Victoria educator takes system into own hands with new high school

It’s one man’s vision for a new school in tune with the 21st century. Jeff Hopkins, the outgoing superintendent of the Gulf Islands school district, says there’s no school like the one he will add to Greater Victoria’s array of independent high schools: The Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry, scheduled to open on Fort Street in September.

For one thing, there won’t be any textbooks, or classrooms of same-age students facing a teacher for set periods of instruction. Instead, students will pursue “personal learning plans” while attaining competency in math, history, sociology, politics and more.

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There will not be a teacher telling all of the students to “turn to page 110,” Hopkins says. “Our job would be to help nudge the student into those subject areas as it relates to their inquiry.”

He likens his approach to “a cognitive apprenticeship” — where a student interested in marine biology, for example, learns seven days a week and spends Wednesdays at a tidal pool with a biologist. “The students will follow lines of inquiry that they’re interested in, and that will be the basis for what their curriculum actually is.”

A student intrigued by Hartland landfill could branch into waste disposal, methane-gas generation and a host of other issues, he said.

Hopkins, the Gulf Islands superintendent for the past seven years, is giving up a job paying more than $120,000 a year to take his chances making major changes on his own and showing others it can be done.

“They wanted to see it. Now they’re going to see it,” he said.

Eight students have already lined up, with parents ready to pay $7,000 in annual tuition, for a space in a former Bible school on Fort Street. Hopkins said he hopes 40 to 50 students between Grades 9 and 12 will enrol.

Fifty students would provide up to $350,000 to pay salaries for himself as a full-time teaching principal and up to three full-time-equivalent teachers.

Staff shouldn’t be hard to find.

“I have about 200 unsolicited resumés so far sent to me — it’s just been an unbelievable response,” he said.

The project-based learning Hopkins advocates with his Pacific School is already used, to a lesser extent, throughout the public school system, said Rod Allen, superintendent of learning for the Ministry of Education.

“He’s just going to do more of it — and use that as a major structure of his approach — than probably anywhere else in the province.”

Educators know students learn better when they are motivated, excited and able to see the connection between what they’re learning and what they’d like to know, Allen said.

“That’s more often the case in [projects], where kids have a lot of choice in what they do, than it is, perhaps, in sitting in a more traditional classroom, learning in more traditional ways — such as: ‘Read a chapter from the textbook.’ ”

Hopkins said the closest comparison with his school would be High Tech High charter schools in San Diego, which benefited from “the bazillion dollars they got from the Gates Foundation.”

Hopkins’s friends and family have formed a society, as required by the province when proposing a new independent school. The Learning Storm Educational Society has charitable status, and Hopkins is “frantically applying for grants and hoping to be able to offer some bursaries.”

Banks showed no interest in offering a loan, so to launch the school, Hopkins took out a substantial line of credit on his Saanich Peninsula home. His wife, a stay-at-home mother of their two children, is on board, and his 12-year-old son can’t wait to be old enough to attend, he said.

Hopkins has signed a five-year lease for a 1960s building boasting a small gym suitable for common learning and a dozen bedroom-sized rooms for quiet work areas, conferences and other activities. The building, at 1201 Fort St., is owned by the Victoria Truth Centre.

“It doesn’t have any rooms that are typical classroom size, which is perfect,” Hopkins said. “It fits our style of learning really, really well.”

Teenagers tend to stay up late. To ensure that they get enough sleep, school won’t start until 9:45 a.m. each day.

Hopkins sounded pleased that the first enrollees at the Pacific School are not “the disgruntled.”

They include students who are successful in the public education system, but want to learn more or learn differently, as well as those schooled at home or at other independent schools.

“They’re feeling they’re not being completely challenged. Or they’re concerned the school system is focusing on content and they’d like to learn a little bit more about how to guide their own learning, not be so dependent.”

Hopkins moved from the Toronto area to Brentwood Bay at 13. He is a University of Victoria graduate in history and English and holds a master’s degree in counselling psychology.

Now 44, Hopkins has taught grades 8 to 12 for 20 years throughout B.C. and is happy to get back to it. He sees tremendous inertia in the public school system and its pre-packaged idea of what it thinks students need to know, and finds the pace of change frustrating.

“The world is changing very, very quickly,” he said, “and there’s probably lots of things that people need to know that we don’t have any clue about right now.”

Allen, of the Education Ministry, said today’s public schools are very different from those the parents of today’s teenagers attended, but public education needs to continue to evolve and grow.

Hopkins’s application for an interim certificate for the Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry is expected to be reviewed by the ministry in May.

An evaluation in October will dictate whether the school meets the criteria for B.C. independent schools and is eligible for a 35 per cent chunk of the public school per-pupil grant of about $7,900 the following year. If it meets all requirements and does it for less than the Victoria per-pupil grant, funding could rise to 50 per cent.

Hopkins said he hopes he’s not being naïvely optimistic about the challenges ahead.

“I’m excited and a little nervous, but I’m doing fine.”


A history of innovation: New ways of learning

The educator behind a new independent high school slated for Victoria has been a leader in “transformational approaches to learning” throughout the public system, says a senior B.C. Ministry of Education official.

Rod Allen, superintendent of learning for the ministry, says what Jeff Hopkins is contemplating with his Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry dovetails with new approaches to learning already under discussion by the government, superintendents, teachers, parents and principals.

Among those is the individual project-based approach, which incorporates many subjects at once, rather than teaching separate subjects to same-grade students in organized blocks of time.

Hopkins lists several other educational initiatives in his seven years as Gulf Islands’ district superintendent, among them:

• Ecological learning programs on Saturna and Saltspring islands.

• A hybrid school/home-learners program on Pender Island.

• An agriculture-based program covering all subjects for Grade 9 on Mayne and Saltspring islands.

• A “living library” of community mentors called Connecting Generations,


Independent offerings

Elizabeth Moore, executive director of the Independent Schools Association of British Columbia, called it a “real privilege” to be able to offer parents so much choice to meet their children’s needs.

According to the Ministry of Education, B.C. has 349 independent schools.

Several high schools started on the Island in recent years, including:

• Alberni’s Maaqtusiis Secondary School, which opened in 2011 and is operated by the Ahousaht First Nations on Flores Island.

• Victoria’s Artemis Place Society, which opened an alternative school on Douglas Street in 2010 to support at-risk young women aged 15 to 19 dealing with learning disabilities, extreme bullying, unhealthy relationships or fallout from foster care.

• Eaton Arrowsmith School, which opened on Shelbourne Street in 2009 for students in Grades 3-11 with learning issues.

Independent schools got $265 million of the $4.9 billion the province spent on education in 2011/2012 — or 5.4 per cent, according to the Federation of Independent Schools Association.

There are no capital grants for independent schools.

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