School saving Middle Years program may come to Whitehorse

It’s been called “engaging,” “invigorating” and “innovative.” It’s already eased the drop-out…

It’s been called “engaging,” “invigorating” and “innovative.”

It’s already eased the drop-out problem at one Vancouver inner-city school.

And it’s increased attendance at another school in a wealthy neighbourhood that was losing its students to private academies, saving that school from closure.

Now the Whitehorse Elementary School council wants to bring the internationally renowned Middle Years program to the Yukon.

The program — crafted for children in Grades 6 to 10 — is an offshoot of the International Baccalaureate program, which is already offered at many Canadian schools for advanced students in Grades 11 and 12.

Whitehorse Elementary would focus on delivering the Grade 6 and 7 components to the approximately 100 students enrolled in those grades.

“It’s important to distinguish it from the classic IB diploma program, which tends to be elitist and selective,” said Whitehorse Elementary School council chair Keith Halliday.

“This is an inclusive approach — it’s for all the kids at the school,” he said.

“It’s designed to help the average and struggling kids and bring benefits to all the kids in the school, not just the elite ones.”

The program is based on the existing British Columbia curriculum, but presents it in a new way.

The learning is more project-based and focused on experiential learning.

“It’s more than just supplemental stuff or extra homework — it would impact the largest part of their day,” said Halliday.

So kids would still learn the basics — about things like Mesopotamia and fractions.

But instead of having a worksheet to take home and fill out, the students learn through finding answers to “guiding questions,” such as: Why were the Mesopotamians more successful than the Persians, Egyptians or other civilizations at the time?

That question is designed to spark others, like: What did they eat? What was their government structure or their faming technology?

And the kids find creative ways to answer those questions.

At one BC school Halliday visited, the students answered the questions by drafting comic strips based on some Babylonian characters they created.

“Apparently the kids remember what they’ve learned much more and have a lot more fun and interest in coming to school,” said Halliday.

“That’s important in Grade 6 and 7, when kids are becoming teenagers and they may begin to question school and become less interested and check out a bit.”

Grades 6 and 7 can be an especially hard time for students, said Whitehorse Elementary School principal Pat Berrel.

“Apathy and things like that can occur if you’re not making things relevant for kids,” he said.

“If you’re sitting through a boring lecture, you’re not going to pay attention even as an adult.

“And with everything else that’s hopping around in kids — their hormones are all over the place — it’s tougher for them as well.”

The Middle Years program is about good teaching practices and getting the kids to be critical thinkers.

“This would bring a world-class educational approach to the Yukon with a focus on critical thinking, engaging the students through group projects and teaching the students to become self-aware of their learning,” Berrel added.

“When you do that, then you create exciting projects and they do become focused and aware and less likely to turn off school.”

The program is already offered at more than 100 schools across Canada.

Getting the initiative off the ground in the Yukon has been a joint effort between the school, its council and the Yukon’s Education department.

In the spring, Halliday and another member of the school’s council paid their own way to Vancouver to check out the program in BC schools. Berrel and a Yukon school superintendent David Sloan accompanied them.

During the fact-finding trip, the group saw how the program had changed the face of education at three southern schools.

They visited one BC school whose student population is made up of 80 per cent visible minorities and attracts many lower-income families.

“What was very illustrative for us was the high level of involvement we saw from the kids,” said Sloan.

The group also spoke with high school kids who had already passed through the Middle Years program.

“That was really quite revealing,” said Sloan. “The kids were very articulate about how they thought about learning and how they approached life in general.”

And they visited another school, in a more wealthy area of West Vancouver, that was saved from closure by the program.

“They were losing children to a lot of the private academies and they adopted the program as a sort of survival technique,” said Sloan.

“The program has not only staunched the flow of kids out, it’s also attracting kids in from other areas in West Vancouver and from North Vancouver.”

The teachers and school administration will decide whether the program will make its way to Whitehorse Elementary.

The school’s five Grade 6 and 7 teachers, the school librarian and the technology program teacher will head to Seattle in October for the initial training.

“They will come back and say, ‘Yes, this is for us,” or ‘No,’” said Berrel.

If the teachers decided to proceed with the program the school must formally apply to International Baccalaureate, and the teachers must be trained each year.

“That’s a good thing,” said Berrel. “Who would argue with positive professional growth among staff and positive personal communication among staff?

“Sometimes that doesn’t happen in schools, but there has to be communication between teachers and up through the levels.”

The program would begin at Whitehorse Elementary, but could eventually make its way to many schools in the territory.

“I think it would be great at any school in the Yukon,” said Halliday.

“The trend toward experiential and project-based learning and critical thinking is common to many new educational approaches and I think many schools in the Yukon will be doing it.”

If the teachers decide the program is a go, the school will move towards implementation over the next year.

Yukon’s Education department has committed to further examining the program, and its outcomes.

Implementing the program is expensive in a number of ways, said Sloan.

The International Baccalaureate program charges a $500 fee per child.

Plus there would be costs associated with training the teaching staff, and getting any further school supplies.

Whitehorse Elementary’s school council will host a fundraiser on October 12 at the school. It wants to raise $10,000.