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In the cherry tree

The same cherry tree that Fiona’s picking the fruit from: Sophie is climbing amongst its tangled branches. I love our local school. The teachers and staff are fabulous: interesting, passionate people with wonderful talents and the best interests of their students at heart. The school is tiny — about forty high schoolers, and a similar number in K-6. The small size leads to amazing amounts of flexibility and individualization. In both philosophy and practicality the school is open-minded, community-spirited and characterized by integrity and common sense.

This year the high school end of the school moved to a new instructional model for academics with primacy given to Independent Directed Learning. This approach to academics is combined with electives, many of which are done as Immersion Weeks where students take time away from regular schooling to do nothing but the elective topic of the week. The academics are largely self-paced with the work done independently from textbooks or computers during numerous study-hall-like blocks. These are punctuated by weekly or biweekly Seminars which are a chance for occasional group projects, discussions, labs or more traditional teaching.

Unfortunately the school’s tiny size and remoteness create limitations for a certain kind of student. Sophie is that kind of student. While she is very adept at the organizational and self-teaching skills needed for independent work, she is beginning to want for the sense of learning community that she would get in a larger school. She’s nominally in Grade 10, though her academics are pretty much all Grade 11 courses, and the classroom groupings include Grade 10, 11 and 12 students. For this year she does have some others working at her level amongst the Grade 12 students, but they’ll be graduating next spring, and her fellow Grade 11’s are mostly in applied-stream courses. So after this year she’ll essentially be in a classroom of one.

A classroom of one worked well for Erin, because she was challenged and engaged by everything she was doing outside of school. She was busily practicing violin for hours a day, travelling extensively for her violin and piano lessons, working part-time, travelling abroad. If some of her school courses were done independently that only worked in her favour because it gave her the flexibility to work on her own time wherever she happened to be. Noah has done fine in the same school partly because he’s more of a lone wolf by nature, and partly because the demographics were different for him: he was swept along during his Grade 10 and 11 years by a lovely cohort of bright and highly motivated older students who created an intellectually vibrant environment in his classes. With just a year to go following their departure last spring, he’s managing to keep himself going — and he does have a few quirky but interesting Grade 12 peers.

For Sophie independent learning in a classroom of one would be fine if she had just a year to go after this year’s grads leave, but she needs to complete two more years of school after this spring. She’s only just turned 15, so is in no rush to graduate, but it does make one wonder exactly how she’ll fill her final two years. Her core academics will be easily completed next year.


Being academically accelerated offers the advantage of being able to broaden out a bit and challenge oneself with a range of enrichment options during the final couple of years. The problem is that Sophie’s school doesn’t even offer some of the courses that are considered basic high school fodder (French, Calculus, English Lit., Geography and Physics, for example), let alone fancy academic electives like Law, Latin or Psychology. And the non-academic electives tend to be introductory courses considered suitable for the Grade 7 and 8 students, with a bit of differentiation for older students. They were great for Sophie when she was younger, but three or four years later the same type of introductory Drama or Foods course is not going to optimally enrich her education, especially not when she’s taking the course for the third or fourth time. It’s true that she can access a wide variety of courses on-line, but already most of her course-work is independent in format.

Sophie seems bound for a post-secondary career in the sciences; she is a very high achiever, especially given her acceleration. She wants challenge, she wants a richly academic high school education, and she wants to be amongst a community of fellow-learners who are similarly engaged in their learning. She feels rather miserable when she contemplates her prospects at the local school once the current Grade 12’s graduate.

And so we are beginning to look at alternatives for her last two years. Obviously homeschooling would be an option, but she is the sort of person who prefers the straight and narrow course to university. Having dedicated more than two years already to the high school pathway, and basically liking the structure and community that a school can and should provide, reverting to unschooling isn’t her preference. We’ve talked about international travel, and the costs, and the academic unknowns, and her age. We’ve thought about whether she could live with relatives elsewhere. No easy answers present themselves. A nearby school looks like it could give her the right environment, but it’s only nearby in the rural Canadian sense of the word and it would require her to live away from home during the week. Still, that possibility is at the top of the list right now.

