Agincourt principal working for the kids

Grade 12 students Matthew Ho and Asad Muhammad recently made headlines for sending a helium-filled balloon into the upper atmosphere. Attached to the balloon was a Lego-man holding a Canadian flag. On the information board outside their school, the sign still reads, “Congrats to Matthew and Asad.”

While the school celebrates the 17-year-old students’ achievements, the one thing you won’t see on the information board is the recent accomplishment of the school’s principal.

Louie Papathanasakis, 53, has been the principal at Agincourt Collegiate Institute for five years, and oversees 1,500 students and close to 100 teaching staff.

Papathanasakis was recently named one of Canada’s Outstanding Principals for 2012. But ask him about the award and he would rather talk about the students.

“In Greek we have a saying called, ‘Gia ta paida,”’ he said. “That really translates to, ‘It’s for the kids.’”

Teaching is a common theme in the Papathanasakis family. His sister and brother- in-law are teachers and his brother is a former teacher. Papathanasakis’s parents were both immigrants from Greece and he saw how hard they worked on behalf of their kids. This helped to guide him into teaching.

“The Education Act talks about acting as a parent would and I had some great role models,” he said. “They played a pivotal part in my philosophy about caring a lot about kids.”

In Greek we have a saying called, Gia ta paida,’ and that really translates to, ‘It’s for the kids.’

—Louie Papathanasakis

Papathanasakis, who grew up in Cabbagetown, found out about the award a few weeks ago, but was reluctant to tell his staff.

John Giuga, 53, is a phys-ed teacher, counsellor and assistant leader of co-curricular athletics. During a recent staff meeting, Giuga said, nobody was addressing the elephant in the room. He said he knew Papathanasakis was too humble to take the spotlight.

“The head of guidance speaks and she doesn’t say anything about the award and I say, ‘If the next person doesn’t get up and say something about this I will,’” he said.

That’s when Giuga, a 30- year teaching veteran, stood up and told the staff.

“When you have a really good leader and a school that runs as well as it does, (the award) shouldn’t be taken for granted,” he said.

Giuga started his teaching career at Danforth Collegiate and Technical Institute in 1983. In 1999, he went to Riverdale Collegiate Institute where he met an up-and-coming Papathanasakis.

“We worked together for three years and I got to see the beginnings of a guy that was pretty special,” he said. “His work ethics are second to none.”

After Riverdale, Giuga spent the next 11 years at Newtonbrook Secondary School. Giuga was close to retirement, but when he heard Papathanasakis was a principal at Agincourt, he made a decision.

“I heard he was a principal at Agincourt and I had three years to go and thought, ‘I would really like the opportunity to finish our careers together.’”

Papathanasakis was the head of the phys-ed department while at Riverdale. One of his students remembers their time together.

Gabe Lee, 31, attended high school at Riverdale in the late ’90s.

“Louie came in my Grade 10 year and we hit it off from the very beginning,” he said. “He was my basketball coach and eventually became the athletic association adviser. I became the president and we worked closely together for four years.”

After majoring in athletics in university, Lee worked in the sports marketing industry. When Lee realized he was educating people rather than selling to them, he decided it was time for a change. Lee found out Papathanasakis was the principal at Agincourt and that there was a staff opening.

“I applied for the position,” he said. “It was exciting to learn that he was there because, back in high school, it was a great partnership.”

Lee got the job and is now the phys-ed teacher at Agincourt.

“One of the reasons I got into (teaching) is because of who Louie was and how he conducted himself,” he said.

Ellen Petrovits is head of student success, special education and autism at Agincourt. Petrovits filled out the nomination for Outstanding Principal a few weeks ago and credits part of the win to Papathanasakis’s visibility in the school.

“He is in the hallways during the national anthem, during lunch and in between classes,” she said. “He is extremely visible around the building.”

Petrovits worked with Papathanasakis in the past at Emery Collegiate, where they oversaw a pilot project to help at-risk youth.

“We have managed to help kids recover credits so they can graduate with their friends on time,” she said.

The credit-recovery program was such a success that it is now made available to every high school in Ontario.

As the press coverage for Matthew and Asad winds down, Agincourt gets back to the task at hand: teaching kids.

And according to Petrovits, the 1,500 students at the school don’t even know their principal won the award.

“Louie prefers the spotlight be on the students so their confidence will increase,” she said.

Giuga agrees.

“It’s for the kids,” he said.

On Feb. 28, 45 principals from publicly funded schools from across Canada met at the Sheraton Centre Hotel in downtown Toronto.

Papathanasakis was set to be in attendance at the gala dinner and awards show.

“I am honoured that The Learning Partnership granted this award to me, but what I am really impressed with is that they are big supporters of public education.”