, where he is writing a novel.

"Michelle's job is to become an effective fundraiser and to generate the operating budget for year two," says Ken Lefolii, seated in the Vancouver waterfront condo he shares with his second wife, Meg Gillis, a former corporate lawyer turned novelist.

Ken supports his daughter's passion for developing a school "that might help gifted kids whose minds have been closed down by traditional education."

It happened to him.

A bright student in elementary school in Vancouver, where he grew up, Lefolii says that by the time he graduated from high school, "I was completely alienated from education." He did not go on to university. "School shut down my mind."

Lefolii's first wife, Aletta Lefolii, started two Montessori schools in the Toronto area and Michelle attended a Montessori school as a child.

The Lefoliis sent their eldest and youngest daughters, Kim and Michelle, to Thornton Hall for high school.

Ken Lefolii describes Angela Greig as a brilliant Scot who travelled to Italy to restore Renaissance paintings, worked in Matisse's studio in France, and communicated to her students a passion for creativity that Michelle is carrying on.

[Michelle] Lefolii, 33, leads a tour of the building. On a wall near the stairs, there's a list headed "CAS," for "Creativity, Action and Service," a concept requiring community service borrowed from the International Baccalaureate (for which the school hopes to soon be certified).

Students are involved in a wide range of activities from literacy to animal rights, medical relief in Africa and coaching youth soccer and basketball teams.

They participate in every aspect of school life--including janitorial services. By paying students to keep the school clean, Lefolii saves $3,000, which goes into a travel fund for school trips.

The costs, the struggle, the nickel and diming--it's a tremendous effort to run an independent school. Why do it?

"It's too difficult to be innovative in the public system," says Lefolii. "It works well for lots of students, but fails many others."

Lefolii has joined Greig's staff in 1988 for a few years when Thornton was at its peak with 80 students; she returned in the early '90s for another stint, supposedly to become vice principal and take over the school when Greig and Mackey retired.

By 1995, "it became clear they weren't ready to retire," Lefolii says, "yet they were in failing health and couldn't deal with running the school."

Enrollment declined while Lefolii struggled to keep things together. She had a full teaching load plus administrative responsibilities. "I got sick and had to take some time off, and then Angela and Stuart decided they didn't want me to return."

In June of '95, Lefolii spent a few months with her father, recuperating and figuring out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

"He talked about wanting to give something back, and we discussed what was happening to public education, and how to provide alternatives to people who can't afford private schools."

With Ken's support, Lefolii created a vision of [her] ideal school.

"We had to figure out how to make ourselves distinctive," Lefolii says. "We decided to focus on leadership--not necessarily in a political sense. We wanted to produce students who can take their knowledge and skills and be active in a socially responsible way."

Director Lefolii teaches drama history, art history and English literature. Students must take a minimum of six courses: English, math, science, social science, a second modern language and art.

"It's a heavy workload," says Catherine Bermingham, 16. "At the Abelard, I'm in classes with four or five people. It feels more like a discussion. We get to talk more and ask questions. The experience of learning is totally different."

Frank McAuliffe, 19, was the drop-out son of a forensic pathologist. He had bounced through various public, private and alternative schools. His mother Priscilla found out about the Abelard Centre and Frank was interviewed by Lefolii.

"We talked for two hours and I was totally impressed," he says. "She knew so much more than me. I'm flabbergasted about how the school is set up; it's totally student-oriented. For the first time in my life, I'm working at school. If it wasn't for this place, I would have been finished with school forever."





The Toronto Star
Monday, February 5, 2001*

Intimate Settings Help Draw 102,000 to Private Facilities

By Richard Lautens
Education Reporter

With a fireplace in the Latin room, lessons in ancient Greek and only three students in all of Grade 10, could school digs get any more classical?

The Abelard School was named for a medieval scholar who believed good education comes in small packages, so it is fitting that now, in its fourth year, as enrollment approaches its 50-student limit and the bankbooks are starting to balance, that the school has moved to a mansion that was once a family home.

This small collegiate in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood is part of a boom in private schools, as labour strife and budget cuts continue to haunt the public system.

More than 102,000 Ontario children attended private schools last year, a 20 percent jump in just five years.

And while Canada's public schools still draw nearly 95 percent of school-aged children, that share has slipped by a full percentage point over the past decade.

For a growing number of families, it seems small classes, non-unionized teachers and often a religious curriculum are worth from $3,000 to more than $16,000 a year in private school fees.

"I needed a lot of personal attention in math and science that was hard to get in a public high school with 25 to 30 kids in my class," said Abelard student Jennie Metcalf, an honours OAC student who says she was failing Grade 9 at a public school three years ago.

"But with only five people in a class, not only do teachers notice if you're not getting it, but they actually have time to help you right away," said Metcalf, 18, who has applied to four different universities for the fall.

Small classes are among the biggest draws of the private school system, says Elaine Hopkins, executive director of the Ontario Federation of Independent Schools. Hopkins has seen the number of private schools in the province jump to 722 from a mere 75 in 1974.

