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Growing a high school in PEI

Written on October 10th, 2017

Since changing high schools to attend Immanuel Christian School (ICS), Grade 11 student Maddie says she feels happier and enjoys being in class. Maddie started this year at her previous school, and after thinking about the new ICS high school decided to try it out for a day. That day was all she needed to confirm that she wanted to finish her secondary education at the same school she attended from Kindergarten through Grade 9.

“I definitely had a feeling that was pulling me to come back to Immanuel,” she says. “When I came back and tried it out for that day I really enjoyed it.”

Maddie always experienced a welcoming and family-like feeling at ICS, she says, adding she was unsure if the new high school would maintain that atmosphere. After her first day she discovered that it does. She also points to the sense of trust and freedom ICS staff give to students.

“On the weekends I tell my mom, ‘I can’t wait to go back to school,’ and she thinks it’s hilarious because at my old school I didn’t want to go back,” Maddie says.

The Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island (PEI) independent school previously offered Christian education from kindergarten through Grade 9 (in PEI, high school starts at Grade 10). Until this year, most ICS graduates would attend a larger public high school. While that worked for some families, many parents wanted to continue Christian education through to Grade 12.

“It broke my heart when we’d have our graduation every year,” says teacher Joanne Mawhinney. The Grade 9 graduates were starting to ask questions and examine their beliefs. “I felt our job was incomplete when we set them out into a public setting … just at that moment when the maturing in their spiritual formation was happening.”

Initially after graduating many students were excited to go to the larger public school. A couple months later, Mrs. Mawhinney says many students visited her saying they wished ICS had a high school.

“I’m thrilled that I get to be here to see [the high school] happen and be part of it,” she says.

This burgeoning desire for a new high school fit into other changes happening at ICS. Three years ago, the school moved to a new building, which provided more space allowing for the expansion into a high school. Right from the beginning, it was something that involved the community. A working group with the principal, teachers, parents and board members met frequently to discuss the high school plans. As things progressed, two smaller groups formed which focused on curriculum, set-up and scheduling.

Rob MacDonald, the high school’s homeroom teacher, says a working team conducted research and visited other local Christian schools. They were particularly impressed with Halifax Christian Academy’s Junior High, as well as examples from New Zealand and Australia.

A unique part of ICS’ development is the working team explored innovative approaches to education. This is woven throughout the fabric of the high school, from the way the space is designed to the curriculum and culture.

Construction began in February to create a distinct high school space on the second floor. The space was designed to allow for movement, activity, collaboration and individual work that created a main large, open space with round tables and chairs at one side of the room and couches, comfy chairs and coffee tables at the other.

There were also challenges that needed creative solutions if the high school was to be realized. One of these was PEI’s recently passed a Private Schools Act which prevents private schools from awarding a provincial diploma. Instead, ICS is offering its own diploma, which Mr. MacDonald says the universities have accepted. ICS is using the same course codes and numbering for their classes as the public school system, making it easier for post-secondary institutions and parents to understand.

But, construction was completed just in time for 22 students to arrive after the Labour Day weekend. In the first few weeks visitors to the high school shared how different the space is – using words like “informal” and even a bit “messy.” With an open area painted in bright colours and students huddled in small groups it might seem more at home in Google offices than a school.

At times students are on the floor working, sometimes at tables writing, a small group may be in a breakout room and the teacher walks around between different groups. Mr. MacDonald describes it as “doing teaching more ‘at the elbow’ instead of the front.”

“[Students] are free to pick their spot where they’d like to work – some like the round tables, some sprawl on the floor, some like the comfy chairs with a clipboard,” says Mr. MacDonald. “[They] have an opportunity to work in the type of environment that is most suitable to their learning skills.”

In this way the learning spaces created for the new high school supports an inquiry-based learning that was part of the distinct vision for these upper grades. In this approach students work on solving a problem or answering a question. Mr. MacDonald, who has been teaching for 25 years, notes how different this is from earlier in his career when the teacher would pose a question and share the answer or refer to the textbook.

“It’s a bit of a bottom-up approach to teaching,” he says. Students are curious and engaged, which is what Mr. MacDonald finds most energizing. Student questions are being used to drive where the learning goes. But, ICS’ high school uses a mixture of curriculum content based on where they see strengths for a particular subject. This includes resources from the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools (OACS), the province’s public system, and other locations.

It’s also not just the subjects that are being taught differently, but many subjects are being taught in a multi-grade approach. ICS decided to include Grade 9 students in its high school, so at times there are four grade levels in the same class. With all students learning together around a subject, the assessment only differs in its expectations for students in older grades.

From the student perspective, Maddie says having various grades in a space with one teacher naturally promotes self-directed learning. “You have to be able to teach yourself,” she says, noting she’s learning what she needs to and can always ask the teacher for assistance.

Now, a month into the school year, Mr. MacDonald says it is working well. The emphasis is on students doing the talking, thinking and coming up with their own questions and solutions instead of copying notes off the board. There is an intentional 80:20 ratio—students do 80 percent of the talking and the teacher does 20 percent.

Faith and Worldview Studies, taught by Mrs. Mawhinney, is another subject where all students are together.

“Their willingness to think about things and discuss things has been great. I like the tone we have in our high school,” she says.

“I struggled to find curriculum that doesn’t feel canned to me. I remember as a young person myself being suspicious when I got something to which the answer could only be: pray, read your Bible, Jesus, go to church, those kind of answers,” she says. Currently students are studying the canonization of the New Testament, which is new territory for them.

Looking ahead, the desire at ICS is to increase enrolment in the coming years to 50-60 students. Mr. MacDonald envisions ICS being “a beacon of the way education could be,” where other educators can visit and bring ideas back to their own school community.

Maddie is enjoying being in the pioneer high school class. “I like the feeling of trying it out and trying to see what works,” she says. “We get to shape what the high school is going to be like. To me, that’s a really cool experience.”

ICS teachers are passionate about the mix of approaches they are using to engage students in new ways. Students are experiencing first-hand innovative pedagogy focusing on curiosity, small groups, a flexible work environment and exploration of Christian worldviews.