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Alberta High School, College Elevate Learning with Rare Joint Venture

In 2003, a group of parents in Olds, Alberta, rejected a provincial grant of $6.8 million to renovate their aging high school, which they felt should be replaced. Their refusal – even with the provincial minister of infrastructure ready to hand over an oversize cheque – set in motion a remarkable collaboration among education institutions accustomed to working in their own spheres.

What transpired in Olds, a rural community of 8,200 people located midway between Calgary and Edmonton, is the result of a shared vision that transcended institutional boundaries to create facilities and learning opportunities far beyond the means of its individual partners.

By working together, and drawing widespread support in the community and beyond, Chinook’s Edge School Division (CESD) and Olds College conceived a plan that materialized over seven years into a $70-million Community Learning Campus (CLC) serving high school, college, and adult learners in Olds and mid-central Alberta. In 2010, the new complex opened as a joint venture between Chinook’s Edge, the largest rural school division in Alberta, and Olds College, with facilities including a 390-seat theatre, a fitness centre, an e-learning centre (for distance learning and on-site training), and not least, a new $22-million high school on the campus of the 1,300- student college.

The CLC sprang from the conviction of the leaders of the two institutions that they could accomplish a great deal more by joining forces than by living in largely separate silos. In the end, the project succeeded thanks to a multi-stakeholder group of “gladiators,” the development of a well-defined business case, and bits of serendipity along the way. The CLC was selected by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as a case study in its Innovative Learning Environments Project.

The timing was right for a collaboration.

“At that point in time, the college really needed to come into the 21st century, particularly from an infrastructure and programmatic standpoint,” says H.J. (Tom) Thompson, president of Olds College. “There was a stark reality that if we were to continue to be a traditionalist in terms of working with government as primary sponsor of infrastructural renewal, we’ll still be waiting today.”

I think high schools have to be much more flexible and need to find ways to engage kids so they see this bigger picture of a career path

For his part, then-Chinook’s Edge Superintendent Jim Gibbons had to figure out how to replace an aging high school separated from its sport fields by a busy highway and dependent on a nearby church to house a music program. But he was also concerned about preparing students for a 21st century economy requiring higher levels of education than in the past. “I think high schools have to be much more flexible and need to find ways to engage kids so they see this bigger picture of a career path,” he says. “We know kids are going to have multiple careers and so how do you get some experience and try things out?” (See Shared Campus, below)

Mr. Gibbons approached Mr. Thompson about possibly relocating the high school on a parcel of the Olds College campus, but Mr. Thompson was not interested selling a piece of college land for a “siloed, standalone entity.” Recalling the conversation, he says he told Mr. Gibbons, now a Senior Advisor to the Alberta School Boards Association, “if you want to talk about something just a little bit different, maybe a whole lot different, I said I think you would have the interest of our college and certainly our leaders here.”

Thus began a collaboration of two “visionaries,” as others described them, who met over coffee to map out a partnership that would work for both institutions and expand opportunities for their students and the wider community. Early on, the two leaders recruited key allies – Olds High School principal Tom Christensen and Dorothy (Dot) Negropontes, then an Assistant Superintendent in Chinook’s Edge. Ms. Negropontes was an alumnus of Olds High School who had deep roots in the community and a strong reputation for organizational skills. 

What emerged from the discussions was the notion of shared facilities – under the banner of the Community Learning Campus – that would, among other things, facilitate a seamless transition for high school students into the workplace, apprenticeship, college or university. Reaching beyond their institutional walls, Mr. Gibbons and Mr. Thompson also looked to connect 13 communities within the Chinook’s Edge School Division to an e-learning centre for education and training. Area residents also would have access to a health and wellness facility and a fine arts complex for community and school events. 

The shared arrangement also had implications for how best to equip a variety of students for tomorrow’s economy. “We looked at the learner as a high school learner, a college learner, a college learner that might choose to go on to a university program, a community lifelong learner and, most importantly, [we envisioned] a region that could be served so much better if we would append the technology,” says Mr. Thompson. “That was something the government latched onto big-time.”

His strategy to generate provincial support for CLC was to hold the government accountable for its “rhetoric” on public policy in three areas: “Go Alberta,” a 20-year vision for the province; a rural Alberta development strategy; and “Campus Alberta,” a plan to improve student transitions between college and university. The three policies, he says, were “rich in rhetoric.”


