In Ross River, they know principal Thomas Jirousek is an outstanding educator.
Now the country knows it.
This week, Jirousek receives a national Outstanding Principal Award and will be treated to five-days of workshops on learning and leadership at the University of Toronto.
“When I was nominated I thought ‘Oh, that’s very nice, but what are the chances?’” said Jirousek as he prepared dinner at his Ross River home.
He discovered he was one of 30 principals honoured with the award in January.
It was exactly 10 years ago, in 1996, that the school’s staff nominated Jirousek for a leadership in education award through Reader’s Digest, he said.
“These are the two big surprises in my life. Sometimes I just chuckle at my good fortune.”
The Ross River School averages 70 students from kindergarten to Grade 10. More than 90 per cent are from the Kaska Nation.
On top of the regular slate of classes, the school offers individualized plans for special-needs children and a specially focused class called the Kaska studies program where students learn the traditional language and hunting and fishing skills.
Jirousek is working towards making the school a community meeting place.
Last year, he approached the school’s teachers with an idea — to broaden the school’s curriculum and offer different classes like shop and computer science on Wednesday afternoons.
Jirousek loves cooking so he offered to teach a cooking class.
“The Food for Learning programs gives kids a quality snack (bananas, yogurt, bagels) in the mornings, they gobble it down and that’s the end of it,” he said.
He decided to go a step further and teach the students how to cook simple, inexpensive, healthy meals in a short period of time.
He began cooking meals for the community in the school.
“The best way to get kids to school is to celebrate something together, so we would celebrate the beginning of the year with a community school breakfast,” he explained.
The school also hosts special dinners for other holidays like Thanksgiving, Remembrance Day, Christmas and Easter — the celebrations bringing out about 180 people.
And in a town of 350, that’s quite an accomplishment.
“People are coming to school to have a good meal, to have a good time, to mingle with teachers and kids. Kids are serving the elders and the elders are quite happy because they’re being acknowledged.”
That’s how you build community and get people interested in going to school, said Jirousek.
“Students are responding better, the community seems to be quite happy,” he added. And the newfound community connections are stabilizing the school, resulting in less teacher turnover in the past three years.
The Association of Yukon School Administrators nominated Jirousek for the award through the Learning Partnership of Canada and the Canadian Association of Principals.
Jim Tredger, principal of Jack Hulland Elementary School was also nominated this year.