Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Kindergarten Registration? Consider the Alternative!

At this time of year, parents come into the store lamenting the fact that it's time to sign their children up for junior kindergarten.  Having 'been there, done that' four times myself, I know it seems like in the blink of an eye, your child goes from being a helpless lump to an independent little ball of energy ready to get out into the world.  Certainly, when we were in the position of signing up our oldest daughter for JK 12 years ago (!!!), we were fearful of how she'd fare at school.  Will she make friends?  Will she like her teachers?  Will she enjoy school?   

In terms of deciding which school to send our kids to when we lived in a suburb of Ottawa, the only consideration we had to make was English or French.  As Anglophones who both grew up in Southwestern Ontario, despite its widespread availability in Ottawa, French Immersion was not important to us.  Prior to coming to Ottawa, I had never heard anyone speak French outside of the classroom, where I became quite fluent at issuing commands such as "Open the window!", "Close the door!", "Raise your hand!", and my personal favourite "Shut your mouth!". As someone who moved to Ottawa and managed to carve out a respectable living just fine without being fluently bilingual, exposing our children to French Immersion was not important to me.  My father taught himself to speak and read German when he started dating my mother, so I wasn't terribly concerned about introducing French to our children at a young age, on an ongoing basis - if they are so inclined, they can learn to speak a second language later in life.  We enrolled our kids in regular Public school, and things were fine.

When we packed up and left the suburbs almost four years ago and put down roots near the Shoppe, we had to enroll the kids in a new school.  I was under the impression our only choice of schools would be Devonshire (offering early French Immersion), or Connaught Public School (regular Public, at the time).  In deciding which school to enroll our children in, I was mostly concerned about our son Owen; he was still working on overcoming a considerable speech delay, and according to his teachers at the time, he was lagging behind.  In a casual conversation about school options with someone already living in the neighbourhood, I was ecstatic when I learned our kids were eligible to attend Churchill Alternative School.  I already knew other families who had their children enrolled at Churchill, so I was thrilled that our move had also put us within the school's boundaries. Talk about serendipity!  Now we weren't simply limited to choosing between schools that differed based on whether they offered a French Immersion program or not, we had an Alternative school to consider. 

When casually discussing school choices with parents of preschoolers, parents often dismiss Churchill on the basis that it doesn't offer an early French Immersion program.  Like all kids in Ottawa, the kids at Churchill receive 40 minutes of core French daily from Grade 1 onwards; starting in Fall 2016, all children in JK will receive 50% of their instruction in French. There are schools in the area that offer a middle Immersion program, so if French is an important factor in your decision in terms of which school to send your child to, Hilson Avenue Public School accepts children in grade four into a French Immersion program - the decision to take advantage of a French Immersion program is not one that must be made when you enroll your child in Junior Kindergarten. 

Alternative schools teach the same core curriculum as regular schools, but they differ in approach.  My daughter's former teacher (the talented Shauna Pollock) summed up how kids learn at Churchill perfectly with the phrase "Different kids learn in different ways, on different days."  Rather than apply a one-size-fits-all solution to teaching, the teachers manage to engage kids individually. The core tenets the school adheres to foster a sense of caring and respect among students, and it encourages intrinsic learning; children are internally motivated to participate and succeed.  Owen went from struggling at school, and disliking it as a result, to thriving - it was like someone had flipped a switch.  Our other children, despite not 'needing' an Alternative program, loved their new school.  

At our previous school, like any traditional Public school, our kids received letter grades on their report cards. At Churchill, the report cards do not show a grade (although the report card is filed with the school board with a grade); rather, we receive detailed comments that provide us with a much better sense of how our children are actually faring in class.  The letter grade and canned comments we received from our former school were not helpful, they were just a source of stress for our son, who felt inadequate.  

What the school lacks in French Immersion it makes up for in a comprehensive music program that culminates at the end of the school year with a community concert.  Our kids went from having zero musical ability to being able to read (and compose!) music by participating in the school's 'Ukulele Club.' There are many secondary benefits of musical instruction that influence children's development; as someone who doesn't harbor any musical talent, I'm glad our kids are getting a chance to tap into a creative outlet they would not have been exposed to otherwise.  In addition to the various music clubs, the teachers run a number of interesting and engaging extracurricular activities at recess that expose children to topics and skills outside of the core curriculum.  Given how taxed teachers already are trying to keep up with the basic demands of their profession, I am really appreciative that they find the time and energy to run these programs.

The Alternative teaching model encourages parental involvement in the classroom. Although not required by any means, volunteering in our children's classrooms has given me a chance to witness firsthand how they're doing, and it's given me a great opportunity to get to know their peers and their teachers.  Communication at Churchill goes beyond occasional newsletters sent home in backpacks. We receive regular e-mail updates from their teachers, and many teachers maintain a class blog that gives parents a regular peek (including pictures!) into their child's day at school. Updates aside, having access to teachers via e-mail encourages an open dialog; if we've ever had concerns about our children at school, they are easily addressed directly with teachers.  

I can't speak about the teachers at Churchill without mentioning how highly I think of them. They are kind and compassionate, and above all, they are clearly dedicated to their role as educators. 

We are incredibly fortunate to be a member of this school community, with four years under our belt, we're officially at the halfway point, and I'm already feeling verklempt about leaving. I think I'll take it harder than the kids when it's time for us to part ways!  Moving to the Hintonburg area was a great choice for our family for a number of reasons, the change in school's was an unforeseen benefit that I'd put at the top of the list.  If you live in the school's catchment area, and you are still debating which school to enroll your child at,  I would strongly suggest you consider Churchill. Weekly tours on Friday mornings give parents considering the school an opportunity to see the Alternative teaching model in action.