There is a talking stick, a pet rabbit and Friday jam sessions. But you won’t find any desks in the classroom of the Vernon Community School.
Offered at no extra charge, the program at Fulton secondary school is in its first year of offering students in Grades 7 to 9 an alternative to the traditional classroom, while still following the B.C. curriculum.
With teachers Murray Sasges and Kim Ondrik, VCS is “a place of mindful teaching and learning rooted in social justice grounded in the unique people, geography, economy and challenges of the North Okanagan.”
Community mentors are a key part of the program. So far, students have learned from mentors on subjects as wide-ranging as bicycle repair and music.
“This is an invitation to people in the community to hook up with us,” said Ondrik. “We are not a traditional setting; this might not be done in a certain time frame — we might have one mentor who is not available until 4 p.m. and we can make that work.”
On Tuesday morning, students each held the classroom’s talking stick while sharing what kind of skills they would like in a mentor.
The ideas were as varied as the students: metal working, car restoration, horses, guitar, blacksmithing, writing, making video games, cooking, fireworks and geology.
Grade 8 student Amelia Hladych is looking for a mentor who can nurture her interest in woolcraft and animals.
“This program is really awesome,” she said. “It was really overwhelming at first as I knew nothing about the program.”
Formerly a student at the Waldorf-inspired Cedarbridge School in Lumby, Amelia lives on Vale Farms and plans a future career as a farmer.
Grade 7 student Miika Isnardy became interested in the program after discussing it with a friend.
“We thought it would be fun to sign up together and then she moved to Ontario,” she said. “At first I wasn’t sure, but now I’m in love with this program.
“I was being bullied in my last school, here it’s so much better, and the high school kids have been really nice to us as well.”
Isnardy said the communal style of learning at VCS appeals to her.
“We have guidance from Murray and Kim, but we don’t need them to tell us what to do,” she said.
She is looking for a mentor for interior design and decorating but also hopes to one day be well-known as both an actress and a prima ballerina.
Cole McKay is looking for a mentor experienced in 3D design. VCS does not operate as a traditional classroom, but McKay said he has nothing else to compare it to.
“I’ve been homeschooled my whole life, so I don’t know the difference,” he said. “So far, it’s a lot better than what I’ve heard of school — it’s a lot more relaxed and I’m loving it.”
Grade 7 student William Oordt-Bosman made the switch from the French immersion program he’s been in since kindergarten.
“This seemed like fun and here you learn about things you are interested in,” he said. “I like the school very much.”
He’s looking for a mentor who can help further his interests in architecture, graphic design and Web design.
For Sasges, the program helps students to build self-regulation.
“Kids want to be told what to do, as that’s what they’re used to, but we want them to figure out for themselves what needs to be done,” said Sasges.
Through Sasges’ Global Education program for Grade 11 students at Fulton and Ondrik’s Grade 6/7 classroom, Ozone, at Ellison elementary, both teachers have for years seen the power of this kind of learning and were inspired to offer this to more children in the community.
“This program has exceeded my expectations,” said Ondrik.
Both teachers have observed the respect and kindness that the students have shown towards one another.
“And the generosity of Fulton has been amazing, the whole school,” said Ondrik. “I’ve heard really positive comments towards the kids, and (principal) Ken Gatzke has done everything in his power to give us peace of mind. We’ve had no issues whatsoever.”
The academy will engage students in community projects, and so far, the program has taken part in the Tweed Ride last Sunday and volunteering at Common Threads.
“The kids all feel like they belong, and belonging is the soil in which learning happens,” said Ondrik. “We are accountable to them and we really do believe we are co-creating this with the parents and the kids,” said Ondrik. “It’s been this really beautiful thing.
When trustees approved the program last winter, district superintendent Joe Rogers said the only stipulation for it to go ahead was that it needed 56 students signed up by February.
“We had 120 families apply and we now have 57 kids in the program,” said Sasges. “We have a multi-generational approach here, so we may have Grade 6 kids spending time with Grade 12 kids, having that cross-age stuff where they can learn from each other.
“You can’t prepare stuff for this. You have to prepare yourself each day and now we are working with the community to learn with us. Much of what we are doing is building capacity in kids to build responsibility in them. It’s about the community aspect of the community school — we want everyone to be part of the school.”
As teachers, Ondrik and Sasges said the program has challenged them and re-ignited their passion for teaching, which they are doing in a collaborative way.
“We challenge each other and help each other grow,” said Ondrik.
Social justice is taking place as well. When three kids were showing up without lunch, parents began to bring in extra food, while someone else donated a fridge.
“So then we had this discussion of ‘what is wrong with this picture,’ and the kids just got involved and started bringing in food to share,” said Ondrik. “We want to pave a way that is socially just and respectful. We are not trying to be renegades — we are trying to be more rigorous.”
Applications will be available for the 2015/16 school year in January. For more information, see http://vernoncommunityschool.wordpress.com/ or check out the school’s Facebook page.