If we cast back to the start of my time at BCP, it was the Spring of 1994. I had just graduated from the Outdoor & Experiential Education Teaching Program at Queen’s Unviersity. This was a unique program that allowed for an additional teachable in Outdoor Education on top of a regular teaching degree. They accepted a small group of about 20 teacher candidates, and was quite difficult to get into at that time. The OEE Program was such a wonderful fit with my desire to integrate nature and adventure education with a regular teaching degree. The OEE group was a fantastic collection of educators passionate about taking kids outside, and making a difference through environmental and Earth Education. After graduating, I was hired at Boundless Adventures, an outdoor education centre for a diversity of groups, that blended adventure -- rock climbing, rappelling, whitewater canoeing and rafting -- with personal development, and leadership training. It was a great place to put into practise my learning from Teachers College. After travelling through South America, and a couple of years working seasonally with Boundless Adventures, I was ready for a more consistent teaching job. And yet it was very difficult to get any teaching job at this time in Ontario. Many of my colleagues were getting hired overseas in American Schools, in South and Central America.
It was at this time that I heard from a close friend from my OEE class, Ally Myers, that she was leaving the Bronte Creek Project. She had been working there as a Teaching Assistant, and was ready to move on. This wasn’t a full teaching position, but was a dream job, at a very highly respected integrated program. I had very little financial needs at that time, and was looking for a place to gain experience, and apply the tools I’d learned from school. I remember visiting the program to explore the possibilities, and joining a class on a rock climbing day. It was such a fantastic match with my life purpose and career goals. I remember the kids being so lit up, and excited to learn and connect with each other, which was so different than the typical experience of a high school classroom. I met John McKillop at this time, and I remember that day so clearly -- the moment outside the Sidrabene office -- when we spoke about canoe trips, kids, experiential education, and even media studies. I remember the silent spaces in our conversation when John would stop and reflect before responding. He was quite intimidating at the time, and I desperately wanted to impress, and demonstrate that I could work there and be a good fit. I had graduated from Queen’s with an undergrad in Film Studies, and John was particularly interested in this background, paired with extensive canoe trip leadership, and outdoor education. I was hired later that season to replace Ally, and ended up moving into the apartment at the back of the Sidrabene building for a few semesters. This allowed me to exchange work around the property for rent, and have a very short commute to our class in the morning. I worked quite extensively with Peter Kuzmanis, who was Sidrabene’s property manager at that time. I remember crawling into recycling bins to clean them out, sweeping the giant gym floor of the “Great Hall”, and cleaning up the building at times from what seemed like wild Lativian weekend parties. It was an amazing way to immerse myself fully in the program at the beginning. Yet over time, I found myself needing a break from work, and ended up finding an apartment in Guelph, where I have now lived for 24 years.
I worked as a Teaching Assistant for 3 years, teaching and facilitating the kitchen and shopping for BCP lunches and Earthkeepers meals. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn the ins and outs of the Program, and be mentored by John in various roles. Enrolment was critical to the ongoing success of the Program, and as I learned, I began to take on more administrative and outreach roles, communicating and building relationships with guidance counselors from each of the Halton high schools. The Halton Board was geographically huge at that time, with 22 schools from Aldershot to Acton. As John approached retirement, we started to explore ways for me to apply for the position that would facilitate an opportunity to take over for his role. Even though I had been teaching the program for years, I was, ironically, “outside” the system, and would need to apply as a candidate outside the Halton Board, which would make it very difficult, if not impossible to be hired. So we came up with the idea of me leaving BCP for a time to be hired as a teacher in the Halton Board in a regular classroom. A long term occasional English position came up at Lord Elgin, and I was hired then to take over that class, which brought me into the Board system, and allowed me then to apply for John’s position internally. I was eventually hired, and was able to transition quite smoothly into the role, as John had mentored me for so many years.
At this time, BCP was being run as a grade 11-12 integrated program inside of a 5 year high school diploma. There was some room within the 5 years, for students to step away from their home schools, and fit BCP into their high school schedules. They could earn some compulsory credits, some electives, a wealth of experience, and head back to their home schools with time to complete their diplomas, and graduate. It was at this time that the Ontario government rumoured to be reducing the length of the high school diploma to 4 years. We were very aware of the rumour, but the changes didn't seem that urgent. At the time, we thought we might need to adjust some of the credits we were offering to allow students to fit the program into the 4 years. At the same time, our sister program in Guelph, the Community Environmental Leadership Program (CELP), had made a bold preemptive move to shift their integrated program down one grade to grade 10. Mike Elrick, CELP's teacher at that time, saw the benefit of anchoring CELP in the mandatory grade 10 credits, including English, Civics, and Careers. At BCP, we were working with a larger School Board geographically, with students bussed in from across Halton, and we were concerned with the challenge of younger students leaving their home schools at that age in their schooling. So we decided to shift BCP more to a grade 11-12 focus, including some core credits, that would give grade 11 students a leg up in their schedules, and still fit into the Grade 12 graduate year if needed.
