An extraordinary school experiment is building momentum thanks to the teachers who make it work
For Airdrie educators Ed Polhill, Mark Turner and Jarett Hooper, “home schooling” has a whole different meaning.
That’s because the three are advocates for an innovative program called Building Futures that takes 32 Grade 10 students from Airdrie’s three public high schools and gives them the chance to combine the three Rs with real-world, hands-on experience, learning what goes into building a home.
Teacher Turner technically calls George McDougall High School home, but he’s spent the last year in the field with his students, based out of two new homes under construction on Bayside Loop. The students study core subjects, including science and English, in a classroom located in one of the homes’ garages, and spend part of every day being mentored by contractors working for Building Futures partner McKee Homes.
“I taught middle school for six years at Muriel Clayton and this is my first year at the high-school level,” says Turner. “I was born and raised in Alberta and my family is all still here. I travelled a lot … and I realized Airdrie is still the best place there is.”
With his education degree from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Turner’s resume includes teaching posts in Thailand and New Zealand and working on Alberta oil rigs.
“It was very traditional learning there,” Turner recalls of his overseas teaching experiences, and while he says he’s a bit of a “jack of all trades,” he believes that education is not about teachers showing off how much they know.
“It’s not a case of knowing information, it’s knowing what to do with it, and how do you make that engaging for kids?” he says. “Kids will make mistakes, [so] how do you deal with that? Is it, ‘Oh my gosh, you didn’t meet the deadline, that’s it, you fail,’ or is it about, ‘How do you get better?’”
Turner enjoys working with Building Futures because of the flexibility it offers teachers and students. “A lot of students become better advocates of their learning,” he says.
Fellow teacher Hooper is one of the originators of the Building Futures program and shares his time between George McDougall, the job site and W.H. Croxford High School.
Hooper studied education at the University of Calgary, and also worked as a mechanic. “I actually was a mechanic by trade first and went back to university and got a degree in math and then a degree in education,” he says. “My schooling experience in the trades was very different; it was hands-on, and then some technical [training], and then hands-on again.”
This is his fourth year teaching, and it was he and fellow George McDougall teacher Greg Rankin who came up with the idea for Building Futures when they shared a ride to work one morning.
“We carpooled and, from our conversations, we realized there were a whole bunch of students [who] didn’t seem very engaged in the class and what we were offering,” Hooper says. “So we tried to figure out ways to implement things they could do in the classroom. We got together with McKee Homes and came up with this idea.”
Hooper says that as a teacher there’s no more rewarding an experience than seeing his students become engaged. “We get to know the kids significantly better … and the parent feedback is really rewarding,” he says.
When Hooper and Rankin first pitched the Building Futures concept, it was their principal, Ed Polhill, who initially signed off on the idea.
A 15-year education veteran, the University of Alberta and Bishop’s University graduate has been principal at George McDougall for three years. Before that, he served as assistant principal at Springbank Community High School and spent eight years teaching outdoor education and phys-ed at Bow Valley High School in Cochrane.
“I’m from a small town, and small towns resonate with me,” Polhill says, and although he admits Airdrie isn’t the small town it used to be, his school still has that flavour.
“I think it’s the community feel of the schools,” he says, “and the connectivity of the larger community to the school that I enjoy.
“We’ve got a lot of teachers who went to school here, and parents who went to school here,” he adds. “There’s more connection between the school and community, which makes programs like Building Futures [possible].”
With Building Futures, Polhill and his colleagues have been able to promote the concept not only locally (a similar program now exists in Cochrane) but also with educators from Italy, Singapore and Scotland.
As a principal, Polhill says that he finds himself “one step removed from students. When I was a teacher, the best thing was the connection with the students. Now it’s different … it’s about facilitating connections between teachers and students, and when teachers come up with innovative approaches, I’m able to support them.”