US & Canada

Canada's school on top of a ski mountain

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Media captionA day in the life of student Juliet McGauchie

Parents living in the Canadian resort town of Sun Peaks, British Columbia, created their own independent school on top of a ski mountain after they were told their children would have to travel two hours a day to reach the nearest school. Brandy Yanchyk reports from Sun Peaks.

Since last September, 19 children aged from five to 10 have made their way up the mountain in Sun Peaks to get to their one-room school house. Each morning, they take the ski lift to school and ski back down home when the day is done.

The school, known as the Discovery Centre, is on top of a mountain at the year-round resort which is surrounded by three peaks Tod Mountain, Sundance Mountain and Mount Morrisey.

The resort village, which has about 400 permanent residents, fills with tourists in the winter months who come from across Canada, the US, Australia and Britain to ski.

But last year the parents of Sun Peaks were outraged when the nearest school closed, forcing their children to attend a more distant school, involving a commute of up to two hours a day.

"School boards in this part of the world and generally in British Columbia are finding that there are fewer and fewer students in the rural locations so they are in the mode of closing the schools," says Al Raine, the mayor of Sun Peaks.

"They are trying to get efficiency by bussing children off to other communities and making one larger school. So the parents just said 'look, we are not going to accept that and, if we have to, we will do our own school'."

'Incredible environment'

Local parents came together to found the Sun Peaks Education Society and, in June 2010, started working to create a new place for their children to learn.

Image caption Students in Sun Peaks are encouraged to make the most of their mountain top environment

"We wanted our children to stay within the community and take advantage of everything this incredible environment has to offer," says Maria Cannon, a parent and president of the Sun Peaks Education Society.

Parents managed to raise more than 75,000 Canadian dollars (US$75,860) from the local community and businesses.

They set up a one-room school house, the Discovery Centre, and enrolled their children in the local School District 73 via a distance learning programme called @Kool.

The programme, which follows the British Columbia curriculum, is designed for children to work independently who are home-schooled or live in remote locations. The parents took this distance learning model and adapted it by adding a teacher who supervises the children at all times.

Older students also rely on computer programs such as Skype to communicate with their off-site teacher, Laurel Seafoot.

"This program teaches them to be independent learners. We set goals together and I teach them lessons," says Mrs Seafoot, an @Kool instructor.

The new technology has required a big adjustment but the children are learning quickly.

And Mrs Seafoot believes distance education via the computer is the way of the future for rural communities, as populations decline and parents want more flexibility for their children.


The online curriculum also forces parents to get more involved in their children's education due to the large amount of homework.

Image caption Barb Linder likes having access online to her son's assignments

"All the parents have been trained on how to use these management systems," says Mrs Seafoot. "They also have access to their children's marks daily as I mark assignments."

Barb Linder, whose son attends the Discovery Centre, likes the online access that the parents have.

"Sometimes in a bricks and mortar school you go in for report card time and that's when you find out how your kids are doing... here any time you can pop online and see their assignments. You can see the remarks from the teacher. You can sit down with your kids and go over it."

The opportunity to keep a close eye on her nine-year-old daughter Juliet has also been reassuring for parent Catherine McGauchie.

However, Mrs McGauchie admits that she was a little sceptical about putting her daughter and son in a school that was so different.

"We had been used to the kids going [to school] with 300 other students where they learn a lot and they have to deal with their peers, and bullying and that side of things, but here it's an isolated little community where they are not learning the things they should be learning perhaps in a bigger school."

Others have raised concerns that the students will miss out on involvement in team sports and competition with other schools.


However, some parents feel that the unique ski resort setting makes up for these losses.

The students are encouraged to make the most of their surroundings. They ski or go tubing at recess, during their lunch hour and before and after school.

They also go snow-shoeing in the wintertime and play golf in the spring. Every Friday, regular classes are exchanged for ski school or family days where the students are encouraged to play outdoors.

"The benefit is my son, Landon, is more active than maybe some other kids who don't have the opportunity to be on a ski hill or be outdoors," says parent Ryan Oevermann.

"It's definitely a healthier lifestyle for him."

Mayor Al Raine is also hoping that outsiders will see the benefits of the new school and consider moving to Sun Peaks. He hopes to see the permanent population double to 800 residents in the next four years. That increase would fit nicely with the school's goal for expansion.

"I think the Discovery Centre is going to double in size next year and I wouldn't be surprised if they double after that," says Mayor Raine.

If that happens they won't have a problem keeping their full time, on-site teacher, Jillian Schmalz. She seems to love her job.

"When it comes to staying I think this is an incredible job," Ms Schmalz says.

"Most teachers don't have the opportunity to work on top of a ski hill and be outdoors with their students and just be in this environment. It is a pretty amazing combination."

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