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Alberta futures: students at Strathcona-Tweedsmuir

The great outdoors of Alberta

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It isn't even 8 a.m., yet boys clad in matching sweaters are already being put through their paces out on the rugby field under bright Alberta sunshine.

The Rocky Mountains form a backdrop as team members inhale the fresh air and run on the beautifully manicured grass. A small stream flows gently under a bridge next to a stand of poplars near where elementary students are climbing on playground equipment before classes begin.

This idyllic setting is just half an hour's drive south of the hustle and bustle of Calgary, where Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School nestles on 65 lush acres. There's plenty of room for several outdoor sports fields, cross-country skiing in winter and even a nine-hole golf course. Students practise their paddling on the school's own small lake, test their skill on a trap-shooting range and manoeuvre up a 50-foot climbing wall.

They also learn ecology and biology by studying the school's own wetland area, and take part in projects aimed at protecting the environment. Outdoor education is an integral part of the curriculum at Strathcona-Tweedsmuir, where educators believe students need healthy bodies to invigorate healthy minds.

"We've been all over the mountains - hiking and rock climbing," says Grade 9 student Meecher Ayi, 14, listing off canoeing trips down the Elbow River, ski trips to Fernie and a trip to a horse-riding camp.

The school has sat on the same lush spot - it's next to riding stables where many of the children practise their equestrian skills - for the 28 years since a boys school and a girls school amalgamated, forming Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School. The school offers an enhanced Alberta Learning curriculum for students in grades 1 through 12.

The school's seclusion helps kids focus on studying, says Kelly Matthews, its marketing co-ordinator. "There's no distractions for them here. Once they're dropped off, there's no malls or anything." But it also means up to an hour on the bus each morning and afternoon, time spent doing homework or socializing. Early and late buses allow students to participate on sports teams and in after-school programs.

The school's population has ballooned to 660 and its facilities have grown in the last decade. A fully equipped science wing was finished in 1994 and a 23,000-square-foot arts wing was added in '96. A new $10-million fitness facility features a workout centre, an indoor track and weight room, an indoor climbing wall and a full-size gym with bleachers. In a spacious art-filled class, Grade 12 student Kesia Werth, 17, is finishing her project, an eclectic mesh mobile with jagged bits of art-deco glass streaming down. "We had to take a word and make a sculpture out of it - this is supposed to be defiance," says Kesia, who has attended the school since Grade 1.

Across the hall, the award-winning junior-high band is preparing for an assembly to be held in the 600-seat theatre, which is also home to a major production every year.

"Kids always find their special talent," says Grade 6 teacher Joan Sveen. Her class is using laptop computers to research Greek history today as part of a year-long pilot project to integrate the computers into everyday learning.

Sveen says some parents worried their kids wouldn't communicate with each other if they were sitting in front of computers, but the room is buzzing with discussion and face-to-face information-sharing.

Carrie Duncan-Moore's Grade 6 class next door has integrated the laptops into regular lessons, too. She assigns all homework via e-mail and "sometimes I'll remember something I wanted to tell them, so I'll e-mail them at 5 or 6 p.m. It's wonderful that way," says Duncan-Moore. Photos of a recent camping trip, a cross-country run and practice tests for upcoming provincial exams are all online.

Whether new-fangled or old-fashioned, the quality of education is what draws students to the school. More than 90 per cent of its grads go on to university.

Grade 9 student David Le, 15, says his favourite thing about the school - hands down - is the academics. "I like the challenge. When we do (yearly provincial) achievement tests, it's a good feeling to know that you're doing better than the provincial standards." Down the road in a southwest Calgary neighbourhood, a French flag flies proudly next to a Canadian flag outside a tiny school. Inside Lycee Louis Pasteur, French language and culture are alive and well.

Tiny three- and four-year-olds recite French phrases newly gleaned from their pre-kindergarten class. One little girl looks up and beams: "I speak French." By the time these students graduate from Grade 9, they should all be ready to enter any school - English or French - at International Baccalaureate or advanced French level. The school's 210 fully bilingual students spend as many as 11 years following the strict guidelines and instructional methods of this internationally accredited school. The 18-year-old school blends the Alberta curriculum and a strict program from the Ministry of Education in France. The school aims to give children a sense of responsibility, teach co-operation, encourage critical thinking and open-mindedness, and expose children to different cultures.

The school's strict curriculum provides a stable foundation for learning, says Grade 5 teacher Daniele Bailly. "I like the structure of it. It's a program that gives you a very solid base," she says. "You're always building on what the kids have learned before." Bailly says it's also a joy to have a class of just 18 after teaching in much larger classes in the public-school system. Classes range from 12 to 22 students in Lycee Louis Pasteur's pre-kindergarten to Grade 9 classes. "You know the students well - their strengths and weaknesses. You're able to challenge them more," says Bailly.

The tough curriculum is part of a general philosophy: "We don't teach a group of children; we teach each child. We try not to leave anybody behind and not to stop those who want to go ahead," says school director Pierre Champon. "Our relationship with the children is one of respect. They know why they're here. They know what they have the right to do."

Not only the French language permeates the school - French culture, history and tradition do, too. Throughout the year, students and teachers celebrate French festivals and events, as well as debate world affairs. Grade 9 students head off to France at the end of the year to put their skills into practice, spending one week in a French school and another week touring the country.

"The school is like a little part of France in Canada," says Champon, whose salary is paid by the French government to ensure that the Lycee's curriculum and standards meet those set for a network of 400 schools in 125 countries. "The objective is to boost French nationalism, and it's open to all those who are interested in the French culture and language." Sixty per cent of the Lycee's students come from Anglophone families, which often means mom and dad have a lot of catching up to do. And the diversity doesn't stop with French. The kids start Spanish lessons in Grade 6, followed by Latin in junior high.

Responsibility and co-operation are also learned through structured phys-ed programs - classes camp in Kananaskis country, attend a local children's festival, visit farms, go canoeing at a local reservoir. And "almost every month we get a vacation," says Christopher Ghersinich, 10, referring to regular extra holidays exchanged for a school day that runs from 8:45 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.

The smallness of the school encourages feelings of closeness, as is found in so many private schools across Alberta (including Calgary, Edmonton, and Red Deer). "Here, I know everyone. I've spent 11 years knowing everyone," says Annik Mossiere, 14, one of just 12 students in the Grade 9 graduating class. "We get sick of each other sometimes but we all know each other so well."

Her classmate Christopher Duthie, 15, agrees. "With smaller classes you learn way more. It's like a small town."

—Juliet Williams
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