Schools of Relevance. . . and the Beauty of a Good Alternate School

As we move into a new school year in Beautiful British Columbia I am (1) pleased that we do so with labour peace, (2) grateful to the provincial parties, the BCTF and BCPSEA, for negotiating an agreement to that end and (3) excited about the prospects of innovation infusing our schools and communities as we act on real and meaningful improvement agendas captured in so many places including and especially in the BC Education Plan.

I am also struck by the extent to which we have already brought about meaningful change in support of all successes for all learners.  No wonder that 94% of 19 year-olds in British   Columbia are either high school graduates or are currently in school moving toward graduation. In “my day” (meandering through school from 1963 to 1975) one could leave school at 16, find good employment in the resource sector, have a family and own a home at 20, and with focus and ongoing training in your chosen field actually find your way to what we believed was attainable . . . freedom 55.

Things are different now.  Schooling and graduation mean everything, and further education is essential to finding your way toward freedom anything, more likely 65 these days.  And young people are behaving accordingly. They are staying in school and graduating, and it is not just because they see the need to do so.  It is also because the public education system has been responsive and nimble enough to create programs and services that work for all children.  Our neighbourhood schools are alive with modern and student-centred practices from K-12.

The secondary school of today may look physically like the one I graduated from, in fact those big-box schools are exactly what you see in every part of our province.  But step inside and you’ll see a different place – we aren’t in Kansas anymore Toto.  Students have and are acting on choice, and teachers are creating learning spaces of meaning, relevance, flexibility and personalization.  Teaching remains the most amazing of professions, and I am so proud of how BC teachers have worked with administrators, students, parents and others to re-define what we do and how we do it.  Constant collaborative inquiry is alive and well.

We have also created great other opportunities beyond and affiliated with our neighbourhood schools, particularly through distributed learning and modern alternate schools.  I will expand on DL in another blog sometime, but for now, let me sing the praises of 21st century alternate schools.  These are no longer places that exist in order to receive students who have been removed from or just don’t fit in neighbourhood schools. They are real schools of choice because they fit the mould of the modern, personalized environment.  Students of all kinds come to these thriving schools because they know they will be supported for who they are and in their areas of need, sometimes significant need. And they will have great teachers supporting them in every way, including academically as they move to graduation

The best testament to the success of alternate schools is often found in graduation speeches.  In Saanich, our alternate and continuing education school is the Individual Learning Centre (ILC), a two-campus school that serves and graduates fully 200 of our 3000 secondary students.  In June I had the distinct pleasure of listening to Rhianna, whose inspiring words are reprinted here in part with permission:

Thank you everyone, for coming to celebrate with us today.  Although I question the prudence of allowing me anywhere near a microphone, I am honored to have been invited to give one of the valedictorian speeches.

First off, I would like to give huge congratulations to our grads! Each graduate has fought tooth and nail to earn their place here today and that effort and perseverance in itself is a tremendous accomplishment.  Each of us has faced numerous challenges in pursuing our educations, whether they were trying to manage working and raising a family while attending school, battling illness, learning disabilities, or struggling to finally find a way to learn that works for us.

Our paths have been different than most students, and our journey a longer and more arduous one.  However, in the words of Joseph Campbell, “Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come when life seems most challenging.”  I believe that is something that every one of us grads here today has learned firsthand in our time at ILC.

It is because of the obstacles we’ve faced and overcome that we have become stronger, more confident, and much more aware that, with hard work, we are capable of greatness.  Many of us thought this day would never come, and without our commitment to tough it out through the hardship we’ve faced in order to better ourselves, and the help, guidance and encouragement of our teachers, it might not have.

When every day can be a challenge, a strong support system is vital—and we were lucky enough to find one in ILC.  Please, a round of applause for our exceptional teachers and staff.  ILC has the most concentrated group of wholly committed, deeply caring and effective teachers I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.  On behalf of our graduating class, I would like to thank each and every one of you.  You’ve taught us things we never thought we would be able to learn, advised us, pushed us to do better, celebrated every small victory alongside us with genuine excitement, and believed in us even at times we did not believe in ourselves.

We have come a great distance in our time at ILC, and the journey has changed us all.   Three years ago, when I first entered ILC, I never would have been able to gather the courage to speak from my heart in front of all of you, but my time at this school has given me the strength to move forward and taught me the value of facing my fears.  We’ve fought through adversity and come out on the other side. Our graduation is a victory, and a hard-won victory is always much sweeter.

There is a saying, “Smooth seas do not make skilled sailors”.  While there will be many more bumps in the road ahead, with the experience and life skills that we have learned from them, the challenges that at first set us back, can now launch us ahead.

It is important to remember that are options for us now—they’re unlimited, when we before we had so few. Be proud of that, graduates, because we have created those options, with the help of our teachers and built brighter futures for ourselves. If we can do that, we can do anything.

A wise man once said, “The fireworks begin today. Each diploma is a lighted match. Each one of you is a fuse.” 

Congratulations class of 2012—we finally did it.

Rhianna, your speech above is full of thanks to people who brought you and your classmates the success of which you speak, and now graduation.  But please allow me to reverse the message.  We are indebted to you, and to those classmates with whom you celebrated a well earned victory.  You have taught us so much, including that if we act with purpose we can create places of learning that truly serve the many, varied and unique needs of our learners.

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One response to “Schools of Relevance. . . and the Beauty of a Good Alternate School

  1. Wow, reading Rhianna’s words brought tears to my eyes! It is so great that we live in a place where every student can be given the opportunity to learn, and that supports are available for these students to succeed.
    The flexibility that ILC provides students is very important – we live in a rapidly evolving world and the 8:30 – 3:00 schedule does not work for everyone, not to mention standard curriculum. I have only been out of high school for 7 years, and I can already see the differences in how I learned versus how students are learning today. And the fact that students can find support through all of these changes makes me very happy that I was/am a part of BC education 🙂

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