New method shows signs of success
By Janet French, The Starphoenix
It was while talking with a colleague that teacher Pauline McKay had the light bulb moment that would forever change the way she taught teens.
Why did her son fail math after studying it for six months, only to succeed in a summer school crash course? "It's only a month," she told her friend Ruth Ahenakew.
Their eyes locked, and they set to work making the first high school schedule that teaches students mostly one subject, all day, for 25 straight days.
McKay calls it the "Copernican block schedule," and a handful of First Nations schools in the Prairies are now using it to successfully keep students in school.
"It's really hard to be a risk-taker. You really have to have balls. Be brave," McKay said in an interview.
Now the principal of Sturgeon Lake Central School, McKay presented her unorthodox system to her colleagues at the Western Canada First Nations Education Administrators Conference in Saskatoon on Tuesday.
She's now tried the system in Ahtahkakoop, in The Pas, Man., and now at Sturgeon Lake. Instead of dividing the school year into two or three semesters, or four quarters, the Copernican schedule splits the year into six or seven blocks.
From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sturgeon Lake high school students study the same subject daily for a month. For the last hour of the school day, they pick up options offered through the semester system, such as physical education and wellness.
The benefits are numerous, she said: Students and teachers don't lose time switching classrooms. Students have the time they need to master concepts, and become more confident in their skills and accountable to their teacher.
Attendance rose. Student and teacher interaction and relationships grew. The kids weren't overloaded with homework. And a student who drops out of one class can easily hop back into school weeks or months later without having lost several courses.
"They don't have that sense of failure," she said.
At the end of each block, the school holds a celebration with coffee and doughnuts, handing out awards - and even cash prizes - for academic achievement and perfect attendance.
The schedule forces teachers to change the way they teach, McKay said. Lecturing the same group for four hours a day won't work, so the model prompts a lot of group work and class projects.
It also gives students opportunities they wouldn't have in a semester system. One law class attended several days of a dangerous offender hearing in a nearby courthouse.
In The Pas, one class spent a month paddling from Rocky Mountain House, Alta., back to Manitoba, studying environmental science as they went.
"You will never want to go back to the semester system," McKay told educators. "You're going to love the way you interact with your kids."
The work formed the basis of McKay's master's thesis at the University of Regina. She found significantly more teens stayed in school under her block system compared to the semester system. Sturgeon Lake's Grade 12 dropout rate fell to 21 per cent from 60 per cent.
Their grades in subsequent classes show they're not forgetting the subject material by the next year, she said. And those who write provincial departmental exams in Grade 12 are also doing well, she said.
Teacher Dale Steinhauer said her school in Saddle Lake, Alta., adopted the block system after taking students, parents and staff on a visit to Sturgeon Lake.
"This system forces the educator to step outside the box and engage that student," Steinhauer said.
First Nations schools in Canoe Lake, Little Pine and Montreal Lake are also using the system, McKay said.