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Board Year-end Message June 2020

Dear MA Families,

Greetings everyone. It has been quite a year for the Board of Governors. The year began in a very quiet manner. Enrollment was solid and events unfolded as they were expected to. We were able to continue to tidy up some of our governance rules and models, and probably the biggest issue we had was to replace our Founding Member Governor, Sarah Harding.  Sarah’s impact on the school and board are hard to overstate. She has been with the Board since its creation and was an outstanding contributor each and every year. Trained in law and based in Chicago, she brought a wealth of experience with independent schools to the Board — both from her family connection and educating her own children who attended Chiaravalle Montessori in Evanston; she has also sat on numerous Boards in the city. I thank Sarah for her dedication over the years and her willingness to always contribute in a thoughtful manner. Her replacement in this key link to our past is Mark Whitley, who brings outstanding board credentials as well as being the spouse of the school’s last Executive Director, Margaret. What began as a routine year for us with really no huge issues to tackle other than the planning for our last remaining large capital project — the updating of our Elementary location at 711 Waterloo St. — turned on its head in March.

Since then, the Board has met more times than normal to deal with the impacts of Covid-19.  The Board has an outstanding group of Governors and we are  fortunate that our predecessors were equally strong as the school’s “business side” was well taken care of over the years.  As a result, we were able to respond to the crisis in a manner that no other Montessori school in the city did, and only a few private schools in the province were able to do. Most closed their doors, sent everyone home and lost their staff and the year. We did not. The school mobilized itself to try and minimize the impacts on our programs and our students. 

Our community has many parts but two absolutely key ones are our teachers and our families. We were able to keep all of our teachers working since March. Like many of us, they were forced to become digitally competent and “Zoomies” in order to continue to provide a meaningful learning experience for the students. It is not the same as a classroom environment, but I do know as a result of their willingness to try a new way to engage the students online, the school provided a structure for the children. Sure, there were varying degrees of success with the approach and wasn’t the same as school for them. However, the school offered more consistency and value to the students than many schools I have heard of.  I know, first-hand, the value of it for my two at home; the at-home learning provided by the teachers has been able to prevent  them from turning feral!  So, a huge thank you to all of the teachers … many of whom supported our children with their own home stressors. 

Secondly, a huge thank you has to be given to our families. This pandemic has been tough on so many people and in so many ways. The support of our families has been outstanding, and we are grateful for it. Your support is the only way the school can continue to be a viable choice.  Some of our parents even refused refunds and instead turned the refund around as a charitable donation. Amazing!

Having written that, we still face lots of uncertainty. There is much that we do not know and none of us can predict the future; as a result, the Board has created a special committee to try and solve the riddle posed by those two facts. It will determine what the “new normal” impacts might be for the school and how we can handle them. The school received a memo yesterday from the Ministry of Education, Private Schools Unit, that independent schools will be able to risk-manage their own situations in the fall, at this time. I encourage you to read the COVID-19 Recommendations for School Reopening (PDF) created by an independent panel from Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital. The committee is tasked with completing its work by our August Board retreat.

Finally, one of the things we do know is that we will be here next year. Our enrollment numbers are lower than we normally would like and the school has taken some tough decisions to mitigate the reduced revenue. Nonetheless, we will operate with a slight deficit. However, our cash flows are excellent and we will be in a good cash position now and throughout the year.  

I’ll conclude on a personal, optimistic note. Our school and its entire community has proven its agility and resilience through these past months. It has been a tremendous learning and growth experience for all of us. We will adapt and provide a winning formula no matter how the future school scenarios are driven. In addition, there are  many Montessori students and families  outside of our school  who were left without support from their own schools and might  now be looking for an alternative.  We would happily welcome them where space is available to help grow our enrolment further.

Wishing you a happy and healthy summer. 

Kevin Higgins, President Montessori Academy Board of Governors

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