When Anne Yu immigrated to Canada from Shanghai as a 17-year-old, she spoke very little English.
In an interview with the Straight at the Pythagoras Academy—an independent school she founded in Richmond—Yu revealed that her first job was as a cashier at a gas bar on Marine Drive, followed by another cashiering position at Church’s Chicken.
“My language was bad and I didn’t know the culture,” Yu recalled. “I tried very hard and struggled to fit in.”
She didn’t enjoy attending school in China, where there’s a strong emphasis on rote learning.
It was only when she studied interior design at Kwantlen University College (now Kwantlen Polytechnic University) that she discovered how much she enjoyed school. That was because she could pursue her artistic passions.
Almost two decades later, after she had twins, Yu and her husband, Winfred Liu, decided that they wanted to create a nonreligious school that would ignite a lifelong passion for education in their children.
So Yu launched the Pythagoras Academy as a junior-kindergarten program in January 2013 before growing to include grades 1, 2, and 3 the following September.
Since then, it’s expanded to more than 220 students up to Grade 7 in a 30,000 square-foot facility in West Richmond.
Liu, a retired engineer, is overseeing plans for a new school in 2022 that will accommodate students from K-12.
It will be about 220,000 square feet, cost more than $100 million, and accommodate up to 900 students when it's completed on Number 5 Road near Williams Road.
“I told my husband when we first began that even if we fail, it’s going to be a good lesson for our children,” she said. “Because they will see if you have a dream, you’ve got to pursue it.”
Yu has been inspired by how learning occurred in the Renaissance, which gave birth to modern western civilization.
In that era, math, sciences, and art were integrated rather than being broken up into different silos—and arts were at the forefront.
“I wanted to bring that into our school,” she said.
Yu, head of school Clive Austin, principal Michael Bouchard, and the teaching staff have embraced the concept of cross-curricular learning, which means several subjects are integrated in a single class.
To illustrate her point, Yu held up a napkin, noting that it can be the basis for a lesson that incorporates literacy, math, science, history, and the arts.
“By doing cross-curricular learning, that definitely helps develop curiosity,” Yu said.
Austin said that this approach ensures that students receive a great deal of exposure to arts and the fine arts. He also said that small class sizes are another hallmark of the Pythagoras Academy.
"We're actually emulating a number of other schools where we're giving the children the opportunity to be inquisitive—to step out of their boundaries, if you will, without fear, and allow them to make mistakes, which is a very important thing for little children," Austin noted.
He added that while he respects students speaking their family's native languages at home, he wants everyone to speak English on school property.
Bouchard provided another example of cross-curricular learning during a tour of the school.
Teachers converted the gym into a mock airport, and students played various roles as airport staff, security, and passengers.
"They had a place to buy a magazine, another place to buy lunch, and there was another check to get on the plane," Bouchard explained. "They had people serving water on the seats. They had kids on mats with headphones who were the air traffic controllers."
There was even a baggage compartment.
Security officials checked to ensure that passengers didn't bring liquids on the plane—and when this was discovered, one of them ran across the floor to address the situation.
Following this exercise, students were asked questions. According to Bouchard, this yielded insightful answers.
The broad objective, according to Bouchard, is to create lessons that will remain with students well into the future. This is best done by allowing them to have input in the planning stage.
It's the job of the teacher to tie that to the provincial curriculum.
"The new curriculum is asking us to use knowledge and skills to get some deeper understanding, some big ideas," Bouchard said. "Those are the kind of ideas our brains can remember a long time."
Bouchard is keenly interested in research into education and has been inspired by American educational reformer John Dewey.
One of the school's innovations is to have Bouchard and Austin greet students at the front door as they enter the building.
Bouchard said that this helps the children's self-esteem.
Moreover, educators are trained to understand how their actions and body language can influence children's perceptions about whether the teacher likes and cares about them and their ideas.
This, in turn, can influence the children's demeanour throughout the day.
Yu said that her goal is to ensure that the students are happy because then they'll be better learners.
"Our children, they just love to come to school," she declared. "They tell their parents they wish they could come to school on the weekends. By saying that, I know we're doing something right here."
In fact, she added, her kids and some of their schoolmates say they eventually want to create their own university.
Yu is particularly proud of the arts education that takes place at the Pythagoras Academy.
There's a room where musical theatre is taught. And earlier this spring, the students performed Oliver! on two nights at the nearby Gateway Theatre.
Bouchard said that all the teachers were involved gathering props and helping with the production.
"We put on a high school–level play with grade 3 to 7 students," the principal noted with pride. "They'll remember that for the rest of their lives."