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Geoff Johnson: Small school adopts flexible approach

Enderby, a small town along the Shuswap River, boasts a variety of agricultural and industrial enterprises, including dairy farming, cattle ranching, fertilizer and feed production, mills, and value-added wood products.

Enderby, a small town along the Shuswap River, boasts a variety of agricultural and industrial enterprises, including dairy farming, cattle ranching, fertilizer and feed production, mills, and value-added wood products. It is home to the world’s largest reel lawnmower, built and hosted by the Deep Creek Tool Museum, and what is billed as the largest drive-in movie theatre screen in North America at the Starlight Drive-In Theatre.

There is no shortage of community pride in Enderby, but it is not necessarily the kind of place you’d expect to find one of B.C’s more progressive schools, A.L. Fortune Secondary.

But there it is, a small, grades 8-12 secondary school of about 250 kids, about 27 of whom are from the nearby Splats’in First Nation.

Inspired by a need to restore community confidence in the school and restricted by size in its ability to offer a full slate of senior-level subject choices, principal Gene Doray and his staff decided they had to develop a school program that offered more opportunity and flexibility of choice.

“We are in the infancy with this shift,” says Doray, “but it is an exciting move toward greater student engagement and ownership of learning.”

As part of a search for models, Doray attended the annual conference of the Canadian Coalition for Self-Directed Learning, an organization of secondary schools throughout Canada dedicated personalized learning that takes into account individual student characteristics, talents, interests and academic backgrounds.

CCSDL schools believe that learning flourishes in an environment where the learners are able to control and direct their learning.

“As a staff, we talked about the need to change as our starting point, but I think we now recognize it as a responsibility to change to meet the needs of our students who will inhabit a very different world from the one we left school to join,” says Doray. “We need to prepare students for their future, not our own past.”

With support from superintendent Glenn Borthistle and the local board of education, the staff at A.L Fortune began last year to cautiously add an “X-Block” to its traditional four-course-per-semester system.

Grade 8 students, still on a traditional teacher-directed program, are allowed to choose a topic or subject for their additional “class” and then find a teacher who would lead them in their exploration of that subject.

The staff hopes that the idea will grow upward through the grades into the kind of locally developed course offerings recognized by B.C.’s Graduation Program.

In the senior grades, students meet at the beginning and at the end of the day with a teacher adviser who will stay with a student during his or her school career. These advisers go over the students’ plans for the day and then review student activity by the end of the day.

Tempting as it is for students to allocate more time to the subjects they like, daily meetings advisers who sign off each day on student progress keep the kids on track.

The teaching adviser becomes a kind of “one-stop-shop” for parents who want to stay on top of what is happening with their offspring, a more effective monitoring process than with the traditional two report-card-based “meet the teachers” events in traditional systems.

Asked about how well aboriginal students are working with the structure, Doray is quick to reply: “We certainly have cultural supports in place, but would not differentiate how it is working out for individual kids based on anything but how it is working for everyone else.”

Content is important, and while some students require a great deal more teacher interaction than others to understand simultaneous equations or who was involved in the War of 1812, courses are structured to allow for a variety of testing procedures, some oral, to be administered when students believe they have completed the requirements for that section of a course.

The School District 83 board is supportive. Vice-chairman Chris Coers says: “A.L. Fortune is taking an innovative approach to declining enrolment. This decline forces us to consider challenges which otherwise would make it difficult to offer the choice and flexibility today’s students need.”

Doray is a realist about his school as it moves incrementally toward an individualized self-directed program: “You can’t just flip a switch and say everybody will embrace this kind of program. It is a growth process.”

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.