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Urban Squash Toronto Report

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

The sun was out with not a cloud in the sky. It was a great summer afternoon to spend outside but today a group of kids in Toronto decided to spend their day indoors at the National Squash Academy.  I was thoroughly impressed with the individuals at the Urban Squash Toronto (UST) program consisting of Executive Director, Shivani Ruparell, Squash Director, Jamie Nichols, Education Director, Jenice, and Team Builder, Roy.  It was fantastic to experience one summer day in the lives of inner-city kids attending Toronto’s most prestigious squash facility, but more importantly, a center of excellence and learning.

Entrance to the National Squash Academy at Downsview Park, Toronto, Canada.

As you enter the NSA, you are immediately greeted with a friendly face, the squeaking of sneakers and the pounding of squash balls against the wall.  Urban Squash Toronto has a nice little niche (classroom) right beside the dual row of squash courts.

Urban Squash Toronto Classroom.  UST has their own special classroom setup near the entrance of the National Squash Academy.

Students inside participating in the academic portion of their day. They spend at least 1 hour performing educational activities tailored to their abilities.

Inside the classroom with Squash Director Jamie Nichols (Red shirt). Academics consisted of language, vocabulary, mathematics, English, and a variety of other subjects.  The educational framework is provided by Oxford Learning Center.  Each student is assessed and their learning is individualized to their current abilities.

The view from the classroom inspires and gets students to look out onto the courts.  Squash courts are lining the walls on both sides as you walk out of the classroom.  The students can’t wait to finish their academic work so they can go on to play some squash.  Over the four hours spent at UST 3 of those were dedicated to team building and academics with one hour for squash.

Left to Right: Jenice (Education Director of UST), Shivani (Executive Director of UST), Robert (Squash Link), Roy (Team Builder of UST)

Academic Director – Jenice

Background: Teacher from Jamaica teaching inner-city children

  • Assesses each student (1.5-2 hour process) at the very beginning
  • Checks on students’ regular home school work (every other week)
  • Visits students’ home school and works with teachers and guidance counselors
  • Prefers to do physical activities / team building exercises first to get the students tired so they can actually sit and do work!
  • Conducts parent-teacher interviews – meet parents at community centres (aim is to do 1 parent-teacher interview per month or at least once a quarter)
  • Helps to organize parties/dinners where parents are invited to come join (transportation is provided for parents to help ease their burden)
  • The hardest part about my job: “Tailoring each students’ academic session. Some days the students outperform themselves.  On other days, they just need a re-adjustment of their assignments”

Team Building Director – Roy

Background: Public Health, International Non-Profit experience

  • Corporate team building exercises
  • Building confidence and self-esteem
  • Opening and closing “ceremony” acknowledging others for good things they have done during the session
  • Motivational speakers to visit
  • Hardest part about the job: “I just started 3 weeks ago so I’ve been thrown right into it.  The hardest part has been to try and figure out how to fit all the activities into a day!”

Squash Director – Jamie

Background: Junior Squash Coach

  • Establish Gold, Silver, Bronze rankings for each student
  • These rankings allow for selection to squash tournaments
  • Students in grade 6 are encouraged to spend more time with Jamie to learn the proper technique/skills
  • Hardest part about the job: “Not seeing the students. Some students just can’t make it to the courts because of other demands.  Babysitting and entering high school are major factors to the time commitment of students

My interview questions with the various staff members (Shivani, Jenice, Roy, and others)

What are your sources of funding?

  • All sources are privately funded
  • Biggest costs are 1) facilities, 2) transportation, 3) food

How do you recruit and retain mentors and coaches?

  • Oxford learning centre provides the basics in terms of a curriculum syllabus
  • York University students (concurrent education programs have Urban Squash Toronto as a place to spend part of their placement)
  • Recently hired an education director and team building director

What are other activities/events do you carry out with the kids other than squash?

  • National Squash Academy is located in Downsview Park which houses many other sporting facilities and academies
  • Very convenient to coordinate with soccer, volleyball, track and field, etc
  • Shivani and Roy took the kids to the Pan-American games a few weeks ago to visit and watch professionals play squash
  • Christmas dinner / potlucks (includes parents)

How do you get your kids out of regular school to join your program?

  • Keeping great relationships with the local schools/principals
  • Logistics
    • Pick up kids in middle school (grades 6-8) and return them by bus
    • High school students make their own way to the NSA and get bused back

What factors are you looking for when making your student selection?

  • Hard work
  • Time commitment
  • No athletic / squash ability is considered
  • Students in the summer programs are allowed to continue on in the fall and join the regular group
  • Eventually students will self-select (attendance is expected to be 90% or greater to stay in the program)

What do you feel are your markers for success?

  • One letter grade improvement by the end of the year
  • Showing consistent effort throughout the program
  • High attendance rates (90-95%+)
  • The schools/area targeted by Urban Squash Toronto have high school graduation rates of <50%
  • Maintenance of scholarships (some individuals have been selected)

Other notes/observations on the summer programme (distinct from the normal school programme during the fall-spring)

  • Recruitment happens in the schools (Shivani and Jamie visit the schools and exhibit how to play squash)
  • Start recruiting at grade 6 (11 years old) and follow through to high school graduation (Leaving Cert)
  • Free week at Sheridan college (spent a week learning from programs in a college level institution, i.e. computing, robotics, etc)
  • 1 hour of academics (30 mins of math/English, etc)
  • 5 hours of squash (done at the end and only if the academic and team builder agrees to allow the kids to proceed dependent on behavior, etc)
  • Give-back volunteer program (kids pick 2/5 possible community volunteering opportunities)
  • Snacks/water/juice provided in the classroom and after activities
  • Classroom is pretty much identical to your normal classroom with dictionaries, stationaries, books, supplies

Updates from the UST Board

Urban Squash Toronto Report compiled by yours truly, Robert Ta

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