Don’t expect Rebecca Dileo’s students to wait until they graduate from high school to start making their mark on the world.
They’re already busy fighting for important causes, designing clothing and accessories lines, working alongside CEOs and movie directors, and all while still in their teens.
“We’re not only preparing them for the real world, this is the real world for them,” says Dileo, the Visual Arts Lead at Central Toronto Academy on Shaw St.
“It doesn’t matter what age you are, you can start to pursue your passions,” she says. “We generate real-world experiences for our students whenever possible.”
Dileo, 43, is the recipient of the Ninth Annual Toronto Star Teacher Award, after being nominated by Grade 12 student Hannah Scott.
Scott says Dileo also gave her the chance to work with a street artist to revive the school’s courtyard, which is now a functional outdoor classroom and green space.
Scott notes her teacher wears many hats, including student council adviser, yearbook creator, health and wellness committee member, staff adviser for parent council, and chief party and event planner. She also applies for government grants and even leads the students in mindfulness yoga classes in the courtyard.
“She just moves all the time!” says the school’s principal, Iwona Kurman.
Kurman says the passion Dileo has been able to ignite in her students rubs off on the whole school, helping to creating a collaborative atmosphere amongst the staff as well.
“We all work on it, but she’s the spark, the force,” Kurman says.
She adds everything Dileo does with her students has a meaning or a deeper message. “It’s not just art for the sake of art,” she says. “Whether it’s endangered species or something related to climate change or some social justice issue. It’s all about love.
“She really brings the best out in kids. Not everybody is an artist, but she makes everybody feel like they are.”
While Dileo has been teaching for 20 years, she admits there was a point in her career when she almost gave up on the profession. All that changed when Kurman became the principal at their school in 2011.
“I was inspired by her leadership,” Dileo says. “She believed in me.”
Over the years, Dileo has worked tirelessly to help create a school community not only where kids feel safe and respected, but where they flourish, too. She rebranded the Arts Department the HeArts department, thanks to various social justice campaigns.
When bullying became an issue at the school about 10 years ago, Dileo helped stop it dead it its tracks, working with her students to create T-shirts with the slogan, ‘We take no BULL-ying.’
“The bullying was ridiculous. Homophobia was running rampant in our school. It was just infuriating,” she says. “My graphic design class was really upset about how their peers were being mistreated, and so we started a T-shirt movement. It helped unite the students.”
Now, every year, students come up with a new theme and vote on the winning design for the T-shirt campaign, with previous themes being ‘Trans Lives Matter,’ ‘Choose Love,’ and ‘Dream Big.’
“We collaborate with local designers, and products that we create are being sold at stores in the community,” she adds.
Keeping up with technology is a priority, too, with social media being incorporated into the curriculum on a regular basis. “I think the school is an Instagram-worthy destination!” laughs Dileo.
Students are encouraged to treat school not only as a place to prepare for their careers, but to actually kick-start them.
“We refer to all of our spaces as ‘studio spaces,’ so students are in the mindset of being in a professional space right when they come in,” says Dileo.
This past summer, three students from the school were hired for a paid summer internship at RBC Securities in Toronto, where they worked alongside executives and produced an animation video for the company.
Students have also partnered with the Sully Wong footwear and accessories brand to create a line of backpacks and shoes.
And one of the movies at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival — The Lockpicker — was filmed at the school and students were cast in the film.
Dileo wants to acknowledge colleagues Kevin Parkin, Kevin D’Souza and Eddy Belanger for their tremendous efforts, too. “I definitely want to make it loud and clear; it’s a collective at this school. It should be our whole department, administration, parents.”
She says her own art career can wait until she retires; preferring instead to focus on empowering her students to reach their greatest potential.
“We are creating movements in this school, we are creating entrepreneurial pursuits within the department and the programming, we’re creating merchandise …
“Honestly, legit, I wake up and I think: ‘What are we creating today?’ ”