As the 4 year diploma became a reality, BCP fell into an interesting challenge. Students could fit the program into their schedules, but it was increasingly difficult, and filling four semesters, as we had traditionally done, became quite challenging. It became clear that following CELP's lead, and introducing a Grade 10 program, was necessary to adapt to the 4 year change, and for the survival of the Program as a whole. We had invested so much in adapting BCP to the older grades, that instead of moving BCP down, as CELP had done, it made more sense for us to add another program at the Grade 10 level. So we mirrored the success CELP had, by starting to build a Grade 10 integrated program with a range of core credits, that students could easily fit into their schedules. The challenge then was splitting out elements of BCP that would work well at the Grade 10 level, creating the branding, and enrolling the Halton schools into sending students in this new way.
And Trailhead was born. We thought the grade 4 Novice Earthkeepers Program was a nice fit with the Grade 10 age group as a mentorship opportunity. So we moved all the Novice Programs over to the Trailhead groups to facilitate. These worked well, as they didn't involve overnights, so could easily fit into the day program of the Grade 10 curriculum. The Grade 10 students turned out to be a mixed success at the beginning. Because we were offering core credits, we attracted a healthy number of very motivated, academic students, interested in some variety in their education environment, and style of learning. Many of the students were very responsible, reliable, and fantastic leaders with the elementary kids. Our fears of grade 10 being too young only really materialized with students who were already struggling in the classroom. There was a demographic of more hands-on learners, who, combined with a younger age, became an interesting challenge, in an outdoor, more independent setting. Over time, the program developed a reputation for leadership and responsibility, and the blend of different kinds of learners and personalities worked itself out, to provide for some remarkably engaged leaders.
Trailhead really provided a fantastic outlet for these kids at this age to learn civics and careers in an alive, experiential setting. The grade 10 students were also closer in age to the grade 4s, which became a real benefit, as the elementary kids looked up to them, could see themselves in the high school students, as their role models. This had a circular effect, giving the high school students confidence, and also provided accountability to their actions. As the elementary kids would copy everything the high school students did -- the way they spoke, the language they used, the way they moved their hand through their hair. It would all be copied, and the older students quickly learned their behaviour had an impact. It was profound how much this dynamic influenced the Trailhead students to consider their language, and be intentional about how they spoke and dressed. And there was such a wonderfully positive effect on the grade 4 kids, as they learned from these older students how to be in the world. There was a very different connection than was available between a teacher and their students.
We partly created Trailhead as a solution to the challenge of enrolment in a 4 year diploma. All funding was dependent on full enrolment. The Halton Board seemed to go through various stages of budget strength and challenge over the years. At this time, there was some pressure on the Board to make cuts to alternative program expenses. We came up with the creative solution to merge our two outdoor sites into one, that would allow the Board to save rent on a whole outdoor facility. We decided that Sidrabene had the best capacity to hold both programs. At first, I was quite resistant, as I had been running the one Bronte Creek group out of the Sidrabene site for years, and it was a challenge to think how we would share the spaces. Yet necessity is indeed the mother of invention, and we got quite creative in how we would use different indoor and outdoor spaces, and re-organize the schedule to share the meals, cooking, dishes, and classrooms. We turned one of the rooms into the “fishbowl” classroom, that was previously only used in the warmer months, as it had no building heat. It was called the fishbowl because it had a long window at the top that overlooked the classroom from the hallway. We placed space heaters in the room, and wore toques and jackets at first, as the room would take hours to heat up on a Monday morning. We would then use the dining hall as the other classroom, and flip back and forth each week, depending on the needs of each program.
At first, it was a bit of a rocky merger with the Grade 10 Trailhead students in the same space as the older Bronte Creek students. It took some trial and error to navigate how best to mingle the different ages in shared spaces. Each week, many things worked, and some things would fail, so we’d meet as a staff team to adapt and shift things as we went. We also had community meetings each week with each class, which allowed space for students to express appreciation for things that were working, and concerns about things that weren’t. Given that both classes were a larger group interacting in the same spaces, we realized we also needed some time to host community meetings with the larger group. So we started arranging full community meetings monthly that allowed space to resolve any issues that were coming up between the groups. Overall, the rhythm and routines started settling out, and the groups became very successful at cohabitating. In fact, we started introducing opportunities for mentorship between the older Bronte Creek groups and the younger students in Trailhead. This was an effective way for the students to get to know each other, learn from each other, and build the community as a whole. Although sometimes, the mentorship was flipped, where the grade 10 Trailhead classes were filled with such highly motivated and competent students, matched with a rebellious, hands-on Bronte Creek group. The younger students then really raised the level of engagement, and became leaders in the community -- role modelling, and pulling the other students up to their level. Each group developed their distinct personality and culture that became part of the absolute joy and challenge with the integrated format.