Caption: Olds High students in the CLC’s Bell e-Learning lab
Credit: Photo courtesy of Chinook’s Edge School Division

Engaging rural members of the provincial legislature, for example, was an important part of presenting the learning campus as beneficial to the region. “That’s a very important strategic consideration because you’re increasing your political critical mass,” says Mr. Thompson. “Why rural institutions are suffering and dying, quite frankly, is because they can’t compete for resources against urban institutions that are surrounded with political firepower. This proposition had plenty of political firepower, both geographically and also because we brought government services into the mix of the building of a mall in concert with that [Health and Wellness Centre] and a social services mall that would have Child and Family Services, human resources employment, and Alberta Health – that brings in three more ministers.” 

The CLC proposal was based on a solid business plan developed under a joint-venture arrangement between the school division and Olds College. “It’s different than a partnership,” explains Mr. Gibbons. Under a joint venture, he says “you only own the assets together in pursuit of the vision you’ve described. You don’t own them individually. You can’t take your ball and go home.” The arrangement set out separate responsibilities for each partner and spelled out sharing of revenue from leasing of office space, memberships for the fitness facility, special-event rental of the fine arts facility, and other sources to cover the ongoing operations of the CLC. The project planners made certain to communicate regularly with provincial politicians, whose constituencies stood to benefit from the CLC. 

There were bumps along the road. At a critical moment, the project needed key approvals from the minister of infrastructure and the minister of education to proceed to the engineering and design phase – a $500,000 commitment. The request came on the eve of an election call and, without ministerial sign-offs that day, the project could have been delayed by six to nine months, estimates Mr. Thompson. In the end, the then-Chairman of Chinook’s Edge, a former member of the legislature, corralled both ministers in Edmonton for the necessary government commitment.

Another bump for the project came during the construction phase, as inflation hit at a rate of 2.5 percent per month in the latter part of the Ralph Klein administration. A number of projects failed to move ahead because they could not adapt to the fast-rising cost of materials. The CLC team took a different tack. “What we said was … if we don’t fix this ourselves and keep driving this forward, somebody somewhere else is going to pull the plug,” recalls Mr. Thompson. “So we became…a model [to the provincial government] of how to manage through an inflationary period.”

CLC architect Craig Webber, principal architect of Group2 Architecture Interior Design, says fast-rising costs were a catalyst to shrink the project 20 per cent without losing key elements. In the end, with a focus on shared spaces that would serve different functions at different times, his firm created a high school with capacity for 1,100 students –higher than the initial plan of 750 – without expanding the physical space. “Not only can we have better spaces, we can create better teaching environments in smaller spaces,” he says.

Not only can we have better spaces, we can create better teaching environments in smaller spaces

On February 22, 2010, led by the police and a local radio station, Olds High School Principal Tom Christensen and members of the student body walked from the old school to the new complex 25 minutes away. A soft-spoken administrator with a strong commitment to expanded learning opportunities for students, Mr. Christensen recalls what stood out for him in planning for the new high school. The “idea of being able to actually talk program and then build a school after [planning the] program, that’s what’s cool about the actual facilities,” he says.

One outgrowth of the school’s close relationship with – and physical proximity to – the college is the development of a dual credit program for high school students from Olds and other division schools to earn college credits at Olds College while completing their high school diploma. Chinook’s Edge was part of a dual-credit pilot project sponsored by Alberta Education as the province sought to articulate college credits with high school credits and develop a dual-credit policy. Dual-credit opportunities, plus the province’s Ca- reer and Technology Studies (CTS) program, have fortified the school division’s curriculum in support of career pathways for students. Chinook’s Edge also piloted CTS courses in recreation leadership, community care services, human and social services and health care sciences.

Meanwhile, Olds High School students have other learning opportunities outside the classroom, such as staffing the fine arts building. “They’re learning how the technology side of things in theatre works, learning how sound works,” says Mr. Christensen. A hairstyling salon will open this year and a hospitality pathway will be developed to take advantage of a hotel being built on the Olds College campus through a public-private partnership. In all, he estimates that about a third of Olds High School students are out in the community as part of their studies.

It’s not the same school it was when Mr. Christensen began his teaching career there in 1984. “Where I’m working now, I might as well have been transferred from Antarctica,” he says. “I used to judge success by how quiet the hallways were, whether the doors were shut. Now I take excitement from where I see kids working individually in the open areas. That’s how I judge success now. That was an interesting transformation in myself.”


Caption: Olds High students in an Olds College machining lab. This is one of the CLC’s dual-credit offerings.
Credit: Photo courtesy of Chinook’s Edge School Division

He also sees a new culture of learning at Olds High. “You would think that by giving students more time that you’re going to lose your culture of rigour, when you [include] work experience time you’re going to lose your rigour. I used to hear that all the time: ‘We’re an academic place and we’re going to lose this by giving these kids freedom.’ It’s the opposite. I think we had last year on our Grade 12 exit exams …a 98 percent success rate. We used to be like 88-89. So in giving the students more time and giving them more individual responsibility, and personalizing it more, I’ll be darned but they do better.” 

