The head of Squamish’s newest private secondary educational institution refers to the 20-or-so students who have signed up for the school’s inaugural year, and their parents, as “early adopters.”
The phrase borrowed by David Baird, head of school for Coast Mountain Academy (CMA), is often used to refer to people who embrace a new idea or concept before it becomes widely regarded as trendsetting.
That’s clearly where Baird — the career educator who in January agreed to leave a job as head of an international school with 2,700 students in China to come to Squamish — believes CMA is going: Trendsetter. Innovator. Leader of the pack.
CMA had 150 applicants for the positions of the four teacher/facilitators who will guide the students when school gets underway with an evening meeting involving parents and students at Camp Summit on Labour Day — Monday, Sept. 2. The teachers, Baird said, “want to be in Squamish and they want to be in this school that we’re developing because it’s what they think education should be — small, participatory learning, focusing on student engagement.”
The students’ first four days will be spent at Camp Summit, at least partly because of school founders’ strong belief in experiential learning — interaction with the environment and the community as well as with each other. On the fifth day CMA instruction will move to a space on the campus of Quest University.
CMA’s ties with Camp Summit — school founder Geoff Park also founded the outdoor camp in 1999 — give rise to one of the more common misconceptions about CMA: That it’s mostly about outdoor education.
Not so, Baird said. The school aims to teach the B.C. curriculum but by challenging the students to engage with the world through directed discussion and interaction with the environment.
“I think because of the association with Camp Summit, people think we’re going to be an outdoor school, but we’re not,” he said. “This is about challenging the students and part of that is engaging them in ecological literacy. That’s just where good education has to go, and our students are going to walk the talk, so it’ll be high-quality education with lots of outdoor work and engaging with the world.”
One of the key decisions school officials have made to date is that students will not sit at desks that face a teacher. Instead, when in the classroom, students and teachers/facilitators will sit at Harkness tables — oval-shaped tables that have been used at some smaller private schools and universities, especially in the U.S.
The aim is to encourage a free-flowing discussion and exploration of the subject matter as opposed to more traditional top-down, teacher-centered learning, Baird said.
“When you’re at an oval table, you have to be engaged. You can’t hide behind someone else in your desk,” he said. “It enables lots of cross-talk among the students and the teacher around a table. The conversation flows all the way around, and the teacher/facilitator can help keep the conversation flowing and focused.”
This year CMA is offering instruction in Grades 7 to 10. Grade 11 will be offered in 2014-’15 and Grades 7 to 12 will be included in 2015-’16.
It’s described as a university preparatory school, with instruction taking place under the rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) program. The aim is to prepare students to compete for the gold-level Duke of Edinburgh Award, a self-development program available to those aged 14 to 25.
That doesn’t necessarily mean all those who graduate from CMA will attend university, Baird said.
“We’re not saying that’s [university] the sole pathway to success. It’s not,” he said. “If they want to be an engineer by going to BCIT, great… but we want to be there to prepare them for making that choice.”
While there are benefits to being on the Quest campus, the school’s founders expect to one day move into their own space, elsewhere in Squamish. In fact, they have an offer of a piece of free land — Baird declined to say where — and would welcome a donation from what Baird called a “wealthy benefactor” to help CMA build its own facility.
While about 20 students appears to meet the definition of “starting small,” Baird pointed out that Mulgrave Secondary in West Vancouver started with 14 students meeting at a portable parked in a church parking lot, while his former employer — Maple Leaf Schools near Dalian, China — opened with seven students in its first year and is now at 2,700.
No matter how big CMA gets, though, Baird pledged that no class will ever be larger than 18 students.
“The students and parents who have put their faith in us, these are the early adopters,” he said, adding that he expects the students will have a “fantastic experience” in CMA’s first year.
“We know that there are others out there who we’re hoping to reach. We know there are Montessori and Waldorf out there, but nothing past about Grade 7. We want to give them options.”