It was a real mixed blessing working with another teacher on site. Doug and I had very different approaches to teaching and working with students, which in many ways complemented each other, and made for a strong team. And in other ways, was a bit of oil and water. I did so appreciate Doug’s relaxed approach to work and lessons, and his brilliant ability to relate with students. I was a little more high strung, and took things a little too seriously. I really modelled my approach after John McKillop, and it did take me some time to find my own way and rhythm of doing things. I felt so strongly that I had taken over John’s “baby”, and felt the immense weight of that responsibility, to keep the thing going. As John had done, I ended up taking on much of the administrative leadership, which I quite enjoyed, yet added an extensive layer of work and responsibility. Doug and I found a balance working together. I remember at the beginning of each semester doing a “hockey draft” to divide the students between the groups. This was somewhat arbitrary, and a fun way to divide up students based on creating diverse classes geographically and a mix of different kinds of learners. I remember Doug used to choose students mostly by the most inventive last names, and it seemed to create some wonderfully eclectic and effective groups.
It was about this time that the Province expanded the Specialist High Skills Major Program (SHSM) to a more diverse range of subjects. This had been traditionally a trades based program. The idea was to encourage students to study trades, and acknowledge their work with a specialist diploma, much like a College or University “diploma”, yet at the high school level. The concept was that students would acquire practical certifications in the field they had chosen. At this time, the Province expanded the Program to include Environmental Studies, so we applied to make our senior Bronte Creek Project course a SHSM in “Environment”. The attraction was that there was designated funding and marketing for SHSM programs. The drawback was that, to qualify, we did need to fit into the structure of criteria they had established. We found it to be a pretty clear fit, and allowed us to offer Wilderness First Aid, and GPS Map & Compass Certifications, that were paid for by the Province through the SHSM stream. We also were able to fund a canoeing paddling skills day in preparation for our semester end canoe trip, as well as capital investments, like GPS devices, that we could take on our adventure trips to practise with. Although it was optional at first, over time, all the students who attended the Grade 12 Bronte Creek program also enrolled in “SHSM Environment”. This allowed us to run the certification courses for the whole class, instead of a small portion of SHSM students. There was a practicum component for students when they returned to their home schools, where they would participate in an experiential co-op placement in the “environment” theme, that would then give them all the requirements to complete their SHSM Diploma. Overall, the SHSM was a net benefit to the students and the program. It provided a well defined and funded structure that mostly fit the nature of our program, and allowed for students to discover Bronte Creek through some different channels. At times, it was an awkward marriage, as SHSM always seemed to be grounded in its trade roots, which wasn’t always a natural fit with students who were drawn to outdoor adventure and living lightly on the planet.
It was about this time that my partner, Mary-Kate, and I started having children. We had our first child, Rowan, in 2007, when I took my first parental leave. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this leave was the beginning of the slow transition for me out of Bronte Creek and into a more local lifestyle in Guelph. Bronte Creek was absolutely my dream job, and I had thought I would be in it for the rest of my teaching career. Yet I really put all my energy and love into my role, which did have an impact on my life at home. I was getting quite burnt out, and was away a lot (doing amazing things! Like the overnight Earthkeepers and adventure trips in Algonquin Park and Temagami). I didn’t quite realize the impact until I took this parental leave, and stopped, and recovered. I went back after a semester off rejuvenated and re-energized, yet with the desire to create more opportunities to spend time with my young family. I started taking deferred leaves, which involved working 4 semesters at 80% salary, and then taking the 5th semester off, where the Board pays you your accumulated savings back. I did this 4 times, at which time the Board cut me off. They had a cap. This was the point when I was now married, and had 2 more kids, Sikhona & River, and my absences, and burn out became more and more out of sync with the needs of my family life. So I made the challenging decision to quit my Bronte Creek job as a teacher, and re-create myself as an entrepreneur closer to home in Guelph. The intention was to spend more time with my wife and young kids, and also immerse myself in the community where I lived. It was probably the most difficult decision of my life, and yet, I know I have brought the central principles and values of Bronte Creek into everything that I do, and my family and community are the richer for it.