“Mountain School” to pilot next year – Educators look to peaks to fight declining enrollment

mountain school, exchange student
2011 exchange students help with Fire Smart activities next to Valemount Secondary (Rita Gonella, Meike Boesch and Stephanie Blanco). The school plans to attract more exchange students with its outdoor focus.

Educators are hoping an outdoor-themed secondary school in Valemount will boost enrollment and give the school an international reputation.

Valemount Secondary principal Dan Kenkel says it’s a chance to move in the direction the Province and the School District are saying is the future: more self-directed, multi-grade, and project-based learning.

But it’s also a matter necessity, as enrollment numbers continue to drop at both the high school and elementary school.

While the village population has not decreased since the last census in 2006, the number of children has. Kenkel attributes the drop to fewer children being born as well as urbanization of families.

Kenkel has told his staff they have one more year of being able to offer a full-service high school with their current financial reserves. If enrollment doesn’t increase, they will face “significant staffing cuts.” That would likely mean sharing resources with the elementary school – including a shared administrator and receptionist.

“If we don’t do anything, we will run out of money and that is going to be forced on us,” Kenkel says. “We have one more year to do something to try and attract 20-30 new kids to our school.”

Rather than merely offering more online “Moodle” courses, staff realized that the outdoors – the mountains and the wilderness – were their biggest comparative advantage.

From that came the idea of a Mountain School, Pioneer School or Outdoor School – as yet without an official name.

With some improvements to the foreign exchange program, they figured they could attract students from abroad, especially ones from Europe and South America, who are looking for a Canadian wilderness experience.

Kenkel says it’s not just wilderness, but a local approach: staff are eager to connect with the local environment, local knowledge and local history to teach the existing curriculum. It’s also a way for students who stay in the community and raise their own families to be more connected to the local history and identity.

“It’s going to be a place where we value, celebrate, teach and learn things we already do here and do well; we know some of those traditions are being lost. Why not reinforce them through the school system and at the same time – show the world what we do?”

Kenkel, who sits on the newly formed BC Rural Education Partner’s Council, says rural communities across BC face similar dynamics. While overall enrollment is in decline, one demographic that continues to grow is First Nations people, both on and off reserve.

Some 26 students at Valemount Secondary, roughly one third of the school, identify themselves as having aboriginal ancestry.

One of two First Nations workers positions is being cut next year. An environment and community-based learning model could enhance those and other cultural connections, Kenkel says.

“It’s part of our collective history and it needs to be validated,” Kenkel says. “It’s a big piece of who we are collectively.”

Valemount Secondary Parent Advisory Council member Darlene Roy says they don’t know the full details yet, but they think it will benefit students for them to be more involved in the community outside school walls.

The PAC is all too aware that enrollment is down and the schools are getting less funding, since money is allotted per student.

“We think it’s almost necessary to keep our school viable,” Roy says.

She says one of the concerns they had was whether academics would be covered as well. They understand students will have the choice to focus on more traditional academic studies.

With roughly one in three students going on to a college or university program right after high school, Kenkel says it’s clear academics will remain a priority.

The idea is not to minimize academics, he says, but to study the same curriculum using an approach that is something more than desks, pencils and a chaulkboard.

“We’re going to tweak the courses we already offer,” he says. “We’re taking the curriculum and shining light brighter in some areas.”

He says the sciences lend themselves well to an outdoor approach – biology, chemistry, physics. But other courses like geography, First Nations and math can also be done out of doors, while working on a collaborative projects or exploring the minutiae of the forest – berry and mushroom picking, for instance.

It also means new electives in areas like log home building, local food production and preserving, cycling, forestry, gardening and other areas where expertise is available.

The elementary school also plans to focus on the outdoors and environment. Already, they have dozens of animals in the school, and have implemented a bucket gardening program where the kids will take home vegetables to care for during the summer, says Principal Priscilla Prosser. It’s an interim solution to a community garden, which both administrators hope will come to fruition in the near future.

Prosser says they are not sure what the end product will look, like but they want to head in an environment-based direction. When she came four years ago, there were 145 kids – now 105. She says they would cover above and beyond the grade program: “a little extra information in each grade level in our focus area.”

Because the school focus is not exclusive, both schools are open to everyone, they do not need special approval from the district. They will be hammering out the details with their staff over the coming months and implementing those ideas next year.

The challenges

Some 86,000 students or 15 per cent of British Columbia’s public school students attend rural schools. Some of these schools have fewer than 10 students spread across many grades.

School District 57 Trustee Brenda Hooker, liaison for the Robson Valley who grew up in McBride, says she completely supports the idea of the focussed schools.

“Keeping rural schools vibrant is a challenge the valley is all too familiar with,” she says. “The more options schools have to share costs and earn revenue the better. Schools need to find a niche to attract more students.”

She says other ideas the District is pursuing are using technology to deliver better course variety, finding more feasible ways to host foreign exchange students, and advocating the government for secure funding.

One of the concerns is the current foreign student provider SHECANA does not pay enough for room and board, she says; as a result it’s hard to find host families. She says the school board would like to research options for different providers and countries they could partner with.

McBride Secondary principal Derrick Shaw says they will be watching to see how the system works in Valemount. School enrollment in McBride is also down, though it’s difficult to predict year to year.

“Until we get some industry here, it’s a bit of a rollercoaster,” he says.

He expects they’ll be down in numbers again next year as fewer kids are coming into Gr. 8 than graduating.

That said, they had 18 new students this year that they weren’t anticipating.

“We continue to take each day as it comes.”

Image: graur codrin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

New possibilities

Now that the provincial government has opened up the school calendar, it will be possible for the school year to be structured differently. Instead of a two-month break in the summer, some schools have opted for three one-month breaks throughout the year. Kenkel says this calendar is popular with teachers since it’s less of a scramble and then crash. It would also allow the mountain school to operate during more of the summer.

There are no plans for an alternative calendar yet. The school day will be structured with two academic courses in the morning, and one elective in the afternoon at the high school. The elective will be outdoor-focussed.

Students will still have the opportunity to take online Moodle courses – anything from photography to computer animation, under the supervision of teachers. This has expanded the number of courses students can take at the rural school, where there are simply not enough kids to fill a whole class.

Kenkel says he has been impressed by the quality of work and the discipline shown by the two dozen students who are taking online courses.

Advocating for rural schools

Kenkel is bringing his voice to the BC Rural Education Partner’s Council, a steering committee for ideas on rural education.

The Council met for the first time April 20th and is in the early stages of developing a purpose. It will meet three to four times a year and provide recommendations to the provincial government.

“If government has an idea around a solution to a rural education concern, then they’re going to bring it to us and we’re going to throw it around,” Kenkel says.
He says he is advocating strongly for a healthy rural school as a crucial element in developing and maintaining a healthy community.

“It’s the same old song. If you want to attract families and retain professionals, you need a viable school so those folks can come and feel that their kids have a place to go.”

“If we slip below a certain standard, there’s a tipping point. If you lose your school, a whole bunch of other issues come down in the community.”

But Kenkel says rural schools have advantages in the sense that they are small – they are well-suited to piloting new projects and to celebrate innovation – ideas that can be used in bigger towns and cities.

“Rural schools are, by necessity, at the rock face of innovation in education, because they need to be. They’ve always been good at multi-grade learning because classes are that way in rural schools.”

“They’ve always been good at differentiating what they teach and how kids learn. They’ve always been good at making connections with the kids because we’re in a small town,” he says, adding it will still be a lot of work but “we’ve got nothing to lose.”