six tenagers crowd into a crowded radio studio with a female DJ

Why the Cortes Island Academy is a program of the Cortes Foundation

“The Cortes Island Academy is working on becoming its own nonprofit, but right now it actually functions as a program of the Cortes Island Community Foundation. Part of this was because I  have had this interest in trying to figure out if we could create a high school pilot program and I work part-time as the Executive Director of the Cortes Island Community Foundation. So there was an obvious link, but it really goes back to the root of  why  we need a high school program on Cortes,” explained Manda Aufochs Gillespie.

Cortes Currents: How has the Community Foundation helped out the academy? 

Manda Aufochs Gillespie: “The Community Foundation partnered to help raise almost $200,000 for the first year of the Cortes Island Academy.  They partnered in writing and then receiving a grant from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). That was a big chunk of what we were able to raise this year.”   

“Managing the money of that grant and the dispersion of that money: all happened through the Community Foundation.” 

“The Community Foundation also raised money for scholarships and for local facilitators through individual fundraising. So the Mark Torrance Foundation and a number other private donors, some as small as $50, some as large as $5,000.”  

“The Community Foundation is a charitable organization. It’s able to give a tax receipt for any of the donations and it has to make sure that all the money that it’s raised is actually used for its purposes.” 

“In this case, one of our purposes is both looking after the educational needs on the island as well as the general wellbeing of Islanders.” 

Photo courtesy Cortes Island Academy
The Agreements – Photo courtesy Cortes Island Academy
Waiting outside – Photo courtesy Cortes Island Academy

“At the very heart of this is a deep understanding of how much it has harmed our community to not have an option for our students and our families so that they can remain in this community through all stages of life.”

“In fact, when the Cortes Community Economic Development Association did the Local Economic Action Plan, or the LEAP plan, in 2018,  this came out as one of the major gaps to us actually being a full functioning economy on Cortes.” 

“Not having a high school is causing many families to leave this community right at the time when their work years are most essential. Their highest earning work years, when they have the most time and energy to give.” 

“It’s caused major issues in the elementary school where families don’t just take their high school kids. They leave and they take all of their kids.”

“It drains out even people without kids, because if you can’t run a small business and access employees and skilled labor, etc – you leave.” 

“When I started looking at this issue a little bit more deeply, I came across this situation in Canada as a whole. Canada  has a rural crisis around education. We have the greatest education gap, between rural and urban people, of any developed country in the world.”

“Students in rural and remote communities are almost twice as likely to drop-out of high school without achieving a degree. They underperform in every academic area – science, math, english – compared to their urban counterparts. So it’s a major issue across Canada for some reason, again and again year after year.”

“One of the major goals of the Community Foundation is to assess the needs on Cortes and help to fill in the gaps that are in the way from us realizing our fullest and highest potential, both as the community and as an ecological place.”

Heading out on the ocean – courtesy Cortes Island Academy
Who’s photographing who? – Cortes Island Academy
Fun on the beach – Photo courtesy Cortes Island Academy

“So this opportunity,  which is clearly a major need on the island, was an opportunity for us to see, ‘okay, is there a creative solution here?’” 

“Luckily we created a partnership with School District #72 , which was super excited to see, ‘okay, could we begin to create an alternative for our most rural and remote students in this district, at least, that would be compelling.’ That would be the kind of education that could create leaders of the future that can deal with the climate crisis, that can deal with social justice issues, that can be the leaders that we want to have, no matter whether we’re in rural, remote communities or in urban settings.”

“But in order to create that educational alternative, we needed to have money.  Whenever you’re doing something new money has to be available so that you can pay people. In this case, we had to pay for the resources, the skills, the participation of all these new people and all these new bodies that were going to be part of this exciting new educational opportunity.” 

“Luckily, the Community Foundation was willing to take that risk that this program would be worth it.”

“First that looked like covering some of my time so I could begin to fundraise and strategize, helping use some of our other resources.” 

“Then we took the big leap and said, ‘okay, this is going to become one of our first major fundraising’ efforts.  To help partner with the Cortes Island Academy project and the school district, and see could we raise money to make this experimental education process a reality?’”

At work in a pasture – Courtesy Cortes Island Academy
Questions – Courtesy Cortes Island Academy
On the beach – Photo courtesy Cortes Island Academy

“We did and it was a great practice for us as the Community Foundation because we had never participated in any sort of major fundraising before.  It was an opportunity for us to feel out this idea of, ‘okay, can we project with groups or organizations that are not even existing societies yet, but  have an established idea, are important players and partner with them.’

“What would it look like for us to actually partner and make something like that happen?  It’s been a lot of work, but I think it was a great success and it’s made us feel as an organization that we have the capacity to be partners to help grow new initiatives into being their own organizations or their own societies. So that they can do this important work that we want to see done on the island, but not be drowned in the process with all the fundraising that needs to happen with the bureaucracy.  There’s quite a bit of behind the scenes work that is involved in becoming an organization, running an organization, getting staff, etc.”

Cortes Currents reached out to Kiera Tsakonas, at the Cortes Academy, for some additional insight. 

Cortes Currents: So first of all Kiera, what is your title at the academy? 

Kiera Tsakonas: “My official title is the Community Outreach Coordinator, but I’m also an administrator and I just do whatever needs to be done to get the program going. Right now Manda and I are designing the application process  for next year. It’s going to be a bit more extensive.” 

‘When I started working with her, in April, 2022, the Cortes Island Academy was already under the umbrella of the Community Foundation.’

“I really enjoy working with her. Manda is a really big ideas person, but then she also executes the ideas which I think is a pretty rare skill to have.  It’s been really interesting to work with her. There’s not very many employees of the Cortes Island Academy and so at times it is just the two of us.”

On Easter Bluff – Courtesy Cortes Island Academy
What is it? – Photo courtesy Cortes Island Academy
At Smelt Bay – photo courtesy Cortes Island Academy

“There’s obviously  a bunch of other people in the background, but in terms of  who the students and the parents are  interacting with, a lot of it is Manda and I.”

“She has a lot of skills that are really useful to the nonprofit sector and then she’s used all those skills and pulled together so many different parts of what it takes to create a school, which I think is just really impressive.” 

Manda Aufochs Gillespie: “If people are interested in learning more about the Community Foundation, they can do so at Or if they would like to learn more about the Cortes Island Academy, including some really amazing photographs and documentary pieces from this year, including podcasts that the students have done etc, they can do so by going to Cortes Island”

Top image credit: Some of the teens takeover the Folk U radio slot – photo courtesy Manda Aufochs Gillespie

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