Designing a Transformative Learning Institution from the Ground Up

Last year, we welcomed City-as-School Toronto (CaST) to CSI Annex. They’ve been hard at work ever since. We spoke with CaST’s Co-Founder and Head of School, Dr. Kelvin Sealey, about what it’s been like to start a school during a pandemic and about their latest initiative, Mask4Aid. 

At CSI Annex, a unique experiment in secondary school education is unfolding at a torrid pace. As you can imagine, this is an unusual opening sentence for an article on a new high school, but CaST is no ordinary high school. Begun just last June in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is quickly becoming an exemplar of what high school can become when creativity, ambition and best practices in education are combined at a time of disruptive change in schooling.

CaST answers two simple questions: What can high school in Ontario become, and what can innovative teaching accomplish? Answers to these questions require that we expand our understanding of secondary school to include examples one can find separately in learning organizations around the world, but seldom see fully integrated within high schools. Explained simply, CaST leadership are crafting a university model for high school students, integrating the work of multiple, independently operated for-profit, non-profit and charitable organizations into a unified whole supportive of academically advanced secondary school teaching and learning. It is as if a university, often comprised of multiple small colleges each offering students a different set of courses and research opportunities, were designed for high school-aged students. And the process is working.

While CaST is an inspected Ministry of Education approved and high school, it works in tandem with its affiliates CaST Public Arts, CaST Earth and CaST Center for Bioinformatics Research. This complex of organizations is collectively called CaST Portfolio. With separate but linked governing boards, each was incorporated over the last year, and have begun an impressive set of large-scale projects designed to integrate students and teachers into their separate organizational missions. 

For instance, CaST Public Arts is one of just twelve individuals or organizations to win coveted financing under the umbrella of the City of Toronto’s heritage and culture funding program, and will debut its Project Mask4Aid in partnership with TDSB, TCDSB and select private schools all across the city in May & June of 2021. CaST students and CaST student artwork will be front and center, together with artwork by students from multiple private, parochial and public schools around the city.

Simultaneously, CaST Center for Bioinformatics Research (CaST Bio) is in negotiations with three major teaching and research institutions in the US and Canada to begin public health-related research using artificial intelligence systems. It’s first researcher is a CaST School computer science and bioinformatics teacher. CaST Earth will support environment-related education projects, and is seeking to partner with a videogame design company to promote climate science videogames to high school populations worldwide. Board members of all four CaST Portfolio enterprises are educators connected to CaST School, and all four organizations currently share the same employees. In short, this portfolio of companies, with a secondary school teaching mission at its heart, combines experiential, co-operative, expeditionary, and enterprise education in a seamless flow supportive of both students and teachers. And each offers world class, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for young people enrolled in CaST to learn how the world works and how to succeed within it. That’s a great deal of activity for a school that is less than one year old.

Experiential, expeditionary, cooperative and enterprise learning are not new concepts, and Ontario’s Ministry of Education promotes these concepts within its governing documents for province-wide K12 education. Over the past thirty years, each of these teaching and learning models has gained solid academic adherents and anchored the design of schools, teaching programs and careers globally. Collectively, all four emerge from the simple premise that students learn best when they actually experience their lessons by practicing them in the real-world. In short, to quote an oft used truism: experience is the best teacher. 

To that end, CaST believes traveling to near or distant locations to experience new cultures, people or activities (expeditionary learning) is better than simply reading about the North Pole, for example, in books. Working one-on-one with research scientists (co-operative & enterprise education) studying how machine learning analyses can aid scientists in the development of new vaccines is far better than merely learning about those methods from teachers. Combining classroom teaching with real-world experience not only provides students with active ways of applying theories they’ve only read in books, but it makes the entire learning enterprise both fun and engaging. CaST is proving that learning outside of the classroom, it turns out, can be just as powerful, if not more so, than learning daily within it.

Leading CaST secondary school and the entire CaST Portfolio is Dr. Kelvin Sealey, an academic and educator with a long history of art production, technology-related entrepreneurship, and private school administration upon which to draw. Dr. Sealey’s academic expertise lies in applying “spectacular,” mass media formulas to teaching and learning. His research on the use of film and education, his lectures and graduate courses on architecture and education and entrepreneurship in education prepared him well for presiding over the young but ambitious CaST Portfolio. 

CaST School, and the portfolio of companies you’ve begun to support it, operates as a unique entity within the realm of public or private education. What brought you to design this school?

