Toronto’s high school for superheroes: The YMCA Academy

Toronto’s high school for superheroes: The YMCA Academy

It was a year ago when a piece in SmartMoney shed some light on entrepreneurs with superpowers. Their superpower wasn’t flying or invisibility, though those are very cool superpowers indeed; their superpower was attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, commonly known as ADHD. Like those other superpowers, ADHD can either isolate or empower, and those who have this particular power find it to be either a curse or a blessing.


Just around the corner from MaRS, in the Education Centre of the Metro Central YMCA at Grosvenor and Bay Streets, I am the head of Toronto’s high school for superheroes. The YMCA Academy is a school for students in Grades 9 to 12 who have learning style differences and learning disabilities, with ADHD often part of the mix. The school’s essence is highlighted here.



Ignorance about learning disabilities is kryptonite. As our school has just kicked off our 10th year, we have (as a good startup does) quantified our successes here. A school population of students with above-average intelligence, who all learn differently, mirrors that of a startup where the founders have above-average intelligence and learn differently. In both cases, the challenge is in having the work fit the person, rather than making the person fit the work, as is done in traditional schools and companies.

Young people with ADHD think and move fast in a school system designed to move slowly. Our school fits their needs and challenges, and allows them, for the first time in their lives at any school, to experience success. What has worked well for us at the YMCA Academy is a concept not unfamiliar to devotees of Eric Ries and the Lean Startup movement. Each day, our students place little bets. They work toward success at school through affordable risks—in educational theory, the “zone of proximal development.” For a student with a learning disability, this keeps the cracks in the educational pavement very narrow, as opposed to the chasms that can open quickly in traditional schools.

I always wondered how superheroes dealt with the mundane. I assume that not everything in their world is exciting. What we—and many other entrepreneurs—have found is that daily exercise is a key factor in a person with ADHD’s ability to focus. Daily access to the Central Y helps keep our students productive and focused during the school day. A daily fitness regimen is also essential for entrepreneurs with ADHD. I know of several entrepreneurs who have learning disabilities and who spend a good portion of their days on a “walkputer,” a treadmill with a computer, which allows them to focus through activity in real time.

While I would guess that students at the Academy are no more entrepreneurial than any control group of students when they enter our school, they definitely become more so during their stay. We hold two public TEDx events at the school each year; the last one involved student speakers and was themed “The Art and Science of Learning Disabilities.” We have a partnership with Mindfulness Without Borders to teach, help nurture and allow time to practise some of the most fundamental human skills: kindness, sensitivity, self-awareness and compassion toward self and others. For our particular group of students, who often experience difficulties with attention and regulating emotion, the mindfulness practices are very helpful. We also have a partnership with Evergreen Brick Works that sees our students involved in such diverse activities as environmental stewardship, food production and preparation, and bike repair. And this year we will run a competition to have students with learning disabilities design their perfect school. We will all benefit from their ideas!


Recognizing our students’ superpowers is our specialty; teaching them to harness those superpowers for the good of all is our mission.