Toronto Catholic District School Board

An inclusive learning community rooted in the love of Christ

The Toronto Catholic District School Board is an inclusive learning community rooted in the love of Christ, educating all students to grow in grace and knowledge and lead lives of faith, hope and charity.

Originally known as the Metropolitan Separate School Board upon its incorporation in 1953, the Board existed prior to that in smaller, segmented formats dating back to the early 1840s. The name was officially changed to the TCDSB in 1998 as a result of the Fewer School Boards Act, legislated by the Ontario government of the day. With an annual budget of $1.2 billion, the TCDSB is one of the City of Toronto’s largest employers with 13,000 full and part-time staff. As the largest publicly-funded Catholic school system in the world, it provides education to almost 100,000 students in 201 school sites, representing nearly 500,000 Catholic ratepayers.

Currently, the TCDSB is midway through an unprecedented five-year, $403 million capital investment program to improve learning environments for students through the construction of new schools as well as renovating, expanding and improving older facilities.

The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Angela Gauthier, who was named the Director of Education at the Toronto Catholic District School Board in August, 2013. Prior to her appointment, Gauthier served as the TCDSB’s Associate Director of Academic Affairs for over five years beginning in 2008. During her two years as the Director Education of one of the country’s largest school boards, she has focused on the Board’s 21st Century Learning strategy and improved access to technology for both students and teachers.

“Our end goal is to provide the best learning experience possible for our students,” Gauthier begins. “The most important relationship is the one-to-one connection between the student and the teacher, and to that end we also keep the lines of communication open with parents. As much as we serve the student, it’s the parent who is truly the client; they speak on behalf of the students – and they are the stakeholders.”

Gauthier staunchly believes it is essential for parents to know exactly what is transpiring with their child’s education and to understand that there is always an open door of communication, from the frontline office staff and teachers at the local school level, to the principal – right up to the executive office, should that be necessary.

As a Catholic school system, this core philosophy is extended to all partners of the TCDSB, including parishes and members of the community.

Beginning with the 2015-16 school year, the TCDSB is embarking on a three-year pastoral plan that focuses on harmonizing the different strengths of the school board by bringing together three key community elements: the family, the school and the parish.

“We are celebrating that harmony among the three partners with our pastoral plan and recognizing that our success depends on that bond—speaking together with one voice,” says Gauthier. “At the crux of it all is the quality of teaching within the classrooms as a key driver of student success.”

“We make sure that we provide the best professional development possible for our teachers,” Gauthier emphasizes. “We’re moving both out of necessity and philosophy away from a heavily centralized model to a more decentralized model where the teacher, the principal and the local superintendent are in a position to determine what the teacher needs from the perspective of professional development.”

In what is a dedicated agenda to provide the best educational experience for all of its students, the TCDSB always aims to customize its efforts towards the specific needs and requirements of each localized community. This can be a challenge in a large city of close to 3 million people, with diverse regional, economic, cultural and language needs to operate a unified school system that provides a high level of essential services to all jurisdictions.

“We work hard to ensure that every child can build a good relationship with their teacher, their social worker, educational assistant or their child youth support worker,” she says.

Gauthier has spent most of her life within the board she now leads: first as a student, then as a teacher and later in various executive roles. Arriving to the Board as an immigrant student who didn’t speak English, she understands the importance of providing supports and services for newcomers.

This immigrant experience has shaped her perspective as the Director of Education at the TCDSB, in terms of how leaders can make a difference in the lives of people they lead. Gauthier is currently sharpening this concept of “servant leadership” through her reading of a recently published inspirational book about Pope Francis called Why He Leads the Way He Leads. It has provided her with a great deal of motivation and food for thought as she carries out her duties.

“It’s a perfect fit with what I believe is a good style of leadership,” she reflects. “It speaks about a servant type of leadership, ensuring that it’s not about the power or authority but about the service you want to provide to the organization. It’s not a leadership that is embodied by any one person; it’s a leadership that’s shared and spread through all levels of the organization. We are all leaders. We are just doing it from different positions.”

21st Century Learning and Specialty Academic Programs

It is often said that the workplace of tomorrow will quite likely be vastly different than what it is today. The Toronto Catholic District School Board is well aware of the ever-changing dynamics in daily life and is providing swift action and immediate responsibility for addressing the business needs of the future through the education of their students.

“We’ve created a department called 21st Century Learning,” Gauthier reveals. “It’s a temporary department until we are satisfied that the awareness around the skills for the 21st century are really widely spread across the system and fully integrated at all levels of learning.”

