That was the message on Thursday from five teenagers who graduated from Toronto’s public school board with a perfect 100-per-cent average, the highest number of students to earn that distinction in a year. (Last year, three TDSB students earned an average of 100 per cent.)
Among these top scholars, who in 2021-2022 achieved that average in their top six Grade 12 courses, are a violinist, a dancer, a runner, a Rubik’s Cube whiz and a teen who completed high school in just three years.
Pasha Ho, who graduated from Harbord Collegiate Institute, said fuelling his passions for piano and basketball were key to his academic success and being able to finish high school a year early.
“All my activities really helped me reduce the stress and the burnout at school,” said Ho, at the Toronto District School Board’s office in North York, where the students were recognized for their achievement. “If you keep having a very mundane routine of school, eat, sleep, repeat, it’s very easy to get burned out.”
Ho, who turned 17 last week and is headed to the University of Toronto to study engineering science, was in Grade 9 when the COVID-19 pandemic started. The lockdowns, and all the “free time,” gave him the opportunity to hone his study habits, organizational skills and time management. He also took summer school courses, which made it possible to graduate in three years.
He sought opportunities to put down the books. He started a music theory club at his former elementary school to introduce young children to music. And he got a job at MLSE Launchpad, an athletic and recreation facility that helps youth reach their potential through sports. Said Ho: “Having that outlet … helped manage any burnout.”
Kyle Sung, 17, is off to McMaster University to study math and computer science. Sung has released his own songs on streaming platforms. He admits there were times when rather than creating music, he should have focused on forging social connections. He recalled how he spent many lunch periods alone in the school’s music room writing tunes during Grade 9.
“It’s something that I regret because I didn’t spend the time to go out there to meet new people, to try new clubs,” said the graduate of Richview Collegiate Institute. When asked what advice he’d give to kids who are starting high school, he urged them to “Step outside your comfort zone!”
Sung, who also figure-skates competitively, can solve a Rubik’s cube, often in under 10 seconds. He did this for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, who stopped by to congratulate the teens on their “incredible feat.”
“You have overcome some really crazy obstacles and to (graduate) with a smile on your face and a sense of determination (that) speaks volumes about your character and the values that you’ll bring with you in your next chapter,” said Lecce.
“Getting 100 per cent doesn’t come easy; it requires discipline, a sense of focus and a real commitment to getting to the finish line.”
He noted how much the teens had spoken about the importance of extracurricular activities and said he’s looking forward to students this fall having a “a more positive, stable return” to school, a return that includes sports, music, and clubs, all of which were disrupted by the pandemic.
“The extracurricular experience makes a difference, so we look forward to those being restored,” said Lecce, echoing comments made earlier in the week. The province is currently negotiating with the unions of teachers, whose contracts expire in late August.
Avaneesh Kulkarni, 17, who calls himself “a hugely social person,” said the “biggest challenge of high school” were the lockdowns. When the shift to remote learning occurred, Kulkarni found himself missing meeting people in person, so he became leader of the math, computer coding and Linux (operating system) clubs, and created virtual meeting spaces for students to connect.
Said Kulkarni, who graduated from Victoria Park Collegiate Institute: “I wanted to recreate the social environment, just like the kind of casual banter you can have in the hallways with friends.”
Kulkarni carved out time for himself away from the screen: on the basketball court, at the piano, and outdoors.
“I started running during the first lockdown to get out of my house …. Since then running has grown on me and I use it to de-stress. During a run you feel physical stress and it diminishes the scariness of school stress.”
Kulkarni is headed to the University of Waterloo for computer science.
“One huge tip” he has for high schoolers is to “throw yourself into challenging experiences,” he said.
“Start your own club! If you don’t see a club that you want to participate in, or your school doesn’t offer it, you could be the one starting it … even if you’re a Grade 9 student.”
Said Sienna Muller, 17: “It’s really important to make the most of every opportunity you’re given in high school.
“Going into high school, don’t put tons of pressure on yourself!” said Muller, who graduated from the Etobicoke School of the Arts with a dance major and is off to the University of British Columbia to study science.
“Take time to get to know yourself, your study habits, what you’re interested in …! Get extra help from your teachers! Your teachers want you to succeed, so ask if you can see them at lunchtime …! Send them emails! They’re there to help you.”
Nina Do, who graduated from Humberside Collegiate Institute, is also a top scholar, but wasn’t at the event because she’s out of the country. According to the TDSB, Do’s passion is playing the violin, which helps her relieve stress. She will be going to the University of Waterloo for system-design engineering.
Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74
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