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Little island school has big ideas

Denman Island Elementary students prepare vegetables for stir-frying during a spark session. Community member experts teach students various skills like cooking, animal care and building and engineering during spark sessions each Wednesday afternoon. - Photo contributed
Denman Island Elementary students prepare vegetables for stir-frying during a spark session. Community member experts teach students various skills like cooking, animal care and building and engineering during spark sessions each Wednesday afternoon.
— image credit: Photo contributed

“Big ideas for a little school.”

This phrase posted on the Denman Island Community School’s website fits what is going on at the school as it is indeed ‘little’ with only 27 kids enrolled from kindergarten to Grade 7, and it has been taking a more flexible approach to learning in an effort to keep the school vibrant.

According to Lucinda Wolters, vice-principal and teacher, community discussions started up a couple of years ago to see what direction parents thought the school — which faces declining enrolment — should go.

“We came up with three big ideas of our central focus, student sparks, or areas of interest, learning to learn and social responsibility,” says Wolters. “The planning was last (school) year — and we call last year our bridging year as we tried to explore and see what we were really wanting to create — and the parents really gave us permission to take this vision and run with it.

“And then we really got great support from Sherry Elwood (Comox Valley School District superintendent) with the BC Education Plan to go for it and try some new things, so it’s a great opportunity to be creative.”

Like Navigate powered by NIDES (North Island Distance Education School), Denman school holds ‘spark’ interviews at the beginning of the year to get to know the kids, including what their natural interests are, and then the school operates on six-week learning cycles.

The school offers spark sessions each Wednesday afternoon, where community experts visit to teach kids various skills like cooking, animal care, mask making and building and engineering. Students choose one of the three or four spark session topics they would like to learn about at the beginning of the six-week cycle, and new topics are offered at the beginning of the next learning cycle.

They learn the skills in and out of the school; for example, during the animal care spark sessions students will visit local farms on the Island to learn how to care for horses and donkeys.

The spark sessions are facilitated by community expert volunteers and supported by teachers or educational assistants. The sessions just started up this school year, and Wolters says they’ve been a big success with the kids so far.

“They are thrilled, you know, it’s once a week on Wednesday afternoons, and it is such a highlight,” she explains. “There’s a buzz in the schools, the kids are just — can’t wait until the afternoon. We’re completely pleased with the response the kids are showing.”

Students can also do a combination of online home-based learning and face-to-face learning at school. The school is open five days per week, but attendance is optional Mondays and Fridays.

“We want to give some flexible choices to parents and kids because for some kids and families they just learn better with a little extra home time, or they like more of a quiet working space more regularly and that works for them,” she says, adding the majority of students usually come into the school on optional days.

Because of the small number of students, the school has two classes (primary and intermediate) with a broader age range in class than most schools. Wolters notes students learn at school using a variety of methods.

“Sometimes they’re having small group instruction, sometimes some independent work, and then sometimes they’re on the computer online that’s connected to Navigate resources,” she says.

Wolters notes Hornby Island Community School — which also faces declining enrolment — is structured a bit differently but uses similar methods, including spark sessions and online learning resources.

The methods used at the island schools are in line with 21st century learning, in which the Comox Valley School District is a provincial leader.

School district administration plans to visit Denman and Hornby schools in the spring to discuss how things are going and look at the future.

 

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