Bryn Davies was a colleague in the social science dept at Elgin and we shared a common interest in alternative education along with other progressive ideas. We had watched the decline of the Mountsberg program and began talking about what we would do with a similar program. We designed a similar four credit program aimed a bit more towards disengaged students that would focus on community building and sustainable living. We were pretty sure that Mountsberg would not continue so we developed a proposal for a program to replace Mountsberg for about twenty students for a semester long program. The political dynamic was that we had to convince administration as well as department heads who tended to be territorial when it came to numbers of students. Also there was another proposal from one of the Mountsberg teachers” that we realized was competing with us. We lobbied these heads quite vigorously and given that the local Mountsberg site was available and we weren’t looking at bIg numbers of Students and given that experimentation was part of the culture in the school, we were given the ok to promote the program. It was made available to the student population and we had eighteen students enrol.
The year was 1981. Although we had a vision of what we wanted, we then had to begin filling in the curriculum details. There were four credits including environmental science, an English and art combination and a sociology. We had to blend together the four curriculums to fit the goals. The site had a small cottage and a shed later to become a barn. Mountsberg had built an outhouse and we had a wood stove put in the basement of the cottage with the help of Paul Singleton the head of special education at Elgin and our immediate supervisor. We bought a chainsaw and we planned that we and the students would cut and haul dead trees for firewood from the valley below our site on the Bronte Creek. The name for the program came from the location and from a musical band that John liked called the Alan Parsons Project. The Bronte Creek project was born. The program existed for 38 years until finally cancelled in 2019 due to financial cuts and declining enrolments. John had retired from teaching 20 years earlier in 1999.
On day one at the end of January 1981, we hiked with our students along the iced over Bronte Creek from the school to our new home. It was part of what we called the 24 hr experience. The 6plan being for us all to stay overnight in the cabin, feed ourselves and get to know each other a little bit. The walk was not easy but we managed it without serious incident. Bryn had walked ahead with a couple of students to get a fire going and he did manage to break through the ice and get his feet and legs wet.
That first year was one of figuring out what to do and how to do it. We wanted the students to be as involved in this little community as possible. Transportation was an issue and with no bus service we did a lot of carpooling With the two of us and some of the kids with cars doing the driving and often having to make two trips to get it done.
One of our students was a farm kid who knew chainsaws and he taught us quite a bit about use and maintenance as well as taking on a lot of responsibility for cutting the wood. We shudder a bit now thinking back on that reality. The kids did work hard hauling the cut wood up from the valley. The wood stove worked well and provided our only heat as well as beneficial fitness.
Even in the early stages of the program we focused on sustainability and responsibility for the environment and our community wellbeing. Students were organized into tasks that had to be done. We ate a community meal every day and menus had to be planned, food bought and prepared, cleanup done daily and of course the wood stove had to be constantly maintained.
In essence we were creating our own little community and dealing with the issues any community has to face such as food, water, shelter warmth and energy and doing it all responsibly and sustainably.
We did begin a series of routines that would continue over the years which included fitness, assigning group tasks and organizing team building activities. We also initiated a program of journal writing a practice that Bryn and I had practiced for years, which became a constant over the years.
Our academics did include literature and poetry including “One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest” as well as the short stories of Jack London. It wasn’t long before John became known as “the big nurse” after that not so positive character in the movie and the book. He always thought He should be the McMurphy character played by Jack Nicholson.
This was 1981 and our students were certainly part of youth culture and we did have a drug issue late in the semester that had to be dealt with, and a promise of “no use” was a prerequisite for acceptance into the program. We were worried that even little steps off the mainstream track would cause us to be shut down. This issue did lead to some short suspensions but the group as a whole had developed a strong feeling for what we were doing and didn’t wish to jeopardize the program. In any case, there were no further incidents in that first semester that we knew about anyway. In later years smoking which was not allowed became an issue that most of our semesters faced and we evolved to letting the groups deal with the problem and they tended, usually, to do a very good job of it. We got to the point where if the issue didn’t come up,we considered initiating it, to get the bonding benefits it usually brought.
We did have a major theft incident that first year, though. The basement of our hut was broken into and our chainsaw was stolen. Luckily there was a general school insurance policy and so we were able to replace it quite quickly. In the second year we Initiated a leadership initiative whereby we selected two first year students to return as a co-op education assistant leader. This very successful program continued right through the history of the Bronte Creek providing a great deal of help for staff.
We also ran the program in the second semester for the first few years which allowed us to undertake a week-long backpacking trip to Killarney park in the spring, which became a standard part of our program for many years.
