First charter high school in rural Alberta offers hands-on learning

Grade 12 student Cordell Janzen attends Holden Rural Academy, a new charter school about 100 kilometres southeast of Edmonton. (Madeleine Cummings/CBC - image credit)
Grade 12 student Cordell Janzen attends Holden Rural Academy, a new charter school about 100 kilometres southeast of Edmonton. (Madeleine Cummings/CBC - image credit)

Two years after the Battle River School District voted to close Holden Elementary School due to declining enrolment, the building is buzzing with students again.

Holden Rural Academy opened in the former elementary school building in September, drawing 61 students to the new charter school about an hour southeast of Edmonton. It is the first charter high school in rural Alberta.

Like those in the Calmar, Alta. area, parents in and around the village of Holden, Alta. turned to the charter model after losing their school.

Karla Janzen, one of the school's founding members and a mother to three boys who attend, said sending students outside of the community for school severs community connections and accelerates population decline in rural communities.

"Even though we're small, we're real, we matter and our kids matter," she said.

Place-based education

Charter schools are fully funded by the provincial government but, unlike most public schools, they are not run by publicly elected school boards.

Per provincial rules, charters must offer programming that is innovative and "significantly different" than options already available.

Holden's founders came up with a vision that revolved around what educators call "place-based education" — a learning approach that immerses students in their surrounding environments.

Instead of sitting at desks all day, Holden students learn core courses in the morning and choose from a variety of largely off-campus activities in the afternoon.

"We are deliberately making a connection between our students, their ambitions and the community," said superintendent Wes Oginski.

Board member Gail Alger said getting the school approved by the province took longer than everyone expected. She said rather than postpone the opening, parents were determined to open this fall.

The society received its approval letter from the government in July and received the key to the school building on the long weekend before the first day of school.

Volunteers from across the county arrived to clean the old school and set up chairs and tables borrowed from the community hall.

'A lot closer to home'

Grade 11 student Rayanne Ligard used to ride the bus for 90 minutes to attend high school in Viking, Alta.

She said her new school is "a lot closer to home," which came in handy this fall because her father needed help during the harvest.

Madeleine Cummings/CBC
Madeleine Cummings/CBC

She and her friend, Grade 12 student Alyssa Zimmer, said they miss playing basketball and volleyball in bigger schools but like having more one-on-one time with teachers at Holden.

"Having the smaller classes has helped me with my 30-level courses," Zimmer said.

When CBC News visited the village last week,  Grade 10 student Eric Woode was repairing transfer cases with a classmate down the road from the school as the owner of Rockabilly Blues Garage supervised.

Woode, who spends every school day afternoon learning mechanic math and business basics at this garage, said he prefers hands-on learning to sitting inside a classroom and listening to a teacher talk.

Madeleine Cummings/CBC
Madeleine Cummings/CBC

Principal Brian Dewar said place-based learning isn't unprecedented in Alberta — he came out of retirement to Holden after overseeing similar initiatives in northern Alberta — but he finds the charter model offers more flexibility and freedom.

"We can take kids and we say, 'What's your interest?' And we'll go find it."

More charters in Alberta

From 1994, when charter schools were introduced, until 2019, the maximum number allowed in Alberta was 15.

The UCP government lifted the cap after it came to power and streamlined the charter application process, making it easier for new ones to form.

Since then, the number of charters in the province has increased to 19.

According to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange's press secretary, 17 public charter authorities operate 30 charter school campuses in Alberta.

Two of the 19 have been approved but have not yet opened their doors.