A public school closed in rural Alberta. Parents are opening a charter academy in its place

A new charter school is poised to open this September for a central Alberta community after the closure of its public school.

Gwynne School served its namesake hamlet, around 60 kilometres southeast of Edmonton, for nearly 70 years, teaching generations of students from families in the area.

In October 2021, the board of Wetaskiwin Regional Public Schools ordered a temporary closure of the K-9 school, citing structural and fire safety concerns.

Students were moved to a school in nearby Wetaskiwin, and in 2023, trustees voted in favour of making the closure permanent.

By that time, a group of parents and community members who had fought the closure had drawn up a new plan: open a charter school.

Gwynne Valley Rural Academy is now preparing to open this September, in modular classrooms on land next to the old school grounds.

The school has received conditional approval from the province. A superintendent has been appointed and teachers are being recruited.

The group planning the school expects more than 120 students will be enrolled this fall in kindergarten through Grade 9.

"We've seen many times in many places where the school disappears in a rural community — it's not a new thing — and it really does change the fabric of that community," Ben Christenson, a father of three and board chair of the Gwynne Valley Rural Education Association, said in an interview.

He said focal points like the school are important to communal identity in rural areas, where people are otherwise separated by large distances.

A charter school can't just open as an alternative to a local school board. Besides offering the provincial standard curriculum, it must also innovate and provide a focus not offered by the area authority.

For the Gwynne Valley Rural Academy, that innovative principle goes by the acronym EVE: early vocational exposure.

Karen Penney, the academy's superintendent, said students will gain a better understanding of possible careers starting at an early age.

"In kindergarten to Grade 3, we will do more of an awareness of vocations that they might want to consider as they go through their school career," said Penney, a long-time educator.

"And then into the upper elementary and lower junior high, we will look at more exposure to the different vocations that students might have an interest in or might need exposure to."

Penney said students are typically given the opportunity to explore career options starting in Grade 5. She said that's too late, because at that point students are already subject to circumscription — limiting themselves based on their self-conception.

The vocational focus at GVRA will not be limited to certain industries. Penney said the academy is aiming to offer a full spectrum of options and draw from the expertise of community members.

Christenson said the board also wants to ensure children can adapt to a changing world, especially in light of developments with artificial intelligence.

"We're hoping by giving them the right exposure to both traditional learning and digital learning and things like that, that we are preparing them for the things that make them vibrant citizens when they grow up," he said.

Old building, new school

The board is hoping to take control of the old school building, pending decision-making at the provincial level.

Christenson says the association has met with Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides and that the area's local MLA, Rick Wilson, is supportive.

Regardless of whether the transfer happens in time, Christenson says the academy has the necessary space to open in September.

A local couple has donated four hectares of land adjacent to the old school grounds, and modular buildings are being ordered to house classrooms and other facilities.

Christenson is excited for his own children to attend the academy.

"We're really excited to see how this charter resonates with our students," he said.

"We're genuinely hoping that as we focus on just a little bit more practical skills and, we'll say, practical approaches to these learning concepts, that kids are going to thrive."

Charter schools are funded by the provincial government. According to Nicolaides's press secretary, there are 21 approved charters in Alberta.

Currently, 19 public charter authorities operate 36 charter school campuses in Alberta.