'It's sort of ironic that I ended up here," Jim Power says, his enthusiastic principal's voice rising easily above the grunts, whoops and whistles floating into his office from the expansive Upper Canada College sports fields.
It's not just that he's an American leading a storied Canadian institution, or a Catholic who left the headship of the Jesuit-run Georgetown Preparatory School outside Washington, D.C., to assume the leadership of a school once associated with the wealthy Anglican establishment. If you're looking for true irony in a man who presides over what has for 178 years been viewed as Canada's most exclusive school, consider where he's come from: As a young graduate from the College of the Holy Cross, Mr. Power served in the Jesuit volunteer corps, exploring what the religious order's social-justice advocates called "the preferential option for the poor" by teaching in an inner-city Boston parish school.
"That's how I stumbled into education," he says. "I discovered that I really liked working with kids."
Jim Power stopped stumbling long ago. Hired after an international search in 2003, this is the man whose preferential option is now an elite school of 1,140 jacket-and-tied boys (including four of his own five children) where the fees start at $24,000 a year. UCC's Forest Hill campus - where Mr. Power and his wife Mary, who holds a master's degree in public health from Harvard, preside over the stately old principal's house - looks more like an Ivy League college than one of those impoverished urban schools beyond the entrance gates. Sort of ironic, eh?
But only sort of. Because when Mr. Power first came to UCC - which was also his first trip to Canada, poor benighted American that he was - what struck him immediately was how inaccessible the school was to promising students who couldn't pay its forbidding fees. And that is why, as part of Upper Canada's new strategic plan announced last week, the school has pledged to vastly increase its financial-aid package so that fully one-quarter of its students will be subsidized within a decade. (To raise these funds, the school is targeting alumni, parents past and present, and foundations that have shown an interest in promoting inner-city education.)
That's up from just 7 per cent this year, a figure that troubles many UCC parents and personnel who worry that the ancient school is doing an injustice to its well-heeled students by surrounding them with people too much like themselves.
"Our parents are really savvy," says Mr. Power. "They know that it's in their sons' long-term best interests to mix with different kinds of kids. They'll say to me things like, 'My one reservation about sending my kids to UCC is that you're in a bit of a privileged bubble. He'll have a good time here, but will it really prepare him for the future world?' "
The upper-class Canadian boys schools used to be able to present themselves as a microcosm of the adult world, back when Old Boys could look out for each other's interests on Bay Street. Some of those ties linger on, but for the Jesuit-
educated Mr. Power a school like Upper Canada exists to challenge its students' values, not confirm them.
"We've got to broaden our thinking: A place like UCC can't be Sparta, it's got to be Athens. There are lots of different kids with many different kinds of strengths who could benefit from a place like this. But they don't even consider us."
The public image of UCC as a WASP bastion is long outdated, and any reference to it makes college members groan. "We have a good deal of ethnic diversity here," says Mr. Power, a statement that is reinforced by a glance at the classrooms where students are intently composing music on computers, rehearsing a Greek tragedy or recording their voices in a video production of an Al Purdy poem. "The kind of diversity we don't have right now is socioeconomic."
This is where the preferential options have proved a little complicated for UCC and for Mr. Power. Some of the school's existing ethnic diversity has come from its boarders, but the strategic plan that demands greater access for needy Toronto students will also shut down the boarding school, excluding the foreign students who, their Torontonian classmates say, have contributed a broader world view just by their very presence.
This has led to charges in the UCC student newspaper this week that the cultural diversity at the school would actually decline as the student base was expanded with financial aid. "A Torontonian who emigrated from Korea when he was six," wrote the paper's senior editor, Spencer Burger, "is not the same as a Korean citizen living at UCC, and to suggest that is absurd."
If UCC was feeling a financial pinch, suggested Mr. Burger wryly, knowing a hopeless cause when he saw one, there was a better target than the two small student residences: the $17-million sports facility (including two hockey rinks, one Olympic-sized) being built for the school's powerhouse teams with huge alumni support, led by the Eaton family.
It's a typically intricate quandary for a private-school principal, particularly one like Mr. Power, who admits he was opposed to the deluxe $30-million (U.S.) Hanley Center for Athletic Excellence erected at Georgetown Prep shortly after he departed for UCC. But the priests have trained him well. A dedication to competitive sports (and the posh arenas that go with them) is part of a broader educational philosophy the Jesuits called cura personalis - helping the individual student realize his potential.
MIND, BODY, SPIRIT
"It's the mind, body and spirit," says Mr. Power. "There are all kinds of gifts, and some supremely talented boys here may not be good at football but they're good at jazz. Would the world have been a better place if Shakespeare had been a better math student? So you try and help each guy find his passion, go as far as he can, but at the same time help him be well rounded."
And thus, any outbursts from his students over the closing of the residences - which also included a "Protect Our Boarders" sign campaign posted around the school - are to him indicative of the better human qualities a sensitized UCC wants to encourage.
"When I'm talking to the guys about this, I would be distraught if they didn't have this reaction. They're very concerned about their friends. There's a real sense of loss."
And so he talks about the gains. "Toronto is such a diverse place. It's hard to rationalize why you would want to go to Siberia for your students when there are Russian kids right down the road. I'm not saying they're the same kids. But this is such a sensational city, and it's great to take advantage of it."
That's the passion of the convert speaking. Mr. Power admits he knew next to nothing about Canada or Toronto beyond the starting lineup of the Blue Jays (baseball being a lifelong passion for the native Philadelphian) when he accepted the UCC position. "I thought, in effect, that I was moving to Minnesota. It was going to be a little colder and a little to the left."
Even the well-documented history of sexual abuse at the school came as news to him, though it wasn't altogether surprising. "I think almost every school has some problems along these lines," says the man who wrote his doctoral thesis on the moral development of adolescents. "I've taught in seven different schools, and I'm hard pressed to think of any school that didn't have something of a similar nature. Unless we could start an original-sin committee, this is going to be a tough nut to crack."
Not that altering the socioeconomic mix at the school is going to be all that easy. "It will be very important to have the board of governors' complete commitment to accessibility," says Michaele Robertson, a former Head of the Upper School at UCC who is now principal of the merit-based University of Toronto Schools. "I think many faculty members are committed, but they worry that the support mechanisms for the boys who are recruited and their families are not yet in place."
And as well intended as the new policy may be, it's not clear that UCC's makeup will change radically. Michael MacMillan, chairman of the UCC board of governors, says the school will be looking for "smart, enthusiastic kids who like to be challenged a lot, who would want to participate in a wide range of activities inside and outside the classroom." This leaves much room to manoeuvre, and it's not unthinkable that increased financial aid will be used to attract the city's less wealthy scholar-
athletes as much as the inner-city science-fair winners.
Mr. MacMillan makes a point of noting that "some new students will come from neighbourhoods and backgrounds that are distinctly disadvantaged and some will come from middle-class homes that are not all that different except that they don't have nearly enough money to pay the fees."
Notions of class envy don't preoccupy Jim Power. "So we've been blessed - what do we do with that?" is his response to talk of privileged guilt, and his solution is to bring in speakers like the Catholic community-builder Jean Vanier, a charismatic spokesman for the mentally handicapped who will talk on one of Mr. Power's favourite themes, public purpose.
Still, even a serious educator like Mr. Power realizes that the pressures and expectations surrounding a UCC education can sometimes be too much. He was talking recently to his fourth-grade son about what the school calls, rather terrifyingly, his "learning profile."
"I asked him what his biggest weakness was, and he said, 'Dad, I don't think outside the box enough.' I wasn't thinking that way at that age. You're a kid, you should be playing stickball and chewing bubble gum."