Dannon MacKay knew that the traditional classroom wasn’t the best way for her to learn.
So when it came to leaving the home-school environment for high school, Vernon Community School was the obvious choice.
“I didn’t like too much structure, so we homeschooled starting in Grade 2 because we could learn the way I learn,” said MacKay, 15. “VCS was between homeschooling and a regular classroom, so you get the school setting but you get to learn the way you learn.
“And it appealed to me because it’s project-based, and you work with mentors but you still get to be with other kids as well.”
Based at Fulton secondary school, VCS is open to students in Grades 7, 8 and 9 and is offered at no additional charge. Facilitated by co-creators and teachers Kim Ondrik and Murray Sasges, the school is geared towards learners with diverse needs who are interested in their community and might require an alternative to the traditional classroom, as well as to home-schooled students who prefer a learning opportunity that is more communal and less isolated.
Teachers guide students on their learning journey rather than dictating lessons to them. Students also work with mentors in the fields that interest them, building real- world connectedness and providing reasons for why students need skills and knowledge.
Now in her second year and in Grade 10, MacKay is still able to take part in VCS because she is also doing three courses in the mainstream program at Fulton.
“I am kind of a leader, I get to take things up, I can organize events and plan things as well as still getting the curriculum I need,” she said.
Recently, VCS was invited to be part of a partnership between the Ministry of Education, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and several other partners.
“About 17 schools were selected out of 85 applicants, including ours,” said Ondrik. “We have been given an $8,000 grant to design and research our work at VCS.”
The Innovation Partnership grant is to further develop programs for implementing the ministry’s revised kindergarten to Grade 9 curriculum that is being introduced to schools this year.
“We have been granted $5,000 to support the work of Vernon Community School as well as $3,000 to research and document our work to share with others,” said Ondrik, “and hopefully inspire others to try new things in schools and classrooms.
“We also have the opportunity to apply for exemptions from/adaptations to ministry expectations/protocols such as letter grades and funding. The intent is for the ministry, BCTF and other partner groups to discover what institutional structures are getting in the way of innovation and change.”
MacKay was selected by Ondrik and Sasges to attend the recent Innovative Schools Conference in Richmond where they were able to share the innovative practices and visions of VCS. The conference was a gathering of the 17 innovative sites around the province.
“It was a lot of fun. At the beginning you had to stand up and say who was at your table and what your school was doing. I stood up and everyone was surprised because there are not supposed to be kids there,” said MacKay.
One of her tasks during the conference was to present the video she made about VCS and previously shown to former Minister of Education Peter Fassbender.
“I talked to eight people, and my teachers and I got a lot of feedback,” she said.
Ondrik said the sharing of the innovative work of VCS was facilitated by David Albury, a global innovation facilitator from Britain.
“David was immediately impressed that Murray and I brought Dannon to the gathering. She was the only student there,” said Ondrik. “Murray and I believe strongly in promoting student voice in educational discussions so as the eldest student at VCS, Dannon was a natural choice. There is a line-up of interested students for the next gathering, as well as parents, trustees and educators.”
In consultation with the program’s co-creators — students, parents, community mentors — VCS has decided to purchase an iMac with video editing software and a video camera so students can create small films that explain different aspects of VCS to share with the world, on its blog at www.vernoncommunityschool.wordpress.com.
“Dannon has been mentored by Jamie Ross at Shaw Cable for the past year, so she will lead this challenge, sharing her learnings with other interested students,” said Ondrik. “They will be inquiring into the most powerful ways to digitally storytell our experiences and personal growth at VCS.
“We are also using money for small groups of students to travel with Murray or I to see what other schools are doing in the Okanagan Valley — innovative ideas that we could borrow.
“Finally, we are using money to provide time for math mentors to create interdisciplinary projects which promote inquiry- based, real-life, hands-on numeracy exploration which cultivate deeper understanding of math learning outcomes. Our parents are very passionate that our students develop an interest in numeracy. This is one way to promote this attitude.”
Ondrik said VCS is having a profound impact on all its co-creators — teachers, parents, community mentors and students.
“It is developing and inspiring critical, creative and reflective thinking; self and other awareness, personal confidence, agency and communication skills; building a democratic community by cultivating the understanding that diversity is human, and differences will always exist in perspective, experiences and ways of expressing mind, heart and spirit,” she said.
She added that VCS is a place of high expectations and high support for everyone involved: a place that assesses the core competencies of the B.C. education plan while “living” the content — experiential, inquiry based, rooted in real life, initiated by student interest and passions.
Assessment is self, peer and adult and is determined using descriptive, non-judgmental feedback. All learning is documented electronically on FreshGrade, an app that lets parents see their child’s work online. Students each have portfolios and parents are alerted to new documentation immediately on their electronic devices.
“This home/school connection is powerful, and students, parents and teachers can upload questions, comments, feedback and concerns whenever they like. It’s a method of continuous, ongoing reporting.”
Ondrik is hopeful that the program will be extended to Grade 12 and eventually to have it run from kindergarten to Grade 12.
For more information on VCS, email Ondrik at email@example.com or Sasges at firstname.lastname@example.org. Application forms are available on the School District 22 web site at www.sd22.bc.ca/forms.html