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What Does a Whole Child-Centered School Look Like?

A Canadian High School enables students and families to learn and connect in a culturally rich environment.

Many schools have a vision for providing a whole child education—one that nurtures a student’s academic, emotional, and physical needs and prepares them for the real world. Given the narrow focus on academic achievement and test scores in today’s education climate, few campuses are actually able to make that vision a reality.

For the past three years, ASCD, the international education leadership association, has identified schools that are proving to be models of whole child education and recognized their accomplishments through their annual Whole Child Award. This year’s winner, Byrne Creek Secondary School, a 7-year-old, 1,250-student high school located in the Vancouver area, enables students and families to learn and connect in a culturally rich environment.

David Rawnsley, the principal of Byrne Creek, says his school reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the city—more than 60 percent of students have a first language other than English—and the student body has many refugees from countries like Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and the Sudan. A typical refugee student might arrive as a 16-year-old, knowing little English and never having gone to school. Despite that challenge, roughly 90 percent of all Byrne Creek students graduate within six years.

"There’s very clearly a feel within the school that students don’t need to abandon their culture" in order to succeed, says Rawnsley. To that end, the staff and students have worked hard to build a true community and learn from each other. The school has also fostered strong relationships with individuals, institutions, and community organizations that can help the students learn and develop. "What we’ve learned is that there are an incredible range of great people out there," says Rawnsley. "We’ve had to do very little creating. It’s been more a matter of connecting."

Parents are also intimately engaged in the workings of the school, and there's an extensive mentoring program. Adults are able to mentor and tutor students. Older students also mentor younger ones, ensuring that their transition into the country and into high school goes smoothly.

The design of the building also helps create a sense of the community. When you enter the school, you walk into a multipurpose atrium that serves as a hub where students and staff can gather. Wings with classrooms branch off from that center. The school even has a 120-seat video conferencing "Centre for Dialogue," which is modeled after the United Nations and is open to other organizations to use.

How does Byrne Creek accomplish so much? Like any school, there are always challenges, but instead of solving problems in isolation, the staff addresses them through weekly, highly focused and efficient 45-minute meetings. Teachers discuss their instruction, identify struggling students, and look at ways to support learning gaps. Rawnsley says these meetings have been critical to the development of many of the innovative programs that address the academic and social needs of students, like those supporting English language learners.

Rawnsley and his staff are eager to share what they've learned with other schools so that the whole child movement can spread. He's also incredibly proud of all that his student have accomplished. "We are so lucky as educators to work with our kids and communities," he says.

Photo courtesy of Byrne Creek Secondary School

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