The School District of Mystery Lake (SDML) was awarded the Manitoba School Board Association’s Premier Award for School Board Innovation in March for the district’s Educating for Action project initiated in 2013. The award is accompanied by $3,000 to be reinvested into the Educating for Action program. Recipients of the award are assessed on several factors, including not only the raw innovation behind a program’s approach, but also its sustainability as a long-term program, its transferability to other schools and districts, and it’s cost-benefit ratio.
The program is offered through SDML in conjunction with Juniper Elementary School; Juniper principal Lucy Mayor recognized an opportunity to fill a critical need at her school when district superintendent put out a call for schools to take on the project. “Historically, Juniper doesn’t have a high percentage of kids leaving from Grade 8 and completing Grade 12 in a four-year timeframe,” Mayor noted. “Our final goal was to increase our graduation rate.”
The project was born out of Making Education Work, a similar program initiated in 2006, and applies lessons learned from the original undertaking. While the original program began working with students in Grade 10, Educating for Action began at the beginning of junior high in Grade 7, allowing program co-ordinators to both prepare students for the transition to high school as well as assist them through it.
Intensive focus is a main aspect of the program: small-group tutoring ensures students succeed academically, while field trips, both within the community and beyond, supplement a land-based education component that encourages cultural understanding. A cornerstone of the project was the Digital Lodge installation, developed by Winnipeg filmmaker Jim Sanders, and supported by a revolving door of nine other artists from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds. Throughout the program, at various times, a roster of 10 different artists have taught students the skills they need to document and communicate their experiences through sound and video. With each year, students are taught new production and thematic skills: this year (year three), the students focused on fictional screenwriting and production. Tight-lipped program co-ordinator Ryan Barker would only say one thing: “It does involve a sasquatch”.
The films are presented every year in a dome-shaped lodge, much like a planetarium. The students build the lodge out of respectfully harvested tamarack trees, with help from the district’s Cree language and aboriginal perspectives co-ordinator Ron Cook (a part of the cultural literacy component of the student’s education). At the end of the program, in Grade 12, the students will edit a final documentary of their six-year journey.
To find more information about the Digital Lodge project, or to view videos from past years, visit www.digitallodge.ca.
But while the project outlines the aforementioned five pillars, it’s clear that one theme unifies all aspects of the program: continuity. Beginning the program in Grade 7 allowed teachers and co-ordinators to support the students not only through high school, but for the transition as well. The students are also encouraged to maintain a connection with their alma mater and return as leaders: Mayor notes that for the first time, former students have returned to help coach for Knights of Columbus, and some came to help with the school’s Winterfest. “We’ve come back to visit and keep in touch with them, and many have done the same.”
In high school, career counselling helps students form and maintain a goal throughout their studies, while the Digital Lodge project provides a context in which students can make sense of their experiences as part of a broader picture. The continued involvement of the advisory committee was also critical to the program’s success.
Barker, who also instructs the students in English, feels the timing of the award is perfect: “We’re almost halfway, so it’s a nice milestone to win this award; I think it shows we’re on the right track. The students themselves are overcoming some pretty serious barriers, as individuals and as a group. But they’re transitioning successfully to high school, they’re active, they’re creative.”
Barker also passed on statements from students: Stanley Hart said, “I thought it was awesome that we won the award, especially when we were chosen from a sea of contenders across Manitoba.”
Fellow student Zhan Wen Pei, who also goes by Wendy, said, “I felt good, because our project just won $3, 000. Let’s have a pizza party!”