"There's been such growth in the demand for independent schools that some now have waiting lists so long they've had to cancel their open houses," said Hopkins, who is principal of a Christian Montessori school in Ottawa with a waiting list of 65 students vying for 35 openings this September.

"There's a combination of factors at work. Many people want the individual attention of small classes, especially with public schools facing the challenge of large classes with many special-needs students.

"And don't forget that two-thirds of all independent schools have some religious focus, whether it's Christian, Jewish, Islamic or Sikh and more and more people are looking for values-based education."

Still others like the easy access of a school unencumbered by the bureaucracy of a school board, she added.

For the four teachers who founded Abelard, the goal was to provide small classes and a focus on liberal arts.

"We named the school after Abelard, a French priest who was one of the first to teach small groups," says principal Shai Maharaj, one of the founders of the school three years ago.

"Abelard would take a group of students for walks in the forest to talk about ideas and the groups were small enough to be interactive, not just a teacher spoonfeeding his students. He really emphasized critical thinking."

But this 12th-century philosopher was also notorious for having had a scandalous love affair with one of his students his own niece Heloise for which he later was castrated.

"That's the side of his life we don't really stress with the kids," Maharaj confessed in the cluttered main floor office of the school's new setting on Prince Arthur Ave.

With only two students in Grade 11 biology, three students in all of Grade 10 and an "absolute maximum" enrollment of 50 students, Abelard is nothing if not intimate.

"There's no escape for students when classes are this small. I'll always know if they really did their homework, no matter what they say," says French teacher Aline Rossinsky.

"Kids simply learn better in small classes. If they fall behind for any reason, I can respond in ways I could never do with a class of 20 to 30 kids."

Maharaj and Rossinsky taught at the now defunct Thornton Hall, a private school in Toronto's Forest Hill district that stressed the arts and classics for nearly half a century.

When it closed several years ago, Maharaj and Rossinsky teamed up with classics teacher Brian Blair and English specialist Michelle Lefolii to launch a new school based on many of Thornton Hall's values, especially the focus on liberal arts.

All students must take either music, art or drama each year, regardless of their area of specialty. Despite the school's small staff of six teachers and two part-time instructors, it offers classes in ancient Greek, Latin, classical civilization and philosophy, and students mount a play every year. And to help foster a sense of responsibility, Maharaj has students take turns putting the garbage out each day.

"As teachers, the four founders all were concerned with the public system's growing trend to specialization, where kids can drop science, for example, in Grade 11 and never have to take it again.

"We think it's a shame for tomorrow's leaders to be narrowing their education so young," said Maharaj, who teaches math and science.

"The liberal arts tradition tells students: 'Don't trap yourself in a direction you may change six years later.' "

With a start-up investment of roughly $500,000 from Lefolii's father Ken, a retired television producer and magazine editor, the teachers opened what was then called the Abelard Centre in a former bank on Yonge St. near Summerhill Ave.

"We knew the start-up costs would be tremendous, so we're very lucky to have had a philanthropic donor to pay for that first year," recalls Maharaj. And while the worries of running a school can still keep him awake nights, the school finally has started to break even.

Tuition is $11,500 a year and the school now runs a popular literary fundraiser each year featuring authors, including Michael Ondaatje and Montreal poet Anne Carson reading from their works. Parents, too, take part in fundraising dinners each year.

Abelard does not have a uniform, but students are asked to dress as if they were going to work.

"We find it's hard to teach Grade 10 boys if the Grade 10 girls beside them are wearing tank tops," says Maharaj.

Students address teachers by their surnames and are forbidden from smoking anywhere within sight of the school. There is no gym, so students must use a community facility nearby. There is no cafeteria but students can use the microwave and refrigerator in the school's kitchen.

There are only small personal-sized lockers and no stage, so students must perform their annual drama production at the nearby University of Toronto. The science room is small but has six microscopes, a wave table for physics and several beakers and test tubes.

"It's a good learning environment, because we don't have the distractions of the public school cliques," concludes Grade 10 student Marc Borins, 15, who enrolled in the school last fall after attending Forest Hill Collegiate.

"The social scene at a big school can be hard to balance with school work."

OAC student Sacha Sokoloski believes there is more freedom in small classes--specifically, the freedom of expression.

"I learn best by asking questions, but you can't always do that in a class of 30 kids," explains the 18-year-old, who used to attend the Etobicoke School for the Arts as a double bassist.

"But these classes are so small, I can ask all the questions I want. So while I would still like to be playing the bass (Abelard does not have an instrumental music program), I'd rather have the small classes so I'll have the marks to get into university for computer science."

But for OAC student Josh Hudson, the social scene at a school this small makes learning easier, not harder.

"I went to small alternative schools for the elementary grades, so I like the relationships you can have with other students and even the teachers."





For more information on the Abelard, go to www.abelardschool.org.



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