Two girls preparing food in a makeshift cooking tent, one stares at the camera

Why media like the Cortes Island Academy

A tiny education program on Cortes has been getting a lot of media attention lately.

“We were featured on the National Observer with our local journalism initiative reporter, Rochelle Baker.  She did a fabulous piece on this program that was picked up by the Vancouver Sun and then was picked up by some Vancouver radio stations and by the CBC. So as nearby as Cortes Currents and as now far away as the reach of CBC,” explained Manda Aufochs Gillespie, one of the organizers of the Cortes Island Academy.

Screenshot of Manda Aufochs Gillespie taken during our interview

She believes this is partly because people are finding the world a fairly dark and difficult place right now and they want to hear some hopeful news. But there is also the huge impact a little program with 20 students is having. 

“For years and years we’ve been shown that rural students underperform in absolutely every major taken in education. They drop out more, they test lower on every possible thing. Even when you control everything else —  background, finances etc — they still underperformed. Why? Because rural students are not being given really incredible choices in education.  Cortes is an example of a place that by and large has been forgotten when it comes to education and options for our students,” said Aufochs Gillespie. 

Students traditionally leave Cortes Island to get a high school education. They were either separated from their families, or the families relocate to larger communities like Campbell River.

“Not only that we see young people disappearing from the heart of our community, but we see their families disappearing. We see them disappearing at younger and younger ages. To the point where we have one of the deputy fire chiefs of our volunteer fire department saying that they’ve lost more than half of their senior staff members because of needing to leave to find education for their families. I think it is easy to imagine how individuals get lost in this story. if you don’t have the connections and the resources, financial as well as social, emotional, cultural etc, to be able to leave home and be able to move to a different community in order to put yourself through school,” said Aufochs Gillespie.

“Then you have students that basically get lost and drop out of the system. And even if they are able to go to a nearby community to find education at what cost. I definitely know in my life, I wasn’t ready to send my 14 year old away from home to live on her own without me during those difficult years of teenageness.”

All photos courtesy the Cortes Island Academy

So the Cortes Island Academy was born, a semester long program for 20 high school students. 

“A third of the students coming from Cortes and about two-thirds of the students coming from other places. Those other places include mostly small communities, little islands in and around this area. From Salt Spring, Read and some even from that big island called Vancouver Island.  We also have a couple students coming from as far away as Germany and Indonesia,” explained Aufochs Gillespie.

In the podcast she gives a course by course overview of the cirriculum.

Q/What has the Cortes Island Academy accomplished?

  • They received School District 72’s agreement to try this program.  
  • With the help of the Cortes Island Community Foundation, local donors and a generous donation from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Cortes Island Academy raised the $200,000 necessary to run this program.
  • Drawing upon local expertise and some globally recognised scientists from the Hakai Institute, they put together a full program in which 20 students are going to earn the equivelent of three-quarters of a year in high school credits during one semester. 

“We’re seeing quite a few students who had left traditional schooling altogether and were not in any system anywhere.  Then quite a few more who were homeschooling and had not been in much of a system, or certainly not in this district, all came into this district to be part of this program,” said Aufochs Gillespie.

“We have a local facilitator who grew up on the island, has a graduate degree and started their own business. Now, after working with students, they are like, ‘I think I want to go back and be a teacher. Not so that I can sit in a classroom, but so I can do this kind of life changing work with them.’ I think what we have are a bunch of individual students saying, ‘My life is transformed!’ We have kids who had said that they weren’t planning on graduating from high school because they didn’t see it relevant in their life. Now, saying that they want to go on and get even further higher education because they see the way the education actually is relevant to their lives.”

All photos courtesy of the Cortes Island Academy

“We have parents who’ve been writing to the program, the facilitators and the superintendent saying ‘after just six weeks my child is fundamentally transformed.’ I just think like this is a relative miracle, to take students who have been falling through the cracks.”

She concluded, “These students have been underperforming because of where they live, not because there’s something wrong with who they are. We have not given them the right options, and suddenly we have created something that has brought them hope and reengaged them with learning in the community. That feels like the biggest success, even though maybe it is so small.”

Top image credit: Preparing food during one of the camping trips – Photo courtesy the Cortes Island Academy

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