In the Principal's Office at Etobicoke School of the Arts

Posted by Jen McNeely, September 07, 2016
ESA Principal x The Drake

For our Lunch + Learn series I have the privilege of meeting with some of our city's creative visionaries at Drake One Fifty. Past subjects have included Luminato's Jörn Weisbrodt, National Ballet's Greta Hodgkinson, Canadian Opera Company's Alexander Neef, and AGO's Christy Thompson.

But because it's September (and the first week back to school) I decided to swap my usual downtown tête-à-tête for a noon appointment in the principal's office at Etobicoke School of the Arts, two weeks before class started. I asked the Drake Cafe to pack an ideal school lunch in a picnic basket (chopped kale salad, bagel with cream cheese, fruit cup, and a chocolate chip cookie) and met with Rob Mackinnon, principal of the arts high school.

ESA Principal x The Drake

Principal Mackinnon spends most of his time working out administrative kinks and solving problems that typically arise for high school students, staff and parents alike. He's also a captain steering Toronto's next generation of artists and has a critical role in shaping the future of our cultural landscape.

Rob explains to me that at any high school, the first day of school is exciting, daunting, and stressful, but at Etobicoke, it comes with a very particular set of challenges: "We have kids from about fifty different schools that come here in grade nine," he says, and explains that their students commute from as far as Pickering, Guelph, and Lake Simcoe. With 1000 students auditioning for approximately 250 spots, every desk at ESA is taken by a student who wants to be there.

ESA Principal x The Drake

The kids who have grown up surrounded by art may have a better chance of getting accepted to ESA (or at least they’ll grow up to appreciate and value the arts). "Expose your kids to art,” says Rob. “Whether it's the AGO, galleries on Queen Street, going to the theatre or going to musical live performances." Not only is this a philosophy that ESA encourages, but it's also an initiative they spearhead by taking their dance students to elementary schools and performing for kids in grades three, four and five. "If it's only in grade eight that they first see a performance, it's a bit too late. For an audition-based school, a kid who only realizes they love dance in grade eight and then goes to audition the next year may be less likely to get in.”

Once the challenge of getting in is complete, students now face the difficulty of fitting in; week one at ESA is all about introducing the students to one another and getting them comfortable with their new surroundings. "When parents and students are nervous in that first week of school, I remind them that everyone in this building has been hired to serve them."

ESA Principal x The Drake
ESA Principal x The Drake

One of the ways the school will serve students this year is with a brand new auditorium, and at ESA, you can pretty much guarantee there will be performances in every corner of the building (scheduled or not). "We have pianos in alcoves and scattered in the halls. A student will sit down and start playing, and then another will join them to sing," says Rob. "We surround them with art wherever we can. Art should be on the walls and in the hallways. There is always something going on!"

Knowing how cutthroat the industry is, I wonder how ESA prepares its students for graduation or the real-life pressures of working in the arts: "We expose them to a ton of different ways people work in the arts. Whether that's a guest artist coming in or going out to different arts organizations in a purposeful way," says Rob, who helped introduce the Arts Management course two years ago that has been an incredible success.

Rob loves his job for many reasons and learns from the kids constantly. "Every day the students challenge us with new ways of thinking. When I look at their art, sometimes I'm just blown away! There are other ways we're challenged of course," he smiles (perhaps referring to the crop top scandal of 2015). “We're all very proud of the students. There's a lot of pride in being associated with this place; it's a wonderful place.”

ESA Principal x The Drake

After our chat, I wander the hallways at ESA. Brightly painted murals greet me at every turn; bold and provocative work interrupts spaces between empty lockers. There is an All-Gender bathroom, an initiative that was driven by a thoughtful and politically engaged student body. I imagine the shrieks and chatter that will soon reverberate off every square foot. By now, on the first day back at school, I can only assume that dozens of dramas have already begun. The noises of feet stomping up the stairwell and lockers banging shut is the sound of our future generation of vibrant culture; fuelled by hormones, passion, curiosity and hungry minds. Oh, what adventure and beauty await.

Posted in: Community

Tags: back to school  community  drake art  education  etobicoke school of the arts