“We usually do not hear from or include the actual community members in planning our schools,” stated the superintendent of our school district. It was a watershed moment for the members of our small rural community group as we sat around a dining room table here in Sackville, New Brunswick. We were stunned by the statement that parents and local citizens were not really part of the design of what we believed to be the very heart of our community – our schools. We simply didn’t count.
Still reeling from the announced closure of a neighbouring community’s school and their bitter fight to keep it open, our small group worried that our community might be next to come under the so-called “sustainability study”: a provincially driven formula for determining school closures. It was at that table that we vowed to take our community’s precarious situation of shrinking demographics, aging schools and a feeling of isolation here on the margins of the school district in an entirely new direction. That commitment, now two years old, signaled that Sackville needed a new conversation and a new vision for transforming the community into a model for integrated, community-driven education. We believed that we had to have a clear vision for the education system in our community within the next five years, so Sackville Schools 2020 (or 20/20) was born.
Sackville Schools 2020 was born out of a desire to anticipate a highly uncertain future for our children, our teachers and our schools, and the lack of connection we felt with the centralized and isolated education system that had developed in our province over the past many years. The working group held several collaboration cafés and community visioning sessions that invited community members to share their ideas, frustrations, hopes and fears about our schools and our role in the care and feeding of our learning community.
Committee members also interviewed hundreds of students to ask them about their current experiences and what they imagined in their ideal school of the future. We were shocked to find that students had very little in the way of hopes and dreams about their ideal learning environments: perhaps a classroom with a window, or maybe proper heating so that they didn’t need to wear their coats to class. They seemed unable to even imagine features like a learning commons, outdoor gardens and greenhouses, or a climbing wall – environments where they could truly flourish. Such low expectations revealed a sense of hopelessness and isolation, as opposed to what the committee was finding in our national and international research on 21st century schools, such as deep learning, project-based and individualized programming, and experiential and outdoor learning beyond the walls of the school.
While there were certainly reports of some great teaching and learning, it seemed to be the exception, rather than the norm. Teachers reported a sense of feeling isolated in their work, with many new curriculum ideas and government programs, yet a school district that seemed to be preoccupied with the larger urban schools located down the highway. We seemed to be overlooking the power of ideas and the amazing wealth of talent and commitment in our own town, as seen over and over again in the creation of school beautification committees, outdoor education and wetlands centres, and the thousands of bright minds coming to the community to attend university and volunteering in our schools.
Our town is incredibly fortunate, in that education is the driving economic and social force of the community, with a range of preschools, elementary, middle and secondary schools, a vibrant seniors’ college, and one of Canada’s top undergraduate liberal arts universities – all within a town of just over 5,000 people. After two years of conversations and research on leading practices in school design from around the globe, we can now feel the energy and excitement of the children, parents, and teachers, as well as educational and political leaders across the region, in their hope of moving away from the traditional top-down, prescriptive, cookie-cutter approach to school design towards making learning a shared community effort. We have worked with the Mayor and Council to adopt the model as part of their strategic plan, with the Mayor stating that “education is the driving force of our community and it is simply too important to be left to others in far-off places. We have to take an integrated approach to learning and the Town supports this approach.”
Although our community meetings and consultations now attract 60 to 80 attendees, our start was slow and sometimes discouraging. While we certainly have gifted educators and highly involved and caring parents and civic leaders, it’s not easy for already overworked and stressed members of our education system to envision a new way of thinking about how we educate our children and where we do that type of teaching and learning. Although many have little faith in the existing school planning system, which is controlled from the larger school district office and the Department of Education in Fredericton, it has still been challenging to engage teachers, principals and our elected district education council members in thinking and acting from this grassroots level. Often our wonderful dessert parties and cafés resulted in committee members looking at each other and wondering why educational change did not seem to be important to the wider community. Many told us that you simply can’t take on the government and change the system. Even that same district superintendent commented that he was surprised that we were still trying, after two long years!
In spite of the lack of enthusiasm we encountered for taking on the system, our group was encouraged by what we saw as the alignment of the political and educational stars and planets within the province. We recognized that Sackville was already a wonderful learning environment for so many different stages in life, from pre-school to post-secondary and even in the retirement years. We wanted to change the way in which we approached the formal and informal aspects of education by purposefully planning and integrating the efforts of the individuals and groups across the community. We proposed an integrated educational model that could be developed by us and for us, with the potential to spread across the school district, the province and beyond. Our group members have now presented this model to groups in Ontario, Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Oregon.