The outdoor trip was always the culmination of a semester of outdoor education and preparation for what became a major highlight of the semester. The outdoor experience was the first clear example of an integrated program at work. Students put into practice their training in outdoor skills, environmental science , group dynamics and leadership skills. They worked in small groups and did much of the planning for the day to day components of the trip. In the first two years, we even did an overnight training trip on the Bruce Trail camping at Rattlesnake point. We always had extra staff along to help supervise the students, usually other teachers with outdoor experience such as Phil Horruzey and Jeff McIntyre. John had a close friend who He had done much of my adventure travel with, who came on a number of trips. Rick Beninger was a psychology prof at Queen's university and he came to Killarney park with us four or five times. He would usually come to Burlington a couple of days early and We would have him give a short informational talk on how drugs worked on the brain. He would explain how neurotransmitters like Dopamine and Serotonin moved information between cells in the brain but when one did drugs, the drugs tended to replace the neurotransmitters. This was never a condescending talk or proselytizing to the students just straight up scientific information for them to absorb and consider. He became known to the students as Dr. Rick. We of course had travelled a lot together so he always came with whichever group I was with and we made a very good team. Rick always had an easy way with the students and they always responded well to him.
Another short lived initiative was livestock. We had a small shed that could be a small barn and we constructed a rough chicken coop. In the second year John drove several students up to an auction in St Jacobs and with the help of some locals managed to purchase two goats and four chickens. We somehow transported them back to our site in my relatively new station wagon and he got a lot of grief from home because of the straw and smells in the car afterwards. We had another principal friend who raised goats who taught us the basics. I am not sure that we were great at this but we did learn how to milk the goats and we did get eggs from the chickens. One of the goats managed to escape and was gone for several days before we retrieved her and we lost one who was fed too much got sick and died. We also had a pregnant feral cat attach herself to us and who gave birth to five little ones fortuitously while the Lord Elgin principal was visiting. We managed to find homes for all of them and Bryn took one which he had for many years.
Another fun project was maple syrup. We had a group of sugar maples which we tapped and collected sap. We built a rock fire pit and somehow acquired a large sap boiling pan that fit on top and we made syrup. We had one incident one day where our chefs of the day used collected sap rather than water to cook spaghetti making for a very interesting lunch.
Another innovation occurred in the second year when we invited a couple of classes from a nearby elementary school to visit for a day and our students lead them through a number of activities. These were mostly outdoor and camp activities that we borrowed from many places.
There was no real focus but the interaction between the older kids with the young ones was instructional and we felt that this leadership experience pointed us towards the future. We would become a leadership development program while giving something positive back to the community at large.
Other things were happening:
Years three and four presented us with a number of new realities. In year three our teacher allotment was reduced to one. Bryn decided he was ready to move towards administration so he left us. John was quite taken with what He saw as the new direction that had begun so He stayed on as the sole teacher of the program.
Another initiative was that We got approval for a teacher aide and We hiired Kevin Buckley, a handy skills kind of guy with lots of outdoor wilderness experience. He had been a BCP student and then a Sir Sanford Fleming college student. He was the first of many auxiliary staff that the program had over the years. More about them later.
Years three and four presented a number of new realities.
Carpooling to get to this distant site was a constant hassle but it worked for awhile. More about that later.
The principal of the elementary school that we had been working with,Grant Hutchings, was also the camp manager for camp Manitou, a Boy Scout camp located in north Burlington. Grant had introduced us to other elementary schools, who were using Manitou for day programs. Many of these schools liked that we could organize the on site programming for them and this increased our clientele. We began training our students at our original site, near the home school, and then driving to Manitou for program days. By and large, quite an awkward arrangement. Half way through the third year we negotiated an arrangement with the Scouts, whereby, we could be at Manitou everyday. We deliberated with the students, who agreed that it would be better for us to move the program there. Manitou became our home for about five years.
At Camp Manitou we had a proper kitchen, dining hall and dormitory building. In the second year there, we got a bus. It’s use was donated by a car dealership friend of our principal, Peter Gnish. Kevin and John both got bus driving licences. We then picked our students up at two stops daily and drove to the camp, then home after. We almost lost the bus, one icy day on the steep hill going down Twiss rd to the camp. We had to get the kids off the bus, and then have them haul sand to put under the wheels, to slowly edge down the hill. That took a lot out of the school day that day. However the transmission on the bus broke on our training backpacking trip, and we had to call for reinforcements. We ended up renting vans after that. John always thought that there were likely not many other teachers out there who both taught and drove the school bus.
Programming changed at Manitou as well. We were not happy with the activities from regular camp life and John while travelling had encountered a new approach to environmental Learning, called Earth Education. This was the brainchild of an American professor, Steve Van Matre and his organization, the Institute for Earth Education. Their main program, Sunship Earth, was being used in a number of YMCA camps in Canada. We got hold of the instruction book for it and began using parts of it with our young students. John was interested enough in the approach that He attended one of the IEE conferences and while there, was introduced to their latest program called Earthkeepers. He decided that rather than steal components of Sunship Earth, it would be better to buy the right to use Earthkeepers. He had gone through this program, while At the conference and found it to be very impressive. It involved putting kids through a series of magical adventures that would teach them basic ecological principles, encourage them to become more emotionally connected to nature, begin to nurture their own environmental behaviours, then share their new learning with others. In the process, the students earned a set of four keys and became Earthkeepers level one. Staff always felt that this program had more impact on the high school students teaching the program, than the younger kids, likely because they were a bit more mature and idealistic but still kids at heart.
