Students learn independence and leadership through distance education

Hot sauce and peppermint hearts may sound like an unusual food pairing but to grade schoolers, it’s a perfect Valentine’s Day gift for a dragon. So are fireproof Valentine cards and a fireproof surfboard.

It’s story time at the Discovery Centre, a school located at the top of a lift in the resort mountain village of Sun Peaks. Teacher Jillian Schmalz is reading Shirley Rousseau Murphy’s Valentine for a Dragon to the K-3 students. The students are listening raptly. Their lively imaginations are fed as they’re introduced to a peculiar love story involving a demon and a dragon in a book about accepting people’s individuality.

It’s been months since a group of parents banded together to form a school in the community. If you look at the children now, they seem to be adapting very well to this new form of instruction.

The Discovery Centre for Balanced Education, or Discovery Centre for short, is not your typical school. It’s a combination of a conventional school and distance learning. Like a conventional school, a teacher is on-site to teach and supervise students using a regular curriculum. But it’s different because videoconferencing and online lessons from @KOOL, the school district’s distance learning program, is part of the daily routine. Words like Skype and Google become part of the older students’ vernacular.

Eighteen kids aged five to 10 attend the Discovery Centre. The students are divided into three age groups (K-1, Grades 2/3 and Grades 4/5) for instruction.

School starts at 8:30 a.m. where the kids, in their matching Discovery Centre jackets, take either the platter lift or the magic carpet to their classroom. The day begins with journaling for the younger kids followed by stretching and exercises that everyone takes part in.

Afterwards, the Grades 4/5 kids videoconference on Skype with Laurel Seafoot, their off-site teacher. Seafoot also comes up once or twice a week to teach. When Seafoot is offsite, the younger kids learn everything from language arts to math from their on-site teacher Jillian Schmalz. Volunteers also assist with music, sport and reading instruction.

Music is part of the curriculum, as well as golf in the summer and snowshoeing in the winter.

There’s been an adjustment period for both the teachers and the students.
“There’s a learning curve for me having this many different age groups in one room,” said Seafoot.

Preparing lessons for a wider age range can be tricky, said Schmalz.
“I’m still getting used to it,” she said. “It’s (a challenge) trying to design lessons so you can include everyone in different ways.”

For the students, the biggest adjustment was learning to operate Skype, Microsoft Word and using search engines for research. Other than that, they’ve taken to the new learning environment well.

“They set goals each week and they reach them every time,” said Seafoot. “When they get older they’ll know how to set goals and their responsibilities because no one is pushing them every five minutes to do it—they have to do it. They know that they’re responsible for it.”

Schmalz said the older students are learning leadership skills in this setting. Because of the small class size, it’s also easy for the students to feel comfortable working and learning together.

“Because they’re so close together, the younger students see (the older student’s example) and they’re trying to live up to the standards that the older students are setting,” Schmalz said.

While this may look like an ideal setting, it’s not a one-size-fits-all model, said Seafoot.

“This kind of school isn’t for every kid. Some kids need a lot more structure and a lot more one-on-one direction whereas this setting is critical thinking, problem solving, independent learning. So they really have to want to learn here.”

The Discovery Centre is expanding next school year and already, there’s a waitlist of students wanting to get in. Early registration is encouraged.

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