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At NCS, Small Classes Make a Big Difference

Written on December 1st, 2014

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Surrounded by woods and streams, Northumberland Christian School (NCS) looks more like a chalet than a conventional school building.

The Cobourg independent school is unique—in terms of its facility, an eco-friendly, passive solar structure that was built entirely by volunteers, and in its vision for education.

With multi-age classes averaging about 15 students, educators have the opportunity to offer one-on-one instruction and individualized programming.

“We’re successful because we’re small,” says Ginette Mack, a teacher at the school.

“We know the multiple intelligences of our kids because we know them so well. So we can tailor make our lessons. We see that as a strength in our community.”

In an area where mega schools are slowly becoming the norm, Mack doesn’t take those opportunities for granted. The learning environment at NCS is intimate, interactive and family oriented. Students from all grade levels participate in devotions every morning and take field trips together.

Inclusion is a part of the school’s athletic culture too. Participation in sports teams is “kinda mandatory” laughs Mack, “because we have to have a certain number of students on the team.”

In local tournaments the school doesn’t always score the highest, but competition isn’t really the point. NCS students learn how to win and lose and they “hold their own,” she notes. “We do everything as a community. They know how to support one another.”

A sense of trust and fellowship characterizes life in the classroom too.

Miriam, a senior student at NCS, has been attending the school for ten yearsand her experience has been a positive one. “It’s just a very nice school,” she says. “We all know each other really well.”

“Small schools really allow kids to feel safe to rise above and do things they might otherwise never do in front of a bigger crowd,” says Mack. “They feel very at home.”

That’s not to say that students aren’t challenged to aim high. Multi-age classes tend to “push the limit” says Mack. Students in the younger grades are exposed to concepts that they might not ordinarily encounter until much later, and they rise to the challenge.

“In Jr. Kindergarten I was reading grade 2 level books,” says Cole, a student in grade 4. Cole’s favorite subjects are science and reading. “Our last science unit was rocks and minerals,” he says rather matter-of-factly. “We had a soap stone carver in and we got to carve our own soap stones.”

Being small has also inspired NCS teachers to think multi-age and multidisciplinary, as they foster community engagement. Mack is currently working with her colleagues to plan a school-wide, project based learning experience for students next year, where they’ll look at the history, culture and people from the local First Nations community.

The goal is to get every class involved, at every level, she says.

“That’s a need in our community. A lot of people who live here don’t know the history as well as they could.”

This won’t be the first time that the school has aimed to strengthen ties with its surrounding neighbourhood. Each month the Junior class pays a visit to Extendicare, a local senior’s home in Cobourg. Students get to know residents through crafts, physical fitness exercises, music, and sharing food together. Recently, each student interviewed a resident about their life story and presented it in the form of a book, as part of a special service learning project.

The perks of being a small school reveal themselves in all aspects of learning at NCS—largely because teachers are making the most of a particular context.

“There are times when you realize that because you’re small, you can change really quickly, too,” says Mack. “You can adapt a new curriculum just by four or five people sitting around a table saying ‘do we want to move ahead with this?’ In bigger schools I’ve worked in, there’s this huge long process and a lot of red tape.”

“When I first started teaching here I thought, oh we’ve got to grow this school and make it bigger. And now I see our smallness is a gift.”