Classroom to Community Connections: The Community Partnerships Programme Up Close

Classroom to Community Connections: The Community Partnerships Programme Up Close

Design thinking. Orthopedic surgery. Financial literacy. Business ethics. Neural-visual optometry. Legal research. Cardiovascular medicine.
Architecture. Robotics. Artificial Intelligence.

It may sound like a laundry list of course offerings at a post-secondary institution or buzzwords for key industries shaping the jobs of tomorrow.

In fact, these are among the topics that more than 460 St. Michael’s College School students and 35 staff members across all grades, have had an opportunity to delve into, learn about through a different lens and experience first-hand because of Community Partnerships --- an SMCS programme introduced just over a year ago.

Architectural Tour with NORR Architects for St. Michael's College School students - March 2018

“We are letting a child who thinks they want to be a doctor the opportunity to explore for example, the research side, the technical end or whatever else in the medical field. They might be interested in those areas and not know jobs in that specialty exist,” says John Walsh ’73, Head, Community Partnerships, St. Michael’s College School (SMCS).

The concept behind Community Partnerships was a year in the making, before it was formally introduced in the 2017-18 academic year.

Much of the impetus for the programme is to offer ‘a classroom to world connection’.


Jennifer Abbott is an advocate for this 21st Century approach to learning. 

“Having experiential learning within school has allowed Liam to confirm that pursuing a career in film is possible,” says the mother of two, including son Liam, a Grade 12 SMCS student. “It’s not necessarily a traditional career path for most students. These experiences have allowed Liam to make connections in the community and build a portfolio that he can use in university applications. Further to that, Liam finds these experiences most enjoyable and fun, they give him pride and build his confidence,” she says.

An initiative involving North York General Hospital (NYGH) and Grade 12 students is one example.

Liam Abbott, a Grade 12 student, during filming of an orthopaedic surgery procedure at North York General Hospital in Toronto - November 2017 

The students were invited to experience a day in the life of a leading orthopaedic surgeon at NYGH in January 2018.  A group of 40 students watched a preparatory video of Dr. Robert Brock, OSM ’65 at work.

Producing that video involved filming three knee replacement surgeries, interviewing the patient and doctor prior to the operation, planning filming in a highly-sterile operating room environment, and editing it to produce a finished piece that would educate and engage teenage boys about the subject. The video was filmed, edited, and produced by Grade 11 Media Arts student, Liam Abbott. 

“My favourite part of working with Dr. Brock was being able to see what actually happens behind the scenes at a hospital,” says Liam. “What most people don't really realize is that even though Dr. Brock is a surgeon, most of his time working does not consist of performing surgeries. When I was at North York General Hospital for a whole day with Dr. Brock, the morning consisted of meetings, and talking with patients, followed by the four surgeries in the afternoon, and then after, all of the paper work that accompanies the surgeries. When you put it in perspective really, he only spends about 20% of his work days performing surgeries. There is a lot more that goes into his job,” says Liam, who is involved in more than a dozen different co-curricular clubs and activities at SMCS.

His mother adds, “The experiential learning opportunities that Liam has been provided are the icing on the cake and have been absolutely invaluable. Liam is learning and while he’s applying to universities these have become a critical part of the required portfolio that he needs to submit,” she says. 

Orthopedic Surgery study with Dr. Robert Brock at North York General Hospital in Toronto - November 2017


Led by Mr. Walsh, a former science teacher at SMCS for 26 years, current co-ordinator of Clubs and Activities and Christmas in the Courtyard, as well as a coach of the U14 Hockey team, the overarching goal of Community Partnerships is to ‘foster external relationships to generate opportunities that enhance student learning,’ as outlined on the website.” Mentorship, leadership, experiential learning, and service are key cogs within the Community Partnerships wheel.

Barack Obama presentation at the Toronto Convention Centre - September 2017

The objective is to align an element of the curriculum or course content to a relevant out-of-classroom practical learning opportunity and then map it to an interested potential ‘community partner’ (individual or organization). 

To date, SMCS Community Partnerships initiatives have included: tours or external visits, guest speaker lectures, workshops, Skype question & answer sessions or increasingly, a formally designed practicum that includes off-site learning sessions over several months culminating in a student-led project or presentation that is evaluated.

Visit to Toronto City Hall Council chambers in Toronto - January 2018


Opening the window on what it’s like to work at a legal firm is part of the thrust of a Law Practicum programme, one of several new Community Partnerships initiatives underway this academic year.

Grade 12 Law students participate in a Law Practicum at Gowling WLG - September 2018 

“Eight, Grade 12 Law students have been afforded the opportunity to receive six sessions at Gowling WLG law firm, being treated like and held to the same expectations as a first or second year articling student,” says Kevin Shaughnessy ’00, History and Law teacher, whose students are part of this practicum.

Each of the six sessions is themed and led by a lawyer, some of whom are SMCS alumni. Topics include: legal research, client interviews and meetings, legal writing and factum writing. The year-long practicum will culminate with a visit to the Parliament of Canada and the Supreme Court of Canada in the spring.

“Based on word of mouth and a growing reputation, it is hopeful that this experience could expand to all Grade 12 Law students, to fall in line with the Deep Learning initiative,” says Mr. Shaughnessy.

Grade 12 Law students participate in a Law Practicum at Gowling WLG - September 2018  


One of the key features in the SMCS Community Partnerships programme is having a professional educator at the helm. 

“It has to be led by a teacher because it has to connect to course work and the curriculum to make it relevant, otherwise it is a field trip,” says Mr. Walsh. 

Caring and Sharing Breakfast at the Liberty Grand in Toronto - November 2017

So far Community Partnerships has facilitated more than 25 experiential learning opportunities and counting in the year that it has existed. The goal is to keep growing that number through quality learning opportunities.

“Given the number of colleges and universities making experiential learning an important component of their programme it is becoming more apparent that we need to optimize our students’ chance of success,” adds Mr. Walsh.

“By providing them with the opportunity to integrate theory with practical experience, we are going to increase student engagement and better prepare our students for their post-secondary education and the interconnected world they live in,” he says.

For Jennifer Abbott, the approach is a natural fit. “I have always believed that education starts in the classroom and doesn’t end there.”