by John Copley
(ANNews) – In 2014 two aging junior high schools in Edmonton were under the microscope. Plans were underway to build a new modern school that could replace either, or perhaps both of the century-old institutions that have been utilized by tens of thousands of students over the last 100 years.
Westmount Jr. High School, the oldest Junior High School and the second oldest school in Alberta’s capital city, was built in 1913; Highlands Jr. High School was built a year later, in 1914. Decisions were put off until more studies could be done; community and historical advocates wanted the schools to remain intact and continue to operate as schools. The two facilities, assured community experts, were both historically relevant and in very good condition and if they didn’t continue as schools – what would happen to the buildings? Others argued that if the aging heating or cooling systems broke down it would be impossible to get replacement parts and new equipment would be inordinately expensive. In the end no firm decision was made and with today’s economic outlook and falling loonie, it doesn’t seem feasible to build new schools. Westmount Jr. High students are benefiting from this reprieve as positive changes are indeed evident under the helm of Principal Rick Stanley.
Westmount Jr. High School is an old but solid brick and concrete structure surrounded by trees and an expanse of lawn that allows for many outdoor activities. The painted walls and ceilings inside the school, many with fresh coats of new paint, add dimension to the school’s large interior design. Throughout every classroom, every hallway and every lengthy corridor the tiled floors are clean and shiny. The condition of the beautifully preserved interior throughout Westmount School is a sure sign that a proud custodial support crew is in charge.
Rick Stanley has been the principal at Westmount Jr. High for the past two years. Before taking on this assignment he spent two years at Eastglen School and before that, two years at Centre High in Edmonton’s downtown Boardwalk.
“I’ve really enjoyed my time here at Westmount,” he smiled broadly during my recent visit. “It’s really a unique school, very large but at the same time, quaint and quiet and conducive to good learning. We’ve got an excellent front office, magnificent, caring teachers, knowledgeable instructors and students who like to come to school.”
That’s likely because of the positive changes that have been put in place since Stanley took over as principal. In the past year there’s been a 22 percent increase in student population and the number of Grade 7 students has doubled. Forty-three percent of the 226 students attending Westmount Jr. High identify as being First Nations, Metis and/or Inuit and the music program is stronger than ever.
“It’s been a real team effort,” noted Stanley, sharing credit with his teaching and administrative staff. “We’re also very pleased to note that we have increased our options and career electives considerably over the past year and a half. When I first became principal there were only eight option programs; today there are 44.”
What makes Westmount Jr. High so special? What is it they offer that is attracting more and more students to the school?
“I’m not entirely sure,” admitted Stanley, “but there is a certain feeling, a real pride about coming here to the oldest Junior High School in the city, the second oldest school in Edmonton. We are very pleased with the progress we’ve made in the last year or so and the feedback from the community has been tremendous.”
There’s more than one reason that positive change is taking place, but attitude, commitment and communication all play vital roles.
“We believe that the number of optional classes and electives has a great deal to do with it,” noted Stanley, “but it also has to do with our commitment to communicate on a daily basis with our students and with the fact that we reward them by celebrating their success.”
The school celebrates that success with ice cream and pizza parties, recognizing the students at assemblies and by talking with and commending the students verbally for their success. The school also sends letters home to the parents. When Rick Stanley arrived at the school only 22 students had a perfect attendance record; that number has since grown by 44 percent.
Another big plus that has helped to increase both school population and participation is the school’s music program, particularly the guitar and fiddle program.
“One of the things I noticed when I arrived here was that the kids who had transitioned to Westmount from Prince Charles Elementary School weren’t playing fiddle anymore. I thought that was a negative so we regenerated that program here and now those kids are all playing again – and we are also getting more and more students from Prince Charles coming here for Grade 7. It is something that I definitely encourage; Gary Lee, who works several days a week with the kids at Prince Charles also comes here each week to work with our young fiddle and guitar players. The schools joined together this year when we played a concert at City Hall during Métis Week; it was great experience and one that we hope to duplicate in future.”
Westmount Jr. High is also one of only two Public Schools in Edmonton that teaches the Cree language; Prince Charles is the other.
“Once again,” noted Stanley, “this has proven beneficial to our kids because now Cree language students can carry on to the next phase of their training right here with our Cree language teacher, Joan Simpson. It’s a very popular class.”
A peek in the door of the Cree Language Class showed 18 students that were very engaged with their teacher and in their subject matter.
“Engagement is everything when it comes to working with young people,” noted Rick Stanley. “It’s a fact that if the kids know they are loved, if they know we as teachers and administrators care about them and their future, and if in turn they come to school every day, they will succeed; they will achieve. There is no question in my mind that if you talk to your students, if you empower them and encourage them and they come to school, there is zero chance of failure.”
There are, however, things that have yet to be done.
“Yes, we do have some things to work on,” nodded Stanley. “We need to improve our achievement results; we want to start talking to the students about their futures, about the many career choices available to them down the road. This is part and parcel to our option-delivery and by engaging the students and talking to them about the future also helps keep them thinking about their succession plan. It’s important that our students understand that every option they take in school will have an impact on tomorrow. What we learn today will have a role to play in what we do in the future.”
Most students at Westmount Jr. High participate in 10 to 12 option classes each year. In each grade level students can take up to four hours of options per week. They rotate every three months.
“They get about 10 or 11 classes of options during that period and then they switch to a new option plan for the next three months and so on,” noted Stanley. “It’s a moving schedule that allows students to participate in as many optional subjects as they can manage. I encourage our students to take as many as possible because it is only through the experiences we share that we learn what it is we want to pursue for the rest of our lives.”
Options at Westmount Jr. High include such things as art, fiddle and guitar, beading, dance, drama, archery, basketball, fitness training, outdoor education, rock climbing, swimming and aquatics, band and much more. Career electives include CTF Organizational Structure (business, commerce, human services, resources and technology), animation, astronomy, cosmo-girl power, computer programming, culinary arts, movie making, fashion and design and more.
“We try to make school a pleasant experience for our students,” assured Principal Stanley. “If you like school and you know your school and its staff like you, you will be successful and that’s what we are here. We want every child to succeed; we want every child to graduate. We want every child to have an equal opportunity to pursue a path to a future filled with hopes, dreams and accomplishments.”
One of the key elements that helps ensure that student success continues after they’ve completed Grade 9, noted Stanley, is their ability to transition into senior high school, Grades 10 through 12.
“That’s where our optional programming and career elective choices play a major role,” he said. “We have introduced some of the programs here that will be available in Grade 10; in that way our graduating Grade 9 students will be able to step right in and participate because they’ll already have some knowledge and experience.”
Some of those programs include yoga, sports performance training, fitness classes, robotics and structural engineering.
To learn more about Westmount Jr. High School and to obtain a complete list of programs, visit www.westmount.epsb.ca.