An indigenous woman laughing as she speaks to students in the forest

The Cortes Island Academy looks ahead to 2024/25 & back at the past year

The Cortes Island Academy’s school year is over. Graduation was on January 25. Executive Director, Manda Aufochs Gillespie, just gave Cortes Currents an overview of the 2023/24 semester and a peek into the year that is just about to begin.

“This school year (Sep 2023-Jan 2024), the Cortes Island Academy was a lot of fun.  We learned a lot from our first year. So this year we really got to just revel in the model, the awesome kids and local knowledge holders that came out to make this year happen. It felt to me like a lot more fun, and a lot less trailblazing,” she began. 

“Some of the highlights included the students getting  a week at the incredible science laboratories of the Hakai Institute with some of the Hakai Institute’s research and science staff.  It’s a  once in a lifetime experience that these students had, every single one of them.  They also got to work with people from the Mother Tree Network and work alongside  Dr. Briony Penn, who’s well known for her work with all sorts of things that relate to understanding the stories, flora, the fauna of our particular area. They got to be part of the MYCOblitz that the Children’s Forest put on, with different mycologists from all around the region – including our local Paul Stamets.

It was  a really beautiful year too with Klahoose participants.  We had a number of different Ayajuthem (Éy7á7juuthem) language opportunities.  Students got to participate in our first language trail that the Children’s Forest helped curate. They identified different plant species all along this Sea to School Trail, drew the plants and wrote the names.”

“Really, really fun, neat projects and this doesn’t even get into  the culminating projects that the students did.  If anybody has not yet seen them, I recommend going to the website and looking at their videos. They did five videos this year with different Cortes Elders.”  (Jessie Louie, Duane Hansen, Nori Fletcher, Elizabeth Anderson and Christine Robinson.) 

“These are incredible short  documentaries about the people in our community and some of the little known stories of what brought them here, who they are, etc. They are really, really beautiful. You will not regret watching them.” 

“They also participated in creating podcasts this year again. They’re playing right now on Cortes Radio, CKTZ 89. 5 FM, but you can also  listen to them all on the Cortes Island Academy website. Incredible pieces, everything from the wolf issue on Cortes and what we can do to live alongside wolves to what it means to live with dyslexia, or to question gender identity, etc. I really hope people will check it out.” 

“Other projects that they participated in this year with many of the scientists previously mentioned, and some of the local knowledge holders and local naturalists like our field guides Kai Harvey and Tosh Harvey who grew up on the island, the students each made their own Cortes Field Guides.”

Cortes Currents: The titles are: “My Biodiverse Home, Crustaceans Of The Discovery IslandsOcean Mammals of Cortes IslandAnts of Cortes IslandReptiles and Amphibians of The Discovery Islands, Predators of Cortes, Birds Of CortesBirds of Prey of Cortes Island, Mushrooms of Cortes Island, Edible Berries of Cortes Island, Wild Teas of Cortes Island, Medicinal Plants of the Discovery Islands, Medicinal Plants for the Outdoorsman, Plants of Bogs and Wetlands of the Discovery Islands, Ferns of Cortes Island, Trees of Cortes, another Trees of Cortes, and Mosses and Lichens Of Cortes.”

Manda Aufochs Gillespie: You can see all the edible berries on Cortes: what they look like, what they’re called, and what you can do with them. Many of the mushrooms that could be found here and what you can do with them etc.  These are  pieces that you would spend a great deal of money to buy and they’re just there, for free,  on our website.”  

“I would also actually throw out that this year  the Cortes Island Academy  did a really cool thing that I was very excited about, which was to host the fall ‘Folk U’ radio series. Many of them were hosted at the Cortes Island School building.  I heard a lot from members of the community how much they deeply appreciated being able to spend a little bit of time with teenagers, hearing what’s on their minds and being part of learning together.”

Cortes Currents: What were the challenges this year? 