Financing for the program day to day came from a budget of $700 from Lord Elgin, along with the fees we charged the elementary schools, as well as a series of fundraisers such as a couple of battles of the Bands, movie nights, getting turns at running local bingos, and the more typical car washes and bake sales. We never made a tonne of money from these events but they did provide important learning experiences for our students.
Like all parts of the program our recruiting tactics evolved. Originally it was merely a possible course selection at the high school but in the second year, Moving towards a leadership development focus, We wanted to appeal to a wider range of students, so we arranged short recruitment meetings for grade ten students, where John did a short presentation about the program. Face to face with students in this setting turned out to be pretty effective. Sixty Elgin students registered for the program.
It never rains but it pours. We also had approached other high schools about joining us in this venture, figuring this would be the only way to stabilize enrolment. LB Pearson was the first school to join with us. We had over sixty students register for the program from Elgin and twenty from Pearson, which meant that we could run the program both semesters of the school year. Pearson wanted to share the teaching sections, so it was decided that first semester of year four would be all Elgin students with John teaching and semester two would be a mix of students from both schools taught by John and John Gaul a Pearson teacher with a lot of outdoor experience.
In Feb/85 the first joint Elgin/Pearson semester occurred with the two Johns, Kevin Buckley our aide and 33 students. It was an interesting and productive semester, though we felt that the group was a little large to create the close-knit community experience we were looking for. The dynamics became a little too complex, and we decided that down the road we would stay smaller and have John Mckillop teach one semester and John Gaul. the other. As well, John Mckillop was beginning to feel some burnout and he decided to go back into the classroom for a semester.
The school year 1985/86 didn’t work out that way. That year our numbers were down. We had a full crew for the first semester but very low enrolment for the second. As well, John Gaul had decided he didn’t want to run a semester by himself. Ultimately, it was decided to cancel the program for the second semester John Mckillop had decided to take a leave of absence for that semester, so we had to decide what to do with our elementary school bookings, and our aide, Kevin Buckley. Wanting to maintain our relationship with both the elementary schools and camp Manitou, we concocted a plan to have Kevin oversee the program days, with the elementary schools, using volunteer BCP grads as leaders. On non-program days, Kevin would work at Elgin as an aide in the life skills department.
John came back from his semester off, quite refreshed and ready to get back at it. We had great support from both Peter Gnish and Graham Barrett the principal at L B Pearson. We even had a plan for the future. Anticipating the need to involve other schools in order to grow. we managed to convince two other Halton schools to participate, and others became interested as well. We did continue to get some flack from department heads, worrying about their own enrolments, so we ultimately, put a proposal to the Principal’s association, to open the program to all the high schools, on a pay per use basis, which was accepted. By September 1988 Bronte Creek became a regional program with teaching sections coming off the top of the board total.
Recruitment of students like everything else evolved . We had already learned that recruiting meant being active. Of course the best recruiters were always our alumni students, whose word of mouth was always reliable. We went farther than that though. We began recruiting a volunteer at each school, from amongst our alumni, to represent us. They would arrange an after school meeting and put up posters. A BCP staff member would arrive and do a presentation to interested students, with the aid of a powerpoint presentation. Within three years, all of the Halton high schools were involved, and it wasn’t long before we were able to, not only run the program both semesters in the school year, but at two separate sites, servicing up to 80 Halton HS students per year. The second site became Woodland Trails, the Oakville Boy Scout camp. This growth meant hiring another teacher to run the second site and Doug Jacques, a very experienced outdoor educator, was hired to do that. By then we were hiring two support staff at each location, plus two of our student vets at each site, through our co-op education component.
Camp Manitou had became problematic though, as the scouts kept raising the rental fees. Eventually we were priced out, and had to shop around. We eventually found a new home at The Rocky Ridge Ranch, a Christian camp facility. Brenda Kearney the Elgin principal at the time, was instrumental in this arrangement. John taught the program at the Rocky Ridge Ranch, while Doug taught the Woodland Trails program.
Another large problem was solved during this time period, the old issue of transportation. Pauline Laing, the new superintendent of Community Services, asked some pertinent questions in the right places, and worked it, so that two buses could pick up our students at the end of their regular routes, and bring them to our sites. This saved us the $10000 we were spending for vans, and took a big load off of staff.. We were then able to upgrade our equipment, and do things we had not been able to do up to that point.
By Sep/88 we were pretty solid. We had increased our prices a little to the elementary schools and were providing programs for thirty-five schools, so finances were stable, our sites were stable, and recruitment was high. We were able to settle a bit and just deal with the typical day-to-day routines and problems.