The best way of understanding Vernon Community School is by letting the students do the talking.
The latest alternate program in the Vernon School District is now in its third year, operating out of several classrooms at Fulton secondary school.
“I feel smarter,” said Jordan Kruysifix, 12, who is in her first year at VCS. “I feel more comfortable to make mistakes.”
Her comments echo those of her classmates, whose comments range from “I love how you can just say how you feel,” to “You can pick how you want to learn,” and “I like the freedom that the school gives you to make your own choices.”
Jaryn Tiggelaar, 13, enjoys the freedom to take up areas of study that interest him.
“It’s creative and a fun way to learn, and quite a bit different,” he said. “And I like the people.”
Hunter Byles, 13, said while his parents expected to see growth in the areas of math and science, VCS has been about so much more.
“I enjoy it because I’ve grown so much,” he said. “I like learning about myself and through that you exceed expectations.”
The 75 students in Grades 7 to 11 come from a wide variety of backgrounds, some from other schools in the district, others from homeschooling. All have embraced what teacher and co-creator Kim Ondrik calls a place of mindful teaching and learning that is rooted in social justice.
“That means that the educational opportunities here are tailored for each student and his or her unique interests, passions and needs,” she said.
It’s a different way of learning and of teaching and this year, Ondrik and co-creator/teacher Murray Sasges have been joined by teachers April Olson, Jim Garlick and Doug Ondrik.
“This has now allowed us to offer some diverse opportunities for kids,” said Sasges. “We are creating a more respectful and diverse environment.”
Garlick is currently a science teacher at Fulton who will be working with VCS for one block.
“Jim sees science in everything; it’s math, it’s reading, it’s thinking, it’s writing, it’s everything,” said Ondrik.
Her husband, Doug, will work with the program part-time in the capacity of ecological/outdoor pedagogue, as well as helping to set up a hands-on maker space for students to use.
“Doug brings the hands-on maker outdoor ed piece. He is also trained as a math teacher, so for the kids it’s offered far more choices,” she said.
Olson joins as a full-time math teacher.
“April is passionate about the outdoors, traveling, speaking Spanish, tinkering with science, designing thoughtful math provocations, playing the piano, and listening to young people,” said Ondrik.
In addition to earning alternate school status from the Ministry of Education, VCS has also been classified as a school for gifted kids, all of whom Ondrik calls co-creators of VCS.
“The kind of programming we’re doing is personalized, which is teaching kids deeper things, and that kind of model is considered gifted programming. This kind of way allows for diversity and that’s why kids are saying ‘I feel safer’ or ‘I get along with people,’ because you’re not constantly in fight or fight mode.
“My whole career has been working towards this and what I appreciate about VCS is how much I learn every day.”
But while VCS is on a different path from the traditional classroom, Ondrik is quick to point out that all requirements towards high school graduation are still met. Each student has an individual learning plan and VCS uses Fresh Grade, an online program that allows parents to keep up to date on what their kids are learning.
And, while letter grades are still provided at the end of each school year, Ondrik said they are not used as “carrots or sticks,” because she wants to ensure students aren’t constantly comparing and competing with each other.
“I don’t have a problem with letter grades, I have a problem with rivalry, competition and ranking,” she said.
There are a number of initiatives that set VCS apart from the traditional classroom. One is the mentoring program, where adults in the community offer their expertise in a wide variety of fields.
And new this year, students will have the chance to work outside of school hours with a life coach, which Ondrik calls an opportunity for intergenerational conversation, encouragement and support.
For Ondrik and Sasges, running a non-traditional program is nothing new. She ran the Ozone program at Ellison elementary, while Sasges ran the Global Education program, with Alan Gee, at Fulton.
“This is our normal learning,” said Ondrik.
And both teachers have happily embraced the new curriculum introduced by the ministry, as it ties in neatly with what both have been doing for years.
“The new curriculum has been my whole career and it’s been growing slowly for 25 years, so I don’t really see it as completely new,” said Ondrik. “I think Murray and I see the language around core competencies as being something that we can use as the bones of our school.”