By Tim Kalinowski
Jenner School is a small school with a passion for giving its 33 students the best quality education it can provide. Despite the challenges of operating in an isolated area where the nearest major population centre is at least an hour away in any direction, Jenner is able to find creative ways to ensure its students aren’t stinted on the extras so many other schools might take for granted.
“We have enough money to run the school and put teachers in front of kids and keep the power on, and that’s about it,” jokes Jenner School principal Dwayne McKay. “We are bare bones when it comes to budget. The school division already gives us a lot of money, but they have to focus on funding the essentials. But I am all about the extras. Those extras are what kids remember about being in school and what makes them want to come to school.”
Some of those extras at Jenner School include piano lessons for every student who wants to take them every Wednesday, group swimming lessons every fall in Brooks, a school community garden, and, come next January, welding and fabrication lessons at MHC Brooks campus every second Friday.
These initiatives may not come cheap, but with the strong community support his school has McKay says they are, in their own way, just as essential for his students’ educational experience as math or science.
“It’s the Special Areas for a reason. You know it is special out here,” says McKay with a chuckle. “Without our parents’ council stepping up these kids wouldn’t have the same opportunities other school age kids may take for granted. So initiatives like swimming lessons, for example. In the fall we take one week and we bus every day to Brooks to take swimming lessons. And I make sure every kid goes because learning to swim is important.”
These initiatives are paid for by a combination of parent council fundraising efforts, cobbling things together through multiple grant applications, stretching school dimes into dollars and begging from anywhere Principal McKay can to put partnerships together with local employers or local governing councils. McKay relates how he and his team were able to put together enough funding to pay for all the bussing costs associated with taking the welding and fabrication course in Brooks next year without having to tap his core school division funds set aside for daily bussing costs.
“I started out with a Cenovus grant for $2,500 we had, and from there I started a letter writing campaign with one of my student council presidents and we asked for donations. We started out with the Buffalo Ag. Society. They gave us some money. And we then sent a letter out to the Special Areas board. Basically, they took it to a meeting and came up and asked us what it was going to cost for bussing and materials and instructors. They cut us a cheque for what we needed. And we let it be known this is something we are going to want to continue yearly.”
McKay has a thousand other ideas for what he wants to do for his students in the years ahead. He’s always got multiple irons in the fire and does not lack in ambition.
“I know myself, and I have taught for 20 years, that I am a rural teacher. It’s just a different mentality for a teacher. It’s a different mindset coming from parents, I find. And I love it,” says McKay.
McKay calls Jenner School a true community school, and this is true in more ways than one. Jenner only has three classrooms to educate all ages ranging from Kindergarten to Grade 9. And with multi-Grade classes and its relative isolation, Jenner School seems to hearken back in many ways to the earliest days of school houses on the prairies.
McKay says while it can be challenging for his teachers to balance the needs of multiple age groups in their class lessons, there is the compensatory reward of having a student body, staff and parent community working closely together to ensure a high quality communal education for their kids.
“This is a very close-knit school community here, and the parents are a part of that community as well. It’s a community school in every way. You’ve got kids in Grade 6 learning from kids in Grade 8 the routines and procedures. And maturing a lot faster because of it, I find. The older students set an example the younger students in the classroom follow.”