I love our school, and somehow it feels dreadfully disloyal to consider pulling Sophie from their roster to place her in a different school. Especially while they’re offering Fiona such a feast of perks and accommodations. Enrolment is declining, and several Grade 10s and 11s have already left for larger schools elsewhere. But I guess we’ll flee this cherry tree for another if Sophie’s social and educational happiness depends on it.







7 responses to “In the cherry tree”

  1. Kara Avatar

    Tough decisions!

    I wonder what decisions we will be facing when our boys hit those high school ages and we see more of the limitations of our high school.

  2. Flinny Avatar

    Has Sophie had a look at math/ science Olympiads and/or youth science fairs/ projects that could provide some direction for independent activities that would push her academically during these last few years? So if she could get to do a science project in ac academic lab over the summer (are any relatives close to a university? Could she email some professors in areas she’s interested in?) then perhaps it would lead to extensions during the academic year. And she might find that she likes the structure of olympiad syllabuses and her school should be able to enter her for the relevant olympiad tests which could lead onwards to national or international level. These things are pretty easy to do independently with a friendly facilitating teacher to sign forms etc.

    Something like this sort of thing?

    I was in a remote and academically weak school and went the science fair route (summer away from home when I was 17, national fair with nice free trip to major city, international fair with loads of trips and social events, a funded place on a two week international youth summer program) one of my friends when I got to university who had been in a similar situation did Olympiads and had got similar opportunities for trips and visits with other teenagers who loved science (I think she went to a bunch of residential training camps, then got selected to the international team for a trip to Bali). It can be great fun plus is usually free/funded. 🙂 Also was a great confidence boost when I went to a highly competitive university and felt very overwhelmed when meeting everyone who had had a so much more thorough school education than me. And is great evidence of ability when applying to top universities from academically unstretching backgrounds.

  3. Flinny Avatar

    Sorry – forgot to paste in this link. Might be helpful.

  4. Miranda Avatar

    Those are great ideas, Flinny. I’ll keep them in my back pocket. However, right now I don’t think they answer to Sophie’s main issue with her school, which is the lack of a learning community. She can find challenging work: the school will provide the funding for her to access community college courseware and AP curricula, and of course homeschooling or independent project work are always an option. But she wanted to go to school for the sense of learning community and instead she feels like she’s pretty much alone, or at least that she will be by next year.

    1. Flinny Avatar

      Sorry for the late response – just saw the reply. 🙂 I hope you and Sophie figure something out that suits – I was miserable in high school because of the lack of learning community, and participating in these things were the only chance I got to hang out with other teenagers like me. Of course, it made it wonderful when I went off to university, but I do wish my teenage years hadn’t been so lonely/isolated. (It wasn’t that small a school, just nobody aiming at the same sort of level in academic subjects, or wanting more and the whole set up quite hostile to those who wanted that.)

      I think my parents thought I’d be fine because I was bright and would make it work anywhere, but I just felt I was some sort of weird freak and that there was something wrong with me because I just didn’t connect with the (perfectly nice) girls around me. Turns out I wasn’t so odd, and in the right environment I did just fine. (I made the best friends at university. They make my life indescribably better.)

  5. Kitty Avatar

    Have you considered a boarding school? I attended boarding school during my junior year and it was a great experience. The teachers were outstanding and the other students highly motivated and talented. Obviously, having Sophie live far away from home isn’t ideal but boarding school does provide quite a bit of structure/a home away from home.

    1. Miranda Avatar

      Kitty, the nearest boarding school would be 8-12 hours away, with a very unreliable airport at our end, so she’d probably only be able to come home two or three times a year. It would also cost a massive amount, during the years when we have two other children in university. Not really practical in our situation.

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