Enviro school a new take on learning

By Robert Mangelsdorf – Maple Ridge News

A proposed environmental-focused school being developed by School District No. 42 is hoping to tear down the traditional classroom and bring students outside, in what could be the vanguard of a new educational philosophy.

Yennadon vice-principal Clayton Maitland is helping spearhead the program and says the idea began two years ago with a conversation with teacher Jodi Macquarrie about the future of education and how learning could be re-imagined.

What they have since developed, with the help of community partners and a $1 million federal grant, incorporates a number of different education models into a single self-guided, project-based, hands-on learning experience.

“What we asked ourselves was, what if the school didn’t look like a school?” said Maitland.

The environmental school won’t be a school at all, in the traditional brick-and-mortar sense, nor will the classroom be confined to four walls. Classes will largely take place outdoors, and what work is done in a more traditional “classroom” setting, could be done in the field using temporary structures like tents or yurts, Maitland said.

The work would be project-based, and students would have input into just what projects they would like to pursue.

Maitland said much of curriculum will likely be based on what is happening here in Maple Ridge.

“What’s happening on the North Alouette River is a perfect example,” he said, referring to the sudden death of hundreds of fish fry last year on the local river.

“Issue-based curriculum asks deeper questions. Students could look into the river’s ecology, the history of the river, calculating water flow.”

The goal is to take subjects outside of the traditional classroom and provide real-world applications for students, he says.

“Learning doesn’t just take place within the four walls of a classroom,” said Maitland. “It happens everywhere, all the time.”

While various aspects of the school have been incorporated elsewhere, no school anywhere has combined all of them.

“This is totally unique,” said Maitland. “There’s nothing like this being done anywhere.

”Todd Hill, co-chair of the district parent advisory council, said the proposed school is a unique program that could benefit many opportunity for students “Anytime we can offer more educational choices to our children, I think that’s a good thing,” he said. “Some children don’t respond well to the classroom setting. A more hands-on program could benefit them.”

The program should have no trouble reaching its goal of 50 students, Hill added.

A survey conducted by the school district in fall 2009, asking parents what kind of education options they would be interested in, shows interest in the program. Close to 30 per cent of the more than 1,500 respondents said they would be interested in a program that was “Environmental (experiential, hands-on, emphasis on exploring natural world).”

The school would be small to start, with only about 50 students in two classes spanning kindergarten to Grade 7. The multi-grade format is designed to offer older students a chance to mentor younger ones.

The district is holding an information session tonight at Yennadon elementary to answer any questions prospective parents may have about the proposed program.

The project still needs to receive final board approval to move ahead, Maitland notes, but should everything go according to plan, the school should be up and running for the 2011/12 school year.

“The traditional public school model hasn’t changed in 150 years,” said Maitland. “That environment might work for some students and some teachers, but what we want to do is provide another option.”