An outdoor learning school will open to North Okanagan-Shuswap students in September at the previously closed South Canoe Elementary School site.
The school is to be opened as a K-Grade 6 model, with the possibility of adding a grade in each of two years to eventually become a K-Grade 8 school.
The timing of the program’s introduction seemed ideal as it would help deal with overcrowding at some Salmon Arm elementary schools and would be a cost saving to the district. School district staff were supportive as research shows enhanced academic performance from students in outdoor programs.
It is cheaper to reopen the closed school rather than install portables at various school sites. The cost per portable is $192,500, and eight are projected to be needed, for an estimated $1.5 million cost. The one-time capital cost of reopening South Canoe would be $455,000.
Official trustee Mike McKay had high praise for the committee working on the outdoor learning proposal.
“You have created a sacred trust with this work. You are showing us the research that this is good for kids, the community interest and the costs savings — there are all the pieces here to make this thrive,” he said. “I’m pleased to say ‘let’s make it happen.’ Think of the legacy this will create and be sustained over time.”
There are already 88 K-Grade 6 students whose parents have signed intent-to-register forms for the outdoor program. Students from across the school district would be welcome to register, as with French immersion. However, parents are responsible for transporting their children to the school. Bus routes will not be added to accommodate the outdoor program, as the cost would run more than $100,000.
There has been considerable support from teachers and parents for developing an outdoor school program in the district, with more than 125 parents attending an interest meeting.
McKay pointed out there are a few challenges to be overcome before the school can open. Some roof repairs are needed as well as electrical system upgrades.
Since the property is in the Agricultural Land Reserve and the school was previously closed, its reopening must be authorized by the Agricultural Land Commission — a process which usually takes some time. The school district is hoping this can be expedited, as the property use will be unchanged from its previous status.
McKay noted that enrolment pressures may eventually mean the South Canoe school will need to be used as a conventional neighbourhood school, resulting in the need for shared space with the outdoor program.
He also encouraged the outdoor program educators to share the knowledge and resources of their program with other school classes, possibly through a buddy system, or field trips for regular classes to participate alongside the full-time outdoor students.
“We could have kids guiding and learning from each other and that would be a beautiful thing.”