In a high-ceilinged classroom with large windows framed by drab yellow curtains, Filip Geaman is holding forth on the topic du jour: Blood diamonds in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He lectures the class about the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, an international initiative designed to make the trade in uncut diamonds illegal. They are sold by rebel movements in places like the DRC, which Filip helpfully points out on a map in his PowerPoint presentation. "Unfortunately, the Kimberley Process is weak and rarely enforced," he says, shaking his head wearily. "The United Nations could do more."
Filip is not the teacher of this Grade 9 civics class. He is a 14-year-old student. His classmates don't fidget or twitter, but listen attentively and ask probing questions.
Here at the University of Toronto Schools (UTS), brainiacs rule. Self-deprecating humour is in. So are art and poetry, reciting pi to the 60th digit and winning international chemistry Olympiads.
Famous for its academically gifted students, enriched curriculum and talented teachers, the school is gearing up for its centennial. There is much to celebrate. UTS has successfully made the transition from a WASP all-boys institution in the 1960s to a co-ed place that more than reflects Toronto's demographic reality, with a high number of Chinese and South Asian students, though not enough from Africa and the Caribbean.
Almost every graduate goes on to university. Ninety-five per cent are Ontario scholars and 10 per cent attend prestigious U.S. schools, including many Ivy Leagues. The alumni roster reads like the Canadian Who's Who. It includes two Nobel laureates, leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservative party John Tory, philanthropist and businessman Jim Fleck, political pundit David Frum, diplomat Chris Alexander, who opened Canada's first mission in Afghanistan, writers Lydia Millet, Kate Fillion and Catherine Bush, and law professor Sujit Chowdhury, one of the school's 22 Rhodes Scholars. A spot in Grade 7 is still so coveted that some families send their children for special tutoring in the hopes of acing the exam.
And yet, UTS is also at a crossroads. It has had to sever official ties with its patron, the University of Toronto, following the university's recent decision, made because of increasing deficits, to stop funding a portion of the school's budget. The province pulled its share of funding back in 1993 under the Rae government.
The school must become self-sufficient by 2010. That will mean higher fees (annual tuition is $15,900), increasing the challenge of raising enough money so the school can continue to disperse bursaries to 20 per cent of its 650 students - a much higher ratio than most private schools.
Then there's the question of the gracious red-brick heritage building at the corner of Bloor Street and Spadina Avenue that has housed the school since 1910. U of T owns the building, which is desperately in need of a facelift, and it's unclear how long the school will be welcome here. Principal Michaele Robertson, a born optimist, is hopeful U of T will allow the school to keep the building past 2021, the year it officially reverts to the university. The alumni association also plans to launch a capital campaign next year for a renovation.
UTS knows it must continue to compete with other gifted programs in the Greater Toronto Area's public and separate school systems, as well as with other private institutions, for the smartest 11-year-olds.
"The UTS brand is extremely strong and will survive," says Ms. Robertson.
"The students tend to be good in at least two disparate fields. They almost take care of themselves," says Ms. Robertson, who came here in 2006 from Upper Canada College, where she was head of the upper school.
"But I do worry about the old building, about negotiating with the university and keeping up the endowments."
The relationship with U of T, which will maintain an affiliation with the school, is a distinguishing feature of the UTS experience.
Students are allowed to use Robarts and other libraries on campus.
Teacher candidates from Ontario Institute for Studies in Education do their practicums here, and also share the physical space. The school is accessible by subway, an important thing for the many students who commute from the 905 area.
"There are 100 years of history here, and a name and a big connection to the physical place for the alumni," says Ms. Robertson. All the memories stored in this school are important to alumni, who take a very active role in fundraising, and who also help interview applicants.
"We don't view it as a maintenance project, but as a visioning one," says Prof. Chowdhury, a 1988 graduate who sits on the UTS board of directors. "We have to create a space for more collaborative learning and group projects. We need electronic classrooms."
One new outreach initiative UTS is launching is the Global Ideas Institute, a three-week summer program for non-UTS students that will offer courses on global health, environmental challenges and how to better deliver aid to the developing world. UTS students will also benefit, as this curriculum will be taught during the school year as well.
In 2007, the school also changed its entrance exam, replacing multiple-choice questions with the Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT). The top 100 boys and 100 girls are asked back for an interview, and 110 are selected. Most score within the 88th percentile of all who write the test in North America.
UTS makes public the lowest SSAT score of successful applicants, which helps families decide whether their child should even bother sitting the exam. This has led to a drop in applicants to about 400, from a high of 1,000.
But Ms. Robertson sees this as a positive, saying almost all students who are offered a place accept. Attrition is almost nil.
Back in the civics class, Alisa Ugodnikov, a pixie-faced brunette in a striped hoodie, is talking about the 200,000 stateless people in Brunei Darussalam.
They will never be able to become citizens, legally own property or marry, even if they were born there, she says, urging her classmates to lobby the United Nations for change.
After class, teacher Vince Dannetta talks about the safe haven UTS provides for students: It normalizes their sharp intelligence. Some would never fit in at a regular public school, their interests too engrossing, their personalities too eccentric.
"When my wife, who teaches at another school, walks into class, she gets mooned. When I walk into class here, the students yell out in chorus 'What time is it? It's history time,' " says Mr. Dannetta.
Student Andres Salgado-Bierman loves the learning environment. "Here, students actually like it. They aren't sucking all the energy out of the room."
Filip, the eloquent lecturer on blood diamonds, says he appreciates the school's rich and diverse array of extra-curricular activities, including Reach for the Top, a national trivia contest, and debating. "People work hard here. It's better than most schools," he says.
Mr. Alexander, the diplomat, says, "UTS is an engine of leadership and innovation. A huge number of my classmates earned doctorates. Many more are accomplished managers, lawyers or medical doctors.
"From among my best friends, one edited Saturday Night [he is now with the New York Times Magazine] another was the prime minister's chief of staff, a third runs the Toronto film festival, a fourth is professor of English literature at the University of Barcelona."
The school screens applicants for empathy, spontaneity and a depth of knowledge,
explains the principal, to ensure it remains a collegial place and doesn't turn into a "sweatbox" of competition. It aims to turn out global citizens focused on the big questions of our times.
"We don't want a bunch of kids who are really self-absorbed. We could graduate a bunch of intelligent criminals," says Ms. Robertson, laughing. "We want to preserve a happy environment and a level of hopefulness."
Memories of UTS
As a student from one of the first co-ed classes, I have fond memories. I peek inside an old classroom, and it looks the same: Hissing radiators, single-paned glass windows, tired tiles. I remember torturing student teachers by writing tests in invisible ink. Sadly, it seems the DOSLNIT (Days of School Left Not Including Today) tradition has died - a number the math geeks used to write in chalk on the top right-hand corner of every classroom. I do notice a bulletin board in the hallway with 189,216,000 on it - the exact number of seconds students will spend in school.
To this day, I count a handful of UTS classmates among my closest friends - and enjoy their company in my book club. We still laugh about the time a local paper proclaimed the school the drug capital of the city. We printed it out on computer paper and hung a banner in the front hall. Any sign of regular teenage excess was viewed as a badge of honour.