Inside a university prep school students don’t want to leave

How one school’s warm environment elicits enthusiasm for learning

Metro Prep entrance
(Andrea Freedman/Schools)

Recently, I spent some time at Metropolitan Preparatory Academy (“Metro Prep”), an independent, private, co-ed university prep school for Grades 7 to 12 near the Don Valley and Eglinton Avenue East — talking to teachers and students and seeing the school in action.

It quickly became clear to me what sets the school apart.

At Metro Prep, classes have no more than 15 students. MacKenzie Cleveland, head of international admissions, says in a larger class students “don’t get enough one-on-one time with teachers.”

Besides their extensive arts curriculum, Metro Prep also has a strong sports program, with basketball being the main sport. Some of their students have received basketball scholarships and several have gone on to varsity teams.

But, as marketing manager Cassandra Engineer points out, “Academics come first in everything we do. As a university prep that is our main focus.”

After graduation, nine-nine percent of Metro Prep students continue on to university.

Staff members and students are on a first-name basis, which guidance counsellor Sue Dhillon says “sets a tone for a closer relationship,” and helps kids “feel independent and become comfortable with who they are.”

At the end of the school day, kids “don’t want to leave.” Even with the wide variety of extracurricular activities and clubs available, the library is packed after school.

Metro Prep music room
Vice-principal Ryan Seeley, music and theatre teacher, works with students. (Andrea Freedman/Schools)

Teachers have an open-door policy, encouraging students to congregate around different teachers and areas throughout the school. The vibe in school is a “warm environment” which makes kids happy to be here. Many alumni keep in touch with teachers and, as leadership is encouraged, some return to mentor new students.

The principal, Wayne McKelvey (who is also referred to by his first name), founded Metro Prep in 1982. It is not uncommon to see up to 20 kids at a time just hanging out in his comfortable book-lined office, complete with cozy leather couches.

Imagine — a school where students are actually happy to be called to the principal’s office.

Unlike some other private schools, Metro Prep students are not required to wear a uniform. This goes along with the relaxed atmosphere, which Engineer says “allows students to express themselves.”

Students of Metro Prep take pride in their school and what it stands for. Grade eleven student Christian DeMaria said, “I think this school — I think it is really the way things should be. It was really when I came to this school that I felt the importance of it.”

This is in large part due to the efforts of McKelvey and other staff members, DeMaria says. Since he started attending Metro Prep in Grade 7, teachers have helped him bring up his grades and build confidence.

“I’m a really big music guy and theatre. Being here has taken it to a whole new level for me.”

He has formed many close friendships at Metro Prep. “I have a lot of good friends here but I don’t only see them as friends, I see them as family.”

Although students at Metro Prep also see the teachers as friends, “we still have that respect mindset” because they have a genuine desire to maintain good relationships with teachers and faculty, DeMaria says.

“Everyone is free to be themselves,” which is probably a big part of the reason why there have only been three or four fights between students since the school was opened 35 years ago. “I honestly can’t remember any time I’ve felt bullied at this school.”

New arts program

Beginning in 2018, an exciting new arts program called SMITH will be coming to Metro Prep, thanks to vice-principal Ryan Seeley, teacher and founder of SMITH.

Although SMITH, which stands for School of Music, Integrated Arts, Theatre and Humanities, will be best suited for students with strong interests in the arts and integrated arts, Seeley, who has a background as a professional actor, director and musician, says its intention is “not to exclude someone who might be interested in maths or sciences.”

Seeley has worked at Metro Prep for seventeen years. When he began his teaching career, he made it a practice to always treat his students like professionals. Lighting and other theatre professionals are brought in when the school puts on a play at its Black Box theatre, such as last spring’s production of Of Mice and Men.

“Our kids are amazing!” Seeley said. Whether they are interested in acting or being part of the crew, students in his theatre classes can work on sets or express their talents as writers, and gain practical knowledge as well as lots of theory. As a result of having the opportunity to work with professionals, Engineer said the “experience here for the student is a lot more realistic and indicative of the real world.”

Seeley has envisioned SMITH for fifteen years. Now, it is “finally starting to happen.” He got the name for the program from a combination of things that were near and dear to his heart.

Besides his mom’s last name being Smith, “Music has been a huge part of [his] life.” In high school, he formed a band covering his favorite band – the Smiths!

His main objective for SMITH is “to offer very disciplined training in the arts as well as a substantial education” to youths wanting a chance to more deeply explore their creative talents, especially since music and arts programs are being cut in Ontario. While there is a cost to enroll in Metro Prep, for those who are not able to afford it, Seeley has proposed offering scholarships “instead of making it an elite” school.

“If you want your son or daughter to have their education enriched by a serious arts program, this is the place.” His main goal is not making people famous, but rather to give them a more well-rounded education and help them be “better connected to humanity.”

That being said, he says “If you’re the next Drake or Neil Young, come on by!”

Metro Prep theatre
Metro Prep’s production of Of Mice and Men last spring is an example of theatre and the arts that has drawn student involvement. (Photo courtesy Metro Prep)

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