With the complexities that exist within the Canadian education system, how schools respond to meet the needs of all students is a current ‘Hot Topic.’ The complexity becomes exaggerated in rural schools as they adapt and change to remain viable in what has become a competitive landscape with many alternative education options available. In this article, I describe my own journey as a new school leader in a small K-12 rural school facing declining enrollment and staff cuts. I focus on the ways in which the school community was re-engaged and brought together to set the course for a prosperous future.
Collaborating on a New Shared Vision
Rural school sustainability requires visionary leadership built upon a foundation of positive working relationships. Leadership dimension number two in the Principal Quality Practice Guideline (Alberta Education, 2009) states “the principal collaboratively involves the school community in creating and sustaining shared school values, vision, mission and goals” (p. 4).
At Bear School, a rural K-12 school in Alberta, enrollment was at an all time low and a potential closure was looming. The annual Accountability Report showed areas of concern arising from falling student achievement results as evidenced by performance on provincially mandated Provincial Achievement Tests (Grades 3, 6, and 9) and Diploma Exams (Grade 12). Concerns were also apparent in a category called ‘overall education quality’ as determined by parent, teacher, and student satisfaction survey results. As an outcome of these results and a community related negative perception of program options available at the school, local students were searching for alternative education opportunities. Compounding the loss of students was the resulting staff cuts, which now threatened the future of the tight knit community school. Choosing the right drivers would be essential for successful change including capacity building, collaboration, creating a shared vision, and leading a learning community (Fullan, 2014) as Bear school collectively searched for new solutions.
A Foundation Built Upon Relationships and Planning
Where does one start when searching for innovative ways of engaging a learning community? One of the earliest lessons I learned in my first year in the principalship of this school was to listen. I focused on building trusting relationships, observing, and hearing from all of the stakeholders connected to the school. Through this process, it was clear to me that the community members placed great value on the school’s history, and that they cared deeply about securing a successful future. Along with the shared values that existed around personalization and maintaining a safe and caring family school environment, it was clear that the community of Bear School believed in connecting education to the outdoors in an active learning environment. This feedback, along with the geographical location of the school, gave potential for an innovative ski academy concept to be born.
Southworth (2009) would maintain that true collaboration involves approaching leadership as a collective, as opposed to relying solely on the direction of one leader. To start the ski academy planning process, an executive was born, consisting of myself as the principal, the director of learning and innovation for the division, and a ski academy program director. This executive group embarked upon a year and half planning process, consisting of visioning sessions and countless stakeholder meetings, which eventually set the stage for the launch of the new academy.
It was, and continues to be, my belief that there are two critical factors of success for any school related academy: the quality of staff and the structures and processes that exist. Our executive team consisted of individuals with diverse leadership experience who were committed to establishing sustainable structures and processes. The three members of the executive team all held Master of Education degrees in Educational Leadership, along with significant experience working in alternative education environments. The executive team invested significant time into developing structures that included the ski academy society, the long-range program plan, defined position titles and responsibilities, an operational budget, and short and long-term schedules. Achieving successful implementation of the ski academy required a deep understanding of the change process and a focus on gaining significant buy in within the community (Fullan, 2001). The executive worked on the foundational pieces of the ski academy for two years before officially opening in the fall of 2016.
What to become?
The executives’ vision from the outset was to provide students an inclusive and innovative ski program that was focused on skill development. As an executive, we truly believed that what could set us apart from other academies would be our attention to personalization, and supporting our student athletes to become well rounded citizens. In addition, focused planning took place around developing a schedule that would allow ski academy students to be immersed within the culture that already existed, as the role of culture is critical to the success of any academic institution (Deal & Peterson, 2009). The ski academy was meant to improve current programming, not in an elitist fashion, but rather in an inclusive setting.
A new timetable allowed students in the academy to participate in regular classes with all of their peers, with options scheduled during ski training to minimize any loss of core instructional time. During the non-ski season, students worked on a newly developed program called the Continuum of Learning, which was connected to the Career Trade Foundations (CTF) curriculum.
The director of the academy worked closely with the staff and students of the school, to monitor and support each athlete’s progress. In the first year of operation, the ski academy reached a capacity of 25 students and grew to 50 student athletes (including 9 international) in year two. Overall school enrollment went from 170 students in 2015/2016 to 240 students in 2017/2018.
Change Not Without Challenges
The successful development of a new program required both influencing others’ actions towards desirable ends and maintaining strong organizational arrangements (Bush, 2011). Resistance, doubt, and uncertainty were all apart of the implementation process (Fullan, 2001). Along the way it was critical to continue to listen to others and communicate the intent and direction of the program, all while adapting and improving structural changes as required. In many ways, implementing large change was challenging within the strong culture of Bear School. It was essential to maintain the traditions and norms that were deeply rooted in the school and to continue to celebrate the successes of all aspects within the community (Deal & Peterson, 2009). New voices have now become connected to the academy, and keeping a shared vision and a connected community will continue to be a challenge as the academy and the school grows.
A Thriving Rural Community School
Through the collaborative efforts of many, a ski academy was born and, through it, added an alternative program for students who were passionate about the outdoors, sport, and becoming well-rounded students. The time and effort that was put into building relationships, developing structural processes, and hiring and recruiting quality staff has led to a growing program. The rapid success of the ski academy has led to many challenges around planning and maintaining a positive culture in the school. Inclusive and excellent programming remains the vision of the ski academy, as the staff at Bear collaboratively works to engage and empower all of their students. Through this program, a school that was on the precipice of failure and closure is now visioning around future growth and continued survival.References
Alberta Education. (2009). The principal quality practice guideline: Promoting successful school leadership in Alberta. Edmonton: Retrieved from http://education.alberta.ca/media/949129/principal-quality-practice-guideline-english-12feb09.pdf.
Bush, T. (2011). Theories of educational leadership & management. London: Sage.
Deal, T. E., & Peterson, K. D. (2009). Shaping school culture. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Fullan, M. (2014). The principal: Three keys to maximizing impact. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Southworth, G. (2009). Learning-centred leadership. In B. Davies (Ed.), The essentials of school leadership (2nd ed., pp. 91-111). Los Angeles: SAGE.