Alignment of the political stars and planets
In January of 2016, the recently elected government of Brian Gallant announced the Education and New Economy Fund, and the Premier stated that the best way to give students the chance to succeed in whatever they would like to do with their lives was to invest in education, in training, in research and development, and in innovation. This was a profound commitment to education and the key to our economic and cultural future in this province. It also matched closely with what we wanted here in our community. The Premier wanted N.B. to be the educational leader in Canada, and we wanted to embrace this aspirational plan by being the first community to join with him in meeting this important goal. In view of this significant commitment to education, the members of Sackville Schools 2020 invited our newly elected Mayor and Council and the new Minister of Education to meet with us and to work with our community in being the first project to be developed through the Education and New Economy program.
The Government of New Brunswick also announced a new approach to education through a ten-year Education Plan, Everyone at their Best. Sackville was the only community to request that the educational reform commission come to meet with us. We presented a proposal out of the plan to develop Sackville as a pilot project to implement the major new programs and approaches to education through an innovative approach that includes all of the partners in the community. Since the release of the new ten-year plan in September of 2016, we have worked with the Minister and the Department of Education, the Mayor and Council of Sackville, our local schools, parents and students, as well as Mount Allison University, in achieving our goal of developing Sackville as an innovative, education-based place where students can thrive. Beyond the critical changes in teaching and learning, we also put forth a model where this learning can be supported in a modern, state-of-the-art, environmentally healthy system of educational facilities with a community-wide focus on the creation of 21st century learning. The early signal of community-based education is now evolving to include formal and informal learning, community outreach and recreation, social gathering and performance spaces, as well as shared facility agreements for the entire community, from young to old. The community is driving the process of change.
An integrated vision
One amazing fact about the Sackville Schools 2020 movement is that it has all been accomplished by community volunteers, with no outside funding. Over two years, we have had world-class architects and educational design experts assist us in our work, as well as educational change leaders from across North America. Community schools and school change agents from across the province, the Maritimes, and the country, as well as the U.S. and Australia, have welcomed us to their schools, simply because they recognized that we were trying to engage our entire community in supporting an integrated approach to education. The Minister of Education for N.B., Brian Kenny, has certainly noticed these signals, stating that “education is not just bricks and mortar… it is about our community and I think that your group there in Sackville are doing some wonderful things. You have some very innovative thinkers there and to get the community together is a very positive thing. I commend you for trying to put the pieces together between your elementary, middle and high schools and for advancing education across the province.”
The shift we propose will require major changes to the existing educational facilities in Sackville, as they are old, disconnected and poorly designed for 21st century learning. We envision a centralized learning campus that connects all levels of teaching and learning to new and existing facilities within the community. This will allow for older structures to be phased out and a new learning campus to be developed within the heart of the town. The facilities will be designed to grow and shrink with the overall demographic changes in the community, saving the province millions of dollars.
Part of our work has been researching a number of innovative methods for building and financing this new educational model. Rather than the boiler-plate model that exists now, where schools are actually designed and built by the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, we have recommended a new approach: a community-based project management process, with a designated project management team at the local level, to lead the school design and development.
Mount Allison University, located in the centre of our town, will be a major feature in this unique learning complex, with new teaching, research and learning facilities developed on and near the campus. Local facilities, such as the Sackville and Mount Allison libraries, outdoor fields, arts and recreation facilities/parks, and athletics facilities, will become part of the complex, making Sackville the only community in Canada with an integrated, highly walkable and accessible education system in the center of the community. We believe that such a highly integrated education system will attract and retain students, faculty and new residents to the province and become the economic and social engine of the region. We have also been in discussion with educational researchers at a number of North American universities who are developing community-based action research on educational innovations such as ours.
This model will give students the opportunity to get out of the classroom and lecture halls and apply what they are learning as part of their everyday, lived experience, addressing real-world issues and problems at the local and regional level. It will allow younger students to engage with students and educators at the secondary and post-secondary levels, as well as direct engagement and experiences for students and faculty at the university, or retired teachers and faculty, to work with students and teachers in the local schools. Such a model affords everyone involved with a new and creative approach to teaching and mentoring students and creating an advanced and sophisticated learning community.
As the Assistant Deputy Minister of Education recently stated, “Sackville Schools 2020 is clearly a unique and compelling vision of how a town can impact the quality of education of its children… in 2017, we can’t still be using approaches to education that are, in some cases, hundreds of years old.”
This model would be unique within Canada, representing a true partnership between students and educators across all educational levels, as well as a range of community partners and citizens, local and provincial governments, businesses and nonprofit groups.
So now, two years after we started our conversation, we have signaled our intention to move away from the traditional top-down system of school planning and design. Our civic leaders, Department of Education officials, Minister of Education and business leaders have recommended the Sackville Schools 2020 vision to the Premier. It is on his desk and we wait for him to respond to this strong signal for change on the educational stage of New Brunswick. The “education premier” has been invited to the stage for the performance of his lifetime.
One of our central tools for consultation has been our committee-driven website, with resources, blog space and an interactive web documentary on our movement. You can see it at www.sackvilleschools2020.com
Photo: courtesy Michael Fox
First published in Education Canada, March 2018