By Colin McGregor
A School in the Woods
An alternative school in the tiny village of Saint-Mathieu-du-Parc, 15 kilometres west of Shawinigan, in the miiddle of the forest, is a provincial leader.
In 2004, in the tiny village of Saint-Mathieu-du-Parc, the local school closed its doors thanks to too few students, who had to go to the neighboring village’s school. A group of parents decided to form a committee and present a plan to the Commission scolaire de l’Énergie (today the Centre de services scolaires de l’Énergie). Since the school board had no alternative school their plan was fast-tracked. A year after its closure, the new alternative school opened its doors, accommodating students from the village and the surrounding area.
That year the 63 students and their teachers held a contest to rename the school to better reflect its new identity. It was Marie-Soleil Boisvert, a grade 2 student, who came up with the new name: École alternative de la Tortue-des-Bois (Wood Turtle Alternative School), because one of the largest populations of this endangered species is found in and around the village.
The school currently has 86 students from kindergarten to grade 6. And their sister alternative school in Shawinigan, l’École alternative de l’Énergie, has 120 students from K through 6 and 20 more students in secondary 1. They will grow the high school population year by year until they reach 125 students through all 5 grades.
Stéphane Robitaille is the dynamic director of both schools. “It’s family,” he explains. “A family at the heart of a school.”
Marlène Bonneville, who has two children enrolled in the École de l’Énergie, likes that there is “active, concrete learning” going on. “What I want most for my children in elementary school is that they love to go to school, and that they love to learn. I find that alternative school puts active ways of learning in the forefront.”
As well, she likes that “the parents are involved, that we can have a nice cohesion between what goes on both at school and at home.”
Parents have to devote a certain number of hours to helping their children learn over the course of the school year. “Some give way more hours than they’re obliged to,” says Robitaille – like Mme. Bonneville.
Neither one feels that it is any tougher to establish an alternative school in the country than in the city. The important thing is that the families establish this community and help each other. It’s a team effort: “It takes a village to raise a child,” observes Mme. Bonneville.
A Regional Affair
The students of both schools come from towns and villages all over the region. Charlie, in grade 5 at the École de l’Énergie, likes his school. He’s participating in a food and agriculture project in which he is helping tend a garden. His class is “harvesting wheat and oats, and making bread with them.” Afterwards, they will cover their garden with dead leaves to protect it. “We have recycling and compost bags,” he explains. The garden project can be continued through the next school year.
Rémi, in grade 5, tells us his class is doing “a collective art project with our parents and grandparents.” They’re working with a local artist, a member of their community, says Nakiel, in grade 6. “We’re doing art with him. We like it when our parents can see what we’re doing.”
Robitaille explains: “Sometimes we have little challenges, where we do something a bit off centre. We and the parents are there to correct the error. We learn through our mistakes. We can do a lot of things, projects on things that interest us.”
And there are personal projects, as Charlie describes: “All year you can decide to do a project, like create a robot, or go somewhere for an activity.”
Robitaille explains: “It’s entirely conceived of by the student. Accompanied by adults, but it’s the student that decides on their idea. We accompany them from start to finish.”
Last year Rémi wrote a book, which he really liked: and Charlie sold patties, giving away the money he earned to an association that helps sick children. This year Nakiel, interested in robotics, will print up figurines with his 3D printer and will sell the figurines at school. “Sometimes our projects don’t work, so we find another one,” Charlie explains. Projects can be modified midway through.
Nakiel and Charlie’s favorite subject is French; for Rémi, it’s writing. Three budding journalists!
Many thanks to Nakiel Bourbeau, Rémi Lafrenière and Charlie Guèvremont, as well as the whole team at the École alternative de l’Énergie.