Manda Aufochs Gillespie: “The biggest challenge of this last year was that we didn’t get a substantial grant to run the year. We  really relied even more than ever on just dozens more hours of volunteer time and, and a lot of incredible participation from island nonprofits such as  CKTZ, Cortes Community Radio, who helped hold an entire English block where the kids learn podcasting and produce the most amazing works. We regularly rely on the Cortes Island Community Foundation, both for in kind support, but also to help raise our scholarship dollars, etc.”

“But this year really could not have happened without so much incredible and generous support from many, many community members and community organizations that just said, ‘Hey, we’re going to step in, help make this happen.’”

“I would say that continues to be an ongoing challenge, but even that has been incredible. This year, the school district stepped up with more financial support and, again, so many of the community members etc. We already found out that we got a grant to help us with next year.  So hopefully I’m allowed to say that we were chosen to receive funding from a grant program called Catapult.  Even if we’re not totally funded for next year, we will at least be partially funded and it takes off a lot of that anxiety about whether we can really offer the program irrespective of financial ability, etc.” 

Cortes Currents: The Cortes Island Academy school year is over, but your students still need to keep studying. What are they going to do now?  

Manda Aufochs Gillespie: “This is set up as a semester-long program and, as you just heard, this is an intense five months. They’re participating after school hours. They are doing overnight trips. The school hours are chock full of learning. They earned three quarters of a year’s worth of academic credits: science credits, arts credits, social studies credits, english credits, leadership and outdoor education credits, as well as careers. But that’s not an entire year’s worth of credits, and you may have noticed I didn’t say things like math.” 

“When the Cortes Island Academy is finished they need to go back to school somewhere else. Some of them are just going for a 10 week because they’re a quarter program, a 10 week block to get things like their math, et cetera.”

“Some of these students on Cortes, Read, and Sonora, etc, are now finishing up their programs in an online schooling format.  A number of kids chose to go to Carihi High in Campbell River, or to another school, but mostly it was Carihi High,  to get some of their credits. We had a couple of kids from Salt Spring Island go back to other bricks and mortar schools.” 

Cortes Currents: So what’s next? 

Manda Aufochs Gillespie: “We are already advertising and getting next year ready.  The applications will open up around March 1st. The Cortes Island Academy is starting to get very, very popular. We had a waiting list this year, and weren’t able to take everybody.” 

“I think we really created something that touched on the needs and hopes of a lot of people. That there could be  something more experiential for their students, something that allowed students to stay in their rural and remote communities (if they are rural and remote communities that happen to be in or around Cortes), but that really takes a different lens on education.  I’d like to say that really asks the question of what would education look like if we were going to try to decolonize it. Not by just throwing out the existing system but trying to work within it to make something that really celebrates lots of different kinds of knowing and knowledge and a deep, deep yearning to understand the land and the place that we call home.”

“What we’re focused on right now is how do we get the word out for next year? How do we continue to offer this opportunity to as many students as possible? How do we fundraise for scholarships so that we can let everybody come no matter what their financial situation is?”

“At this time every year it starts to feel  like a brand new challenge and  a wonderful, exciting opportunity because we’ve got some new things in the works that I think are going to keep the program pretty fresh.” 

CC: What new things?  

Manda Aufochs Gillespie: “Some I can’t say yet, but I will say that this semester coming up we are going a little deeper into the topics around climate. Not just how that will show up in science,  we’re also looking at it through a deep arts lens and an english lens this year. We’re going deeper in the humanities. We’ve got some edgy and really interesting artists coming to join us this year. We’re not ready to announce who these all are, but I’m pretty excited.”

“We’re also looking at small business and enterprise and nonprofits and how we can begin to set these young people who are going to be our leaders of the future up with that enterprising mindset that they’re going to need to go out and be change makers in the future.”

“So stay tuned because we may also have some other exciting things to be able to announce and I will make sure to let you know.” 

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