Neil Doctorow shares a source of inspiration common to many entrepreneurs: He saw flaws in a system, decided he could make improvements and set out to start his own business to do just that.
Such was the case when Mr. Doctorow, a high-school teacher at the York Region District School Board, became frustrated over what he perceived were inequalities in the treatment of athlete students, who often struggled to balance academic work and sports training.
The then-28-year-old's solution: open a school that evened the playing field.
"There were many teachers that I encountered that didn't value these kids' extra-curricular pursuits very much," he explains. "Part of that was due to staffing issues and larger class sizes, and part of it was due to a general attitude amongst staff."
As a coach of several teams ranging from girls' rugby to boys' hockey, Mr. Doctorow saw the benefits — both academic and athletic — that his students gleaned from pursuing extra-curricular sports.
After developing a business plan, he took a bold step in 2005, quitting his job with York Region to found PEAC (Premier Elite Athletes' Collegiate) School for Elite Athletes, a private, sports-centric academy that would not only accommodate, but cater to, star athletes, while also demanding their utmost academic commitment.
Like all schools in Ontario, PEAC is obligated to teach the provincial curriculum, but students are provided 2 1/2 hours in the middle of the day for sport-specific training and conditioning.
Those students, all of whom have laptops, follow lessons on high-tech classroom smart boards and can access lessons online if they miss class due to competitions. Some even use the free online video chat tool Skype to participate in classes from other cities.
With just a press release to announce his new concept and a makeshift facility in north Toronto to house the school, Mr. Doctorow launched PEAC in 2005 with 33 students.
So how, exactly, did a twenty-something teacher with minimal experience and an untested concept manage to attract some of Ontario's top athletes — eventually including former Maple Leaf Doug Gilmour's hockey-playing sons Tyson and Jake — to his fledgling school? Moreover, how did he then build it into a going concern with three locations in Ontario and upwards of 160 students in just five years?
Add tuition fees ranging from $16,000 for the soccer program to $21,500 for the hockey program to the mix, and it's clear that gaining buy-in from parents — not all of whom were wealthy — was an uphill battle.
To begin, Mr. Doctorow and his partner Bryan Ceresne found inexpensive space — a former condominium sales centre in the city's north end — that wasn't being used during the day and converted the space, part of which was shared with an adjacent karate studio, into classrooms.
Next, he sought additional academic credibility, a crucial factor in convincing parents that his was a school that could meet their kids' needs. Mr. Doctorow set out to convince his parents, Roz and Gord Doctorow — both retired Toronto District School Board teachers with PhDs in education and extensive experience in curriculum consultation — to support the idea and offer their assistance.
One problem: both were strong proponents of the public system.
Mr. Doctorow flew his father to Calgary to speak to the owners of the EDGE School for Athletes, which was founded on a similar, athletically-focused model. After experiencing EDGE's teaching styles and learning more about its academic and athletic successes, Mr. Doctorow soon had his parents' blessing, along with their financial backing and expertise.
He then hired Sharon Turnbull-Schmitt, the former superintendent of the TDSB, to serve as his principal, and hired several teachers — some personal friends, others fresh out of university.
As part of their contract, PEAC teachers are expected to participate in extra-curricular activities, such as tutoring or sports, and be available to answer questions after hours by phone, e-mail or Skype.
They also have to be flexible, adjusting on the fly to suit those perpetually hectic sports travel schedules.
"It is a little bit more demanding for tests and exams because we have to be a bit more accommodating, possibly even write up a second test," explains Deirdre Quinn, a PEAC teacher and guidance counsellor. "But for the most part, as long as the student takes the responsibility for their assignments, it's manageable."
Ms. Quinn, who is entering her second year teaching at PEAC, adds that, although adjusting her approach to suit star athletes can be taxing, the school's main advantage over the public system is being able to connect closely with students and provide them with personalized attention.
"You can really reinforce their learning because you have such a small class size," she says.
Attracting students was largely done through word-of-mouth — parents of highly-skilled athletes, it seems, were eager to send their kids to a school that catered to their athletic and academic needs with sports coaching throughout the week, while also providing cutting-edge classroom technology and small class sizes averaging around 13 students.
"[Parents]were already committed to doing all this skill development after school out of pocket, and I thought I could put it all in one," says Mr. Doctorow.
Most of the original 33 students stayed with PEAC after it relocated from its original building to a massive former aircraft hangar at Toronto's Downsview Park. The federally-owned facility had been converted into an indoor sports centre featuring sports fields and an artificial ice rink, and actively courted the school as a tenant.
PEAC has since added smaller satellite campuses in London and Burlington, Ont.
Those tiny class sizes and academic flexibility were a major draw for Laurel Crawford, whose 13-year-old son Jack is one of Ontario's top alpine skiers, as well as an elite hockey player. While she was pleased with her son's progress at Toronto's private Junior Academy prior to first attending PEAC last year, Jack was continuously missing classes such as French due to a busy sports schedule.
He soon began falling behind his classmates and was getting frustrated as homework piled up.
"Part of the reason we've left him in the private system, and especially at PEAC, is because the public system won't accommodate him and he would fail," explains Ms. Crawford.
"What PEAC does is they don't catch them up, they get them ahead. If he's going on a trip, he sits down with teachers and gets work done before he goes. Most of these kids are really driven, so they do well in academics and in athletics."
For Iseult Hayden, mother of 16-year-old hockey and soccer player Catalina Hayden-Anderson — whose father Warren Anderson played defence for Canada's national hockey team at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, NY — the decision to send her daughter to PEAC was a difficult one.
As a former TDSB teacher, Ms. Hayden was a strong supporter of the public system. After her daughter attended camps at PEAC and began pushing to attend full time, the skeptical mom asked herself a simple question: If Catalina was gifted in a subject such as math rather than athletics, wouldn't she find ways to try to nurture that talent?
"This was driven by my daughter, not by me," she stresses. Catalina "wanted to excel, she wants to do the time in the sport, so why would I not support that? If you want your child to be the best they can be, you have to support them."
Catalina is currently readying for a second year at PEAC's 108-student Downsview Park location.
While Mr. Doctorow isn't planning a further expansion of PEAC just yet, he says he has been approached by third parties interested in managing his sports programs or franchising the school across Ontario and the U.S.
For now, he's focused on expanding PEAC's three campuses and honing the school's athlete-marketing initiatives, which he offers to students as part of their annual tuition.
"We get them athletic résumés and DVDs, and get them in front of coaches," he says. "We create relationships for them in all different sports and we have a person that's solely responsible for filming them in practice and setting up these marketing opportunities."
Does that mean that he would even consider offering athlete-management as one of PEAC's services? "I think that would certainly be a way for us to ensure that kids are being well looked after," he says. "If that was a service they wanted to pursue or we thought they should pursue with us, that would be the direction we would go."
Special to The Globe and Mail