It's no secret that our public education system needs fixing. Some of us think that going back to the curriculums and textbooks of 60 years ago would be a giant leap forward for public education. After all, back in those days, everyone learned to read, write, and do arithmetic in grade school. And the track record of the generations educated under that system speaks for itself. It can be measured by the technological accomplishments of the last century.
In those long-forgotten days of yore, the little red schoolhouse in the country often played a key role in educating and forging the character of the younger generations. Teachers routinely taught 2-4 grades simultaneously, and every student knew all the others in the school. Fitting in and getting along was a natural process, driven by necessity. It was a true microcosm of our rural Canadian society. Today, bigger is better; teaching "split classes" is deemed impractical, if not impossible; small schools are closed; and children are bussed to distant, large ones where the whole atmosphere becomes one of sterile, impersonal efficiency. That's progress?
Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting one of these little red schoolhouses that has survived in the Ontario countryside just north of a hamlet called Grasshill. It has been resurrected as a private school and has added some porta-cabins to accommodate its 80-some students. "Mapleview Private School" the sign says. It was originally built as a log cabin in 1856, and then rebuilt as a red brick structure in 1873. In 1965 the school was closed and students were bussed to a large modern school in nearby Woodville.
"Mapleview Private School" is owned and operated by Jack Campbell, a retired school principal. He established the school just three years ago, with an enrollment of 22 students and 2 full-time and 3 part-time teachers. The students in 1997 were children who experienced problems learning in public schools. Today, most of the 85 student attend his private school because word has got around that they can learn better in a small school with more teacher supervision and help.
Mapleview now has 9 seasoned teachers teaching grades 1 - 12. The atmosphere is congenial and relaxed. Chatting with Jack, it becomes clear that the motive behind his private school venture is not financial gain, but a labour of love and dedication to the community and students. He charges $4,200 per student, but a family gets a huge break if they want to send more than one child to his school. The second child gets in for $2,000 and any additional ones enroll for $500 each (hardly a get rich quick formula).
First impressions are often most reliable, and my impression of the little red schoolhouse and its organization was very favourable. Each school day starts with the singing of the national anthem followed by the Lord's Prayer. Curriculums meet provincial standards, but the focus is on the academic subjects. There is no sex/ed, and no child centered learning or Outcome Based Education here. Self-esteem is defined as self-confidence, which is earned, not learned, and it comes automatically through hard work and achievement. Children learn to read in grade one through phonics. In mathematics, students learn the multiplication tables by rote, and time is devoted to memorizing poetry in the early grades. Penmanship is taught as a subject, and children in grade three can write in both script and print. English grammar is emphasized, and literature is studied from classic books and short stories. Mapleview students get homework when they need it, but never on the weekend. Jack believes the time on weekends should be reserved for students to spend with their parents. Discipline is informal, but vandalism, violence, and substance abuse are not tolerated and result in expulsion. The elementary report card is a one page document designed by the school in cooperation with the parents. Spelling and most academic subjects are reported in percentages.
Jack Campbell and his staff of senior teachers feel that there is nothing complicated about education. They believe that effective teaching needs dedication, integrity, and lots of hard work. It is about leading by example and taking the time to ensure that all children are learning the prescribed material as they go along– ensuring that no one gets left behind.
Mapleview has a 10 member Parent School Council that is intimately involved and contributes to the smooth running of the school. This council acts as the cement that forms the bond between the school, parents and the community. Jack sees no need for any other management organization such as school boards.
Since Mapleviw has been in operation only for the last three years, no students have completed high school, but the school will be put to that test in two years time when their first grade 12 graduates will face the brave new world in either the work place or university. My guess is they will meet that challenge and pass the test with flying colours.
Visiting Jack Campbell's School was like a nostalgic trip down memory lane. It rekindled my hope that a better way to educate our children has not been entirely forgotten. It was like a breath of fresh air to hear an educator speaking in plain English, without complaining about lack of funding, or using hackneyed superlatives to describe the education system's make-believe achievements. This is one case where a small step back may well represent a giant leap forward in education. Back to the future, I say.