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School grows in enrolment and diversity

Written on May 22nd, 2018

Ottawa Christian School (OCS) is seeing an increase in enrolment, with many of the new families moving into the area looking for a Christian education.

Patricia González shares her family’s story of moving back to Canada after four years overseas, and how they moved to Barrhaven because they wanted to send their daughter to OCS.

Mrs. González is from Mexico and moved to Canada about nine years ago. Before they left their home in Quebec they had already thought about what school they would want for their daughter when they returned. Instead of moving back to Gatineau they moved to Barrhaven, which was “a step of faith that we don’t regret,” says Mrs. González.

Her daughter, in Grade 3, attended Christian schools when the family lived in Ecuador and Costa Rica, however their experiences were difficult. In a phone interview, Mrs. González is close to tears thinking about how “incredible” the OCS experience has been since the beginning, where they quickly felt like they belong.

“The first thing they noticed about my daughter when we got to OCS for the interview is she needed to build trust,” says Mrs. González. “That really struck me. They didn’t tell me anything was wrong with my daughter, they realised it was her previous environment that (caused) my daughter to not trust.”

The transition has gone well for her daughter. “It was perfect, she felt at home from the first day,” she says.

While OCS has been experiencing growth this past decade, previously the school experienced an enrolment decline. Virginia Dawson joined OCS staff as a part-time advancement coordinator in 2008. The school experienced its highest enrolment numbers in 2003-2004, and then started to decline rapidly due to the economy and job losses. In six years, the school dropped 51 families.

In 2010, OCS built a new school, as although enrolment was declining the school was at capacity. Since then, enrolment has grown every year except one with an increase of 42 families—close to the numbers experienced before the decline. There are currently 127 families at the school with 235 students from kindergarten to Grade 8.

When the new facility opened there were three empty classrooms, ready for growth. Now only one of those is empty, and when students return this fall all the classrooms will be used. Seeing continued growth at the school has been exciting, says Mrs. Dawson.

Before Mrs. Dawson was hired, advancement at the school was done by volunteers, which often meant there wasn’t the same kind of follow-up processes in place. As the first advancement coordinator at the school, Mrs. Dawson quickly saw the need for a databank for families who had contacted the school and inquired in the past.

Two parents at the school created a custom electronic databank that Mrs. Dawson and other staff access to keep contacts and notes updated. There are more than 500 people that Mrs. Dawson connects with at least four times a year, inviting them to events at the school.

Because of the databank and continuing to build relationships there are families who have been in contact with the school for a few years and then decide to enrol. “That is such a huge part of this growth,” Mrs. Dawson says.

As Canada’s capital city, some families moving to Ottawa are diplomats or have more transient lifestyles. While there are local families choosing OCS, almost half of the new families are relocating from places such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as other cities in Canada such as Vancouver and Calgary.

Bridging the personal with the virtual is an important part of how OCS connects with a broader community. The school’s online presence helps attract prospective families. Often international families look at the school’s website and watch the five-part video series that introduces the school and staff.

When out-of-town families are seriously interested the school sets up a meeting via Skype. As it takes anywhere from a week to week and a half to have all registration forms completed it is important to start the meetings and go through the screening process early.

The No. 1 way families learn about OCS has been the same way for years — word of mouth. This is what brought Threse Badawy’s family to the school. The mother of two heard positive reviews from her friends. When the family visited the school for a tour and introduction she found the staff friendly and helpful.

“Its not just a school, its more of a family,” Mrs. Badawy says, noting as she and her husband are immigrants having that support through the school community is important as their families are not nearby.

New families are invited to a welcome barbeque before the start of the school year, which almost all of them make the time to attend. As soon as they register Mrs. Dawson also connects them with two or three other families who have children the same age.

Another way the school has been growing is through relationships with area churches. In years past, the school’s choir visited churches and Mrs. Dawson set up a booth to answer questions. OCS also hosts an annual pastor breakfast, which sees about 25-30 pastors attend. More than 50 Christian churches are now represented at OCS, creating more diversity in the denominations present.

