A lakefront summer camp west of Edmonton may become the home of a new charter school where students will do much of their learning outside the classroom.
A summer camp on the shores of Wabamun Lake may become home to a new charter school where students will do much of their learning outside of the classroom.
Plans are in the works to turn the YWCA Camp Yowochas property in Fallis, Alta., located about 60 kilometres west of Edmonton, into a school that will focus on health, recreation and nature.
If granted approval by the province to operate, the Change Health Charter School will welcome up to 150 K-9 students this fall.
Change Health Alberta — a charity dedicated to healthy living for kids and families — announced Thursday that it has partnered with University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry and Camp Yowochas on the project.
The groups are working with Alberta Education and are preparing to file a formal application to the Education Minister to begin classes this September.
The property would host students during the fall and winter months, while the YWCA would continue to welcome campers to the property each summer, as it has done since 1916.
A ‘nature-based’ curriculum
The charter would operate like a “forest school” and use the surrounding landscape as classroom, said Felicia Ochs, the YWCA Yowochas community manager and a member of the charter board.
Students would do much of their learning outside, away from screens and technology, she said.
“The health, physical education and arts curriculum, those three areas will be taught in a nature-based way, so on the land, maybe in a canoe,” she said.
“We plan to bring in a lot of the best of rural Alberta to help teach from a nature-based perspective.”
After morning lessons in the classroom, students would move outside for afternoons focused experiential learning.
These outdoor classes will be filled with nature-based lessons, field study assignments and group recreation like paddling or zip-lining, Ochs said.
We have the opportunity to take all of these 65 acres — and the ecosystem that exists out here— and to turn it into science, math, and language arts.– Felicia Ochs
Lessons could include field trips to nearby nature preserves or wetlands, lessons in plant identification, and Indigenous teachings on nature and art from local elders, she said.
“We have the opportunity to take all of these 65 acres — and the ecosystem that exists out here — and to turn it into science, math, and language arts.”
The school would focus on teaching students how to be healthy adults, said Dr. Doug Klein, a professor in family medicine at the University of Alberta, who also serves on the school’s board.
Students will also learn about the importance of exercise, healthy eating and mental health.
“Our big vision is to support the health and wellness of children by getting them outside and getting them away from technology … but still giving them the academic rigour that we need.”
Klein said the idea for the school came before COVID-19, but seeing the pressures and isolation faced by students during the pandemic inspired the groups to make the school a reality.
The modern school model, with hours spent sedentary inside classrooms, fails to teach kids how to make healthy lifestyle choices, he said.
“We’ll be giving people those life skills around health that I don’t think they’re getting in the current school system. And we really want to connect these students to their community,” Klein said.
If approved, the school would become part of a growing charter school system in Alberta, a model that is unique to the province.
When people in a community want a school that has a unique focus or subscribes to a teaching style not offered in public schools, they can propose a charter school.
In the provincial budget, announced last month, the government earmarked more than $72 million for charter school expansions over the next three years.
The charter school system isn’t without its critics however.
Public education advocates argue that charter schools are a “gateway to private schools.”
A school needs at least 100 students registered to qualify as a charter.
Change Health Alberta and the YWCA opened registrations on Wednesday and as of Friday, 54 students had signed on, Ochs said.
“Our application will go in once we have our 100 families so it’s really exciting.”