The primary focus of the 21st Century Learning department is to ensure that the message is heard loud and clear. While technology is an enabler, education is not just about technology; it’s about the soft skills people that require in order to be successful in the workforce, which includes the ability to work in teams, having flexibility and invoking effective communication standards. It’s blending those integral soft skills with hard skills while living in a rapidly evolving technological era that, if executed correctly, results in the highest standards being attained. But doing things the right way comes with a price.

“There’s never enough money to go around, so the challenge is to ensure that all the gaps are closed through various ends of the city because, being a large urban centre, we have some areas where families are quite affluent and there are other areas where the gap needs to be closed,” Gauthier remarks. “We work with community partners such as the TD Bank, which has provided a number of refurbished computers to needy schools. We continue to explore partnerships with companies like IBM and APPLE for the benefit of our schools.”

The TCDSB currently has a number of exciting innovative programs, including three International Baccalaureate® (IB) Diploma Programme centres in secondary schools. The IB Diploma Programme is designed as an academically challenging and balanced programme of education with final examinations that prepares students, normally aged 16 to 19, for success at university and life beyond. The success has been so overwhelming that these schools regularly turn candidates away.

Meeting this growing demand and improving program access in the central core of the city has been acknowledged by trustees and staff as a priority. Last year, St Mary’s Catholic Secondary School in the heart of one of the most diverse areas adjacent to downtown Toronto was granted IB status. Ongoing expansion of these types of high-demand specialty programs will be embarked upon where financing permits.

“There is also an interest amongst our trustees and within the community to expand our French immersion programs. We have a number of schools that offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses, which are all highly populated,” Gauthier says. “I’ve always been a big supporter of experiential learning which gives our students exposure to practical experience while exploring new pathways.”

Corporate Governance

In order to achieve maximized success in the private sector, the development of effective corporate governance is absolutely essential. Governance structures and principles identify the distribution of rights and responsibilities amongst the various contributors. It is an area that Gauthier believes must be drastically improved upon to take public education to an even greater level.

“We have struggled with governance in the past,” she candidly admits. “Education governance as a whole needs to be revisited. We continue to work very hard to overcome these challenges by providing opportunities for staff and trustees to explore effective models of governance, to receive training in that area, and to take ownership of the governance model.”

The TCDSB has invited Parliamentarians and specialists to support efforts to update bylaws and policies so that they are relevant and meaningful.

Working Together

Gauthier is extremely proud of the TCDSB and the positive contribution that Catholic schools make to the wider community. She is especially quick to praise the excellence and dedication of the entire staff, which has seen standardized test scores improving in some areas, and keeping pace with provincial trends in others.

“We come together as a team and work for the greater good to sustain the organization. We’ve come through a tough financial year but have banded together and are rebuilding and ensuring that we provide the best Catholic education possible,” she says. “I can honestly say that we remain focused on growth, and will continue to work together to address student needs. I’m very proud of the spirituality that I see present in our Board. We are a system that cares deeply about human beings. We want everyone to succeed and will go the distance for that.”

Meanwhile, the TCDSB and its students are constantly involved in a number of community initiatives, including the support of charitable organizations. Community involvement is determined at the local level because it’s different for each community.

“All of our schools engage in fundraising with the agencies they connect with. We do a lot of work with official charitable organizations within the Archdiocese of Toronto such as ShareLife, Development and Peace and our own Angel Foundation for Learning which provides breakfast programs and nutrition breaks for students. Our students also act independently when they see a need – for example they raised close to $200,000 in just two weeks for Typhoon Haiyan relief to a devastated Philippines. We are active from the point of view of student involvement. Politically and policy wise we have a social justice committee that is near and dear to the hearts of the trustees,” Gauthier says.

“I personally like to get involved and go to a lot of functions because I think it’s critical to provide that presence. It’s not me personally but what the role of the directorship says about the Board. I’m out there representing the Board, not Angela Gauthier.”

It’s an exciting and busy time for the Toronto Catholic District School Board, where innovative ideas and opportunities continue to be explored, all in the name of providing the best possible Catholic education for students. Gauthier has a clear vision for the next three to five years.

“The first thing that comes to mind is to have the Board in a solid, balanced financial position so that plans can be made into the future,” she says. “Secondly, I would like to see a more equitable distribution of the most current technologies and close the gap between what some teachers and students have to work with. Thirdly, I’d like to see a good, functioning governance model. Working with politicians is exciting and challenging. I want to break down the barriers between us and them – the bureaucrats and the politicians.”

Before retiring, Gauthier would also love to see the implementation of an exit survey of the TCDSB’s graduates to engage them in a conversation as to where improvements and enhancements can be made, with the focus remaining on student achievement and well-beings. After all, it is today’s students who are the leaders of tomorrow, spearheading the success of their communities through divine faith, hope and love.