St. Marys Journal Argus
It was a snow day on Monday, Jan. 6, the day that was supposed to be the first day back at school for students and teachers at St. Marys DCVI — a day during which they might have been forgiven for looking out the window at the blowing snow and letting their minds wander to their Christmas holiday ski-slope activities, or thoughts of lazing on the couch watching the recent Winter Classic from Detroit.
But that certainly wasn’t the case — at least not when it came to one DCVI elementary teacher who came into the administrative office while a Journal Argus reporter was waiting to meet with a pair of staff members about changes to this year’s Grade 8 orientation schedule at the St. Marys secondary school. That teacher, who had observed a Grade 8 student trudging into the school after a long walk through the snow, immediately got on the phone to the student’s mom, wondering who was at home caring for the students’ two younger siblings — who wouldn’t have been able to make the walk all the way to their school.
Principal April Smith, with a glance at the worried teacher, noted that’s one of the things she has come to love the most since taking over the top administrative role at DCVI in September, 2013: the sense of community. “(The teachers) know their kids so well here . . . I’ve seen that more here than I’ve seen in any other school I’ve worked in,” she said in a subsequent interview.
There are changes being made this year to the Grade 8 orientation schedule, which begins with an Open House from 6:30-8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 15. This year, it will be more interactive, compared to the lengthy sit-down sessions of the past, during which students and parents were informed about the intricacies of the course calendar. Families can research that information themselves, Smith reasoned; the intent next week is to make high school seem fun and interesting.
Smith admits that part of the rationale behind making changes was to enhance the possibility that families whose kids attend the Catholic school board, or whose kids attend elementary schools in Oxford or Middlesex Counties, will choose DCVI over other available alternatives.
“We have declining enrolment, just like in a lot of the rest of the province,” she admitted.
But, with an Orientation Open House theme of “Your Community, Your School,” the committee organizing the events felt strongly that a decision to come to DCVI is more than just filling seats in classrooms and ensuring continued funding through the Education Ministry. It’s also about acknowledging the many benefits that stem from the strong sense of community within the school’s hallways and classrooms.
“Teachers love it her,” Smith noted, adding they’ll do what they can to make sure students have the best opportunities possible. At the Jan. 15 event, students and family members will be allowed to wander the corridors and check in on some top-level labs in digital communication, technical studies, science and the arts.
“Although we might be smaller in scale, we do have everything that a lot of other, larger schools have to offer,” the first-year principal commented. “Essentially, we’re saying you don’t need to get on a bus to be able to have a first-rate high school education experience. You can do that right here.”
Orientation committee member Nick Seebach, Science Department head at DCVI, says a key to making the Open House a success will be having as many teachers as possible in attendance for the evening. He notes getting everyone back into their workplace for the evening might not be something you’d see in larger schools, in less community-focussed settings. But in St. Marys, it is possible.
Also new this year is a concerted effort to attract students in Grades 6 and 7 from the Catholic board or outlying elementary schools, who might transfer into the school’s elementary wing next year. They’ll be welcomed on Jan. 15, and encouraged to visit both the secondary teaching spaces as well as the Grades 7 and 8 classrooms at the east end of the building.
“We’re alleviating the transition to high school so much for the kids,” argued Grade 8 teacher Candy McEwan, another member of the Open House committee.
She said the students love the Grade 7-12 model, implemented over three years ago in St. Marys. And so do the teachers.
“I really do think there is a ton of benefit to this model. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe that.”