Once in operation, CLC lost some of its early momentum. Day-to-day operations moved ahead satisfactorily, but the big-picture ambitions became blurred. Mr. Gibbons retired in mid-2010 while early supporters of CLC on the school division board had moved on as well. Mr. Thompson says a sense of complacency set in the year after construction. He describes that period as “probably the most disappointing time for me. It’s almost like you give somebody a Ferrari and they treat it like a lawnmower.” But with the arrival of new players as advocates for CLC, he has regained his enthusiasm. “It’s moving back towards the Ferrari now,” he says.

Last year, Jason Dewling joined Olds College as Vice-President, Academics and Research, and, importantly, as his institution’s point-man to drive revitalization of the governance of CLC. He recognized how much effort had gone into getting the project off the ground, but concluded that less time had been devoted to the question of “now what?” He turned to Ms. Negropontes, now retired from the school division, to assess how to regain momentum for CLC. With her insider’s knowledge of the project, she was given a mandate to ask probing questions of dozens of CLC stakeholders on how to fulfill the project’s visionary ambitions.

Her report concluded that respondents enthusiastically endorsed the vision and appreciated the range of high-end facilities on the learning campus available for students and the wider community. Those interviewed also praised the high level of collaboration among institutions. But Ms. Negropontes also found that stakeholders identified several problem areas: a lack of clarity in roles, interests, needs, standards, and procedures related to the joint venture. Repairing and building relationships appeared to be a key requirement for moving ahead.

Her report has proved to be a catalyst to get back on track. “We are really in a very different place than we were last year,” says Mr. Dewling. “Dot’s report has made such a big difference.”

With revenue from ongoing activities, CLC hired Barb Mulholland as Director of Learning. Ms. Mulholland comes with a rich understanding of the potential for CLC, having served as the Chinook’s Edge Learning Services Coordinator who led the pilot project on dual credits. She has developed a three-year learning plan that calls for an increase in dual-credit opportunities and she is mapping out opportunities for curriculum intersections between the high school and the college. Revenues from facilities rentals are on the rise. The fine arts theatre is up to 200 bookings a year. The wide variety of activities going on within the campus brings a rich mixture of generations into contact with one another.

In addition to Ms. Mulholland, the CLC funds three other positions, with support from Olds College and CESD: director of CLC facilities and operations and Olds College business development; administrative assistant/receptionist for the Ralph Klein Centre and a sport recreation community programmer.

Although a few of the 13 community engagement sites have developed programming as first imagined by CLC, there are fresh efforts under way to rekindle interest. Campus Alberta Central has sprung up with a mission to reach rural learners with post-secondary learning opportunities, so the CLC will also be looking for ways to complement and cooperate with that program.

A governance team, headed by the President of Olds College and the Superintendent of Chinooks’ Edge, is keeper of the vision and has overall responsibility for the joint venture. Others on the 12-member team include board members, administration, faculty and students from CESD and Olds College, a CESD parent and representatives of the Town of Olds, Mountain View County, and the University of Alberta. They are partners “in association” in the joint venture.

Beyond the CLC campus, the town of Olds is turning into a regional “hub,” says Ms. Negropontes, attracting new residents.

She also says, ruefully, that it is harder to get a doctor’s appointment. Still, with all the new activity “it’s still very much of a small-town feel,” she says.

As a participant in the evolution of CLC – and now asked to give advice on other co-operative arrangements between institutions – Ms. Negropontes describes the collaboration in Olds as an example of the “third space,” a concept she takes from A Guide to Building Education Partnerships: Navigating Diverse Cultural Contexts to Turn Challenge into Promise. A third space like CLC, she says, “is the absolute pinnacle of collaboration.” 

EN BREF – Lorsqu’un groupe de parents d’Olds, en Alberta, a refusé une subvention provinciale destinée à rénover leur école secondaire en 2003, la remarquable collaboration qui s’est ensuivie a donné lieu à un campus d’apprentissage novateur pour toute la communauté, et même au-delà. Ouverte en 2010, la nouvelle école secondaire Olds fait partie intégrante du Community Learning Campus (CLC), une initiative conjointe du conseil scolaire Chinook’s Edge School Division et du Olds College. Situé sur le campus du collège, le CLC est issu de la conviction des dirigeants des établissements qu’ils pouvaient accomplir beaucoup plus en unissant leurs forces qu’en les répartissant dans plusieurs silos distincts.

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