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Freedom Thinkers' school offers unique approach to education

The first thing you’ll notice about Sandra Cushway’s school is that it doesn’t look like a school at all. And that’s entirely the point.
Sandra Cushway's Freedom Thinkers program, which she runs from her home in Baldonnel, aims to teach learning skills and processes to kids who don't fit well in the public school system. She plans to expand and has already begun construction on two more classrooms.

The first thing you’ll notice about Sandra Cushway’s school is that it doesn’t look like a school at all.

And that’s entirely the point.

To get there, you spot the red roof of a nearby log cabin on Baldonnel Road and turn into its long driveway, pass the crooked playhouse and the bunny cage, and park in front of the outbuilding adorned with Dr. Seuss birdhouses—student creations stemming from a math lesson.

When you enter the Freedom Thinkers’ educational hub, located on Sandra Cushway’s Baldonnel farm, none of the usual classroom scenes are taking place.

Instead of heads bowed for silent reading, or teacher-led lessons on Babylonia, students are researching online, making their own report cards, voting in their class mayor, or honing their resume skills for one of many classroom jobs.

Cushway, a teacher with 25 years of classroom experience, has re-engineered the educational system with her Freedom Thinkers program, a pilot project now in its second year that focuses on project-based learning.

So far, Cushway and her 20 students, ranging from Grades 4 to 8, have experienced nothing but success.

Each attends for their own reasons, from having fallen through the cracks at their public school, to having been successful but bored and uninterested in the standard system.

Gracie Chapple, in Grade 8, has dyslexia. She struggled at school for years. Chapple shared her story with the school board at its regular meeting on Nov. 16.

“I have a hard time learning the same way that other students (do), reading and writing is difficult for me. Class was always hard and my friends weren’t very nice because I always asked them questions, and had to look at their answers.

“The teachers never changed anything to make it easier (for me) to understand. I just floated through with no notice.”

In the fifth grade, Chapple’s parents enrolled her in distance education. She was able to catch up on all the learning she’d missed because of her disability, but lacked contact with her peers.

“The problem with distance education is you are always working at home alone, and you don’t see your classmates,” she said. “I wanted time with other kids.”

In Cushway’s class, Chapple is thriving. She attended her first science fair, and she and her partner won platinum for their project on aquaponics.

“(Mrs. Cushway’s) school is not socially divided. We are all there to learn. We all learn in different ways, but we learn from each other,” Chapple said.

Gavrin Haab, in Grade 6, has his own story. He was succeeding in the standard classroom, but didn’t enjoy it.

“In Mrs. Cushway’s school... when we were getting taught it was very fun,” he said.

Haab said Cushway has more time to explain difficult concepts to students who are struggling.

“At my old school... we just had to go on to the next thing, we couldn’t stop and try and critique, or make it so that we can all make sense,” he said.

“Some of my friends... they weren’t the best in math, and they really never learned.”

Grade 6 student Aidan Wheeler can relate.

“When I was in my other school they taught us math lessons and I didn’t understand them, and that made me frustrated. I broke down and cried, and then I still didn’t understand,” he said.

“Then, when I came to Mrs. Cushway’s school, she kept on repeating and repeating until we’d get it right, and we have fun with it, so that way we can understand, and we’re ready to move on.”

Cushway’s desire to do things differently stems from her teaching experience, and the issues she sees with the system.

“I think there is a problem that, when we come out of Grade 12, we don’t like learning, and I don’t think that’s how it should be,” she said in an interview with the Alaska Highway News.

“I think we should be passionate about learning. I mean really, the love of learning is what drives us.

“Why do you come in to kindergarten and you’re all excited, and by the time you walk out of Grade 12 you’re not excited?”

Cushway thinks educators need to focus on teaching skills and processes rather than content. That concept is the basis of her new school.

“If you teach skills and processes, they can learn any content,” she said. “Paragraph writing skills are the same, whether you’re writing about a chair or whether you’re writing about ancient Egypt.

“If you learn how to write a paragraph, but you do it in such a way that you love what you’re doing, then they’re motivated. I don’t have a motivation problem in here, and I do not have a behavior problem in here.”

The Freedom Thinkers choose their own projects, adhering to certain criteria such as incorporating a visual and oral components.,

Students establish their own timelines for completion.

“Then it’s their responsibility to get it done, meet the deadlines and get it in. (It’s) very much like what they’d need in university... and so time management is a huge thing that we do here.”

Cushway ran the first year of the Freedom Thinkers program independently of School District 60.

“I either had to decide not to do it or I had to do it on my own, and so I did it on my own, and it was very successful,” she said.

This year, she and the district have found a way to work together. Her students register through Northern B.C. Distance Education, and are afforded more freedoms, such as with scheduling and content, than they would ordinarily have.

“It’s innovative, it’s new, it’s quite a bit different than things that we do elsewhere,” said Dave Sloan, superintendent of School District 60.

“Because of the flexibility that Northern B.C. Distance Ed can afford, it was a better fit than attaching it to, say, a regular bricks-and -mortar program.”

Jaret Thompson, board chair, echoed the sentiment.

“We need this in public education… it’s really impressive,” he said.

Cushway, who already has a 12-person waiting list for next year, is looking to expand, and has already begun construction on two additional classrooms.