A community of learners and teachers

Vernon Community School is a place of mindful teaching and learning rooted in social justice

He’s been a commercial fisherman, a tree planter and a farmer. And as the newest teacher at Vernon Community School, Andrew Thoms is the perfect fit for the alternate school that brings together 80 students operating out of four rooms at Fulton secondary school.

“It’s my style of teaching — it’s free, it’s engaging, it’s what’s actually needed in society,” said Thoms, a science teacher who spent a few months last year as a substitute teacher in the program. “I walked in and saw the classroom in disarray and the students having fun and I thought, this is actually productive, these kids are getting somewhere, they’re enjoying life and realistically, you need to be happy before you do anything well.”

A graduate of Carleton University in Ottawa and teachers’ college at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., Thoms has had a life that has included sailing from Vancouver Island to Hawaii, teaching in Bella Coola, and living on the land as a farmer and rancher.

“Andrew is a young enthusiastic person with a passion for teaching and relating to youth,” said Kim Ondrik, who started VCS four years ago with Murray Sasges. “We are becoming a beautifully well-rounded comprehensive school for all kids in our community.

“This is a good opportunity to thank the district for being so generous in giving us two more teachers. The district has been great but I also need to talk about the parents, and the families and the commitment to making this program work. Murray and I had the energy and the understanding to start it but we don’t want to be renegades, the whole purpose is to present another way, so it’s really the parents that have opened these doors.”

The Vernon School District provides VCS as a free program for students in Grades 7 to 11. Those interested might be students currently in Grade 6 and 7; students seeking personalized intellectual challenges and/or social/emotional development; home-schooled students who prefer a learning opportunity that is more communal and less isolated; learners with diverse needs who are interested in hands-on learning experiences and might require an alternative to the traditional classroom.

“And because of our programming and what we offer, we are considered by the ministry a school for gifted kids, because traditionally this is what gifted kids benefited from, when really it should be for all kids,” said Ondrik. “We’re about constraints but not coercion, so there’s constraints around all of us but also the kids, there are skills you need to have in the world in order to feel good about living in the world and to be productive but it’s never coerced.”

A math mentor at VCS in 2016, teacher Lindsay Bayford will be handling literacy and numeracy intervention at VCS and while she considers herself something of a numeracy specialist, the real draw for her has been the chance to build relationships.

“I just feel learning doesn’t have a timeline and this is an opportunity to help kids figure out what they do know because they all know something, and even if they’re afraid of reading, writing or math, let’s go back and figure out where they are and get them really confident and then have that confidence to move forward with it,” said Bayford, who previously taught in Alberta before taking time away from the classroom to raise her three children. “VCS is cutting edge, they’re innovative, they’re doing what needs to be done everywhere in education, they’re helping kids become learners.

“It is uncomfortable when you first walk in and it was something so different for me that I had never walked into before, and it was uncomfortable at first. And then you realize it’s not the stereotype, you have to really say, ‘Oh this can be what learning is. This is amazing.’

“These kids get to go through grades together and learn at different grade levels all together, it’s a learning family; those kids coming back to school know they are coming back to a safe place and back to a family where people know them, they listen to them. It’s a mutual respect.”

Math teacher April Olson taught in China for a year and in London, England for two years. She has worked at all of the district secondary schools, and would find herself laid off at the end of every year. She started at VCS last year, drawn to the program by the chance to work collaboratively with like-minded individuals.

“And it’s really meeting kids where they’re at and taking time and not rushing through content, seeing the curriculum as the way,” she said. “The really cool thing for me is this is the first year I didn’t get laid off, but actually it’s also the first year I’m at a place where I really want to be, and it’s kind of neat that it happened at the same time.”

Now in his second year, Doug Ondrik teaches woodwork and outdoor school and said it was initially overwhelming to be teaching in a program like VCS.

“But it’s been fantastic, and I’ve found the kids were unlike anything I’ve ever taught before, very positive, very engaged, loving to come to school and getting a taste for getting to try a whole bunch of different things,” said Ondrik, who has four sons with his wife, Kim. “When we moved here from the coast, I got a job but was always laid off — I had a continuing contract for 10 years but was always laid off, so I was just bouncing around the district.”

Sasges points out that without Doug’s encouragement, it’s unlikely the program would have had 16 kids and three dads hike up Mt. Robson.

“We had four jocks and the rest of the guys were guys who lumbered all the way up there and lumbered all the way back,” said Doug. “Each week we go on an outing of some type: when we went fishing, they had to make their own fishing poles, and we fished in the creek beside Fulton.”

For all of the teachers at VCS, the chance to work in collaboration is one of the strengths of the program, which now has a waiting list of students wanting to enroll.

“With colleagues like this in a team like this, to be able to bounce ideas or to be able to get reflective feedback from somebody that you respect is huge — we interrogate each other’s work, we interrogate our own work, what it’s a constant conversation.

“That’s another strength of the 25, 35 mentors we get every year who are really diverse human beings and that’s what I wanted right from day one in teaching, you need to see someone who doesn’t look at all like you and seems to be thriving and is an engaging human being.

“This type of teaching wasn’t an adjustment for me but like any system that has ways of being when you are completely alternative to that you’re often seen as a rebuke or a critique even though you’re not meaning to be — we’re just saying there’s another way that’s really good for families and kids.”

With about 80 students and six teachers, as well as the mentors, Sasges said the program is exactly where it needs to be but he’s also happy to see a waiting list for VCS.

“This is strategic because we’d like to see this offered in other places; we’re saying this is as big as we can be, so that we know each other and we’re that village, so now let’s get a whole bunch more people, let’s get one going at VSS,” said Sasges. “And we’d love to add a K to 6, that’s our dream; I have a grandson who is two-and-a-half and we’ve got to have it going for him.”

The program welcomes new mentors at any time — if you’d like to help, call Kim at 250-308-8655. To learn more about VCS, go to www.vernoncommunityschool.wordpress.com

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