First, you should know that I am not working on this enterprise alone, but with supremely talented and generous education partners that have supported this experiment we’re building from day one. My two partners in CaST are Assistant Head of School for Finance, Web, and Human Resources, Steph Bushnik, and Vanessa Alsop, Assistant Head for Guidance and Curriculum. They bring a combined thirty years of Ontario education experience to CaST every day, and we began building CaST Portfolio as a collective. Together with our teachers, our board, students and community members, we intend to make CaST the best, most engaging, most academically challenging secondary school in Canada. 

Second, CaST Portfolio is an experiment in teaching and learning, but one in which many of the risks in founding new schools have been minimized. Because Steph, Vanessa and I have such a long history in education, we are able to go into our deep professional networks to source what we need when we need it. It is for these reasons that we were able to begin so quickly and with strong community support. I’ll also say that in a strange way, the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has broadened what people see and consider good education, and gave us an opening in the market for private secondary school education that might not otherwise have existed in the same way. 

CaST’s daily classes begin online in the late morning (10am), and end with in-person teaching in the late afternoon (4:30pm). Students love this! Once the pandemic ends, we’re likely to maintain both online and in-person classes, as well as the late start, since these elements are clearly appealing to many students and their families. Later in Spring semester, or beginning this summer, once the Ministry of Education and Toronto Health officials allow for broader in-person experiences across the GTA, we’ll expand our classrooms beyond CSI to include museums, galleries, parks, and libraries all around the city. Besides being our name, CaST is an acronym which stands for City-as-School-Toronto; we see the entire City of Toronto as the school, and individual locations around the city as our classrooms. This “place-based” model of learning is at the heart of experiential education, and allows our teachers to draw upon a diverse pool of geographically dispersed resources in which to deliver and shape their lessons. 

How will you integrate the work of three or more companies into the mission and curriculum of CaST School? 

In addition to outside directors and advisors, I and my senior administrative colleagues run or sit on the boards of all CaST Portfolio enterprises, and I am the board chairman of all of them. Therefore, I am well-placed to take an overarching view of what works best for any individual corporate entity, and how the work of each can be integrated into a seamless whole for the benefit of CaST students. In my negotiations with outside organizations, from which I will gain expertise, human and financial resources, and a wide variety of as-yet-undiscovered opportunities, I place the teaching and learning needs of my students and teachers first, and proceeding from that beginning, strike deals that advance CaST School ends. This model has deep roots in social enterprise research and practice where supporting a triple bottom line of people, profit and planet is demanded of governing boards: an active social mission (people), seeking to earn commercial revenue (profit), can also be environmentally sustainable (planet). This is CaST Portfolio in a nutshell. 

CaST Public Arts is about to participate in a large-scale art project. How did this come about? 

While still in the process of developing CaST School last summer, I wondered how I could put my knowledge of large-scale artmaking to good use for the benefit of my as-yet-unfinished school. The answer was Mask4Aid. Originally, I had hoped to involve all of the City’s major museums in a fundraising effort by joining some of their donors with a creative plague-mask design contest and show. All of it could have taken place online, socially distanced, and we could have generated a great deal of enthusiasm given that all museums closed and were – and are – in serious need of new funding. Hence the name Mask 4 “Aid,” the aid being charitably given financial assistance. 

But I was a newcomer and Toronto’s museums were individually struggling to figure out what Covid-19 survival mode looked like, so the charitable element never did emerge. Once I discovered that the City of Toronto had funding for such projects, it seemed natural that I should apply for some of the funds the City was offering artists to design and deploy public art in 2021. Ultimately the City said yes, which is why I’m now poised to work with hundreds of TDSB, TCDSB and private schools to create multiple projection mapping sites at those schools featuring student-designed creative masks and poetry. We don’t have much time, but the plan is to solicit art from students across the entire system and see who delivers what. 

That sounds like an exciting program, and logistically difficult. But if I’m a student or parent and I read this article, how do I involve my school?

Well, it’s easy to write directly to me at mask4aid@castschool.org and let me know what you think about the project and what school you or your child attends. If you tell me the name of your school and the name of your principal, then I can reach out to them directly to let her or him know that there’s interest in Mask4Aid participation within your school. If the principal agrees to join the program, given the encouragement of the Mayor’s office as well as the Deputy Mayor, I’ll connect my art teachers to their art teachers and we can begin planning what your school will need to participate.   

How do you see CaST Portfolio growing over the next 5 years?

Because each portfolio company follows its own mission, and will ultimately have its own executive team running it, I can’t say which direction each individual company will take. But I can say that whatever route they follow towards success, that route must hold the interests of CaST students and their success in mind. Each portfolio company must find opportunities to survive in the marketplace, offer students the opportunity to learn, and give back to rather than take from, our planet. There are three bottom lines: people, profit, planet. This route will be difficult, and it will certainly be exciting. I can’t wait to see what actually happens!

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