Schools on the fringes – and the cutting edge

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By: Laura Keil

Close to one in six residents of Valemount and McBride crammed into theatres last week to catch the Missoula Children’s Theatre productions performed by elementary students this year. Many folks who don’t have children in school came for the show. It was an exciting time. Some kids couldn’t sleep the night before. How wonderful that even residents without children in the school system turned out for the school plays? These were truly community events.

When talk starts about schools downsizing and jobs being eliminated, it’s hard to see a silver lining. As many already recognize, our schools are what keep our communities open to families. Without them, there would be few long-time locals. Few who could say they grew up here. If no one has grown up in a place, it’s easy to forget its history. It’s easy for the population to dwindle.

A few people in our communities, however, are taking up the challenge in innovative ways.

Don’t get me wrong. Innovation is often thrown around as buzzword meaning guaranteed progress. But innovation starts with risk.

Luckily or unluckily, our schools are getting to the point when taking managed risks makes sense. The status quo looms on the other side of the beam we are walking. And that doesn’t look so good.

The proposed “Mountain School” at Valemount’s secondary school and the outdoor/environmental focussed elementary school isn’t really new. It’s a way to brand our schools and ourselves with what we as a community are good at. It’s easy to forget how envious others are of where we live and the opportunities for learning that abound.

The question is: Is it possible to sieve provincial curriculum standards through a local filter?

It’s a noble endeavour.

When I was at university I did a research project on Cree immersion programs in Saskatchewan. It wasn’t just the language those kids were learning – it was a key to connect with their environment, their relatives and their identity.

The Mountain School is also about a common language. It’s about rooting our education in what is relevant locally, both current and historically. How else can a community thrive if its young people can’t connect what they are learning to what they encounter each day? How can they connect with the pioneers of this town if they have no common vocabulary?

Perhaps it’s no wonder so many young people leave and never return to this valley – how much possibility have they really seen?

Creating a new program and marketing it, however, is easier said than done. Can our schools really forge a model of rural education based on their comparative advantages?

Can we lure foreign students here for a year at a time? Can we improve our curriculum by incorporating local knowledge and expertise?

Of course we can! With the right buy-in from the right people and the willingness to try something that’s never been tried before. Hard work doesn’t feel so hard if it’s backed by enthusiasm and drive.

It’s anything but guaranteed. But it’s not rocket science. Much like the Missoula plays that were rehearsed in just three days, with enough minds and focus and enthusiasm, a fairy tale can become a proud work of art.