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Mayor Rob Ford's Don Bosco Eagles defeated the Northern Red Knights 31-0 in the Metro Bowl Qualifier played at Birchmount Stadium in Toronto. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Mayor Rob Ford's Don Bosco Eagles defeated the Northern Red Knights 31-0 in the Metro Bowl Qualifier played at Birchmount Stadium in Toronto. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Do Rob Ford’s Don Bosco students need saving? It’s complicated Add to ...

When the Don Bosco Eagles won a Metrobowl qualifying match this week, photographers rushed onto the field and reporters from major news outlets breathlessly tweeted about the squad’s 31-0 victory.

Their interest in the game had nothing to do with high-school football or Don Bosco Catholic Secondary School and everything to do with the man who coaches the Eagles, Rob Ford. (The mayor, who would have been defending himself in a $6-million libel trial on Thursday if not for his coaching commitment, looked ecstatic until someone dumped a jug of Gatorade on his head.)

The spotlight that follows Mr. Ford has fallen on Don Bosco a lot this autumn, and it has not always cast a flattering glow on the Etobicoke school, its students or their parents.

Mr. Ford and his councillor brother, in their zeal to defend the mayor’s devotion to coaching, have sometimes portrayed Don Bosco and its team as full of troubled youth with scant support at home. It is the place where, according to Councillor Doug Ford, his brother does more than anyone else in the city to “mentor black youth”; a place where players “look up in the stands and they don’t see a father, they don’t see a mother, they see Rob Ford standing there and supporting them,” as Doug said on the brothers’ radio show in September.

But this isn’t quite the school the Fords have made it out to be.

The high school at 2 St. Andrews Boulevard, near the corner of Islington Avenue and Dixon Road, is in the midst of a turnaround. And conversations with students and parents suggest the transformation has little to do with football victories and much to do with dedicated staff and the arrival four years ago of an energetic new principal.

Literacy scores are up. More students are on track to graduate. Suspension rates have plummeted by 48 per cent since 2008-2009. Don Bosco, part of the Catholic school board, recently added a program allowing ambitious students to earn university credits and another in “global education” that the principal compares to a private school offering.

The transformation is physical too: The board has doled out more than $1.1-million to renovate the gym and upper floors.

That does not include the $75,000 Mr. Ford, with city council’s support, secured from a developer to fix up the locker room.

All the good news does not mean Don Bosco is problem-free. Math scores have fallen and, despite positive strides, the school’s academic performance still lags behind the board and provincial averages. Only a handful of Don Bosco parents came to cheer on the Eagles when they won the Catholic league championship Nov. 8, but as those who turned up that day pointed out, the game was at 2 p.m. on a weekday, when most people work.

There are, in other words, shades of grey here – and the more encouraging end of the spectrum may not always be visible from Coach Ford’s vantage point on the sidelines.

“I’m here every day. He [Mr. Ford] is not here every day,” said Deanna Smith, a volunteer hall monitor whose daughter, Keanna, 15, and son, Keeyan, 17, attend Don Bosco. “The school is a very excellent school. The students are great. You hear a lot of bad things, but it’s not true.”

Ms. Smith, toting a walkie-talkie, watched on a recent Wednesday as a new, young drama teacher led a laughing class of budding thespians through exercises on the auditorium stage.

Earlier that day, students sat quietly in the same auditorium while an 87-year-old Second World War veteran spoke and took questions for nearly an hour. Even earlier, the school hosted an 8 a.m. awards breakfast to applaud its most successful students.

Asked if the school has trouble persuading parents to participate, Principal Ugo Rossi replied: “My response to that is we had 200 some-odd parents here this morning celebrating the wonderful achievements our students are having.”

Nicholas Kharouba, 17, Cindy Aramburo, 16, and Antonino Calarco, 16, are three such high-achieving Don Bosco students.

Mr. Rossi invited the articulate trio into his office to talk about Don Bosco. They praised its energetic teachers, its small and tight-knit student body – the school has just under 600 students – and its academic offerings.

They also shrugged off the negative attention that Mayor Ford’s antics have brought to the school.

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