In the 103 years since Toronto’s Secord Elementary School first opened its doors, students had borne witness to a century’s worth of news, but none had ever seen anything like what unfolded at Esther Shiner Stadium on the last Monday of October.
They had never seen their school win a team sports championship.
Principal George Vlahos rented four buses to ferry 160 children from their east-end school to watch 11 of their Grade 5 peers compete for the city’s touch football title on Oct. 29. Their team, comprised of four girls and seven boys, had been pulled together from informal practices held almost every day before morning bell.
They were down 20-8 at halftime, against an all-boys team from Keele Street Public School. Secord Elementary, which is considered one of the most economically-challenged schools in the city, staged a fierce rally in the second half – forcing overtime, and then winning the game.
“This is big,” said Mr. Vlahos. “For this school, the victory means a lot.”
There are no elite sports camps or high-level athletic organizations that are run out of the school, he said, adding he was unaware of any that operated with his students around the neighbourhood.
“The student talent at Secord is raw,” Mr. Vlahos said, “and the skills developed are coming, for the most part, from our school’s [physical education] program and amazing coaching.”
Secord has been designated a model school by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), which means that it is one of 150 in the city facing the most challenges, with a large number of students living in poverty, and it receives additional funds from the board so its students could tap into equitable learning opportunities.
Jason Kuuter, one of the school’s physical education teachers, acknowledged those challenges, and has tried to provide opportunities to his students that they would not otherwise have access to.
The morning football games, in the 10 minutes of schoolyard supervision time before the bell rings, has kids from younger grades spilling onto the field and competing against the Grade 5 students. Mr. Kuuter said it gives kids a chance to informally participate in a sport and also gets them energized for school. It was also how he selected players for the touch football team; there were no tryouts.
“Everyone gets into it and spreads the ball around. That really formed the basis of why our team did so well,” he said.
Some of the teams Secord played against and beat may have had personalized jerseys, unlike Secord’s yellow jerseys with numbers on the front and back, or even sports gloves. But Mr. Kuuter and the kids were not bothered.
“Our athletic ability was our advantage, and our ability to persevere. They [the team] were down and they made it. It was incredible,” he said. “I’ve been coaching for years. I’ve never been to the city final.” Secord beat out all the all-boys teams to win the championship.
George Kourtis, the TDSB’s program co-ordinator for health and physical education, said the district encourages athletic participation, which contributes to student well-being and ultimately success in the classroom. “Secord’s victory has brought success and accolades on the field, as well as contributing to positives effects in the classrooms and hallways of their school,” he said.
This week, there was still a palpable buzz of excitement in the school. Grade 5 student Eimaad Owais said his peers have been congratulating him as he walks down the school hallways.
Eimaad came from Pakistan with his family when he was 2. He has played other sports, including cricket and basketball, for Secord, but has never participated in an organized team outside of the school.
“It felt really good getting the first championship for our school,” said Eimaad, 10. “It was really good because I don’t think we would have won if we didn’t have supporters on our side.”
Destanee Vautour said she was surprised to be selected for the team. “I started practising in the morning and getting better and better. It felt good to win the championship,” she said.
Mr. Kuuter said that when he travelled for extracurricular sports, he sometimes saw school gymnasiums lined with red, blue and green pennants, all indicating school successes and victories in sports.
The gym at Secord has seven, mainly for soccer, basketball and cricket teams participating in the conference finals. There’s now a green one that reads “City Champions.”
“This is an incredible achievement for the kids, for the school and for the community," Mr. Kuuter said.