On P.E.I., nobody's too cool for community school

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There are no pop quizzes, awkward gym classes or detention. You'll never be told you talk too much or aren't reaching your full potential.

And best off all, you'll never feel the shame of that big F marked in red ink.

"The thing about community school is that you can't fail," said Blair Strongman, board president of the P.E.I. Community Schools Association.

"If you learn a little bit, a whole lot or nothing, you have a great time."

Community schools have lasted almost 60 years on P.E.I. because people actually want to go and learn. Homework is fun. And yes, there's even a recess — with no bell.

"It's a two-hour session, and in the middle they have a break and have a lunch and that usually is supposed to be 20 minutes, but usually lasts about 45 minutes," Strongman said.

"They like to talk."

The schools started in the 1960s as a way to spread lifelong learning and keep people invested in their rural communities. Now it's a place you can go to learn just about anything, from small engine repair to meditation.

Close up a man's hands playing acoustic guitar with copy space for text. Pamorama playing acoustic guitar at a recording studio.; Shutterstock ID 1908027901
Guitar lessons are one of the many classes are offered through P.E.I. community schools. (Shutterstock/lllonajalll)

And the students' ages also run the gamut, from young adults like Alana McKie — who reached out to the CBC podcast Good Question, P.E.I. wanting to know more — to people like Strongman, who is in his late 80s.

The community schools are run by people who volunteer their knowledge and expertise. A semester costs anywhere from $10 to $30 for up to 10 weeks, maybe $50 if there are a lot of materials involved.

The courses are held at night in local schools.You can learn to speak another language, play musical instruments or do different kinds of arts and crafts.

McKie remembers seeing projects and tole paintings around her house that her mother and grandmother created at community school.

It's just rare to have that kind of thing besides, like, organized sports and church. — Alana McKie

She's is now involved in community schools in Montague, and loves seeing people with similar interests socializing together.

"It's just rare to have that kind of thing besides, like, organized sports and church," she said. "There's not a lot of opportunities for people to get together with people from their communities. And so I'm pretty passionate about that. And I think this idea of, like, intergenerational knowledge transfer is so interesting as well."

Community school classes on offer this semester include rug hooking (shown), quilting, diamond art, Spanish, line dancing, pickleball and even geneaology.
Crafts such as rug hooking are popular at community schools. (Carolyn Ryan/CBC)

Strongman has been involved in organizing community schools for about 50 years, and took his first class about 20 years ago.

"I've always wanted to take fiddle. Now I'm playing the fiddle a little bit, jigs and reels, a lot of waltzes," he said.

Some take their new-found knowledge even further, using it to start a business such as photography.

But the key to the community schools is the volunteers who instruct the courses, and they're getting harder to find, Strongman said.

"This is the biggest problem with the community school is getting volunteers and that's the only way it'll work…. If we start to pay, then I'm sure it would be the end of community schools on the Island."

Or, perhaps, if it became too much like high school.

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