Olds High School

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I feel like I’ve been talking about the Albertan school system as a lot. I’ve already posted some general thoughts and then a post about St Josephs, but I learnt a lot so I’m also going to post about another school that I saw while I was there.

The town of Olds is a rural centre between Edmonton and Calgary. It is a pretty typical and pretty conservative Albertan small town. One of the staff I talked to summed it up by saying “there are a lot of cowboy hats and belt-buckles here”. These sartorial decisions clearly carry political meaning in Alberta that I’m only able to guess at.

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Five or so years ago Olds had a High School building which was situated on the edge of a main highway. The building was crumbling and the school was tired. The Albertan government offered the school some money to renovate the building. The school’s governing body turned this money down and argued that they needed to use this opportunity to do something better and more exciting with education in Olds. They didn’t have a clear plan, but they did know that the way things had always been done wasn’t good enough and that they wanted better.

So Olds High School began a process of reinventing itself from the ground up. Staff went out and saw others schools, they had meetings and, with some leadership from the school principal, gradually formed a new vision of what the school would be. What is more, despite the conservative nature of the town, they formed a pretty radical vision. It would be built alongside the towns college to help foster  a post-secondary atmosphere and to offer access to a greater range of vocational options. It would be organised around four houses (in the Harry Potter tradition) each with their own physical space (a quad) which would help to foster school spirit and a learning community. It would have different kinds of spaces from a traditional high school picking up element both from home to help students feel comfortable in the space and from post-secondary institutions to encourage freedom and maturity. Finally it would offer a self-directed learning programme (one of the quads) in which the pedagogy would be non-traditional and student driven. This self-directed programme is the heart of the schools pedagogy, and while the school believe that it isn’t right for everyone, it does inform the way teaching happens across the school. The Principal told me that he didn’t want teachers sitting students in rows and teaching them in the traditional way.

The school is a pretty impressive place in both physical and pedagogic terms. The whole space feels like an environment for learning and students feel like willing participants rather than caged animals (as they do in some schools I’ve visited elsewhere). The physical design de-institutionalises the place and makes it more like somewhere that the students want to own and want to be. Having said that, the school also police behaviour pretty tightly to ensure that minor infractions and anti-social behaviours aren’t allowed to set a negative tone and allow freedom to be transformed into chaos.

This kinds of environment provides an ideal space for undertaking careers work. The level of student engagement, the availability of vocational options, the philosophy of self-directed learning, the space in the curriculum, all combine with an excellent guidance counsellor/careers teacher in Louan Statchuk to enable the creation of a really powerful programme of career interventions. Louan has built a structured programme of interventions that engage with students in every year that they are in the school. It includes the use of assessment tools like Career Cruising, LMI through ALIS, the building of portfolios describing interests and aspirations, simulations with the Real Game, group and one-to-one interventions, a taught accredited course, work experience and parental involvement. In other words it is a pretty comprehensive “how to” of high school careers work.

What has stood out for me in some of the schools that I’ve visited in Canada is the strong connection that exists between the overall pedagogic environment and the success of the careers education. Careers education seems difficult to do in an isolated way. With other subjects you can shut the doors and create a little island of wonder in your teaching of literature or science or whatever. However, careers is all about opening the doors and making the links with the rest of the world, in schools where this kind of integrative learning experience is possible there is lots of room for careers work to be done well. Olds High School is a shining example of this kind of approach.

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