A newer initiative for OCS has been part of is a Christian Education Exposition, providing a one stop-shop for prospective families to learn about the different options available in the Ottawa area. In addition to meeting families, the expo has been a valuable way for schools to learn about one another and what niche areas each school offers.

But, most of the families inquiring about the school are coming because they want a Christian education, Mrs. Dawson notes. The focus on Christian education is a shift from previous years when some families may have had other items top their list, such as a French program.

Pauline Naftel, interim principal and learning resource teacher, also notes people are once again seeing the value of developing a Christian worldview. “It is an attraction to being able to teach that worldview, to give your kids that solid start of understanding who they are in Christ,” she says, adding this is what the school was founded on.

When meeting with prospective families, OCS staff emphasize the Christian worldview as the school’s priority. This worldview flows into everything at the school including the rigorous academics, creating a good community, the discipline policy and learning resources.

One of the top questions prospective families inquire about is how the school handles discipline. Laurence Stassen is the vice-principal of student life, a job title that reflects his focus on using restorative practices to help students who are struggling with their behaviour or relationships.

The restorative practices model looks at what harm was caused and ways to repair that harm. Everyone affected discusses how it made them feel and what needs to be done to move forward in the relationship. If it is a serious matter the entire class may run a formal circle, where each person has the chance to speak.

Mr. Stassen says using restorative practices looks at the whole person and has many benefits. Having the person reflect on what they did that caused harm has a greater chance of changing their behaviour. Reconciling an issue with both sides speaking to it also brings closure to the person who was harmed and more possibility for having a relationship going forward.

“What we’re all about is being an institution for God, and we want to create disciples of Jesus Christ here,” he says.

When parents visit the school for the first time they are amazed by the school’s atmosphere, says Mrs. Dawson.

OCS is also known for its learning support. Typically, a family may come to the school for a certain need for one child, and shortly after will enrol all their children at the school. The school has always looked to help all students and its resource program has morphed into a part of the school culture in supporting student needs.

The learning resource supports students who may need extra help with different subjects. The school uses the Barton Reading and Spelling program and for math puts students in small groups.

Mrs. Naftel describes the learning support room as “a safe place to fall.” Teachers have three cards they can give to students for different needs. There is a learning support card for when a student needs one-time help to overcome an obstacle. A brain break card is given to a student who needs a break and reset, and they can go work on a Rubik’s Cube or puzzle. The body break card enables students to go and exercise for a few minutes for children who need to move.

Having this second layer of support for teachers who may not be able to address the need at that moment in class helps create a safe learning environment, which is key to student learning. “If a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t feel comfortable, doesn’t feel like that their need are met they aren’t going to learn,” she says.

Having more international families at the school has added diversity and an awareness and appreciation of different cultures. There are many nationalities and ethnicities represented at the school.

“It’s not like it used to be where you had your core group of families largely out of the Christian Reformed Church and they all went through the system,” Mr. Stassen says. “Because of the more transient nature of things and the greater cultural diversity it creates a lot of benefit as we have different strengths in our school now.”

The international families bring a more global outlook to the school as they relate to churches across the world. “Its awesome for our students to get used to the fact that not everybody thinks or reacts the way you do, there are cultures that handle these things differently,” Mr. Stassen says, noting it creates tolerance in a positive sense.

Mrs. González says she enjoys the opportunity to be involved in the school community. In December, she approached her daughter’s teacher with the idea to raise funds for the people affected by the earthquake in Mexico. Mrs. González runs a weekly Mexican cooking class. The school was on board, and through selling tacos they raised more than $1,000 to fund three emergency shelters.

“I feel that culture, you do belong, as soon as you enroll your kid there you belong, and you are part of an amazing community that loves the Lord,” says Mrs. González. “As long as we are here we plan for our daughter to attend Ottawa Christian School.”