A little stress a good thing: new Cowichan superintendent

Rod Allen’s wide background in education has seen him working in everything from rural classrooms to the Ministry of Education.

Now, he’s taken up the job of superintendent of schools at the Cowichan Valley School District, replacing Joe Rhodes, who retired last week.

Starting his career in rural Saskatchewan, Allen went to Lesotho in southern Africa and then returned to Canada to spend 20 years teaching in Smithers, B.C. He finally left rural B.C. for what he thought was a shortterm job at the Ministry of Education.

He stayed seven years. "In government, I found that, while I loved the job, I wanted to get back. I really miss the kids, I miss the action, I miss the schools," he said.

"Cowichan has intrigued me for a while. This district is poised on the edge of doing amazing things," he said.

Having served so long in northern B.C., he is well up on such problems as an increasing call for trades training, how to increase offerings at small secondary schools, how to improve aboriginal student success, how to fit everything into ever-tightening budgets and more.

Small secondary schools, academies and trades training can all be looked at under the same microscope. There’s a need for new ideas in all of them, he said.

"What I’ve seen around the province is that some of the greatest innovation is coming out of small rural secondary schools," he said.

"We used to believe that rural secondary schools had to be helped and compensated for because of their small size. What we see now is that the literature on optimum school sizes is shifting around and the ability of these small schools to be nimble is an asset," he said.

Traditional wisdom said the larger the school, the greater the menu selection of courses, the better the situation for students. That is changing. "As we look into personalized learning, smaller secondary schools can offer programs that are tailored almost to individual students."

Students can spend mornings following a fairly traditional academic timetable but afternoons are around project-based learning, which means getting out into the community and really applying their learning in different ways.

"It’s far easier to do in a smaller community where everybody knows everybody than it is if you’re Burnaby South with 3,000 kids," he said.

Big schools are starting to divide into pods, acknowledging that "students can’t interact well, teachers can’t interact well in communities much larger than a hundred." The closeness of a small community can become an asset, Allen said.

"We know learning and relationships go hand in hand. You can’t do one without the other."

The skills students learn are different, too.

"The periodic table? You can print that off your phone now. That’s not the game. It’s being able to use that knowledge, to apply that learning," he said.

While districts are moving towards offering trades and academies, that can still be just part of adding to the menu, he said.

"We have to look at that new ways. That apprenticeship model can be applied to all kinds of learning, getting young people working with motivated, interested experts. That comes down to the community coming into the schools, the kids going out into the community. No school has all those experts in place.

"We want to see hands-on learning earlier. Kindergarten has it, that exploring the environment. But we lose that very quickly in schools."

He said that the province’s First Nations Principles of Learning are being seen as an acknowledgement that the holistic, environment-based way of looking at acquiring learning, prevalent in aboriginal cultures, is the way all education should be moving.

Dealing with the many young children who are not ready to start school is a challenge facing many districts but it has been identified as a significant issue in the Valley.

Using adaptable programs has shown that students can catch up quickly, if they are given the right kind of situation, Allen said.

"The Strong Start program is a piece of the answer. But what is the ecosystem the family lives in? And are there families we are missing with programs like Strong Start? A solution takes everyone in the community," he said.

Tight budgets have been challenging school districts for years and solving problems often means taking a new vantage point, he said. "You have to be constantly looking at what you are doing. When there were bags of money around we thought we could just buy success. Ontario tried to do that, but it didn’t work. And a little stress on the system can be a good thing," Allen said.