Small School With a Big Heart

A few years ago, the little rural K-9 school in Granum, Alberta, Canada, was facing a bleak future. Enrollment was declining, budgets were depleted, parents were frustrated, teachers were discouraged and students had limited program opportunities. The future was not promising, and the community of 500 feared the looming prospect of school closure. v

This past year, the 175-pupil school celebrated the opening of a brand new building, at a cost of $3.5 million, which was designed to reflect a number of new student programs and a growing enrollment. In some instances, enrollment had to be capped by the school administration because registrations in certain classes were at their maximum capacity, because of increased demands from parents in the surrounding area.Previously, pupils were housed in two buildings, next to each other, with considerable duplication of facilities and more than 10,400 sq. ft. of space. The new facility contains about 6,900 sq. ft., so the reduction of nearly 3,500 sq. ft. translates into lower operating costs for utilities and maintenance.v

The new school building is streamlined for efficiency and flexibility, and was designed with significant input from staff. Teachers were given a major voice in articulating their program needs, which revolve around three areas. First, the community has embraced the philosophy of multi-aged learning, and the program is organized in three groups for ages 6 to 8, 9 to 11, and 12 to 15. Second, there is an alternative intermediate program available at the school for either local or area students who are having difficulty in a traditional classroom setting. Finally, the school is engaged in an exciting laptop computer project involving all teachers and all intermediate students.The lead architect for the project, Tom Tittemore, of Marshall Tittemore Architects, was impressed with the detailed attention and continuous feedback provided throughout the planning and construction process.“The design of this school was a truly participative process,” he says.“We received tremendous input from students, school staff, central administration and trustees.

“The brainstorming session led by our firm was attended by representatives from all stakeholder groups, and that led to a prioritized wish list which guided the rest of the planning,” he adds. “Through a series of meetings, the building design emerged as we came together to study the functional relationships of the school program, the site location and the budget parameters.”

Each classroom contains an electronic “SmartBoard” and projector, which is used in conjunction with the teacher or student laptops. The SmartBoard is an interactive whiteboard that transforms a classroom into a dynamic learning environment as users simply touch the large interactive whiteboard to access Websites, use various software applications, highlight key points or write notes in electronic ink.

The school principal, Kathy Olmstead, is delighted with the result. “This school building allows for the flexibility of groupings that is so vital to our instructional programming,” she says. “The desired outcomes and ongoing assessment processes, which are at the core of our philosophy, require students to work and learn differently within varied groupings.

“When you add the innovative technology focus to that, you have an environment that is very conducive to learning for all members of our school community,” says Olmstead. “It was an exciting privilege to have been a part of the design and building of a school structure that truly reflects our beliefs about student learning.”

With the combined power of a laptop computer, SmartBoard and projector in the classroom, students and teachers can do everything they do on a computer — and more. For example, a multi-age class of 6- to 8 year-old students first learn to plan their story writing as a large group using the SmartBoard. A teacher demonstrates how to design a story plan and then translate this plan into a completed story. Those students are then able to work in smaller groups to develop and write their own stories.

The SmartBoard allows the group to work together in sharing ideas directly on the board without crowding around one small computer terminal. Changes can be highlighted effectively with different colors, and the work can be saved to the school network and retrieved as needed. The finished stories can be printed, sent to others via e-mail or added to Websites, thereby enabling varied methods of sharing published work. The fact a student’s own printing can be included is an added feature at this level. In addition, illustrations can be imported from other software or scanned from their own drawings.

The school received national recognition this year for its technology initiatives, when it was one of only 30 schools in the country to be selected as a member of Canada’s Network of Innovative Schools. Those 30 schools were selected after “a rigorous evaluation process by an arm’s-length National Selection Committee,” states the director of the program Pierre Gendron. This school, along with the other 29 across Canada, will receive support as it continues to integrate technology in the classroom. It will also serve as a mentor to other schools and research the impact of technology on learning. “Granum School is a model for the learning opportunities available to Canadian schools through the use of information and communications technology,” adds Gendron.

Since teachers work in a multi-age setting, with anywhere from 10 to 30 students at a time, they appreciate the flexibility of having a sliding glass wall in each instructional space. “The sliding glass walls allow us to team-teach common lessons to an entire group, or divide students up in order to differentiate instruction,” notes Debbie Sawchuk, who teaches the 6- to 8-year-old group. “This can give us the benefit of using two classroom teachers, a learning support teacher and a teacher assistant with various groups of students at the same time.”

The corridor along the gymnasium uses a heavy curtain, instead of a solid wall, and it is easily pulled back to create spectator space for sports and community events. The roll-out bleachers extend the flexibility by creating an efficient viewing area for spectators.

The pleasant common area is near the entrance, a small kitchen, the library, office and gymnasium. So it serves double duty as lunch room, instructional space for teaching, a social centre and an independent study area that can be accessed easily and supervised efficiently.

The whole community is encouraged by the opportunities associated with a new school and is already seeing benefits, such as in new home construction and families considering a move to Granum, as parents invest in property that gives them access to a vibrant learning environment for their children. “A new school truly does bring new life into a community,” states the town’s Mayor Mike Sherman, at the official opening ceremonies, as he contrasted the first building with the current one. Christina Lamb, president of the student council, expressed a similar sentiment when she commented, “It is hard to put into words what this new school means to us.” However, she then went on to describe how it is such a student-centered place for friendship and learning.

Granum School is rapidly becoming a showcase of the possibilities that can occur in a small rural community when a school board and all stakeholders work together to create a new and promising future. The result is a vibrant school that truly embodies its motto, “The small school with the very big heart.”