LAWRENCETOWN, NS - When the provincial commission on inclusive education released its report on March 26, the principal at a tiny alternative school in Lawrencetown thanked his students for helping change the face of education in Nova Scotia.
Titled Students First, Inclusive Education that Supports Teaching, Learning and the Success of all Students, the report is the culmination of a year of research and engagement with more than 5,000 Nova Scotians.
A handful of those consulted were students at Lawrencetown Education Centre and according to Monica Williams, one of the authors of the 131-page report, those Lawrencetown students were among the most memorable interviewed and made a major contribution to the report.
“They gave us some of the best quotes in our entire year,” said Williams remembering vividly that day back in late November when commissioners visited. “They were amazing.”
She said some of them had had major attendance problems and behavioural difficulties in school prior to LEC.
“And they made comments like this: ‘I love coming here. They care about me.’ Another comment was ‘I love coming to school every morning – getting up and coming to school,’” Williams said. “Someone else said ‘This school really looks out for your health. They want you to be healthy in every way.’”
One of the graduates of the school who met with the commission said: “Not every student fits the mold, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve an education.”
“That really stuck with us,” said Williams. “We have to look at breaking some of the molds and creating more flexibility so that all students can succeed.”
"We have to look at breaking some of the molds and creating more flexibility so that all students can succeed."
-- Monica Williams
Williams and the other commissioners believe so strongly in the need for alternative programming, similar to that at LEC, that they made it one of their first and top recommendations for implementation.
“It certainly is high on our priority list, and that’s why it’s in the first wave of priorities to be implemented in September of this year,” she said. “So by virtue of the fact that it’s in the first list it’s a high priority. And in terms of our hope, frankly it’s that we’ll have more programs in schools that are lifelines for students who are falling through the cracks. And that’s what places like Lawrencetown do. They provide that lifeline.”
While she admits there can be negative stigma associated with alternative programming, there shouldn’t be. “We really need to move beyond trying to fit all students into the same programs, and really start working on fitting the programs to the students,” she said.
Jamie Peppard is the principal at LEC and he couldn’t agree more.
“When you look at this as an educational institution, it certainly is a structured program, but it’s also student-centred,” he said. “It has to be because we have to know everything there is to know about these kids in order to build rapport and get the trust to make some changes. All the projects that we do are student-centred.”
When LEC staff designs program plans they ask how is this going to benefit students and how can they see the direct connection to the curriculum outcomes they need to deliver to give them their PSP programs so they can graduate.
The school uses experiential learning that could see students go on camping trips, hold their own highland games, offer a snowshoe challenge, or take a trip to the Bedford Institute of Oceanography. Every experience relates back to curriculum and outcomes, but in a way that engages students.
“You think of the role of an administrator here and the role of an administrator at one of the feeder schools -- the administrator at one of the feeder schools asks his teachers to provide him with a yearly plan,” Peppard explained. “What are you going to do for this specific course to achieve the outcomes to deliver this credit? And in a lot of cases what those teachers are doing is they’re following very closely to the curriculum guide that’s associated with the textbook, and some extra resources to move in a linear pattern to the end of that course.”
That’s standard, he said.
“And that is how you make sure your teachers are following curriculum and achieving outcomes and kids are digesting text and regurgitating text to show that they’ve learned it. In public schools that’s what happens – that yearly plan.”
It’s not quite like that at Lawrencetown Education Centre.
“At LEC Dave (Ross) and Janice (Beaver) have three courses they have to teach,” Peppard said. “They have to hand me four experiential modules per course. That experiential module consists of assignments and assessments that provide prior knowledge to a peak learning experience. That’s followed by reflective and shared learning opportunities that allow students to not only show what they’ve learned but to share what they’ve learned about that peak experience. And then the skills that they’ve learned from that they can take back to their life, their community – all that kind of stuff.”
Those experiences the students take part in, like the Oceans 11 class trip to the Bedford Institute, are something students look forward to instead of dreading.
“The kids go outside on the dock and there’s literally 60 feet of tables and then touch tags. So they walk out the door, they put their gloves on, and they walk around and they hold up an octopus, they touch a shark, they do all these things,” Peppard said. “So suddenly that peak experience of being there, exploring that, and hands-on learning about all the marine life – that’s hammered so many curriculum outcomes that it’s made Dave’s life very much easier. He doesn’t have to cover this section of the book. He doesn’t have to make them read 60 pages at home. He doesn’t have to have them look up an article, which maybe traditionally our kids would not be successful at doing.”
He said it takes them to a place that re-enforces all the information that they already have a working knowledge of and meets a terrific number of curriculum outcomes.
“So as kids take pictures and talk about what they learned back in the reflective component, not only are they re-enforcing the knowledge they gained from that great experience, but when they sit back and watch their classmates do their Powerpoint on what they learned, they’re like ‘man I didn’t get that when I went there,’” he said. “That’s fantastic, right? And when the next person does what they learned – because you and I might not get the same thing out of the experience – by the time they go all around 13, 14, 15 kids, the knowledge of that experience is cemented in there.”
A Change in Thinking
Peppard believes the way we envision education for kids who have significant challenges is far different now than it’s ever been.
“I know that in the past, as far back as 1991 working in a program that involved an alternative form of education, we were simply trying to plug in gaps, figure out where they had stopped in their development of math skills and try to pick it up from there,” he said, or look at the literacy component and try to pick it up from there.
“And as a result of that jigsaw puzzle we often lost sight of the whole picture – all those things that got them to the point where they stopped being involved in math,” he said. “We didn’t think back to ‘they were involved in this situation, or the home life that made it difficult for them to achieve this’ or whatever. We didn’t look at it that way.”
He said LEC has developed that bigger picture.
“We know where all our graduates are. We know where all the kids in general who have come through the door (are),” he said. “They don’t stay with us the whole time, but a lot of times they contact us and say ‘hey, you know that year I spent at LEC before I went back to my home school? That may have been the most impactful year of education that I had, because when I went back to school I was better able to handle the criticisms that came at me from public school. Also I was able to make some amends at home which made my family a little more supportive of me getting my education.’”
Being able to quantify the alternative school experience was what the commission was looking for.
“When we went to Lawrencetown Education Centre we were specifically looking for a model of an alternative program to see how that worked, to speak with the students, meet with the teachers, and get a feel for how a program like that operates and what the impact is for kids,” Williams said.
“I guess I have cautious optimism. When we spoke to the kids this morning, because Dave (Ross) had produced part of that report for us to read, I congratulated the students for having good quality conversations with adults in the room about something they felt strongly,” said Peppard. “They feel strongly about this school, and they feel strongly there are kids out there in communities around this province that are not in school because they don’t have the opportunity to try this type of education. So I congratulated the kids. I said you should be very proud of those conversations because you were part of it.”
Peppard said some of the reactions from students were satisfied looks and smiles.
“And then a couple of them made comments around the fact that you know it’s going to make a difference. I said ‘ya, I know. It’s going to make a difference,’” he said. “I’m optimistic, I’m excited about it, and when I think of the number of kids that are of school age and are not in school, I think it’s overdue.”
He said there is far greater population outside of Annapolis County where students could certainly use the opportunity to make the same kind of changes.
“I’m happy to see that through all the turmoil and controversy that surrounded this government and education they’ve certainly taken a bold step forward, but it’s going to be an impactful one in communities,” he said.
LEC middle level and high school students come from four feeder schools – Middleton, West Kings, Bridgetown, and Annapolis.