With the smaller classes at Royal Oak Community School, parents have been disappointed to have in-person education shut down, but say teachers have done a great job of recognizing the needs of their students during recent weeks of online learning, and acting accordingly.
As an example, says parent Tracy Mackie, her 11-year-old daughter began Grade 5 at Royal Oak with a demanding schedule that needed to be accommodated. Anissa is a competitive dancer, and was cast in the role of Baby June in Gypsy, which the Shaw Festival was planning to stage for 2020, and then, when that season was cancelled, for 2021. Her previous public school had not been terribly understanding of her missing classes and needing to have her work given to her to complete at home, suggesting academics should come first
But Royal Oak was supportive from the beginning, says Mackie, willing to help Anissa any way they could, “with absolutely no push-back,” although unfortunately the production was cancelled due to the pandemic.
Mackie also felt Anissa would benefit from some extra help at the public school she was attending last year, which was not made available. She was afraid her daughter was falling behind on one subject, and was “falling through the cracks” of the public school system, just because she required a little more one-on-one attention. Mackie was looking into tutoring or extra-curricular learning when she heard from a friend about Royal Oak and its flexible program. She investigated, and decided that was the solution she was looking for.
Anissa has been able to move forward with the help she received, jumping two levels in the subject she was having difficulty with, during just eight months at the independent, not-for-profit school, now operating out of the former hospital on Wellington Street. And Anissa loves it there, adds her mom.
There were other reasons for choosing the small school, says Mackie.
When schools were closed last year, the online classes Anissa attended in the public school system were “an unorganized, disastrous situation,” she says, with a lack of communication when she reached out to both her daughter’s teacher and principal. The experience “was beyond disappointing,” she adds, and one she didn’t want to repeat in September. Mackie also has health issues that put her at risk for COVID, and she was impressed with the extra precautions Royal Oak was taking when it opened to in-person classes in the fall, while also offering an online component, so students could choose a combination that accommodated their individual needs and scheduling.
She is pleased with the philosophy of the school that focuses on the individual needs of students, the level of engagement between teachers and students, even when forced to go online, and also the communication with parents.
Anissa, she says, “has grown so much as a student, even with all the challenges of scheduling and online learning.”
She’s appreciative of the specialized teaching, the support for students and parents, and the sensitivity with which the needs of students are handled, she says.
Mackie also loves the sense of community Royal Oak offers. “It is the most incredible organization I have ever seen. It’s a privilege to be associated with it. It is a spectacular little place,” she says, “and it has been an incredible experience.”
Cindy Yerich, a mother of four, has had a similar experience this year. She planned to move her son Theo, now seven, to Royal Oak for Grade 1 from a Niagara Falls school last September, because he was falling behind in reading. She investigated several different options, and by the time she’d settled on Royal Oak, decided it was also the right choice for Theo’s twin brother Max, and her daughter Elizabeth, who was going into Grade 4. Her older daughter, Violet, was doing well at school, and Yerich said she thought Violet would want to stay with her friends, but when she heard about Royal Oak, decided instead she’d like to go there with her siblings.
“It’s the best decision I’ve ever made for my kids,” Yerich says. “For Theo, it’s been the difference between night and day.”
He’s become a voracious reader, above his grade level, and the others as well have improved their skills, she says, with one daughter going from the 50th percentile in math to the 90th, in the Caribou Mathematics Competition, a world-wide online contest in which Royal Oak students can participate.
Her kids are missing the in-person experience of being with their friends, but Royal Oak does everything it can to make up for that, including giving students time at lunch to share with their friends.They also provide some time for kids to break into smaller groups for STEM or craft activities, and for the older kids to spend with the younger ones, mentoring them for reading and other projects.
Teachers also do their best to make classes both educational and fun. In their French class, Yerich says, she’s heard her kids “laughing and giggling” with friends over a particular lesson, so the class doesn’t feel so structured to them, or having fun in their physical education class. “They’re working out virtually and they’re really enjoying it,” she says.
“It’s still a vigorous academic workload, but they’re having fun.”
Yerich says she was really impressed with how her boys’ teacher recognized the kids in Grade 1/2 were indicating a decline in their attention span from the morning to afternoon classes, and decided they would have online classes in the morning, and then have some time away from the screen, to maybe go for a walk, have a rest or do some independent learning.
The school also offers a screen-free time on Wednesdays, as part of student schedules, which they can use for “pencil and paper” assignments, although the teachers are still available online if the kids need them.
“They like that break, and they can have a reward, like going out on an adventure. It’s important to have that, especially with the younger grades.”
The kids would like to be back at school with their friends, says Yerich, but she doesn’t feel they’ve lost anything from an educational perspective, and she likes the fact that Royal Oak will continue to offer a combination of remote and in-person learning.
“I hope we can be back in school soon, but it’s good to be able to take advantage of online learning as well.
“I think Royal Oak has done a great job of engaging kids, and providing them with a good sense of community. And we’re really lucky to have Julia (Murray, head of school). She seems to know the kids really well, and when there are changes to be made to benefit the kids, such as the online class in the morning, she’s able to make it happen. With the bigger machine of the public schools, it’s harder to see what needs to be changed, and even more difficult to implement it.”
Murray says as an independent school, although they follow the provincial school curriculum, they can be more flexible with how they deliver it to suit the needs of their students.
However, they have to follow the provincial stay-at-home order and school closures.
“If we didn’t have to, we’d be running in-person classes,” she says, confident they can deliver it safely, and that it would be better for the mental health of the kids.
When school closures were mandated, she asked if she could offer some classes, such as physical education, outside, but was told she couldn’t.
Although the Royal Oak school year is shorter than that of the public boards, coming to an end mid-June, if the province opens schools before then, she thinks it would be a good experience for the kids to go back, even if just for a week. It would allow them the opportunity to feel the joy and celebration of returning and being with their friends, she says.
In September, assuming in-person classes are permitted, Royal Oak will continue to offer remote and synchronous learning to all students.
“That’s what is so nice about having such small class sizes,” she says. “Each one of our classes had one student learning from home. The teachers have mastered that, and the students have adjusted.”
That’s a very different experience than for schools that will be offering that for the first time, says Murray.
“I really feel our students have had a good experience. Our teachers have been incredibly creative, and really amazing. The kids put their best foot forward every day. The teachers, students and parents have all been great, and they are all an important part of making this work.”